Many of you know our former Co-Regional Advisor, Alison Green Myers. Although Alison stepped down as Co-RA, she still plays an active role in volunteering with our Eastern PA SCBWI region, including chairing our 2020 Pocono Retreat and co-coordinating our first PAL Mentorship Program this year. That is why we are thrilled to celebrate with Alison as she launches her debut novel, A Bird Will Soar, which releases October 19 from Dutton Books for Young Readers. It brings us great pleasure to gather together at our virtual Eastern Penn Points Café. In addition to Alison, in attendance are Co-Regional Advisors Rona Shirdan and me (Laura Parnum), Assistant Regional Advisor Kristen Strocchia, Illustrator Coordinator Berrie Torgan-Randall, Meet & Greet and Critique Group Coordinator Heather Stigall, and Field Trip Coordinator Virginia Manning. We even have a super-secret special surprise guest. And be sure to read to the end for details on our giveaway!
Laura: Welcome everyone! It’s so nice that we can all chat together. Alison, we’ve got a ton of questions for you. Now that we’re settled in, who wants to get started?
Berrie: First of all, Alison, huge congrats to you! How do you think living close to the woods and having access to nature influenced your story?
Alison: Hi, Berrie! Thank you for your kindness and for this question. I feel safe in the woods. It is “quiet” in its own way. This morning when I was out with my dog, the “quiet” was acorns falling through tree branches, and wind catching on loose leaves, and our footsteps. I wanted to bring that quiet into my story. I wanted to thank our woods in some way for giving this space to feel safe. I hope the fact that outside in the woods is a comfortable space for me comes through for readers and they can picture the world of tall pines, waving ferns, and rushing water.
Heather: What inspired you to write Axel’s story?
Alison: Hi, Heather! Wow, this is a big question. This story came together in lots of ways. I’ll try and be concise. The answer really is “everything.”
There are things that my brain has been churning on since I was Axel’s age and younger that, only now, at this point, I can put to words. The story finally started to gel in 2018. I had been writing a ton of poetry, mostly about birds, and some about family. Then, in May of that year, we had a significant storm come through our area. Tornados touched down. There was a lot of destruction. Along with the pain it caused to people and places in our community, the natural world was turned upside down.
Four nesting eaglets were displaced. (I’m sure many more, but I knew personally about these four.) We were members of the Delaware Valley Raptor Center, and we were so grateful to the giving and resourceful team at DVRC who took in the four birds (and others) and shared with the community the releases of three of the four. It was a hot topic at our kitchen table, in the car, on hikes. We wondered, “But what about the fourth eagle? … Why haven’t they shared release information? Health information? Did something bad happen? Did something good happen?” It was a mystery… and sometimes I can’t let things like that go.
All that hurt. All the efforts of those good people from DVRC. Something had to be going on, but what?
And then, in August of the same year, we attended an educational program by the DVRC. (We’ve seen the program many times.) This time, there was a new crate. And at the end of the program we knew so well, we heard a new story. About an eagle displaced from her nest during a horrific storm, and the injuries, and the new hope for this eagle to be a part of the DVRC educational programming. And then Bill—falconer, skilled Wildlife volunteer, and raptor rehabber—opened the crate.
“This is Lizzy,” he said. Lizzy spun on his arm. She flapped. She squirmed. She tried to settle. And then, she did. Something inside me settled too, knowing that this mystery had been solved. Lizzy wouldn’t return to the sky, but she had found a new place to call home.
Fast forward to this past August. After two years of not being able to safely attend an educational program with DVRC, we were finally on the road to this year’s program. Just like our kitchen table, car, those hikes before, we had all of the questions: “Will Lizzy be there? … Will she be mature yet?… That brilliant ‘bald’ head and tail feathers…”
Sorry, Heather. I think I mentioned the word “concise” at the beginning of my answer. That was anything but!!!
Virginia: I understand your main character, Axel, is autistic. Did you find it difficult to write a novel with an autistic character?
Alison: Hi, Virginia! Axel is the heart of the story. His autism is part of that, as it is reflected in his every day, inside and out. While his character is a work of fiction, Axel has parts of my son, my husband, friends, and myself, all wrapped up into the way one character views the world.
