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

What characters know that authors don’t

My parents took me traveling…Ethiopia, no less…when I was two years old.  That’s where I fell in love with gardens, with the outdoors, with other things in the threads I wove into Lanie’s story. 

But one thing I don’t remember paying attention to in Ethiopia was birds.

Maybe I was too active and wasn’t able to narrow my focus, get still, and pay attention.

This week, though, I’ve been sitting on my couch in Lawrence, for hours, getting ready for my travels to Dallas (for American Girl), to Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines for speaking.  I still get a thrill from travel.  BUT…

…it stretches and drains me, too.  So I’ve mostly been waking up too early and lying in bed and thinking.

In the dawn hours, one thing I now notice is bird twitter.  Once, I didn’t know why birds would be more vocal then.  Now I do.

Maybe birds have a hard time competing for kid-love compared with other animals I’ve written about.  Maybe, though, girls who read Lanie’s story will open their eyes and hearts to birds more quickly–more easily–than I did.

This is from a Lanie draft when she’s hiking at dawn:

That’s when I spotted something that made me glad we were awake even when everyone else was asleep–my very first Red-winged Blackbird. 

Oooooo la la.  The twenty-third Life Bird on my list. 

As soon as we got back to camp, I could put those shiny black wings and splats of red in my field notes.

“Listen,” Aunt Hannah whispered.

A bird song bubled out from the tree branches above our heads.  Number twenty-four?

I scrambled onto a giant stump that smelled like fresh sawdust.  I held my breath and stared.  “Any clues?” Aunt Hannah murmured.

Tail straight up.  I squinted and lifted my binoculars.  Some kind of wren.  But I couldn’t figure out the species. 

(I wouldn’t be able to figure out the species, either.  I don’t even know if I could identify a wren.  Luckily, we get to create characters who know delicious things that we don’t, and Lanie knows things that are stored in the brains of Jim McCoy and his Boston birding friends who helped me out.)

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