How to Make a Bird

Written by Meg McKinlay
Illustrated by Matt Ottley

Walker Books Australia, 2020;  Walker Books UK, 2020; Davidsfonds/Infodok (Dutch edition), 2020; Candlewick US, 2021

 Ages 5+

“To make a bird you will need a lot of very tiny bones …”

From award-winning author Meg McKinlay and celebrated artist Matt Ottley comes a moving and visually stunning picture book that celebrates the transformative power of the creative process from inception through recognition to celebration and releasing into the world. We shadow the protagonist as she contemplates the blue print of an idea, collects the things that inspire from the natural world to shape a bird. And breathes life into it before letting it fly free. It shows how small things, combined with a little imagination and a steady heart, can transform into works of magic.

What Readers Are Saying:

“This is an exquisitely created picture book, with gorgeous imagery by a celebrated artist, and a message of hope, creativity and wonder crafted by an award-winning storyteller.”
Dymocks

“Matt Ottley’s illustrations are sunlit, expansive and ethereal. … This picture book is full of wonder …”
– Thuy On, Books+Publishing

How to Make a Bird is a beautiful picture book. While the book on a literal level is about the process of shaping a bird and launching that bird into flight, the narrative offers a quiet and moving metaphor of the creative process. Perfectly matched text and artwork. A must for Stage 3 and High Schools – this resonates on so many levels.”
Paul Macdonald, The Children’s Bookshop

“A book to take your breath away.”
The Mad Hatter’s Bookshop

“Some books make you stop and breathe. They leave a mark on your mind. They make you think. They are extraordinary. How To Make A Bird is one of those books.”
Get Kids Booked

Resources

Teacher’s Notes – Lower Primary, Upper Primary & Lower Secondary

Behind the Story

Like many of my books, How to Make a Bird has had a long journey from spark to story.

Back in 2003, I was an aspiring children’s writer. My aspirations took me regularly to the local library, where I would comb review magazines such as Magpies and Viewpoint – to see what was being published, and by whom, to find reading recommendations, and – let’s be honest – to torture myself with little frissons of envy

One such frisson – more of a seismic tremor, really – occurred when, scanning the review columns, I happened upon the title How to Make a Bird, by Martine Murray.

Instantly, I was a mix of excitement and regret. For I knew exactly what this book must be – a slightly weird, lyrical picture book about someone trying to build a bird from raw materials, about the tangible and the intangible, maybe even the existential. And oh, how I wished I had written it. It felt like a perfect fit for me, rightfully mine somehow. If only I’d had the idea first.

Oh, well. Resigned to my frisson, I read the actual review. And realised the book wasn’t at all what I’d imagined. It was a Young Adult novel and there was no actual bird building; there were metaphorical birds only. My idea was mine! I could still write it! I wrote it – a slightly weird, lyrical picture book about … you get the idea.

I sent it off. Some publishers loved it. Some gave it the ‘back slowly away from me please’ side-eye. All of them rejected it. It was too weird, too quiet, too something-or-other. It didn’t really work for children. It was hard to see who the market was. Lovely language, but …

I put it in my metaphorical drawer. And every now and then when I ran across an unsuspecting publisher, I gave it another airing. I would preface these conversations with, “I’ve got this slightly weird manuscript, probably unpublishable but …”

One of these savvy marketing approaches resulted in its inclusion as a kind of prose poem in a 2016 Penguin Books anthology entitled Where the Shoreline Used to Be, sitting alongside work by luminaries such as Shaun Tan and Margo Lanagan and with an accompanying illustration by Kyle Hughes-Odgers. 20160302_214208

I was delighted with this. It wasn’t what I’d originally imagined but it was excellent nonetheless.

About a year later, buckling under the weight of managing my own admin, I decided it was time to approach an agent. I prefaced my pitches with, “I don’t actually have any manuscripts at the moment, but …”

For some reason, Grace Heifetz took me on anyway. Upon which I immediately started feeling guilty at not having any manuscripts to send her and thought, hmm, maybe there’s something salvageable in that metaphorical drawer.

I sent Grace two picture book manuscripts, which she sold so quickly it made my head spin. One was Let Me Sleep, Sheep! and the other was How to Make a Bird.

Slowly, we began the process of wondering what form this odd little book might take, and who could possibly illustrate such a thing. And realised Matt Ottley would be perfect – sublime, even; possibly the only real choice – but of course there was no way he would do it because he was already overcommitted and had vowed to take nothing else on but what harm could there possibly be in just asking the question anyway …

And almost four years later, here we are, so proud of what this odd little thing has become, so thrilled it’s finally heading out to readers.

We’ve made our bird. It’s time to open the window.

 

Image by Matt Ottley, from How to Make a Bird.