How To Tell the Birds From the Flowers

by david on 1 July 2012

How to Tell Birds cover

Cover of “How To Tell the Birds From the Flowers”

As with animated cartoons, the best children’s books are ones that satisfy both the children and the adults. Paul Elder published a number of innovative children’s books, but perhaps the most delightful is How To Tell the Birds From the Flowers by Robert Williams Wood, which appeared in 1907.

There is no traditional typesetting in the book; everything was drawn and lettered by Wood. Each page contains drawings of a bird (for example, the catbird) and a flower (the catnip), plus an amusing poem on how to distinguish them. It’s a perfect bedtime storybook.

 

How to Tell Birds title

Title page of “How To Tell the Birds From the Flowers”

Robert Williams Wood (1868-1955) was a professor of physics at Johns Hopkins University from 1901 until his death. He specialized in optics and has been described as the “father of both infrared and ultraviolet photography”. He invented a device now called “Wood’s lamp,” which radiates only ultraviolet light and is used in dermatology to diagnose certain skin conditions which fluoresce under ultraviolet wavelengths. He also co-wrote two science fiction books with Arthur Train, The Man Who Rocked the Earth and The Moon Maker.

Although the cover says “Denatured Series No. 23”, that name was concocted for this book and there are no earlier “denatured” titles. Wood continued the series in 1908 with Animal Analogues as Denatured Series No. 24, but he wrote no further books like it.

Update, April 2017: In 1917, Dodd, Mead and Company copyrighted a new edition entitled “How To Tell The Birds From The Flowers, and Other Wood-cuts.” Your editor has seen a 19th edition of this title from 1939, so it was clearly a very popular title for Dodd Mead. Paul Elder was still publishing his own books in 1917, and it’s unclear how he lost the publishing rights.

How to Tell Birds p16

Page 16-17 of “How To Tell the Birds From the Flowers”

How to Tell Birds p20

Page 20-21 of “How To Tell the Birds From the Flowers”

How to Tell Birds p28

Page 28 of “How To Tell the Birds From the Flowers”

How to Tell Birds alt cover

Alternate binding of “How To Tell the Birds From the Flowers”

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