I worked to find the parts of myself that are reflected in Axel’s character. It was important to me to show Axel’s full life. He loves his life. He has amazing friends and a supportive network of adults. He has a truly exceptional dog! He loves birds and nature, and has the freedom to explore outside and take time for his own thoughts. Axel, like me, is also deeply empathetic to humans, animals, and all things in nature. This means that we feel big and deep feelings about the hurt that others feel. (And the joy!) Axel also has to process his anxieties about his inner world and the greater world. I looked to some things that have helped me, like finding quiet places to think, people like Ms. Dale to talk to, and support groups like his Friendship Club, to name a few. What Axel discovers, better than I have to this point in my life, is asking for help, being brave enough to ask for what he needs. This is especially evident in what he asks of his parents.
Having the book told as multi-genre with factual poetry, definitions, emails, and prose, gave me many ways to enter Axel’s world, his family, and all of my personal experiences that are reflected in the book. I was also lucky enough to have friends and paid readers from the autistic community to talk with me about Axel and Dr. Martin’s characters, and their interactions in this fictional world. Since some of the book touches on counseling strategies, I was able to have feedback from the counselors, too.
Kristen: How much did you have to learn about birds to be able to write this story. And how did you research?
Alison: Hi, Kristen! Well… We love to talk about birds in this house. If you’ve ever been on a Zoom meeting with me in the daytime, nine out of ten times I’m going to mention a bird that’s flying by. (Hey, look, another vulture!) But, much of what is in the book digs deeper than just a birding hobbyist like myself or my son could deliver. The first thing that I researched deeply was bird instincts. If you have a chance to read the book, you’ll find instincts as the backbone.
Way back in Heather’s question, I talked about writing poetry about birds, and a lot of that poetry showcased their instincts. Those little hooks made me want to go deeper. See, I had this thing, this idea, that I wanted to share with kids and say, “This is what I think about instincts, how about you?” I wanted to say that sometimes we celebrate instincts, especially in the animal world, but often we try to reprogram (blah!), correct (no!), or dismiss (caw!) humans’ instincts. And I wanted to dig into the research to see what resonated between bird and human instincts—why one, the bird, was celebrated, and the other (at times) dismissed.
I can tell you that I read many, many, many books. I took courses online with the Audubon and Cornell Bird Lab (Yay! Accessibility to so many more classes!), and talked with bird friends. Not friends-who-are-birds, but friends-who-love-birds. Dear Heidi Stemple, Christine Ahern, Dennis and Tierney Cheng, just to name a few. I had the knowledge from our amazing Delaware Valley Raptor programs, and then, after a few drafts of the book had been turned in to my editor (who also has a thing for birds), I went to bird expert Jack Hubley for a paid read.
I’m getting long winded again, sorry. Dear Readers, If birds aren’t your thing, skip this and go to the next question!
If they are, here are a few things I discovered.
1) SO MANY PEOPLE LIKE TO TALK ABOUT BIRDS! Maybe it is where I live, or the current state of the world, but people are looking up in the sky at the mystery and magic of birds more now than ever. Birders have puzzles, board games, books upon books, Instagram stories, online community groups, and more.
2) I also found that I could get myself in a bird-research spiral quickly. One example (of many): I was looking up some research out of the University of Chicago with the sleep patterns of birds, which led me to a sleep study (OH WOW) about whether songbirds dream in song. (!!!!!!) If at that moment
- a) we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic,
- b) it wasn’t the middle of the night,
- c) it weren’t for the fact that I wasn’t able to drive, and
- d) it weren’t for the fact that I had one hundred other responsibilities…
I would have flown out the door and found biologist Daniel Margoliash and asked every question in the world that I had at that moment! Birds dreaming in SONG! Tell me all the things!! At that 3:00 a.m. moment, all I wanted to do (besides talk to the researcher) was to figure out how I could throw out the entire book and start over about a sleep study dedicated to songbirds. (And songbirds aren’t even really my passion!)
And this is just one example of one of the research spirals!
3) Another thing I discovered: Bird experts (I do not count myself as one of them) don’t agree on all things. I kept wanting to make connections between humans and birds. Some bird experts cautioned this… I mention one such caution in the back matter of A Bird Will Soar. (My editor was kind enough to let me include a section called “Bird Fact/Bird Fiction.”) One of the big areas of disagreement was this idea that birds have hope. I couldn’t shake it. No matter how many books I read or how many bird experts said, “Hmmmm… I don’t think so…,” I needed (need) to believe that hope permeates all species.
In summary, my main character, Axel, loves birds. I think I love them more.
Rona: I love that Axel enjoys his time in the woods where he can be alone with his thoughts. I think we all need private time to reflect on important things, or just to be quiet and still. Do you have a thinking spot that is all your own?
