Arlo & Pips: King of the Birds – written and illustrated by Elise Gravel

 Arlo & Pips: King of the Birds – written and illustrated by Elise Gravel, HarperAlley (an imprint of HarperCollins), 9780062982216, 2020 

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 5+

Format: Hardcover

What did you like about the book?  This is the first book in a new series and I can’t wait to read the next one! Using a graphic novel format, Gravel introduces us to the self-important but smart Arlo (a crow) and sarcastic Pips (a nondescript small yellow bird). Arlo is new in town and Pips offers to show him around, patiently enduring the crow’s recitation of his many talents. These are all factual tidbits about crows (clarified in starred notes at the bottom of the page).  Young readers will be laughing at the new pals’ back-and-forth, but also learning a lot about crows: they are omnivores, have big brains for birds, can imitate animal and environmental sounds, and sometimes play dead to keep found food from other crows. Considering the ubiquity of the noisy black birds in most people’s neighborhoods, I thought Gravel’s focus was pure genius. Pips and Arlo also marvel at the stupidity of people, who throw away perfectly good food and leave litter everywhere (“Humans really are a mystery.”). 

The digital illustrations are terrific. The shapes are simple: Arlo is a big, black curved “S” shape with a giant eyeball and beak, topped with a little grey crown. Pips is about 1/10th the size of the crow, with an even simpler look; he’s basically a yellow comma with a dot for an eye, and two sticks each for his beak and his legs. Simple tableaux give a sense of place but never distract from the fun. There’s an easy, organic rhythm and logic to Gravel’s use of panels and she switches confidently from full page illustrations (Arlo gobbling fries while on the look out for competition) to 6 panel sequences that convey avian information and move the narrative along.

Anything you didn’t like about it? There’s no source given for Gravel’s crow facts and I’m pretty sure that crows collecting shiny objects is more of a myth than a reality. So, I would take some of the details here with a grain of salt, although I also think that’s amply telegraphed by the talking birds.

To whom would you recommend this book?  Youngsters who enjoy Arnold Lobel, Mo Willems, Tedd Arnold, or Ben Clanton or any other beginning reader tales of oddball friendships.  Those already on board with the drollness of Gravel’s Disgusting Critters series will like this newest work as well. I think it’s even interesting and hip enough to work with older beginning or reluctant readers — adult ELLs might enjoy the fun.

Who should buy this book? Elementary and public libraries

Where would you shelve it? Early/Beginning reader section.

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? Yes

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: November 15, 2020

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