The Power of One Writer
Back Yards, Ethiopia and Children's Books

Birders binoculate and share the world, subtle and grand

Oh boy.  I can’t help it.  I am in love.

I’ve never shared a product link before, but I can’t help but think about all the birders out there who told me they’re thrilled to get the girls they care about engaged in birding.  No matter what kind of dolls hang around those girls’ houses, don’t you think those dolls need binoculars and a bird book?

Maybe other writers can just make up all the vivid details for their books.  I have to poke around in the world and in other people’s brains.  When I was first starting to think hard about Lanie’s stories, I asked Jim McCoy what makes kids interested in birds.  Well, they can pop into a kid’s life almost anywhere–A-Rod’s daughter was on a school trip visit to Fenway Park and a red-tailed hawk swooped down on her.  (This is a true story, and I saw hawks on the lights, myself, flapping off and soaring, when Jim and Nancy Werlin and I poked around Fenway, home of the Red Sox.)  Or you walk by a pond and see a great blue heron, a bird so magical the automatic thought is that great blue herons must be endangered.  (They’re not.)  A northern flicker is suddenly there on the lawn eating ants, and the kid looks out and says, “What?  What’s that?”

In those days, I didn’t know what time of year the story would take place.  Jim told me that birders consider late winter and summer to be “doldrums” times.  At Mount Auburn cemetery, he said, the dazzling birding show starts and finishes in May as migrant birds on the move fly in, attracted to a space deliberately designed to be gorgeous nature right smack in the city.  We wandered along the petunia path and the rose path and looked up at Rapunzel windows, while a catbird hopped across in front of us–and I heard the question, “What are you on?” for the first time.

It was an oriole nest.  The fledglings twittered as a mom or dad oriole fluttered in.

On the way back to Kansas, I read an article by Bill Donahue about sitting in the cold dark before dawn and hearing a lone sparrow chirp.  “It was a pedestrian sound, the sort that runs past my ears all the time,” he wrote.  “But there, in the damp brush of Northern California’s Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, it carried a certain distilled splendor.”  That’s when I thought, Lanie is going to go out into her back yard and really listen.  (Here she is in my back yard, where I, too have now slowed down–okay, maybe not at cold dark before dawn–and experienced a certain distilled splendor.)

Hooray for people with passions.   Yay for Julie Zickefoose who wrote the most delightful bird piece for NPR that gave me another scene for my books (which you can hear for yourself at the link below)–and who generously talked with me on the phone about birds and back yards and what it’s like to watch the daily life of wrens.

In Ethiopia–and, for that matter, walking around the arboritum in Hesston, Kansas–I was attracted to big, dramatic birds that soared and flapped and even (once) hissed at me.   Now I’m more interested in the subtle language going on all the time in my own back yard.

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