Alison: Hi, Rona! I’m so glad you brought this up. We use the phrase “thinking time” a lot in my house (and car, and on hikes)… There’s a lot going on in all of our minds; “quiet” or “downtime” or “rest” help our minds settle from the racing.
I had someone once talk to me about the mind’s use of “closed doors.” I loved how she put it. Telling me that I had a choice. I could close the door softly and tiptoe out, or, if my mind felt that it needed the space, it might SLAM the door closed. She wondered, “What do you think is healthier for your mind?” She put an emphasis on “your,” and I appreciated that.
Some people might be okay with slamming doors in their mind and some people might be okay with having all the doors open and so much going on inside every room in the mind. For me, I must actively work to find quiet, so that I can close doors in my mind. I go out into the woods with my dog. I put a puzzle together with ear buds in. I used to swim a lot, which shut so much out.
I know that when I don’t make time, or when I can’t get time, my mind starts slamming doors. And the doors that my mind decides to slam might not be the ones that I would have picked to close gently.
I have a dear, dear friend whom I’ve known since I was five. She’s known me—all of me—for decades. She knows that sometimes I go silent. I pull as far away from the world as I can. It’s what I’ve come to know as slamming-doors time. I close doors on friends, activities, and conserve what capacity is left for getting on with the days. She knows me well enough not to take this personally. She makes space for the fact that sometimes I just need to close everything up and try to heal.
I realize I am writing a lot of “SLAM” as an answer to a question about “QUIET.” Sorry.
I’ll end by saying, I seek “quiet thinking time” in my life now more than ever, because I think I have more control over those things than I did when I was younger. Getting “quiet” comes and goes in cycles. I understand that now, too. I won’t close everything out forever. I’ll find a way to open back up again.
What I hope for kids who need it, is that their quiet time is honored. That their instincts to close doors softly is respected.
Laura: I’m so excited that this book will be out in the world! I had the privilege of being an early beta reader and—wow—your readers are going to fall in love. What else do you hope your readers will come away with after reading the book?
Alison: Hi, Laura! Thank you for all your feedback in early versions of the book. I think it was all in verse when you read it? I remember you had asked about Frank (the dad) at a time when I wasn’t ready to dig too deeply into that character. There’s a line now in the book, just before Frank comes to a “Pasta Palooza,” that wouldn’t have ever entered my mind without your help. It is an anchor to Frank’s abandonment and defining his character. Discovering that line will always make me think of your feedback. Thank you.
I said in Kristen’s question a little about what I really want to do with kids and this book, and that is to LISTEN to their ideas. I wrote a book about my thoughts and my processing, but what I’m really interested in is seeing what it makes them think about themselves and their world. How many of them will see themselves reflected in Axel? In Daniel? How many will wonder about the mysteries inside and outside their schools or homes or churches? Will they, like Rona, share with me their thinking spots? Will they say, “Yes! I have a teacher just like Ms. Dale!”? Will they say, “Um, you can’t name an eagle BRAVIARY—that is a Pokémon name and reserved for Pokémon!?!”?
I also want to create with them. I wrote an educator’s guide to go with the book with discussion questions, STEAM activities, and writing prompts. One art activity that I can’t get out of my mind is exactly the kind of activity that I would have done in my classroom. Paper everywhere. A big mess before it becomes something magic. I’d love to make wings with the kids. Big wings. Properly measured wingspans. One side as cool a collage as they’d like. Mixed media, all one color, whatever they want. And on the other side… all the ways they can trust their wings… All of the voices inside them that say, “You ARE a poet!” or “You can do it!” Poetry on wings!!
I don’t have a classroom anymore, so I hope I can find my way into a few, and I can be with kids to listen and create!
[Sound of bell ringing as the café door opens]
Laura: Look who it is! It’s our super-secret special surprise guest, Kim Briggs! Kim and Alison served together as our Co-Regional Advisors when I first joined SCBWI. Grab a beverage and pull up a chair, Kim. We were just bombarding Alison with questions about her book.
Kim: Hi, everyone! Mmmm, those chai lattes look great. I’ll jump right into the questioning! When you first hatched A Bird Will Soar, did it arrive as the perfect baby chick, or did it need some encouragement? What was its evolution?
Alison: Hey, it’s you! (Let me say here that Kim knows me well. She knows my epic fear of surprises—good or bad—she’s definitely a good surprise… But she let me know she’d be here, which filled me with joy from the very beginning!!! I might be in tears. Okay, I am.)
First: Hi, Kim!! Thank you for being here. You are an osprey mom and friend!
