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This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon

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Birds were “the objects of my greatest delight,” wrote John James Audubon (1785–1851), founder of modern ornithology and one of the world’s greatest bird painters. His masterpiece, The Birds of America depicts almost five hundred North American bird species, each image—lifelike and life size—rendered in vibrant color. Audubon was also an explorer, a woodsman, a hunter, an Birds were “the objects of my greatest delight,” wrote John James Audubon (1785–1851), founder of modern ornithology and one of the world’s greatest bird painters. His masterpiece, The Birds of America depicts almost five hundred North American bird species, each image—lifelike and life size—rendered in vibrant color. Audubon was also an explorer, a woodsman, a hunter, an entertaining and prolific writer, and an energetic self-promoter. Through talent and dogged determination, he rose from backwoods obscurity to international fame. In This Strange Wilderness, award-winning author Nancy Plain brings together the amazing story of this American icon’s career and the beautiful images that are his legacy. Before Audubon, no one had seen, drawn, or written so much about the animals of this largely uncharted young country. Aware that the wilderness and its wildlife were changing even as he watched, Audubon remained committed almost to the end of his life “to search out the things which have been hidden since the creation of this wondrous world.” This Strange Wilderness details his art and writing, transporting the reader back to the frontiers of early nineteenth-century America.


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Birds were “the objects of my greatest delight,” wrote John James Audubon (1785–1851), founder of modern ornithology and one of the world’s greatest bird painters. His masterpiece, The Birds of America depicts almost five hundred North American bird species, each image—lifelike and life size—rendered in vibrant color. Audubon was also an explorer, a woodsman, a hunter, an Birds were “the objects of my greatest delight,” wrote John James Audubon (1785–1851), founder of modern ornithology and one of the world’s greatest bird painters. His masterpiece, The Birds of America depicts almost five hundred North American bird species, each image—lifelike and life size—rendered in vibrant color. Audubon was also an explorer, a woodsman, a hunter, an entertaining and prolific writer, and an energetic self-promoter. Through talent and dogged determination, he rose from backwoods obscurity to international fame. In This Strange Wilderness, award-winning author Nancy Plain brings together the amazing story of this American icon’s career and the beautiful images that are his legacy. Before Audubon, no one had seen, drawn, or written so much about the animals of this largely uncharted young country. Aware that the wilderness and its wildlife were changing even as he watched, Audubon remained committed almost to the end of his life “to search out the things which have been hidden since the creation of this wondrous world.” This Strange Wilderness details his art and writing, transporting the reader back to the frontiers of early nineteenth-century America.

30 review for This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon

  1. 5 out of 5

    Barb Middleton

    I couldn't put down this 90 page book that chronicles the adventurous life of John James Audubon as he compiled his famous book, "Birds of America," published in England in 1827. Nancy Plain shows his passion for nature and unusual self-taught artistry that helped him create unique pictures that not only showed birds in movement but also in their habitat. Anecdotes, hardships, and adventures made this a page turner. Audubon's labeled paintings are spread throughout the book and accompany stories I couldn't put down this 90 page book that chronicles the adventurous life of John James Audubon as he compiled his famous book, "Birds of America," published in England in 1827. Nancy Plain shows his passion for nature and unusual self-taught artistry that helped him create unique pictures that not only showed birds in movement but also in their habitat. Anecdotes, hardships, and adventures made this a page turner. Audubon's labeled paintings are spread throughout the book and accompany stories adding strength to the text. Audubon's scientific accuracy combined with art and his experimentation with mixed media gave his pictures a photographic quality, something no other ornithologists were doing at the time. Audubon got married and started a business until bad investments led him to live a life of struggle to make ends meet. His wife, Lucy, made money as a teacher and when Audubon wanted to pick up and leave to go collect his bird specimens, Lucy stayed in one place raising their two young boys providing the family some economic stability. Audubon periodically roamed and when he was shutout from the publishing world in the United States, he went to Europe to market his idea for a book that contained 500 bird species he had collected over decades. He was hugely successful but was away from his family for three years putting a strain on relationships and missing out on a chunk of his boys childhood. Eventually he made it home and the family started a business that combined his artistic ability with the skills of his wife and sons. Lewis and Clark had recently finished exploring the interior of the United States and westward expansion was beginning when Audubon first came to the US. He was avoiding Bonaparte's draft in France where he was born to a well-off seaman and step mom. Audubon was an explorer who traveled all over the US creating honing his unique talent. He said that he killed 100 birds a day at one point to study them. He also didn't give credit to another artist that did the flowers in his paintings. The author shows Audubon as a flawed human being that cared deeply about his family and nature and who predicted the extinction of the passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, and (the almost extinction of the) buffalo. He recognized the need for restraint in hunting even though his own killing seemed excessive. This contradiction would make for good discussions in a book club.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth☮

