Author Interview with Karen DeWitz

Have you ever discovered a book that you were so thrilled had come into the world that you wanted to share it with EVERYONE? Look at That Bird!: A Young Naturalist’s Guide to Pacific Northwest Birding is that book for me. And its author, Karen DeWitz, has been generous enough to grant us a window into her writing/birding world.

I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did and that you share this book with all your young birding friends (and young at heart too!) My husband and I (who both enjoy adult bird books) stayed up alternating nights reading and enjoying Karen’s excellent content.

What made you want to write this book for young birders?

I decided to write this book because there isn’t really anything like it out there for kids to take when they’re heading to a local birding site or nature trail—something that would draw them into wanting to know more about the nature around them. I wanted to create a book that would get kids (and the adults in their world) excited about the birds they see in their everyday lives. Adult birding guides can be complicated and not a lot of fun to read. They can be full of technical terms that aren’t well explained, and you have to understand maps to use them properly. Kid bird books, on the other hand, can be lots of fun but contain birds from other parts of the US (like cardinals and blue jays) or even the world (like ostriches and penguins). This book is for kids in the PNW to use right here at home.

How did you narrow your selection of birds for the book?

I made a list of the most common birds in my state (Oregon), and then added in any I missed that were common in Washington, Idaho, or SW British Columbia. From there I cross-checked every bird that could be found in every state & province in the Pacific Northwest. Anything that checked all the boxes stayed (at least until we had to cut for space…boo). Unfortunately, that meant that some local favorites—like great egrets and magpies—didn’t make the cut. I’m going to create a website that includes information on birds that didn’t make it in. Lots of great birds did, though! And while kids may not see every bird in the book every day, they at least have a chance of seeing every bird without traveling too far from home.

Did you take all the photographs for the book?

I took all of the pictures except the European robin on page 49 (a friend in the UK sent me that one) and the photo of me with my dog at the end, which was taken by my son. (He’s pretty psyched to have a photo credit in a published book.)  My very favorite thing to do is to hang out in nature taking pictures of birds and other wildlife. I’ve been known to sit almost motionless for hours under a pile of blankets to get the perfect shot of a hummingbird pooping or a bird parent feeding a chick. I have a super-long 600 mm lens that I’ve nicknamed Bertha. Bertha and I go almost everywhere together—you can see her along with my dog and me on the very last page of Look at That Bird! People always comment that I can probably see the craters on the moon with that thing (I can). Mostly, though, Bertha lets me get close-up shots of shy or vulnerable birds without scaring them or alerting predators on where to find them.

How long did the project take from start to finish?

In some ways I can say I’ve been working on this book for years with every bird photo I’ve taken and every new ID I’ve learned. The last time I had my camera serviced they said I’d taken well over 200,000 photos with it! (And this is not my only camera.) I’ve been sorting through tens of thousands of photos of wildlife and birds to create this book (and the other NW nature-exploring books I plan to write in what I hope will be a series). I pitched my idea to Sasquatch Books in the spring of 2019 and have been working on it in earnest ever since. The book involved tons of careful research. In addition to finding and photographing each bird profiled, I researched every fact presented and cross-checked each finding with a number of resources. After I finished, I had two ornithologists, a biologist, and one lifelong hobby birder read through it to triple-check my work. (Whew! All is well!) It’s been a couple of intense years of stalking birds, photographing birds, reading about birds, and talking to experts to learn more about the science of birds.

Were there any particular birds that were extra difficult to find?

That’s a great question! Bird photographers get super excited about the big, colorful, exciting action shots. But the hardest shots for me were the LBBs (Little Brown Birds) that bop around in the shadows and scurry out of sight just as you pick up your camera. Our local wrens were particularly hard to photograph. Their scientific family name is Troglodytidae, which comes from the same root as troglodyte, which means “caveman”— fitting since they flit in and out of the dark, hidden places in the forest.

Do you have an all-time favorite bird?

