Monday, October 19, 2020

'How to Find a Bird' Proves the Perfect Pandemic Book for Kids

Who knew how much joy birds could bring? Hummingbirds flitting around my back garden were a daily highlight this summer. Oriole-spotting seemed to be the pandemic favorite for those of us who weren't baking sourdough bread. A friend in Austin can't get enough of the owl that's come to roost in her back yard.

Birds are everywhere, Jennifer Ward tells readers in the delightful How to Find a Bird (Beach Lane Books, August 2020). We just have to watch for them, listen, and stay quiet. Spectacularly illustrated by Diana Sudyka, the nonfiction picture book by this Illinois duo is possibly the perfect title to share with a child right now in our socially distanced world.  

Drawing inspiration from the outdoors and combining nature with STEM learning, Jennifer has published more than 25 nonfiction books (Mama Built a Little Nest, Mama Dug a Little Den, both from Beach Lane Books). And Chicago artist Diana is no slack: her stunning illustration style can be found in such titles as The Mysterious Benedict Society and What Miss Mitchell Saw. And visitors to the beloved bookstore Booked in Evanston, Illinois, will recognize her artwork adorning the charming door that welcomes bookbuyers both short and tall.

These wildly talented creators recently took a few minutes to talk about their book with me, and what inspired them. AuthorOf is especially excited (and grateful!) to be able to share the perspective of the author and the illustrator. For a chance to win a copy of How to Find a Bird, click here.

QUESTION: This book is so informative. How much time researching did you have to take to get down all the details? Can you talk about resources and your process?

JENNIFER WARD: Well, I’m such a bird nerd, truly. Each day of my life is immersed in birds. When I take a break from author-related work, I study bird behavior and read scientific bird publications, such as Living Bird published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I also volunteer at a wild songbird rehabilitation center in St. Louis. Each and every bird rescue is unique and presents opportunities to learn more about bird life. 

In my free time I garden for birds, photograph birds, and I go birding each day in some manner. THAT said, the text for How to Find a Bird came naturally—that’s not to say I didn’t do research for the book: Is the Ivory Billed Woodpecker truly extinct? Searches are still underway, but no success in spotting one so far. However, when I need facts checked, I often reach out to the great folks at Audubon, in addition to experts in the field of birding I’ve gotten to know over the years. Birders are like kidlit people—kind, passionate about their work, and eager to share that passion with others. As far as my process goes, I write at my kitchen table where I have a 180-degree view of old growth forest outside my windows. Needless to say, it’s remarkable I get any writing done at all because I will drop everything and head outside when I see something that piques my curiosity through those panes of glass.  

DIANA SUDYKA: The short answer is that I have been researching for this my entire life! 

The much longer answer: Since a very young age, I have been interested in natural history. I spent a lot of time outside as a kid, and was gifted my first bird field guide in second grade. I still have that Peterson guide with all on my notes scribbled in it. Many years later I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to volunteer in the Chicago Field Museum’s Bird lab, and work alongside the collection’s manager Dr. David Willard. David trained me and other volunteers to document and preserve salvaged birds (70,000 and counting) that had collided with windows of downtown Chicago buildings. My specific job was to use a form of taxidermy to preserve the bird’s shape and plumage for creating research specimens. It is something that required skills that I had developed as an artist. In my 10+ years there, I learned so much about our native species of migratory birds, and the impact urban landscapes and climate change are having on them. I had incredible access to these research collections, and would often paint from the specimens. I have held extinct species like Passenger Pigeons and Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in my hand; not something I take lightly. 


Everything that I put into the choices I made for the illustrations for How to Find a Bird can be all traced back to those 10+ years in the bird lab. It opened my eyes to the incredible diversity and beauty of the birds that come through our Chicago area, and thus why my illustrations focus on North American species. Jen’s writing was so wonderfully clear that it wasn’t difficult to come up with particular species to match her words. I developed the roughs and when they were shared with Jen, I think she only had one or two requests for added species. 

As far as overall aesthetic, I love early Richard Scarry and Feodor Rojankovsky illustrations from the Golden Book era. I wanted my work for How to Find a Bird to reflect some of that influence. I work mainly in gouache paint on paper, as those illustrators did. While most of my work is done traditionally, I also do quite a bit of digital touch up in the final stages. How to Find a Bird is probably my most digital work to date. 