    I teach an excerpt from Audobon's Ornithological Biography Volume 1, so when I came across this at the library, I picked it up to get a snapshot of his life's work. This is aimed at younger readers, but I found it had just enough to satisfy my curiosity about John James Audobon. He nearly went broke to create what would become his magnum opus which chronicled, for the first time, over 400 species of birds in America. He traveled far and wide in his efforts. There are many interesting facts, but I I teach an excerpt from Audobon's Ornithological Biography Volume 1, so when I came across this at the library, I picked it up to get a snapshot of his life's work. This is aimed at younger readers, but I found it had just enough to satisfy my curiosity about John James Audobon. He nearly went broke to create what would become his magnum opus which chronicled, for the first time, over 400 species of birds in America. He traveled far and wide in his efforts. There are many interesting facts, but I found that he had to go to Europe to publish his book the most interesting. This has nice illustrations that highlight Audobon's talent. I'm glad I picked it up. I feel the background knowledge will help me teach the excerpt much better now.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Monty

    "This Strange Wilderness" is one of the best compact and concise biographies available on John James Audubon. Award-winning author Nancy Plain has blended a wonderfully interesting prose narrative with the original illustrations of Audubon to create a book that will be enjoyed by children (ages 12 and up) and adults alike. Audubon comes alive as a remarkable man who was an artist and explorer, but who was embarrassed by the title of naturalist or ornithologist bestowed upon him by many of his pe "This Strange Wilderness" is one of the best compact and concise biographies available on John James Audubon. Award-winning author Nancy Plain has blended a wonderfully interesting prose narrative with the original illustrations of Audubon to create a book that will be enjoyed by children (ages 12 and up) and adults alike. Audubon comes alive as a remarkable man who was an artist and explorer, but who was embarrassed by the title of naturalist or ornithologist bestowed upon him by many of his peers. He was the first artist to pose birds and other wildlife in lifelike poses and to use mixed media (watercolor, oils, pastel, pencil, ink) to achieve the specific realistic depictions he desired. Audubon was not flawless, as his short temper is described as well as the fact that his apprentice and foliage-painter Joseph Mason did not get the credit he was due. He also had great difficulty in being accepted in America, as a few scientific hecklers attacked his theories & writings and did their best to defame him at home and abroad. This fascinating story of the crossroads where science and art intersect is masterfully done in concise but lively prose.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Erin

    Not sure who the audience is for this, but I sure enjoyed it. The illustrations are gorgeous and Audubon's life is fascinating. Not sure who the audience is for this, but I sure enjoyed it. The illustrations are gorgeous and Audubon's life is fascinating.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jackson Matthews

    Plain clear beautiful writing, and the loveliest pictures. For a research project, but I will want to read this again, more slowly, for pleasure.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Stuart