Ooh! That’s like asking if I have a favorite child! Honestly, I think my favorite is whichever bird happens to be delighting me in the moment. I do get a little extra excited when I see owls, since many species are usually nocturnal (and therefore hard to spot). But I’m also a huge fan of bushtits—and not just because people giggle at the name. They’ll visit your suet feeders in huge flocks, looking like sweet little mouse-birds. And they have one of the coolest nest out there (see page 75 in Look at That Bird!).

What did you think was the most challenging aspect of birthing this book?

I’ve helped several authors and small publishers bring their projects to life as an editor and photographer, but this is my first experience creating a book like this entirely from my own writing and photos. There’s so much to it that I hadn’t even considered! The biggest challenge, I think, was letting go of the creative and editorial control—learning to create this thing as a group project while still producing all of the writing and pictures. That can be hard when you’re used to being a perfectionist working alone. If I’m the photographer on a project, I just take the needed shots and let the editors and writers take it from there. In this case, I was also the writer, so selecting and placing the photos was a big part of my job. But I still had to let go and trust the designers, who came through amazingly.

The best part was actually getting out into nature and taking the pictures. I could do that all day every day. Sometimes I would sit for two or three hours out in my little nest on the patio just waiting for particular birds to visit the yard. When my husband or kids would give me the “Are you going to just sit there all day?” side eye, I could honestly wave them away and say, “Shh! I’m working!” I could give them the same retort every time I went hiking at yet another wildlife refuge with a friend. “I’m going to work! Bye!”  Best. Job. Ever.   

Where can we find you online?

My website is undergoing some new construction with the addition of Look at That Bird! to my body of work. But it exists! I’m also on Instagram. Please see links below.

www.karendewitz.com

https://www.instagram.com/karendewitzphotography/

You can find Karen’s book here or wherever books are sold.

Tapping Maples– Entry for Spring Fling Writing Contest 2021

There is so much to love about writing contests, and this one run by Kaitlyn Leann Sanchez and Ciara O’Neal is one of my all time favorites! Why? Well, prizes. The chance to read others’ excellent work. Prizes. Deadlines that force me to write something new. Did I mention prizes already? If you haven’t yet entered the 2021 Spring Fling contest, be sure to check it out here. Word limit of 150, and a theme of spring is all you really need to know to get you going.

Tapping Maples
150 words

Spring in bloom.
Sap expands,
dripping, dripping
in our hands.

A hole we drill,
a tap we pound.
Maple sap drips
to the ground.

Grab a tube
and bucket quick!
Sugar sap,
sweet to lick.

When nights are cold
and days warm up,
watch the sap
fill up the cup.

Filter it.
Shoo, flies, shoo!
We have lots
of work to do.

Tools we need:
-big, deep pot
-hydrometer
-heat so hot.

Boil and boil
and boil away.
Sap will thicken
slow this way.

Walk away,
forget to check.
Smoke alarm:
that batch is wrecked.

Try again.
Collect and pour.
Keep it close,
boil some more.  

Starts like water,
thin and clear.
Browning now,
we persevere.

7 degrees
above a boil
sap to syrup
from the soil.

Thick and dark,
let’s pour and see           
if we’ve reached
right density.

66 brix!
Take a bow.
Time to make
some waffles now.

Birds of the Pacific Northwest

This was a wonderfully fun contest, and you should participate too. There’s still time to enter! Find your 50 Precious words, and enter them at Vivian Kirkfield’s website by 3/7. So many wonderful prizes to win!

Birds of the Pacific Northwest
By Keely Leim (50 words)

Eagle circles,
white tail bright.

Falcon dives,
prey in sight.     

Chickadee lets
her brave call ring.

Goldfinch cheeps
his songs of spring.

Ring-necked pheasant
struts all proud.

Northern flicker
pecks so loud.

Nuthatch hops
right up the tree.

Shy quail flocks
with family.                       

Birds above, below, beside
resting now, eventide.