Q: We all have a favorite, spirit-animal bird. Which one is yours?

JW: Although I had a very cool, spiritual encounter with a Pueo once (Hawaiian Short-eared Owl), the hummingbird is my favorite spirit-animal bird as it's the one bird species that surfaces in my dreams a lot.

DS: I have many favorites, and oddly several are NOT in the book, whoops!

Sandhill Cranes
Brown Creepers
Chimney Swifts
Common Nighthawks

AuthorOf enjoying her favorite door,
at Booked in Evanston and painted by Diana

Q: How do you want kids to experience the book?

JW: I love to imagine young readers poring over each and every detail of Diana's  stunning art—again and again and again—maybe noticing a detail not noticed before or relishing a favorite illustration or bird species; it’s so great how Diana labeled each bird species she illustrated in the book! I hope kids are familiar with some of them and inspired to learn more about others. I like to imagine the kids imagining themselves as the children in the book having adventures with birds. 

I hope the experience with this book will also encourage readers to engage mindfully and playfully with their senses when out in nature, noticing and hearing things new to them, especially related to birds. It’s a big, wide bird-world out there (close to 10,000 bird species on the planet), and birding can be both a classroom and a playground for kids, rich with opportunities to wonder, discover, hypothesize and practice awareness, empathy and stewardship. 

DS: I want kids to come away from the book understanding that birds are everywhere, and even the most undervalued, common species have much to offer. It’s why my first illustration spread in the book is of an urban setting showcasing two species of birds so many dislike: pigeons and House sparrows. Observing these most common of birds can lead to other questions and observations by kids: Why are there so many house sparrows and pigeons, or European starlings? What is the difference between a native species and something that was introduced? If they were introduced, who brought them here? Why? What is beautiful about them? Etc. 

Also, I want kids to know that you don’t have to live in a rural area or a forest to see and appreciate birds. You don’t have to travel thousands of miles away to see an extraordinary species of bird, and that there is incredible diversity right here in our cities and backyards. For example, Chicago is along a major migratory flyway: Lake Michigan. We get thousands of birds migrating through our area every fall and spring. I want kids to learn that nature is not other, or far over there. It is home to us and so many other species. So, let’s start at home, connecting to the nature that is here that we may grow to value and protect it. 

Monday, October 12, 2020

Rebecca Siegel Explores Space Race in 'To Fly Among the Stars'

Chicago-area author Rebecca Siegel takes a hard look at the space race in her non-fiction middle-grade To Fly Among the Stars (Scholastic Focus, March 2020). In fascinating detail, she contrasts the experiences of the all-male Mercury 7—the seven superstar test pilots of NASA's astronaut class—with those of the 13 female candidates who were accomplished air racers, test pilots, and flight instructors. While the women were put through the same astronaut tests as the men, their journey was conducted in secret, as they hoped to defy the norms of the day and and earn a their place flying among the stars.

For fans of nonfiction, this is a gripping read full of infuriating injustice, entrenched sexism, and an eye-opening look at both American history and women's history. Rebecca was nice enough to make time for a quick interview.

Enter here for a chance to win Rebecca Siegel's To Fly Among the Stars!

QUESTION: You flew in a single-engine plane in order to get a sense of what the pilots you were writing about went through. Can you talk about your creative process and what it was like to research and write To Fly Among the Stars?

REBECCA SIEGEL: My creative process is a little like a wild rollercoaster ride. Or, given the subject matter, it might be more appropriate to say it’s like an hour spent in the cockpit of an aerobatic biplane. There are highs, lows, and plenty of moments when I wonder if I’ll vomit. 

I’m an obsessive researcher-outliner. To craft my epic outlines, I read every book, memoir and website. I watch every video and documentary. I listen to every podcast and interview. I try to totally immerse myself in the world I’m writing about—to become not just an expert but an inhabitant—and it’s mostly pretty fun. I get such pleasure out of putting together stories like this, brick by brick, fact by fact. But I also tend to lose myself checking facts, then checking my fact checks, then checking my—oh god I’m going to throw up. 

To yank myself up and out of these information spirals and reconnect with the story I’m trying to tell, I’ve learned that I have to physically connect with my subject matter. For some books, that’s walking through a historic site, smelling the grass and listening to the leaves rustle in the wind. For others, it’s climbing into a cramped cockpit and practicing losing power at 3,000 feet. 

