North-South Books

North-South Books, Vintage Books, 3 years +

The Happy Owls

Words by Theo van Hoijtema

Illustration by Celestino Piatti

Published by North-South Books

"You can draw an Owl a thousand times, and never find out it's secret." - Celestino Piatti 1992

Owls are fantastic. It is not until reading this beautiful work that it occurred to me that owls appear in so many great childrens' works; 'Harry Potter', 'The Gruffalo', 'Winnie the Pooh' and Lear's rhyme 'The owl and the pussy cat' to name just a handful. They are graceful and dignified birds and oddly, in real life the owl is very rarely seen by children. I think it is this mystique that surrounds the owl that makes them well suited for children's books and ripe for imagination. 

'The Happy Owls' is an illustrated fable. The quarrelsome barnyard birds send the peacock to ask the owls why they do not fight and bicker like the rest of them. The wise owls call all of the birds together and share their secret to finding peace.  Their words are poetic and a beautiful tribute to nature. The two contented owls fail to convince the birds that there is reason to celebrate in the natural beauty and changing of the seasons. The chickens, the ducks, the peacocks and the geese find this story absurd and ignore the advice of the owls. How could anyone be happy just to watch the sun shine and leaves fall? The story ends fairly abruptly with no verbal response from the owls and they simply go "on thinking their wise thoughts".  

Short and simple, this fable has a timeless message and many lessons for all of us. The natural beauty of our world should not be overlooked for it has immense value. Stand apart from the crowd. Do not be easily influenced by others. Stay strong to your own beliefs. 

Piatti's "The Happy Owls" was originally published in 1963 but still feels very relevant for both the bold illustrations and simple timeless message. The last page of this book pays tribute to the original author of this fable. The original story was written and illustrated in 1895 by the Dutch artist Theo van Hoijtema under the title "Uilen-Geluk". The author and illustrator, Erwin Burckhardt translated it into German and suggested that Piatti should draw the illustrations for a new edition. 

Celestino Piatti died in 2007 and is remembered as a Swiss graphic artist, painter and book designer. The illustrations in this book are representative of his style with large colourful images with bold, black outlines.  The details of each image are reminiscent of stained glass windows and the textures contained within each image remind me of the colourful collages of Eric Carle. A truly beautiful book. 

Reviewed by Tom White