Valentiny time again

Each year Susanna Hill’s fantastic blog challenges (and distracts) me. A couple of her contests have helped me develop manuscripts to query. While I wouldn’t query this one (because it is not an OWN VOICES manuscript), it was fun to accept another challenge from Susanna.

Here’s my entry from this year. The challenge was to keep the manuscript to 214 words or less, have a Valentine’s Day theme, and feature bravery.

Valentine’s Recitation

Reciting a Valentine’s poem
in front of my grade
makes me jittery, panicky,
and just plain afraid.

For most kids it flows.
For most speaking’s easy,
but with a stutter like mine
I feel extra queasy.

The stutter will begin
in my stomach, then rise,
a halting flutter
of twitchy butterflies.

I try to hold back,
I try to restrain
the indomitable stutter
and recite the words plain.

I slow myself down
and let the fear go.
I volunteer a stutter                      
to help confidence grow.            

I lock eyes with my best friend.
She gives me a wave.
I take a deep breath
to help me feel brave.

I get stuck here and there,
a few words like quicksand,
but one syllable at a time,
each word I command.

On the final line I trip,
then quickly proclaim,
“Happy Valentine’s to you!”
I loudly exclaim!

By the end of my poem,
my grade stands to cheer,
and I walk off the stage
with a smile ear to ear.

Halloweensie Contest Entry

Here’s my crack at Susannah Leonard Hill’s Halloweensie contest. The rules were as follows:

The Contest: write a 100 word Halloween story appropriate for children (children here defined as 12 and under) (title not included in the 100 words), using the words skeleton, creep, and mask

My entry is below:

Skellie’s Closet

It’s Halloween night
with the moon on the rise.
Out come masked goblins,
ghouls, and ghosts to surprise.

One little skeleton
cowers with fright
inside his closet,
this holiday night.

Too scared to come out,
too scared to be seen.
Mama pleads candy
while, sick, he turns green.

“They all will look!
They all will point!
And what if they laugh
at my tendonless joints?”

“Little Skellie,” says Mama,
“There’s no need to fear
for all those who love you
are gathered round here.”

Slowly Skellie creeps out
from shadow to light,
willing to come
though his complexion was white.

Fall Frenzy Writing Challenge

Fall

Red apples crisp and blush.
Our hands pluck and reach.
Air is cooling, but there’s no rush.
Pick a pear, pick a plum, pick a golden peach.

Maple leaves we rake.
Barn hay we stack.
Watch the geese lift off the lake.
Don’t worry, Mama, they’ll be back.

Pile the wood while the rooster crows.
Wear your scarf, your hat, your mittens.
Frost is cold now on your nose.
Keep your eyes out for black kittens.

Deer grow hungry here
becoming bolder day by the day,
drawing close to hydrangeas near
though in summer they stayed far away.

We light a fire in the grate.
We warm some chocolate in a mug.
Though sun sets early, we celebrate.
I pull you close into a hug.

Soon the snow will fall,
and leaves will all be gone.
Let’s line our corn stalks on the wall,
while pumpkins decorate the lawn.




Daffodil Picture Book Challenge

daffodil

Welcome to the first, annual–wait. Maybe I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. It’s just a fun chance to while away the winter blues with a little writing challenge. I’d love for you to join me in writing a lyrical picture book. It doesn’t have to rhyme. The story must include (or at least refer to) daffodils.

Limit 315 words, due by…you guessed it…3/15/19.

As to prizes: obviously since this is my first week on the old blogosphere, there won’t be a prize. Sorry about that.

Paste yours into the comments along with your blog link. I’ll announce a winner March 25th!

Here’s my own example (it won’t be part of the competition)…

 

Daffodil Winter

Ice melts;

a bud peeks through.

Winter warms.

It grows for you.

Cold snap!

Frozen rescue.

Blooms rest

in a vase of blue.