    One could argue that no one loved birds more than John James Audubon. He devoted his life to discovering and painting every North American species of birds. The book This Strange Wilderness is a biography of Audubon and also includes some of his artwork, which is stunning if you have never seen it. The book begins with Audubon's birth in Haiti and the death of his mother he never knew. His father, a French sea captain and plantation owner, took him back to France where he and his wife Anne raise One could argue that no one loved birds more than John James Audubon. He devoted his life to discovering and painting every North American species of birds. The book This Strange Wilderness is a biography of Audubon and also includes some of his artwork, which is stunning if you have never seen it. The book begins with Audubon's birth in Haiti and the death of his mother he never knew. His father, a French sea captain and plantation owner, took him back to France where he and his wife Anne raised James and his half-sister Rose. James' father was responsible for his love of birds and his passion for illustrating them. Audubon was never happy with his drawings. He was so disappointed with them that he burned the drawings every year on his birthday with a vow to do better. The book then chronicles the horrors in France, including the French Revolution, and Audubon's engineered escape to America. It was here where Audubon met his wife. He had three children by her, two boys, and a girl who died at a very early age. Audubon had several failed business ventures and contributed much to the study of bird migration, ornithology, and taxonomy while attempting to provide for his family in these business ventures that failed. There are times in this book that Audubon didn't come off as a particularly great husband or father, as he left his wife (albeit with her blessing) to pursue his lifelong ambition of finding, painting, and cataloging every bird in North America. The book continues to trace Audubon's journey across America and his keen insight into birds and sadly their eventual extinction. Reading through this book felt like reading a story, not a dry biography. The Audubon quotes demonstrated both his intelligence and his personality. The book also is full of photographs of the Audubons and Audubon's beautiful paintings. I also learned a lot about Audubon that I never knew, such as his early childhood and the fact that he drew mammals after he completed his book of birds. This was a fascinating read and one that I would recommend for middle-school and up. It contains a nice blend of science and history and would also make an excellent book for the homeschooling crowd!

  7. 4 out of 5

    Chelsey

    Fascinated by the great wilderness, John James Audubon led a life of adventure. His desire to become the top ornithologist in America pushed him to travel across the country observing, cataloging, and drawing hundreds of birds. This was a quick, easy, engaging read. Coming to the table knowing nothing about Audubon other than his name, I was quickly drawn in to this biography by Audubon's own artwork and Nancy Plain's storytelling. It was also refreshing to read such an upbeat title after reading Fascinated by the great wilderness, John James Audubon led a life of adventure. His desire to become the top ornithologist in America pushed him to travel across the country observing, cataloging, and drawing hundreds of birds. This was a quick, easy, engaging read. Coming to the table knowing nothing about Audubon other than his name, I was quickly drawn in to this biography by Audubon's own artwork and Nancy Plain's storytelling. It was also refreshing to read such an upbeat title after reading a lot of dark stories on the 2016 Hub Challenge!

  8. 5 out of 5

    Amy

    2016 YALSA Finalist Interesting. I learned a lot more than I knew about this man. For the most part, he was a traveling starving artist. Also, he was more successful in England / Europe before he was in the United States. Still, his drawings are extraordinary! Another interesting piece that I learned -- While Audubon, the man, was interested in COLLECTING birds, the Audubon Society is dedicated to PROTECTING & PRESERVING them.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Vernon Area Public Library KIDS

    This wonderful biography discusses John James Audubon's life, which is quite spectacular, adventurous, and impressive. He spent over 30 years of his life working on The Birds of America, going from rich, to very poor, to reviled, to extremely famous and respected. He was alive in an incredible time of change and expansion, and witnessed it all. Really engaging read. Reviewed by: Julia Pyatetsky, Youth Services, Vernon Area Public Library This wonderful biography discusses John James Audubon's life, which is quite spectacular, adventurous, and impressive. He spent over 30 years of his life working on The Birds of America, going from rich, to very poor, to reviled, to extremely famous and respected. He was alive in an incredible time of change and expansion, and witnessed it all. Really engaging read. Reviewed by: Julia Pyatetsky, Youth Services, Vernon Area Public Library

  10. 5 out of 5

    Chris Enss

    Nancy Plain's books never fail to entertain. She's a quality author and the research she does on the subjects she writes about are first rate. Nancy Plain's books never fail to entertain. She's a quality author and the research she does on the subjects she writes about are first rate.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    Really fascinating biography of Audubon. The illustrations are gorgeous. The 1800s were such a monumental time for the United States in terms of growth for our country as well as the destruction of Native Americans and the wilderness. It's strange to think that Audubon, the innovator of conservation, would kill around 100 birds to create each drawing. Really fascinating biography of Audubon. The illustrations are gorgeous. The 1800s were such a monumental time for the United States in terms of growth for our country as well as the destruction of Native Americans and the wilderness. It's strange to think that Audubon, the innovator of conservation, would kill around 100 birds to create each drawing.

