04.55 AM. Outside my bedroom window, an owl is calling.
Over the babble of the stream, this call of the wild instantly pulls me from the arms of sleep. I lie there in the dark with bated breath, waiting - and wanting - to hear it again.
I am taken back to childhood - there's the excitement, the sense of adventure - and just a little touch of danger thrown in.
Yes - owls' hoots still thrill me.
This feeling partly stems from a childhood fear of the dark.
The snap of a twig; the pained yelping of a fox; thoughts of disorientation and abandonment.
Being left alone with whatever else the dark is hiding.
I have always had a fascination with owls. I remember we were driving home in the dark once from visiting my grandparents. I was pretty young - five or six. Suddenly a barn owl swooped down in front of the car and flew ahead of us. A phantom, glowing bright white in the beam of the headlights, leading us home. (An effect enhanced by the fact that it happened to be Halloween.)
What is it about owls that so endear them to us? What quality is it that makes them so mesmerising? Some have those deep, black, liquid eyes that look like they contain the secrets of the universe. Other species, with piercing orange or yellow eyes, feel like they can look inside and read your every thought.
This week, prompted by the hooting of the owls outside my bedroom window, I'd like to share some thoughts on a modern classic - the picture book Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson (Walker Books 1992).
I pull our dog-eared copy from my shelf. There are those familiar faces - Sarah, Percy and little Bill. The Owl Babies.
Described by the Guardian as 'the perfect picture book', Owl Babies has been around now for over 25 years. Rereading it brings back a flood of memories of snuggling up with my boys at bedtime. Martin Waddell's gentle, soporific words, and the magical illustrations of the dark woodland, conjured up by Patrick Benson, made it a favourite of ours.
The realistically portrayed owls live in a believable night time world of silhouettes and darkness, which Benson deliberately chose to give a cinematic feel to. We begin high in the canopy of an old ivy-clad ash tree; then down into its hollow trunk, where we are introduced to Owl Mother and her three baby owls: Sarah, Percy, and Bill.
The hole had twigs and leaves and owl feathers in it.
It was their house.
Waddell got the idea for the story when he was out shopping for dog food. '[There was a] 'wee kid by the checkout. It had lost its mammy. And it was very, very scared.' Despite a flotilla of ladies trying to calm it down with sweets, the kid just kept repeating the phrase - I want my mummy - over and over again.
'And I went home and wrote the story. ... I've had picture books that have taken me 18 years to write. This thing took about three hours.'
'Owl Babies tackles the subject of temporary separation - a situation which all children are likely to experience, be it Mum going to work or first day at Nursery' - while tapping into more deep-seated fears of being abandoned; of getting lost or separated; of the dark.
One night [the baby owls] woke up and their Owl Mother was GONE.
"Where's Mummy?" asked Sarah.
"Oh my goodness!" said Percy.
"I want my mummy!" said Bill.
Patrick Benson reveals the secret to capturing the feel of a night time woodland in his beautiful illustrations:
I was brought up on a farm and used to spend hours roaming around the woods and fields, climbing trees and discovering the wonders of nature. I also like fishing, and particularly fishing at night, so again I know what the countryside can look and feel like after dark. All of this was incredibly helpful in making the pictures for this book.
It's heartwarming to see how the baby owls look after each other. They come out of their house holding hands, and they sit, and they wait in that dark woodland, wondering about their mother. The owlets assess their predicament, trying to reassure each other - "She'll be back," said Sarah. "Back soon," said Percy - and all the while little Bill repeats, "I want my mummy!" Yet behind their brave words, the tension and uncertainty are palpable. It captures children's imaginations without filling them with fear, because, as illustrator Benson says, 'the resolution is so complete and comforting.'
One of my favourite spreads is where we pan out from the owls' tree.
Benson's use of silhouettes and bold patches of solid black is relatively unusual for a picture book because it doesn't really lend itself to creating a comforting atmosphere. But somehow he pulls it off, depicting the night time wood so well. Details of ferns and brambles and that great, old ash tree, patterned by little patches of moonlight accompany text that reads, 'It was dark in the wood and they had to be brave, for things moved all around them.'
And there they are, the three baby owls, dwarfed by night.
The most satisfying page turn comes when the baby owls - shown in close-up - close their owl eyes and wish their Owl Mother would come.
‘AND SHE CAME.’
The big, fat image of mother owl returning home is just so solid and welcome. And the delight of her owl babies is really touching as we see them flap and dance and bounce up and down on their branch.
Undoubtedly, Owl Babies was subconsciously influencing my ideas as I jotted down the story seed for The Owl Tree.
Inspired by a real-life tree and real-life owls, it reads a bit like a prequel for slightly older readers:
A late winter North Westerly brings with it an unexpected snowfall. The whirling, twirling flakes tease and chase each other around the Owl Tree. Deep inside, Mother Owls sits alone on her three snowy white eggs, round and bright in the twiggy gloom. Hidden from the wind's icy breath and the snow's biting touch.
Story Seed: The Owl Tree by Tim Warnes
I'm not surprised that Owl Babies has endured.
Its endearing characters, relatable themes, satisfying ending and just the right amount of uncertainty makes Owl Babies a great bedtime read. And with that little bit of danger thrown in, you might get even more of a snuggle!
It's a win-win.
Good to read
Other snuggly owl books
Love Enough for Two by Jane Chapman (Little Tiger Press 2017)
I'm Not Sleepy by Jane Chapman (Little Tiger Press 2012)
A Bit Lost by Chris Haughton (Walker Books 2011)
The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, ill. by Louise Voce (Walker Books 2002)