I’m going to answer this question the best I can, friend! I don’t really think it has “hatched” yet. My emotions have been all over the place about this story from the “start”—when I wasn’t sure what it was as the pieces were landing together: poems, abandonment, tornado, instincts, parenting.
I wasn’t ever like, “This works! I’m so happy!” But I could say, “No, this isn’t it, not yet.” I knew what I wanted to say, and just kept trying different ways to get it to come out. I had been without an agent for almost a year at this point. I wasn’t sure what to do with the project. If I wanted to try to get it published. If it was a thing, just yet.
My writing partner Linda suggested that I query a small batch of agents and just see what their feedback would be. Her encouragement led me to Jen Rofé.
Jen helped me turn a project into a story. She asked a lot of questions about Axel and his father’s relationship. She encouraged me to add about 10,000 words of prose to the story.
I am so grateful for the people who have helped along the way, because, no, it wasn’t (and isn’t) “perfectly hatched,” Kim. But after working with Jen, I felt like I was a lot closer to what I was trying to say.
Jen took it out on submission. And in March 2020, Andrew Karre picked up the book. What followed was phone calls with Andrew. He was saying back to me what I was trying to say in the book… I wanted the book to be ABOUT instincts and trusting your own wings… And he wanted ME to follow my instincts and trust in the direction of the book.
We played with points of view. We played with structure. I wrote so many poems that never made it into the book. I wrote stories about the relationships of all of the adults in the book. (My favorite is the meet-cute with Emmett and George. It involved a Mary Oliver book and a cup of coffee.)
Then, a year ago, when I was to deliver the project to Andrew, I started over with a blank page. I wrote long nights and early mornings after and before work.
I turned in the project and doubted every choice I had made. Why would I start over! What was I doing! Andrew was supportive. He believed in it when I couldn’t. And that draft, just a year ago, is the book we ended up editing.
But has it “hatched”?
Not yet. I think when I hear from a kid about the book, that’s when I’ll feel like it’s hatched. That’s when I’ll feel like I can just let go of all the things it was before and only celebrate what it is in their hands.
Laura: Okay, folks, let’s go around the room and each tell what our favorite bird is. Mine is the crow. They’re so ominous and mysterious, but they’re also highly intelligent.
Kristen: So hard to choose! They’re all so amazing it depends on the season and the habitat I’m in. Right now, Canada geese are high on my list.
Berrie: My favorite bird is a hummingbird.
Virginia: My favorite bird is the tufted titmouse.
Heather: Blue jay!
Kim: The chickadee. (I love to sing chicka-dee-dee-dee!)
Rona: My favorite birds are the cardinal couple (Mr. & Mrs.) who visit my backyard every day to eat the safflower and sunflower seeds that I leave out for them. I love watching them, and I look out the window when I hear their chirp.
Alison: Now all I want to do is talk to you about your bird favorites!! Heather! Come to my yard! We have a full-on Broadway musical with blue jays! And, Berrie! Hummingbirds are magical, no matter how many times you see them, right? KRISTEN! Canada geese! Have you read The Anthropocene Reviewed? I laughed and laughed at the Canada Geese essay… See… I’ll stop, because this is not answering the question! Sorry!
My favorite bird is the American Kestrel. Full stop.
Laura: This was so much fun! We should do a giveaway for our readers!
Alison: Laura! Let’s! I’d love to do an audiobook giveaway! I mentioned entry points to this story: poetry, facts, prose… Another entry point is definitely the performance by narrator Jamie K. Brown who brought the story to life in the audio book. (You can listen to a sample here: https://soundcloud.com/penguin-audio/a-bird-will-soar-by-alison.)
Laura: That sounds wonderful. How about we pick a winner at random from those who comment on this blog post? And thank you, everyone, for hanging out today to celebrate Alison’s book release!
Alison: Thank you all so much for today, and for years and years of support! Thanks to our entire region for being so generous with their support and care. Leave your favorite bird in the comments, too! I’d love to know!!
Readers: If you’d like to enter to win an audiobook of A Bird Will Soar, please comment with your full name and Twitter or Instagram handle by 9:00 p.m. on Friday, October 22, 2021. The winner will be announced in the comments section of this blog post, so check back after the deadline to see if you’re our winner!
Alison Green Myers is an avid reader, poet, and writer. She has served as a classroom teacher, literacy coach, curriculum writer, and school director. She is the Program Director for the Highlights Foundation, a National Writing Fellow, and an active member of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators. A Bird Will Soar is her first book for children. Please come say hello at alisongreenmyers.com.