  12. 5 out of 5

    William

    COULD NOT PUT DOWN😳

  13. 5 out of 5

    Melissa Schweitzer

    Non-fiction is usually not my first choice for my reading time. However, I have discovered that good YA non-fiction is not only tolerable but can be enjoyable as well. This is true of This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon by Nancy Plain. I read this book because of a YASLA challenge and I was familiar with Audubon's paintings. I have come to appreciate Plain's style of storytelling. She covers details about Audubon's life without getting mired in them. On the other hand Non-fiction is usually not my first choice for my reading time. However, I have discovered that good YA non-fiction is not only tolerable but can be enjoyable as well. This is true of This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon by Nancy Plain. I read this book because of a YASLA challenge and I was familiar with Audubon's paintings. I have come to appreciate Plain's style of storytelling. She covers details about Audubon's life without getting mired in them. On the other hand, there was enough "meat" to the facts that I did not feel like I was reading only fluff. She found just the right balance. I think it helped that I was reading this book at the precipice of spring when our bird feeder is full of different types of birds. I could image trying to paint the detail of each bird as they flitted by and respected the lengths that Audubon traveled to get his pictures not only aesthetically pleasing but scientifically correct as well. I look forward to reading more non-fiction by Plain as well as delving into the YA non-fiction library shelf.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Christine

    This is a juvenile book, so it was a short and easy read with enough information for me. I really am not interested enough to read an extensive adult biography of Audubon. Not sure if it is true, but I felt the book portrayed him as a very one dimensional man; totally obsessed with the creation of his books and documenting the birds & then mammals of North America. The Audubon paintings included in the book were very nice.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Heydi Smith

    Simply amazing! I learned so much about early America and about all the animals that are now endangered or extinct because of over hunting. Very easy to read with an exciting page turning journey.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Patricia

    Even though this book is labeled juvenile, I found it satisfying, as an adult, with itstreatment of the man and his work perfectly paced and beautifully illustrated. Nancy Plain of course is not giving you a great deal of detail, but the chapters each contain riveting samples from primary sources, and enough historical background to let you know how exciting Audubon's life was. Born in Haiti, where his father traded in slaves, he had to leave as the slave uprisings occurred. Then back in France Even though this book is labeled juvenile, I found it satisfying, as an adult, with itstreatment of the man and his work perfectly paced and beautifully illustrated. Nancy Plain of course is not giving you a great deal of detail, but the chapters each contain riveting samples from primary sources, and enough historical background to let you know how exciting Audubon's life was. Born in Haiti, where his father traded in slaves, he had to leave as the slave uprisings occurred. Then back in France after the revolution, again, their lives were at risk with the bloody terror. So only in the United States could the boy find safety. It is here he developed his lifelong passion for nature, and for documenting it in a scientific way. Audubon was not very good at making a living for his family. One bankruptcy followed another. His wife, Lucy, put up with a lot, and was a saint. As Audubon learned his true calling, documenting the enormous variety of birds found in the United States, he needed to travel further and further afield, taking him away from his family. As he competed with Alexander Wilson for prominence as the premier ornithologist of his time, he went to Europe to raise money for his ambitious series sold as a subscription in four folios. His children helped, he had an assistant to fill in the details around the birds' images. He met kings and presidents in his efforts. Along the way, he shot hundreds if not thousands of animals, and yet knew that there were species in danger-- the buffalo for instance, and the passenger pigeon. He watched the native peoples suffering tragically. He witnessed the bounty of America shrink. So much of his life is enigmatic of what our country is based on, I found it very touching and relevant, and of course to me, a worker for Audubon's mission of preservation of birds and wildlife, inspiring.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Kate Roebuck