 

Two Picture Book Biographies of Eugenie Clark: A Comparative Review

 

Recently I was thrilled to discover, not one, but TWO picture book biographies about Eugenie Clark, the daring ichthyologist who devoted much of her life to researching sharks and dispelling myths about them. Of course, this piqued my interest, not only because I had never heard of Eugenie Clark prior to this find, but also because I was interested in what each book had to offer. How did each portray Eugenie? What did the illustrations illuminate about her research? What sort of back matter does each book feature? And, more to the point, do we really need two biographies about Dr. Eugenie Clark in an already crowded field?

In our industry, a not-so-secret rumor has it that the publishing houses have overbought picture book biographies. It makes sense that publishers rode the exciting wave of biographies, and it’s certainly possible for the field to become saturated.

So, how do these two biographic picture books measure up?

Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist
Written by: Jess Keating, Illustrations by Marta Alvares Miguens

Shark Lady, published in 2017, is a sweet, bright unfolding of Eugenie Clark’s life. The real work of this book is to highlight how Dr. Clark, through meticulous research, dispelled the common misconception that sharks are mindless killers. The illustrations are cheerful.  Keating has some whimsical play with words throughout the story, featuring Eugenie diving into books, plunging into academic courses, and fishing through her mind to devise an experiment. The back matter is presented across two spreads. The first spread details facts about sharks, gives a little information on Dr. Clark’s discovery of shark sleeping patterns, discusses their sizes, their manner of giving birth, and the species’ resilience over millions of years. The next spread features a beautiful timeline of Dr. Clark’s life and discoveries. As a whole, it’s a lovely book that serves as a nice, if somewhat basic, introduction to Eugenie Clark’s research.

Swimming With Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark
Written by: Heather Lang, Illustrations by Jordi Solano

Swimming With Sharks, published in 2016, sets a different tone from the beginning. The illustrations are darker, more suited for an older picture book audience. It seems to capture from the cover the stakes of Dr. Clark’s story. The cover features little Eugenie with her hands pressed against the shark tank glass, her tiny braids dangling over her shoulders, while behind the glass, enormous sharks loom. This book gives a little more detail about the obstacles in Eugenie’s professional path and details her research with more specificity (how she trained a pair of lemon sharks, for example). Swimming with Sharks also drives home the theme of sharks being misunderstood. There is not as much detailed back matter, though the dedication highlights the author’s interaction with Dr. Clark’s assistant and son, among others intimately familiar with her research and story. This type of devoted research about Dr. Clark’s life yields some compelling dramatic detail to the story. My one critique is that, though the illustrations are beautiful, they are so dark that some of the detail is difficult to make out.

Overall, Swimming With Sharks packs a little more punch for the page, though Shark Lady would be a more popular choice among younger readers with a burgeoning interest in ichthyology.

Ultimately, and perhaps predictably, this Mama thinks that both are valuable, even essential, additions to the field.

Now, where did I put my snorkel mask?

A Shout-out to Picture Book Biographies

Yes, yes. We’ve all heard the sobering account of an over-saturated picture book biography market. The grave Magic 8-ball predictions that say, “Enough, already, with the biographies!”

And yet.

For those unfamiliar with picture book biographies or beginning to doubt their impact, please consider (and then reconsider) the following:

Jen Bryant’s A Splash of Red illustrated by the sparkling Melissa Sweet about Horace Pippin’s journey as an artist—really no better picture book to read this month to celebrate Black History Month/Future. It’s a favorite at our house every month of the year.

The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon by Jacqueline Davies and again illustrated by Melissa Sweet (is there anything she does that isn’t brilliant?).

Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez and illustrated by Felicita Salta is a straight-up win all around. It propelled me to do some additional digging about her life. A book that does that earns my applause.

Last year’s Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed and illustrated by Stasia Burrington is a breath-taking sweep of a story, filled with the rich emotions of a dream nearly derailed, but taken up again.

Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist
Written by: Jess Keating, Illustrations by Marta Alvares Miguens

Swimming With Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark
Written by: Heather Lang, Illustrations by Jordi Solano

For a comparison between the last two books on my list, stay tuned for my next post.

And feel free to add your favorite biographical picture books to the comments section.