From Board Game to Beautiful Book
March 16, 2023
A review by Bryony Angell
Celebrating Birds: An Interactive Field Guide Featuring Art from Wingspan, by Natalia Rojas and Ana María Martínez
HarperCollins Publishers, 2021
352 pages, hardcover
You’ll be celebrating more than birds when you pick up a copy of Celebrating Birds: An Interactive Field Guide Featuring Art from Wingspan, by Natalia Rojas and Ana María Martínez. This illustrated, introductory guide to North American birds is the outcome of two innovative women-led projects within two distinct industries historically dominated by male creators: board game design and field guide artwork.
Yes, the subtitle of the book refers to that Wingspan, the blockbuster bird natural history board game of 2019 created by Elizabeth Hargrave and an all-woman design team and released by Stonemaier Games. The artists of the book are the same women who illustrated the board game, and the team behind this latest imprint are—you guessed it—women. This time, it was a fan of the board game, Lisa Sharkey, the Director of Creative Development at HarperCollins Publishers, who saw the potential for a companion book.
“I thought the drawings were so beautiful and the game cards so tiny,” Sharkey said in a phone interview.
“Would enthusiasts want to see the artwork on a larger scale?” Sharkey wondered, and “What about a book version of it?”
Sharkey approached Rojas and Martínez about the book idea, and the project came together quickly among HarperCollins, the artists, board game creator Hargrave, and a fourth contributor, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“We were going to have to talk about the birds in the book,” said Sharkey. “Who else might add to this but The Cornell Lab, a prestigious bird organization?”
Sharkey partnered with Miyoko Chu, Senior Director of Communications for the Cornell Lab, and together they drew from existing content to align with the images by Rojas and Martínez.
“Natalia and Ana created original end pages and a cover for the book, too, distinct from the board game,” said Sharkey.
To round out the innovations specific to this project, Wingspan creator Hargrave designed a new activity just for readers of the book.
The goal of the authors is to appeal to both birders and bird-curious readers who may or may not be familiar with the companion game instead of simply introducing another authoritative field guide.
“We wanted to create something simple, fun, informative and easy to read,” said Rojas in a phone interview.
Martínez, emphasizing the educational potential of the book, said in an email, “I’m hoping it will have a bigger impact for others to discover how powerful a pedagogical tool it can be for kids and young adults.”
To the book’s credit, I observe Celebrating Birds as separate from the game. It stands alone as an appealing introductory text for beginner or young birders interested in a skimmable, visually beautiful, accessible (each bird illustration fills the page), and potentially interactive guide. Game designer Hargrave’s book-specific activity prompts a competition to identify birds within nine categories while referencing the book’s text and illustrations. The book is sturdily bound and small enough to take in the field.
Organized taxonomically like a typical guide, Celebrating Birds features 181 North American birds with adapted color pencil illustrations by Rojas and Martínez. Each bird is presented against a white background with an accompanying summary text from Cornell that includes the species’ natural history, mating behavior, diet, name origin, and nesting habits, as well as descriptions of plumage and vocalization. A few regional and less common species make an appearance to broaden the inclusion of readers across the species’ restricted range or to call out a bird’s iconic status: The Chihuahuan Raven and Cerulean Warbler, respectively, are two such examples.
That same expansive inclusion of birds is the book’s only drawback, as there are no maps or seasonal distribution charts to reference if using this as a primary guide. Celebrating Birds is therefore best as a complementary tool to a more robust regional birding guide. It can add to the pleasure of playing Wingspan itself, or it can simply exist as an art book.
Sometimes a book brings something to a genre the authors didn’t intend—and which can be one of its most compelling features. The sorority in the book’s development is the reason for its distinct place in birding media: Martínez and Rojas are now among the few female artists who are authors of a field guide for birds. Their trajectory continues as they currently develop the artwork for expansion editions of the Wingspan game.
In an era where bird photography has overtaken original art in most birding media and representational artists have fewer places to contribute editorial illustration, supporting the work that makes it to print helps justify more work like Celebrating Birds coming to the market. It also honors a tradition in birding for reverence of the artists who developed our first field guides.
Rojas and Martínez represent the future of this tradition. “It goes beyond a printed card or drawing; simply put, it’s a dream come true,” said Martínez. “As an artist, to see [my] work published and be able to make a living doing what I love is a blessing.”
She continues, “I often fall asleep thinking about the intricacies of drawing certain birds: how to accomplish iridescent colors, or feather patterns.”
Birds and the celebration of their beauty are the connection between author–artist and reader in the new art forward field guide, Celebrating Birds.
Bryony Angell writes about birding culture for both mainstream and birding media including Audubon.org, BWD (formerly Bird Watcher’s Digest), Rova, and She Explores. Her work highlights the human side of the birding world, in particular the voices of women. Bryony lives with her family in the northwest corner of the contiguous United States. You can read more at her website: bryonyangell.com.
Wow — this sounds like a great book! I love Wingspan and so happy to see the artwork of these ladies in a larger format. Thanks Byrony for getting this news out!