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. This Strange Wilderness is an easy and delightful read. Though the book is written with a bent toward juvenile readers ( the author herself has written and been awarded for numerous children’s books), it can be enjoyed by both child and adult alike. There is something to be said about a “light” biography— one that speaks to the delights and pains of life, but gives you the version that is... friendly, that is to say— what a friend might share themself. The life of James Audubon was interesting a This Strange Wilderness is an easy and delightful read. Though the book is written with a bent toward juvenile readers ( the author herself has written and been awarded for numerous children’s books), it can be enjoyed by both child and adult alike. There is something to be said about a “light” biography— one that speaks to the delights and pains of life, but gives you the version that is... friendly, that is to say— what a friend might share themself. The life of James Audubon was interesting and inspiring. For someone on the forefront of his field— merging that of the artist, naturalist, ornithologist, and environmentalist, Audubon made great strides and left the world with a volume of work to aspire to. It should also be noted about the pain he suffered in “search” of his passion. He was poor, left his family for years at a time, was robbed, left, and belittled by those in his field. He died young and lived hard on the “road”. However, he also shared his career ( eventually) with his wife and children, found the success he craved and shared his gift with the world. This little book gives you a true picture of his life— and inspires readers who are unaware of his contributions to the world to know more!

  18. 4 out of 5

    Alicia

    What a perfect homage to John James Audubon who I knew nothing about other than his creation of The Birds of America and part of the theme and book in Okay for Now. But to get to know Audubon's intimate passion with nature and his love of the animals, sketching, and the lengths he went to continue his passion and make a profit, even when it meant leaving his family to pursue it. There were many connections and relationships he built along the way, sometimes penniless and sometimes with riches. H What a perfect homage to John James Audubon who I knew nothing about other than his creation of The Birds of America and part of the theme and book in Okay for Now. But to get to know Audubon's intimate passion with nature and his love of the animals, sketching, and the lengths he went to continue his passion and make a profit, even when it meant leaving his family to pursue it. There were many connections and relationships he built along the way, sometimes penniless and sometimes with riches. He explored America as well as the "wild west" and met the Native Americans as well as presidents. And ultimately I love that it came back to his family who welcomed him back into the family and they made Birds of America a family affair. The elements of sketching and how he approached conservation as well as art and science is as phenomenal as PT Barnum's was as well. Thoroughly enjoyed the presentation of the information, seeing his drawings, and learning about who he was.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jen Davis Lance

    Don't you love it when a historical figure ends up being more interesting and quirky than you would have suspected? I chose this book because I have an enduring interest in the natural world, particularly birds, and also artistic depictions of the natural world. John James Audobon's seminal book "The Birds of America" has always perfectly represented that intersection, but I never knew much about Audobon himself. I was delighted to read about this self-taught artist, a paradox of cultured, hands Don't you love it when a historical figure ends up being more interesting and quirky than you would have suspected? I chose this book because I have an enduring interest in the natural world, particularly birds, and also artistic depictions of the natural world. John James Audobon's seminal book "The Birds of America" has always perfectly represented that intersection, but I never knew much about Audobon himself. I was delighted to read about this self-taught artist, a paradox of cultured, handsome gentleman and buckskin wearing, rifle toting loner. This quick read highlights his revolutionary approach to cataloguing the birds of America (he managed to paint and describe 489 species) as well as his herculian efforts to be recognized as an expert in the scientific and international communities and share his knowledge and art with the world.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Alda Saldan

    This Strange Wilderness is the biography of John James Audubon, an ornithologist best known for Birds of America, an illustrated encyclopedia of the American birds published between 1827 and 1839. In many ways he paved the way for other naturalists (e.g. Charles Darwin and John Gould) and artists (Elizabeth Gould) and he contributed to the discovery of new species of birds. But this biography also describes an adventurous life, for long years spent in the American frontier, and a very keen inter This Strange Wilderness is the biography of John James Audubon, an ornithologist best known for Birds of America, an illustrated encyclopedia of the American birds published between 1827 and 1839. In many ways he paved the way for other naturalists (e.g. Charles Darwin and John Gould) and artists (Elizabeth Gould) and he contributed to the discovery of new species of birds. But this biography also describes an adventurous life, for long years spent in the American frontier, and a very keen interested for nature, manifested not only in Audubon’s drawings and paintings of wildlife, but also in his friendly interaction with native tribes and in his respect for their knowledge and traditions. Told in plain English, this book is accessible to young readers and also interesting for an older public.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Mya R

