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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Carlos

Making the Bird Book: The Junior Birder's Handbook

Updated: Feb 15

In this post, you will learn how I created the art for The Junior Birder's Handbook written by Danielle Belleny for Running Press Kids.

three diverse children looking out for birds with text that reads the Junior Birder's Handbook A Kid's guide to birdwatching
Cover art for The Junior Birder's Handbook

Book Birthday

Next month, November 14th to be exact, is this handy guidebook for young birders' birthday! The Junior Birder's Handbook is a part of the Junior handbook series published by Running Press Kids. It is "a beautifully illustrated kid's guide to birds and their habitats, perfect for budding birders whether you live in a city, suburb, or rural area."

The project landed on me in spring last year and I am happy to share with you now how I have created the art, drawn the birds and put my own signature ornate style into the series.

buzzards fighting on a tree
Observing a pair of buzzards in our neighborhood

Junior Birder

What appealed most to me about this project is that it is about birds! My fascination with birds began in South Africa. Those long safari drives sometimes left us wanting of bigger animals to spot. The reality was during the 4-hour bumpy drive in an open vehicle you rarely saw mammals, let alone the so-called Big 5, and so I turned my focus on birds, which were everywhere. Since then I was never bored! When my husband gifted me a guidebook to Southern African wildlife, I learned how to identify birds especially. One time on a boat ride along the Chobe river, our guide played with us a guessing game. Guess who won the Miss Know-it-all title? I was the Hermione Granger of African birds! Even now, I have a pair of binoculars sitting by our kitchen window that has a great vantage view of a Schrebergarten (the Germans ' most beloved little urban garden) below so I could spy on city birds that frequent the neighborhood. Our visiting friends would otherwise joke that I was just spying on neighbors.

So when an opportunity to illustrate a book about American avian species came, it was a no-brainer to accept it.

Mood board for The Junior Birder's Handbook

Manifest your dream projects

I never really asked my client why they chose me but I do remember what our teachers in our many Make Art That Sells classes repeatedly said: that we must make art for the projects and clients we want to attract. Something about how I drew birds attracted them to my portfolio. If you want to draw clients to your work, make sure you have birds and botanicals drawn in your style in your arsenal.

The spot illustrations of the birds in the book were drawn 3x the required size to capture more details

How to draw the birds?

Looking back at my style evolution I had made a conscious decision on how I wanted my birds to look like particularly the wings. Earlier I experimented a lot from careless washes to adding simple to ornate outlines. Eventually my maximalist tendencies came through. In order to give more definition to the wings I painted the feathers alternately, which gave the overlapping strokes a natural outline. I would enhance the contours by shading using colored pencils. This is the same technique I employ when painting trees and scales.

Bird and wing illustration evolution

There were forty northern American birds in the list. I began collecting images of these birds to study their unique features. Unfortunately none of my personal collection of African bird photos were necessary. Instead I used creative commons licensed images as references. I was also limited to a required bird spot illustration dimension, which is a horizontal format.

My initial question was if I should paint the birds realistically. But then, if my clients wanted realism, they would probably have just used photographs. However, if this was to be a guidebook, I must make sure that the birds were anatomically correct and that the colors and identifying markings were true to form. I did not mind so much the number of feathers but I made sure that the wing parts were obvious. I studied each bird using at least 4-5 photos in different angles as well as video footages whenever available. I have also included some female birds to distinguish from the more brightly colored male ones.

What I also kept reminding myself was that I did not want the bird illustrations to look like any of the famous wildlife watercolor paintings out there. However to understand how birds function, I got a copy of How Birds Work by Marianne Taylor.

Making it your own

Since this is a part of an ongoing series of handbooks for young readers, a standard format and layout must be followed. However I was given free reign in artistic style such as designing the borders and creating the full page scenes. For example, I have used the tree trunks and foliage as border elements instead of simply creating decorative lines and swirls to frame the scene. I looked back again at my own art for inspiration and to be consistent in my style while keeping in mind to dial down the flourish. This is a non-fiction guidebook after all.

A full page scene from The Junior Birder's Handbook compared to my older artworks using familiar decorative elements.

Looking out for birds

My appreciation of birds has grown a lot since working on this book. Often I would drop everything that I was doing and would run out to the nearest window whenever I would hear a familiar bird's song or call. Together with my stand-by kitchen binoculars, my telephoto camera is ready to capture the moment anytime once I spot a bird hovering in the sky or perching on one of the trees nearby.

The best part of this entire experience is how drawing birds became automatic. After illustrating 40 birds of different shapes, colors and sizes, you would surely develop a technique. You would also learn fun facts about a certain specie and throw your newfound knowledge to anyone you encounter, much to their annoyance sometimes. You would not care so much about irritating people if it meant drawing attention to the only living dinosaurs we will ever see. My husband has even begun looking out for birds to show me while on the road or at breakfast. You would also join various online bird groups or download a birder's app to explore birds, common and rare, coming from every corner of the planet. Sadly, several avian species have disappeared forever due to environmental and human-made factors.

I am happy to be a part of the ongoing initiative of educators and book makers to encourage everyone especially the younger generations to learn about our feathered friends and how we can ensure their survival.

Sticking decals to prevent birds from crashing into windows

From Running Press Kids:

The Junior Birder's Handbook: A Kid's Guide to Birdwatching is a beautifully illustrated guide to birds and their habitats for young readers. It explores everything from bird identification to behavior, habit, and migration patterns, and is a practical guide for birdwatching in city, suburban, and rural environments. ⁣

Written by Danielle Belleny and featuring vibrant illustrations from Michelle Carlos, this gorgeous (and gifty) book includes interactive elements like quizzes and crafts, as well as accessible charts and guides that will lead to endless fun! ⁣

In bookstores on November 14th, 2023. ISBN 9780762480784


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