Finally, when I’ve armed myself with all the information I can possibly process, I let myself loose on the page. It’s awesome. 

Q: What made you want to tell this story? And did you consider writing it as fiction—either for middle-grade readers or young adult? Or even for the adult market?

RS: From the moment I stumbled upon this story, I knew it was going to be a middle-grade book. It just had everything I wanted in a MG story: youthful protagonists pursuing audacious dreams, adventure, danger, science, and so. many. fast. cars. It was *kisses hand in theatrical chef’s kiss motion* perfect.

I never considered making this book fiction because, frankly, the truth was spectacular enough on its own. I think I’d worry that taking liberties with this story might devalue the actual history. For example, if I decided that Jerrie Cobb got to train in a jet with John Glenn in the fictionalized version of this story, that detail might undermine the fact that in her real life, she flew in a Navy trainer as part of her Pensacola astronaut fitness tests. 

Q: How do you hope young readers experience your book? What do you hope they take away from it?

RS: You know that delicious feeling you get when someone hints that you won’t be able to do something, and then you go and do it on your own anyway? And you get that glowing warmth in the pit of your belly that comes from exceeding everyone’s expectations? You’re a tiny bit annoyed with them but mostly just really, really proud of yourself. And then you start thinking about the other things that you’ve been discouraged from trying, and you start wondering if maybe you could do those things, too? 

THAT’S the feeling I hope kids get from the book. 


Monday, October 5, 2020

Sally Walker Takes Readers into Chicago Fire with 'Fiery Night'

Sally Walker is the real deal. One of Illinois' finest children's authors, Sally has written more than 60 nonfiction books ranging from the history of climate change to the Mason-Dixon line, how Winnie the Pooh came to be to how Bessie Coleman took to the skies. And because of the high quality of Sally's research and writing, her titles earn recognition, making state recommended-reading lists, becoming Junior Library Guild selections, and earning prestigious honors like the Robert F. Sibert Medal as well as the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction.

Her latest title, Fiery Night: A Boy, His Goat, and the Great Chicago Fire! and illustrated by Kayla Harren (Capstone Editions, August 2020), tells the story of a real-life boy who, along with his pet goat, survived the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. Since I also published a Chicago Fire book for kids this year, I sat up and took notice of Sally's effort! It is fantastic, and I hope teachers will pair her nonfiction picture book with my nonfiction graphic novel, The Great Chicago Fire: Rising from the Ashes, when they introduce the Chicago Fire to their students.

As a big fan of Sally's work over the years—Champion: The Comeback Tale of the American Chestnut Tree (Henry Holt and Co., 2018) and Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh (also Henry Holt, 2015) are two of my all-time favorite examples of top-tier nonfiction for kids—I was delighted she had time to talk about her Chicago Fire book.

QUESTION: Fiery Night features an illustration done by Justin Butterfield of his family's escape from the fire. Was that the launching point for your decision to write the book? 

SALLY WALKER: It absolutely was the launching point. The Chicago Fire has interested me for a long time. Some years back, I was reading a book about the fire that included Judge Tree’s reminiscence of his experience during the fire. He was the Butterfield’s neighbor who gave them a ride. Tree mentioned offering the Butterfield family a ride, and that Justin had a goat with him. That made me curious. Immediately, I wanted to know more about the Butterfields and if I could find any further information about the boy and his pet. I was over-the-moon when I came across Justin’s drawing—conveniently labeled—of his family as the fled the fire. The text of Justin’s letter to his friend, which we couldn’t include in the back matter due to space concerns, can be found here. This website, The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory, has tons of other great stories and photos of the fire.

Q: Can you talk about your creative process and how you approached the Chicago Fire story?

SW: My approach was to view the fire from Justin’s perspective. While Mother ran for family heirlooms, the most important thing to Justin was saving and protecting Willie. I empathized with Justin immediately: The first step in my family’s exit plan in case of a house fire is to grab our two cats!  

As I wrote, I tried to incorporate instances from other accounts of the fire. For example, one person remembered their dog running away from the family. Another described standing in the cold lake water for hours, surrounded by horses and people. Keeping the age of my audience in mind, I did not trivialize Justin and Willie’s fears, but tried to express them in ways that the reader could relate to without be terrorized.   

