For the Forest of a Bird by Sue Saliba

“The time when everything was in-between, when everything was leaving or arriving or waiting to be, when there was a gap, a moment of change and uncertainty, and, yes, life.”

For the Forest of a Bird by Sue Saliba (Penguin, 2015) is another book longlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year for Older Readers 2016.

Love is sharing nature at the kitchen table. When the house was filled with light, Nella and her dad examined

“a huntsman’s airy skeleton, a case moth’s cocoon…and together they were looking each one up in a nature book.”

This was when she was younger. Nella’s dad has left Melbourne but she dreams of his return. Nella stores away things she sees at the creek and finds on her walks, for that time when she brings her dad home and she can be whole again. The return of the swallows to the creek in spring is her current idea to share and the swallow’s nest Nella finds under a bridge is a recurring motif.

“Whole stories sometimes. She would watch them and listen to them and she would not chase them away.”

Merri Creek tunnel by Proper Dave on Flickr
Merri Creek in Melbourne by Proper Dave on Flickr

Nella’s mum has bi-polar disorder and alternates between hiding in her bedroom when she’s depressed and shopping and rearranging the house when she’s manic. Nella blames her mum for her dad leaving. In her loneliness Nella finds company in nature, even when she can only imagine it.

“As unmistakable as the wallabies and fairy wrens, the emus and sugar gliders shifting in the bush around her. They had not been seen for one hundred and seventy years but they were still there, she knew it. It took a certain kind of looking, a certain kind of belief.”

Nella pines for the nature we’ve lost in our cities and towns and the father of her childhood. For the Forest of a Bird is a love letter mourning this loss of nature and Nella’s hopes for her dad’s return “home” just as the sparrows return every spring.

bushland along Merri Creek by Elizabeth Donoghue on Flickr
bushland along Merri Creek by Elizabeth Donoghue on Flickr

When her dad has a heart attack, Nella resolves to take him to see the swallows this spring. Visiting him in hospital doesn’t go to plan and she follows him to his house on Phillip Island, where she encounters distressing developments and makes an unusual friend.

I love nature and I work in the revegetation industry at a nursery growing native plants. How could I not love the trees and bush in For the Forest of a Bird. Like Isobel says, working in the nursery isn’t gardening, its about returning nature to where it belongs. The ecosystem isn’t the same as before clearing, but we’re helping it along.

“You can’t go back to the exact same things but you can honour what was there, you can connect with the past and make a new beginning.”

Isobel’s guerilla gardening method of planting makes for a fun adventure but isn’t the best way to grow a forest. Direct seeding is used in revegetation, with seeds in the thousands. Huge numbers are needed because few seeds germinate and even less grow to maturity.

I have problems with the depiction of Nella’s mum. Her mental illness was the only aspect we saw of her, one dimensional and contrived. She continues the madwoman in the attic trope, only present as a problem for the protagonist, locked away and forgotten. I realise Nella’s dad was the focus of the story but her mother could have been absent in another way, although I’d probably complain no matter how she was absent.

The title comes from Judith Wright’s poem “Birds” which is reproduced in the book in a hand written typography as beautiful as the poem.

The exquisite artwork on the cover and inside is by Allison Colpoys. The colours and texture are stunning. The matt printing of the cover brings out the texture of the pastels and the colour separation makes their vibrance really pop.

the delicate title page of For the Forest of a Bird
the delicate title page of For the Forest of a Bird

The book design by Marina Messiha and Allison Colpoys was shortlisted for the 2016 ABDA Best Designed Young Adult Book. I love that the cover artwork is repeated across the title page.

Perhaps broken things can be fixed. Anything’s possible in the gloaming

“somewhere between flight and dreams.”