For the Birds Radio Program: Book Review: Nights of the Pufflings

Original Air Date: April 26, 1996 Rerun Dates: July 9, 1997

Today Laura Erickson talks about a children’s book that she thinks should be required reading for everyone on Earth Day. 3:59

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I love children’s books. From Dr. Seuss to Margaret Wise Brown, I loved reading stories to my children when they were tiny, and though their ages are all in double-digits now, we still treasure some of the old favorites. Some of the ones we most treasure have associations for our family that other’s might not share–Russ and I remember books about Joey the little kangaroo because of our own personal little Joey; Katie and the Smallest Bear and Thomas’s Snowsuit were other personal favorites. The best children’s books transcend age—I still feel happy and satisfied when out of Horton’s egg hatches an elephant-bird, and when the little bunny and ducking find each other so “no one was ever alone again” in the Golden Egg Book.

The most satisfying children’s books tend to be stories rather than non-fiction, with drawings rather than photographs, but last week I found a big exception when I was browsing in a toy store. Nights of the Pufflings by biologist Bruce McMillan is a non-fiction photographic book for small children that is beautiful and lyrical, with a universal message of love and caring. It’s the story of a little girl in Iceland named Halla, who looks from the photographs to be about 8. Every spring she searches the sky until she sees her first puffin of the season. Soon puffins speckle the sky, flying into her island and other nearby uninhabited islands to nest. Halla knows the eggs have hatched when she spots adults carrying in fish to feed them. She never sees the babies, but hears them calling out “peep” from their dark burrows. All the children wait impatiently for the nights of the pufflings. One day in August Halla notices that the baldusbra flowers are in full bloom–that’s how she knows that the pufflings are ready to fly and at last will venture out into the night.

So Halla and her friends gather cardboard boxes and flashlights for their first night of the pufflings. They know that when the chicks emerge from their nests, they must fly to the ocean for their winter at sea. Puffin chicks have an easy time flying from the high cliffs of uninhabited islands to splash-land on the ocean, but on the island where Halla and her friends live, many chicks get confused by the lights of the town and crash-land on the ground. Unable to take off from flat ground, they must walk to the ocean, but dangers await, from cats and dogs to cars and trucks. So the children of this island have a long tradition of rescuing the little birds. They stay up very late during these nights of the pufflings, scooping up the endearing little birds into boxes which they take home for the night. In the morning, they carry the babies to the ocean to release. I love the bright photographs of these beautiful children holding baby puffins in their mittened hands or nestled against their colorful sweaters. The cover photo shows Halla holding one baby, child and puffin regarding one another with the loveliest expressions.

Nights of the Pufflings is a story that should be in every school library and lots of homes. Bruce McMillan, in a magical blend of photographic wizardry, biological expertise, and simple prose, captures in a mere 32 pages the most beautiful true-life story of people interacting with birds I’ve ever read–a lyrical story that would appeal to grownups as well as kids, a story resonating with good humor and wonder and love.