At times, I brought my own perspective to the story. For example, many of Chicago’s sidewalks were wooden. I don’t know that Justin had trouble getting Willie to step up onto the sidewalk. But I know, firsthand, that horses are often scared to step onto a platform or ramp. From that, I extrapolated that Willie might be too. By the way, Justin did not mention the goat’s name in his letter. I named him Willie, because at times he behaved almost as stubbornly as my sister’s cat, Willie.  

Q: Your subjects range far and wide, from sunken submarines to beloved bears to chestnut trees. How do you decide what you're going to write about? 

SW: I don’t always decide what I’m going to write about, sometimes a subject takes hold and insists that I write about it.  While I was researching for my book Sinking the Sultana (Candlewick, 2017), I “met” Louis Miskoguon and Amos Ashkebugnekay, two survivors of the explosion. They were Anishinaabe men who enlisted in a Civil War regiment of sharpshooters from Michigan. The enlisted men in the company they joined were all Native Americans. Their stories, and those of the men who served alongside them, filled my thoughts.  They just wouldn’t leave me alone until I wrote about them. Their experiences during the war became my book Deadly Aim (Henry Holt and Co., 2019).

Ideas seem to find me. In the newspapers. On the internet. Talking with and listening to people.

Whenever I run across information that makes me think “Whoa!  I didn’t know that,” I usually have a million questions about it. I want to learn more. 

Q: How do you know when you're onto something good?

SW: Lots of the time, an idea doesn’t pan out.  It’s only when there is a good, solid story, one that continually intrigues me and one that I feel will reach out to young readers in some way, that I decide to write about it. I like stories that make me think; that tease my imagination in ways that make me happy, sad, or even angry. And in doing so, change me, and how I look at the world.

Q: Your nonfiction books are the gold standard. Can you talk about how you go about researching your books? 

SW: Whenever possible, I visit the places that I am writing about to absorb not only the atmosphere, but to get a real sense of the geography of the place.  For example, walking the area in Michigan where Amos Ashkebugnekay lived and on the battlefields in Virginia where he fought. The documents in online archives give me a chance to become familiar with the subject through census reports, war records, or old scientific papers.  BUT visiting an archive in person is even better.  That’s when I find the gems that are not digitized:  personal letters, health records, and plenty of photographs. If I had a few pizzas and some jugs of water, I’d happily camp out for weeks in the National Archives, in Washington, D.C.

Libraries and historical societies are my favorite hangouts.  It’s helpful to read what other authors have written about the subject that I’m exploring.  It’s kind of like brainstorming with the author for additional ideas and avenues for me to explore. Libraries contain published diaries and the kinds of books that contain reminiscences like those of Judge Tree, Justin’s neighbor. Historical societies have lots of unpublished documents and manuscripts that I can’t find elsewhere. And there are lots of maps, too.  I adore old maps! 

I also always talk with experts.  They offer wonderful insights and often lead to amazing adventures.  My interviews with experts led to working on an archaeological dig for my book Written in Bone (Carolrhoda Books, 2009) and to inoculating American Chestnut trees for Champion.

My filing cabinet has a folder filled with newspaper and magazine clipping of possible future books. And I have a similar file on my computer. I have no idea what Google docs is.  

SW: Finally, I have a question for you: When you decided to write a novel, were there any books regarding planning/techniques that you found helpful? Young writers might find it useful. Old ones, too!

KATE HANNIGAN: Like you, I turn to experts! When I was trying to figure out the magic, I attended many writing workshops, conferences, critique groups, anything I could find that would help unlock the mysteries. Three were tremendously helpful.

First was hearing the lion of children's literature Richard Peck talk about finishing a novel and then immediately throwing out the first chapter and rewriting it, since that was when he finally had the full picture. Second was hearing Holly Black talk about plotting and outlining, planning story arcs and thinking hard about when to hit the big notes in the story you're telling. And the third was working with Franny Billingsley, another Chicago author and incredibly helpful human! She talked to me about the story's beating heart, and how the pulsing arrows we shoot at the start of the book had better hit their mark. This advice, along with reading as many books as I can in the middle-grade genre, has helped me muddle along!