The Strange Birds of Flannery O'Connor by Amy Alznauer, Ping Zhu

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I intend to stand firm and let the peacocks multiply, for I am sure that, in the end, the last word will be theirs. -Flannery O'Connor When she was young, the writer Flannery O'Connor was captivated by the chickens in her yard. She would watch their wings flap, their beaks peck, and their eyes glint. At age six, her life was forever changed when she and a chicken she had been training to walk forwards and backwards were featured in the local news, and she realized that people want to see what is odd and strange in life. But while she loved birds of all varieties and kept several species around the house, it was the peacocks that came to dominate her life. Written by Amy Alznauer with devotional attention to all things odd and illustrated in radiant paint by Ping Zhu, The Strange Birds of Flannery O'Connor explores the beginnings of one author's lifelong obsession. Amy Alznauer lives in Chicago with her husband, two children, a dog, a parakeet, sometimes chicks, and a part-time fish, but, as of today, no elephants or peacocks. Ping Zhu is a freelance illustrator who has worked with clients big and small, won some awards based on the work she did for aforementioned clients, attracted new clients with shiny awards, and is hoping to maintain her livelihood in Brooklyn by repeating that cycle.


Like O'Connor, this gangly art object of a book tracing her first forays as a writer to an outsize fascination with the chickens in her childhood backyard is a "strange bird," in the most wondrous of ways. "There was something about strangeness," a young O'Connor realized after her trained bantam drew fame, "that made people sit up and look." Alznauer pairs a grounded, authentic vernacular with a lyricism that takes flight, while Zhu's depiction of odd human proportions against brilliant brushstroke plumage stuns. -The New York Times


"In pitch-perfect harmony, writer Amy Alznauer and artist Ping Zhu honor the life of the prominent Georgia author and her affinity for the feathered species. Zhu's painted scenes wow the eyes with dazzling color, fiddling marvelously with perspective and filling super-large, thick-stock pages. By studying something closely, such as the chickens and peacocks on her Milledgeville farm, O'Connor could always find "some hidden strangeness, making it beautiful and funny and sad all at the same time." (Which could also describe her fiction.) This nuanced and multilayered effort includes extra biographical material. For art lovers." -The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


"Amy Alznauer traces the writer's gothic style to her Catholic childhood in Georgia...As Ms. Alznauer writes: "In that brief moment of fame, Flannery had a revelation. People didn't want to see any old chicken; they wanted a weird one. There was something about strangeness that made people sit up and look."There's a responsive touch of weirdness in Ping Zhu's artwork for this lovely book, with its glowing colors, bold shapes, and proportions that shift between realistic and outlandish. The bright plumage in a final soaring image suggests what a strange bird O'Connor was herself." -The Wall Street Journal


This picture-book biography, beginning in Flannery O'Connor's childhood and ending with her untimely death, shines a light on her love of strangeness. With its memorable opening line, "Right from the start young Flannery took a shine to chickens," the book celebrates her fascination with life's peculiarities--and death. The exaggerated scale and off-kilter perspectives of Zhu's illustrations align with the book's focus on eccentricity...The thoughtful design--at 12 inches square, as outsized as its subject--includes a type chosen because its designer, like O'Connor, had a love for drawing birds. A striking, quirky ode to a unique vision. --Kirkus Reviews

Like the best children's books, Alznauer's words recognize the cleverness of their audience; they never condescend or talk down. Zhu's work reminds us that illustrations shouldn't flatten the world either. Fluent in the grammar of both abstract and representational art, her work is full of dimension and color, symmetry and asymmetry, life and breath. The Strange Birds of Flannery O'Connor holds potential enough to inspire its youngest readers, and to stoke the smoldering embers of curiosity in its oldest. --Plough

Amy Alznauer's writing has won the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction and the Christopher Award. She is also the editor of the facsimile edition of Mistaken Identity by Flannery O'Connor. Amy teaches mathematics at Northwestern University and lives and writes in Chicago with her husband, two children, a dog and her puppies, a female parakeet named Louis (whose identity was at first mistaken!), and an occasional brood of chicks. Find Amy and her children's books at www.amyalz.com.

Ping Zhu is a lactose intolerant illustrator who refuses to stop eating cheese. She has lived on both coasts and won't say which one is better. This is her first illustrated children's book, which was completed the same year she rode a bicycle to Montreal from NYC. Both were challenging and rewarding experiences.