Friday, May 21, 2010

A Little Mouse with a Big Heart

A Nest for Celeste by Henry Cole
(written for children in grades 3 through 5)

A lonely little mouse living a dull life, weaving baskets within a musty hole, inside a 17th century New Orleans plantation begins an adventure of a lifetime. She meets the famous naturalist painter John James Audubon (April 26, 1785 – January 27, 1851), who is a guest of the plantation owner. From the shirt pocket of Audubon’s thirteen-year-old assistant Joseph Mason, Celeste watches as Audubon kills, paints, catalogues and describes the birds of North America.
The book cover advertises “A Nest for Celeste” as a story about art, inspiration and the meaning of home. However, I believe this story is about perseverance, friendship, and the importance of possessing a compassionate heart. For such a little creature, Celeste makes a big impact on her wildlife neighbors and humans alike.
There are several parallels to Celeste and Joseph’s stories: Celeste lost her family when the crops were harvested and Joseph, a lonely, young boy, leaves his family far behind for two years to travel the country with Audubon. His job is to learn how to paint the backdrops for Audubon’s pictures and learn a trade. After a house cat narrowly misses killing Celeste she finds a temporary home in Joseph’s boot; he later relocates her to his shirt pocket. From this pocket, Celeste witnesses Man’s impact on wildlife: shooting down hundreds of Passenger Pigeons, the killing of other fowl for Audubon’s pictures. Both Joseph and Celeste take these killings to heart and both try to influence Audubon’s methods of painting the perfect picture by suggesting alternatives that end up saving lives.
In one scene in the book, Joseph, drums up some courage and confronts Audubon on his methods. An Ivory-billed woodpecker was shot in the wing by Audubon two days before and dies of his wounds and a broken heart. Joseph is upset when Audubon asks him for pins to secure the woodpecker’s carcass onto a board.
“This doesn’t seem right…” said Joseph.
“What doesn’t,” said Audubon.
“I don’t know…the way we’re doing this, the paintings?” said Joseph. “You are looking to capture its life on paper, but by killing it first? By pinning it to a board? It was so majestic up in that enormous cypress tree…”
Audubon argues that there were plenty of woodpeckers where that one came from and questions Joseph on would he rather hold a live woodpecker while it pecked at his hand during the painting process.
“I am preserving their beauty forever. If I could paint their portraits as well another way I would.” Audubon states.
Joseph leaves the room thinking about his lonely moments since he left his family and wonders if all the other woodpeckers were killed off but one, how lonely would that one woodpecker be flying along the river valley “on an endless and futile search up and down the valley, looking to find another ivory-billed woodpecker?”

Read this thought-provoking book full of many wildlife characters captured within the author’s quaint illustrations and find out how Joseph and Celeste face the challenges of being alone in the world and how their friendship brings love, courage, freedom and...the wonder of “how love can start with something as simple as the gift of a peanut.”
Checking Out,
Mrs. V

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