Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers on September 7, 2021
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In a cozy room in northern Germany, a yellow canary sings rolling melodies to the miners and carpenters of the Harz mountains. But today a bird dealer has come, and he will take the canary far, far away from everything he knows. The journey leads onto trains and steamships, across Europe and even the Atlantic. At last the canary arrives in a room in New York where he hears a strangely familiar song…
This beautiful, poignant book introduces readers to the little-known history of a beloved songbird. Lushly illustrated in rich colors, 189 Canaries is an unforgettable story about music, migration, and the search for home.
This is the story of one bird, which is something you might not expect from a book called 189 Canaries. It’s the story of this one bird’s journey from the mines of Germany to a home in New York. In the late 1880s, such trips were common for canaries. In 1882, over 120,000 canaries made the journey across the Atlantic.
Geared toward middle elementary students, 189 Canaries is a beautifully-illustrated story that doubles as a metaphor for migration and finding familiarity in a new place. That’s the driving force behind the book, I think. You can read it as the story of a canary freed from a life in the mine to find a new home across the ocean and above the land in New York, or you can read it as the story of so many immigrants whose story mirrors this bird’s.
Elsa Klever’s illustrations are colorful and engaging, capturing the breadth of landscapes, whether it’s in Germany, the ocean, or America. There’s one panel where the bird is singing and Klever illustrates it was a word bubble of everything the canary knows—German houses, trees, barns, bird seed, other birds. The bird is singing its life and its life is unique. Then, at the end of the book and an ocean away, another canary is seen singing the same song—not identical, but similar—showing that there’s a bit of home even this far away.
The final few pages talk about the history of canaries, their use in mines, and how they a certain breed—the Harz Rollers—were bred and trained to sing. It’s an interesting look into a part of history that I didn’t even know existed! If you have a child interested at all in birds, this book is for them. It also answers the question I had after reading the book. Why 189 Canaries? The answer: that’s the exact number of birds that a bird dealer would carry at one time.