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Book of the Month | February 2017

Longitude Book of the Month
Longitude's Book of the Month focuses on a travel title that inspires us to leave our armchairs for new destinations. This edition centers on Matt Sewell's Penguins and Other Seabirds. The reviews and interviews are written and conducted by our editors. Our selections are culled from the regular Book of the Week feature on our blog.

Penguins and Other Seabirds

By Matt Sewell

"Are penguins fish or birds?" Matt Sewell couldn't believe the suggested question auto-filled by Google when he began research for his new book Penguins and Other Seabirds. Were enough people asking that question for it to show up in the search engine? He began his book with a new-found motivation: to educate the world about the mysterious flightless birds, and a few other seabirds along the way.

Sewell is not only an avid ornithologist, he is also a talented illustrator of several bird books. In this slim gift book, he pairs whimsical watercolor illustrations of fifty of the world's penguins and seabirds with helpful, entertaining and accessible descriptions of the species. Each image is full of personality and life, illustrating the character traits enumerated in the text. A rather smug looking Gentoo Penguin, we learn, is the penguin with the longest tail. The tail is actually not that long, but, Sewell writes, "in the subtly different world of the penguins, anything a tiny bit different is deemed a distinguishing feature and worth celebrating."

Sewell celebrates each distinct trait of his fifty birds with character and charm. A bright-eyed Striated Caracara is "a highly intelligent bird who would rather use his wit over his wings." His Rockhopper Penguins are unmistakable "leather-clad Heavy Metalers in black denim and cheap eyeliner, with wet-look gel spikes on top and a bleached-blonde shoulder-length mullet at the back." Sewell's Snowy Sheathbill looks a bit self-conscious as he is described as "a really weird bird that looks part seagull but without the webbed feet, pigeonlike in shape but with turkey-esque wattles and a cutthroat dagger for a beak."

By the end of the book, readers will have been entertained and enlightened, not only as to whether penguins are birds, but to the existence of other species, such as the Rhinoceros Auklet, also known as the Unicorn Puffin. In the final pages the illustrations are collected into a checklist, which birders of all ages can use to keep track of their findings around the world, from the Magnificent Frigatebird to Sewell's favorite: the Smew.

A Longitude Interview

With pop-art watercolors and whimsical descriptions, Matt Sewell express the individual characters of 50 seabirds in his new book Penguins and Other Seabirds. His illustrations are so inviting, we had to learn more.

LONGITUDE: Are penguins fish or birds? …Just kidding. The idea for your book came from this auto-filled question on Google. What, besides educating the general public, were your goals in producing this book?

SEWELL: Penguins are ace, but it was also a really good chance for me to focus on seabirds in general. There are so many around the world it was great way to get them in my canon.

LONGITUDE: How did your interest in ornithology begin?

SEWELL: It probably has a lot to do with where I grew up and also to do with me being into illustrated bird books. I'm from out in the sticks originally, growing up in an ex-mining town surrounded by fields and woodland. At the foot of the dales there was always plenty of bird life around or passing through to keep me excited and interested to find out what I had just seen. I used to paw over bird books, especially Sketches of Birdlife by Charles Tunnicliffe that was a birthday present to me from my Aunty Val. It had the right mix of fantastically accurate but loosely drawn mixed with the right amount of macabre and brutal scenes to entice my young mind.

LONGITUDE: Did you travel to see the birds you depict? What is your favorite birding destination?

SEWELL: Not just specially for this book, but I did spend time with quite a few of the seabirds and two of the penguins from a year spent travelling in Australia and New Zealand in 2007.

LONGITUDE: Window seat or aisle?

SEWELL: Window… ALWAYS! It's extra points for spotting birds from public transport. Makes the journey go so much quicker too!

LONGITUDE: What bird fact surprised or excited you as you conducted your research for the book?

SEWELL: That crested auklets smelt like tangerines! Who would have guessed that? Bonkers!

LONGITUDE: Is there a bird you wanted to include in this list of fifty but didn't?

SEWELL: There were so many different kinds of albatrosses that I would have like to have squeezed in but couldn't. I managed to get all my favourites in though, so I can't complain.


LONGITUDE: What, in your mind, sets the Smew above all other seabirds?

SEWELL: What a great bird! First off the name Smew itself is just so cute and a joy to say aloud. But not only that, it looks great and has a design on its back of cracked ice, cool as a cucumber… Cool as ice!

LONGITUDE: What other books would you recommend to the lover of flightless birds?

SEWELL: Just get any book on New Zealand birds as they seem to have the whole flightless bird thing sewn up!

LONGITUDE: Do you have any new books or birding projects in the works?

SEWELL: Yes, I have my first children's book out in the UK in Spring called The Big Bird Spot, published by Pavilion. I have illustrated lots of lush, detailed landscapes and environments and hidden my favourite birds to be spotted and counted throughout. It's quite a departure from my simple watercolours, but I am super chuffed with how it has turned out and worked so hard on it that I just can't wait to see how it goes down when it comes out.


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