Review: The Song that Sings Us by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Jackie Morris

“When animals talk, it’s time humans listened.”


This beautiful book is the work of an ideal partnership – Nicola Davies, author of many picture and information books drawing on her zoology background and love of the natural world, and Jackie Morris, Greenaway-winning illustrator of The Lost Words among many other titles. Although Nicola Davies is best known for her picture books, she returns to longer fiction in this epic adventure with a strong environmental theme.


Set in an alternative world, the story centres on an issue that’s all too relevant to our own: the destruction of the natural world by those who readily sacrifice its beauty, diversity and wildness for power and wealth. The ruthless Automators aim to drive all citizens into cities, away from land, rivers, and farms, with the promise that consistency of life will be guaranteed, away from the vagaries of nature. “They (the people) must be made to understand that animals and plants are resources to be owned and used; that they have no rights. The Listeners and their filthy hocus-pocus stand in the way of progress.” This dislike of animal life is so great that those who are Listeners – able to tune in to animal minds and communicate with them – can be denounced, imprisoned, and brainwashed.


The Automators fail to realise the strength of a Gaia-like network in which all living creatures communicate through song and thought transference. Central to this are Harlon, Ash and Xeno and their mother Toren, linked to the resistance movement Green Thorn; the family lives peacefully on a mountainside until Automators burst in, setting fire to their home. Told by Toren to snowboard to safety, the three siblings become separated, each at some point in the story captured by the Automators. Their quest is to seek a remote island where they believe golden lines connect the entire living world. It’s this island the Automators plan to destroy with a quasi-nuclear weapon, and here all the main characters converge.


Both Ash and Xeno are Listeners, Xeno with an affinity with birds: “It fills her up: the shape of wind, the space between one wingbeat and the next, the wisdom of the flock … Eggs in nests of cliffs and trees, white in dark burrows, blue like the eye of the sky or mottle-blotched like captured bits of cloud.” Doada, the conflicted leader of the Automators, thinks his battle is won when Xeno is captured; but he underestimates the power and resilience of creatures of all kinds.


The Song That Sings Us is a captivating eco-fable with enough danger and action to please lovers of action adventure but also with the lyricism and wonder that comes from Nicola Davies’ deep love of the natural world; her writing often combines a zoologist’s knowledge with a poet’s eye and ear. Jackie Morris’s illustrations, in her unmistakable style, are the perfect match.


(This review was written for Armadillo magazine.)