Admittedly, I chose There’s an Owl in the Shower because I had read Jean Craighead George’s classic My Side of the Mountain.
I knew of her reputation for including ecological and environmental themes in the stories she has written for children.
But when I realized that it had been published in 1995, inhabiting that curious space between classic and contemporary, I nearly returned it to the library.
I’m so glad I didn’t, because it turns out that this story is striking relevant for readers today. Jaw-droppingly so, in fact (more on that below).
That’s not why I kept the book however; it’s included in Shireen Dodson’s Books for Girls to Grow On, which is one of my ongoing reading projects (and I am crazy about reading projects), and her recommendations have proven reliable.
Borden’s older sister, Sally, is the source of many of the facts relayed to the boy and his father about the owls that live in the forest, facts she learns from her teacher, Mr. James.
Ironically she is not mentioned in the discussion questions for this novel, but there are some astute questions posed:
“Describe how the life of the trees in the forest and the life of the spotted owl are dependent on each other.”
“If the spotted owl becomes extinct, how will this affect the ecology of the forest?”
And there are some interesting activites suggested (e.g. travelling to a wildlife shelter or volunteering for an organization working to save an endangered species).
For a story which seems rather comical from the cover illustration, this might be surprising.
But the novel actually begins with a hunting scene. (Whereupon I once more reconsidered whether I actually wanted to read it.)
Borden is taking aim at a spotted owl. He misses the shot, but vows to try again.
Borden lives in a lumber town, and his father is Leon Watson, an experienced cutter, who has even won a national award for his skill. But now work is at a standstill for the lumber industry, while the situation is evaluated.
The judge explains the Endangered Species Act in a way which children of the affected families can understand as well:
“Our nothern spotted owl is a threatened species. He can only live in old-growth forests and nest in big tall trees. When we cut them down, he dies.”
There are signs in town which reveal the residents’ conflict: People Not Owls; Support your local spotted owl – from a rope; Old growth cannot be replaced.
Tresta is 30 miles inland from the Pacific in the Trinity National Forest, and in “some places in Washington State, only six pairs of spotted owls remain on six million acres of old growth that were cut in the past. That’s trouble for the owls, and trouble for us.”
In George’s story, two owlets are knocked from their nest during a storm because there are not enough trees surrounding them to provide shelter. A pine marten kills one of them, the other Borden finds the outside of the nest and, because he believes it to be a barred owl, not a spotted one (the enemy of my enemy is my friend), he takes him home.
His father Leon, bored and unemployed, and facing charges for a fight with an environmentalist, vows to help raise the barred owl to curry favour with the judge.
“‘Bardy won the battle of the big trees in our house,’ Borden said. ‘Pop the owl hater is now Pop the owl lover.’”
When Borden’s sister tells her teacher that Leon has been caring for a barred owl, Paul James asks: ‘But does he also love spotted owls?’ [...] You should tell him the barred owl is part of the old-growth forest, too [and it's] not just spotted owls that we want to save, but barred owls, flying squirrels, butterflies, martens, deer, ancient trees, clear water, and salmon.’”
For a children’s story, there is a surprising amount of attention paid to the character of Leon.
(In contrast, I don’t even remember a parent in the other books I’ve read by Jean Craighead George.)
This is fitting, however, for it is Leon who is the transformational character, even more so than Borden who is simply aping his father’s opinions whereas Leon’s actually change.
And, anyhow, the star of the book is Bardy, the barred — oops, no, the spotted (for, yes, he turns out to be the “enemy” after all) — owl.
The star is feathered not skinned and two-winged not two-footed.
And how many decades later, he and his kind still need saving. As do we all.
It’s kidlit worth taking seriously.
Has your reading explored the world of the feathered and/or furred lately?