I am delighted that Monika Schröder, author of four books for middle-grade readers, has agreed to do an interview for the Booktalk Blog. Her most recent book, Be Light Like a Bird, tells the story of Wren, a 12-year-old who recently lost her dad in a plane crash. Uprooted from her home in Georgia, Wren tries to settle into a new life in Upper Peninsula Michigan, even though there’s no guarantee that her mother will be content to stay there for long. Wren finds a special place to birdwatch (a favorite activity she shared with her dad), but soon discovers that the area is going to be destroyed to make way for a larger landfill. Her father is dead. Her mother is too angry to talk. Her birdwatching refuge is in danger. And her only friend is a nerdy classmate obsessed with photographing roadkill. Through it all, Wren learns to stand up for herself and discovers the impact she can have on her community.
Enjoy this behind-the-scenes glimpse into the creation of this novel!
In the story, Wren gains solace and a sense of herself from birdwatching in the Michigan woods. Are you a birdwatcher or have other outdoor hobbies? Have you witnessed wild areas you love be threatened with development, like happens with Wren at Pete’s Pond?
I am not much of a bird watcher myself. I enjoy seeing them in my garden, but I don’t keep lists or a birding journal.
The ‘seed idea’ for Be Light Like a Bird came to me the first time I saw a landfill. My husband and I had cleaned out the cabin my husband inherited from his father in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I couldn’t believe it when he drove all the stuff to a landfill nearby, a big hole where people bury unwanted items. In Germany we recycle or incinerate most of our garbage, so it left an impression on me when I saw a guy dropping a vacuum cleaner, a book shelf and an entire carpet into the landfill…a cemetery for junk.
I learned more about this landfill and read about the people in the community who had fought its expansion. Then I asked myself a “What if…?” question: What if there were a girl who loved birds and whose bird watching was threatened by the expansion of the landfill? Once I had that girl in my mind, I found myself asking more and more about her life. How did she get to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula? And why was birding so important to her? But it took a long time until I learned that her father had recently died and that her mother had more or less dragged her up north. She was grieving and lonely and once she arrived in Upper Michigan she came up with a plan to make her mother stay. From there the story of Wren developed.
Did you know where the story was going when you started writing?
In early drafts of the book the focus was on Wren’s trouble being the new girl in school and her fight to save the bird sanctuary. Over many revisions I felt that I hadn’t reached the core of who she was and what was hurting her. But I didn’t know how to fix it and left the manuscript in the drawer for a long time. And then I suddenly knew who Wren was: her father had died and her mother had dragged her to northern Michigan. From there I rebuilt the emotional arc of the novel, focusing on the grieving and her relationship to her mother.
What type of research did you do for this book? (In particular, I want to know if you spent months driving around in search of roadkill for the vivid roadkill scenes!)
I didn’t have to do too much research for Be Light Like a Bird. I had to read about hypoxia and, once I had the idea that the kids find the buried turtle shell, I learned about Native American burial rituals and checked with the Sault Tribe if such a finding would be possible.
But you asked about the road kill: When my husband and I moved to the US after living overseas for many years I noticed many dead animals on the streets in our neighborhood. We live in rural North Carolina, where many roads cut through forests or pastures. Growing up in Germany I never saw that much roadkill. Seeing the dead animals made me think about people’s relationship toward animals and I found it sad that squirrels, skunks or raccoons often are left on the street for many days before someone comes to take them away.
Then, while I was writing the book, I also remembered that many years ago, a friend of mine, the talented photographer Jim Pojman, had shown me a series of black and white pictures that he had taken of roadkill. If you have the stomach for them you can see them here: http://jimpojman.zenfolio.com/p888577892
Jim also had taken pictures of objects arranged in several rows of equal lengths, such as gummy bears, screws, buttons, dead flies, etc. From that memory I developed the idea to have Theo show Wren such images during one of their early meetings. He pulls out his binder of photos and shows her a picture of screws and then the photos of roadkill he had taken, which, of course, she doesn’t want to see at that point, since she doesn’t want to have anything in common with a nerd like Theo.
As you can see, often events, memories, and observations are stored for a long time in a writer’s head and just as a new story develops they may connect and become a part of that story.
Was there anything different about writing this book compared to your previous three?
This is my first book set in the US and my first book written in a girl’s voice. I thought it was interesting to create a female character and I also realized that writing contemporary realistic fiction requires much less research than writing historical fiction.
What’s the best part about being an author?
I love receiving mail from young readers expressing their reactions to my novels. That is very rewarding. I also enjoy school visits or talking to students via skype.
What do you think we (as teachers/librarians/parents/authors) can do to get kids excited about reading?
I think it is important that kids see adults read. To that end teachers should read aloud every day, even read aloud to older students, and make time for reading during the school day. At home, parents need to model their reading as well. If kids never see their parents read, why would they value reading?
As a librarian I loved connecting kids with books. Keeping a wide range of books in libraries gives every kid a chance to find the right book. As an author I try to write interesting books for young readers, books they really want to read.
Find more information about the author and her books on her website: www.monikaschroeder.com