    4.5 stars? A very accessible biography of Audubon with many illustrations by the subject, usually from the same period of his life. Fascinating for the descriptions of travel during the era, the natural history, and the descriptions of the founding of a science. I appreciated it as an adult; it’s appropriate as-is for middle grade and up, and because of the pretty pictures it could be shared with younger children with an abridged presentation. Content Notes: killing of birds and animals for food, 4.5 stars? A very accessible biography of Audubon with many illustrations by the subject, usually from the same period of his life. Fascinating for the descriptions of travel during the era, the natural history, and the descriptions of the founding of a science. I appreciated it as an adult; it’s appropriate as-is for middle grade and up, and because of the pretty pictures it could be shared with younger children with an abridged presentation. Content Notes: killing of birds and animals for food, science, and sport; casual racism against indigenous peoples & reference to acts of genocide (Trail of Tears, smallpox); death of children as common in the era (mentioned briefly); perceived abandonment of family. Also: lifelong pursuit of a passion.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Robyn

    Being that this book was written for juvenile readers, it made for a quick, concise, abridged telling of John James Audubon's life. I read it in two short sittings and enjoyed the insight I gleamed into the artist's life, of which I knew next to nothing before picking up this book. But because it was such an abbreviated glimpse into his life, I would love to read a full-length biography in the future. This book also featured a few full-page artwork pieces within each chapter. His art is simply g Being that this book was written for juvenile readers, it made for a quick, concise, abridged telling of John James Audubon's life. I read it in two short sittings and enjoyed the insight I gleamed into the artist's life, of which I knew next to nothing before picking up this book. But because it was such an abbreviated glimpse into his life, I would love to read a full-length biography in the future. This book also featured a few full-page artwork pieces within each chapter. His art is simply gorgeous, and I would love to see an original print in person one day.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Greta

    Simply a beautiful book. I thought that it was well-written and well-researched. I read it all in one sitting and will recommend it to anyone interested in history, birds, art, or the life of John James Audubon.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Saleena Davidson

    This Strange Wilderness is a quiet book, and a biography about John James Audubon, the bird guy.....I found it quite interesting and enlightening to learn more about him and how he changed science and bird watching.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jacquie

    Very quick read, but nice overview of Audubon's life. Don't forget to go see one of the few remaining complete sets of the original "The Birds of America" on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. You really don't understand it's beauty and genius until you see it in person! Very quick read, but nice overview of Audubon's life. Don't forget to go see one of the few remaining complete sets of the original "The Birds of America" on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. You really don't understand it's beauty and genius until you see it in person!

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kristin R

    I read this biography about John James Audubon which covers how he was obsessed with learning about birds and studying them and trying to depict them as lifelike in his art. His work is amazing and no one else had done anything close to this when he was working. It is quite a life story.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Forreste

    True, a lifetime can fill up hundreds of pages, but perhaps nonfiction would reach a larger audience if it was more broadly digestible. I find myself reaching for biographies written for a younger reader and not yet regretting it.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Molly K

    This did not hold my attention at all. In fact, when I had trouble sleeping I listened to the audio version and fell in to a deep slumber. That being said, maybe it was the audiobook reader who didn't hold my attention. This did not hold my attention at all. In fact, when I had trouble sleeping I listened to the audio version and fell in to a deep slumber. That being said, maybe it was the audiobook reader who didn't hold my attention.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Branson

    This was read as a biography in our homeschool and really captured the attention and imagination of my child. I did edit slightly some more graphic parts.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Ellen

    This is a beautiful book. I learned so much about the American expansion, about the politics involved among the early natural scientists and the crazy, adventurous life of John James.

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