The Written Image: The Backyard Bird Chronicles

From the March/April 2024 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Not only is Amy Tan a best-selling novelist and a musician, performing with the Rock Bottom Remainders alongside fellow authors Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, and others, she is also a talented visual artist, as her new book, The Backyard Bird Chronicles (Knopf, April 2024), amply demonstrates. A testament to Tan’s “obsession with birds,” as she puts it in her preface, the volume includes excerpts from hundreds of pages of Tan’s journals documenting the wildlife she has observed flitting among the trees and grasses behind her home in northern California. Her drawings range from meticulous, lifelike portraits of single birds to cartoons of the animals engaged in mock conversation with one another. Great horned owls, crows, warblers, scrub jays, hummingbirds, spotted towhees, and many other species appear in pencil renderings that range from informal sketches to lushly colored illustrations.

A page from The Backyard Bird Chronicles by Amy Tan. (Credit: From The Backyard Bird Chronicles © 2024 by Amy Tan. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf)

While Tan has taken drawing classes—a course of study she did not begin until she was sixty-four, she writes—her method for visually capturing her subjects involves a force beyond technical skill. “‘Be the bird,’” she writes of her mystical-sounding approach, one she relates to her work as a novelist: “To feel the life of the story, I always imagine I am the character I am creating,” Tan writes. “By imagining I was that bird, I felt a personal connection to it and a deeper sense of what life is like for every bird: Each day is a chance to survive.” In addition to drawings, Chronicles also contains prose from Tan’s birding journals. In dated, diary-like entries, she describes the looks and movements of her feathered friends, her impressions of them, and other thoughts that cross her mind: “Birds are creatures of habit in their habitat,” she writes in an entry on January 10, 2019. “Me, too.”