Sunday, March 18, 2007

Author Interview: April Pulley Sayre

Back in February, April was the visiting author at my school and at Franki's school, and then she was one of the featured authors at the Dublin Literacy Conference. If you don't know her books, it's time for a trip to the library or the bookstore! Please welcome...

April Pulley Sayre!

Tell a bit about how the places you've visited in the world have wound up in the books you write.

My idea of a great day is standing in an army ant swarm in Panama or swimming with squid in the Caribbean. My husband and I travel to many biomes but focus our trips on rain forests and coral reefs. We've visited rain forests in Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala, Belize, and Panama. We've even led adventure tours to Panama so we know that country well. The direct experiences we've had in Panama have shown up in ARMY ANT PARADE and an upcoming book about howler monkeys. (I love to witness army ant swarms and see the many birds that follow the chaos.)

Photos from the rain forest are in my young readers book, TROPICAL RAIN FOREST, and in SECRETS OF SOUND: STUDYING THE CALLS OF WHALES, ELEPHANTS, AND BIRDS.

What do you feel is the best quality of your writing?

I think the best technical quality of my writing is probably what people have called "lyrical language." When I write picture books, in particular, I approach them with a certain voice, and polish them until they have a push and pull of language that is pleasing to my ear. The words have to be right. When I am done polishing a picture book it lingers in my mind—the rhythms and rhymes. I have a great sense of satisfaction when I am done writing these picture books and I never tire of reading them out loud. Perhaps that is the point. A great picture book has to hold up to repeated readings. It has to be delicious in every way.

My specialty is narrative nonfiction—material that is true but that uses suspense and other narrative techniques to give the feel of a story. I like to choose material that has layers of meaning. Often my books seem to be about something small but ultimately make a reader feel connected to something deep and large, such as the sunrise, the water cycle, and so on.

What's your favorite of all the books you've written, and what's the story behind that book?

I love so many of my books and each in its own way. One of my favorites is certainly DIG, WAIT, LISTEN: A DESERT TOAD'S TALE. It's about listening for the sound of desert rain. The illustrator, Barbara Bash, and the art director and designer just made it the perfect book. Kids just hug it to them. You can tell each part of the book was made with love. THE BUMBLEBEE QUEEN had that same quality and the illustrator, Patricia Wynne, made that text sing.

One of my favorite book texts is certainly my recent picture book STARS BENEATH YOUR BED: THE SURPRISING STORY OF DUST. It's about how you and I help create the color of the sunset and sunrise. It's about how we live in a world sprinkled with star dust and dust from long ago, even dust in which dinosaurs rolled. Again, it's one of those think small, think big kind of books. It's probably my best writing. I thought it would never be published; it was rejected 52 times over the course of 8 years until the wonderful Rebecca Davis, who was at Greenwillow, took the risk of making a book about dust. When STARS BENEATH YOUR BED won the best Science Picture Book of the Year from the American Association for the Advancement of Science/Subaru/Science Books and Films, I cried I was so happy. I was so amazed that book would now have a life.

Would you tell us a little about your upcoming books?

I have three books coming out this year and two next year. My first, in April, is HUSH, LITTLE PUPPY, from Holt. It is a loving lullaby with beautiful illustrations by British artist Susan Winter.

In the fall my third chant book, BIRD, BIRD, BIRD: A CHIRPING CHANT will be released. A new chant illustrator, Gary Locke, has done this one and his work is spectacular. Really laugh out loud hilarious with an underlying bubble of good-natured joy.

The third book is VULTURE VIEW by Holt. I am so excited about this book. It's illustrated by Caldecott Honor winner Steve Jenkins. I think it's one of my best read aloud books and a perfect pairing with Steve's art and sensibility. I can hardly wait until it's released by Holt in October 2007. It's not just about vultures; it teaches about warming air rises and cooling air falls.

I wrote the book while standing on a tower in Panama. Yet the book isn't set in Panama at all. I was taking care of a tour participant who had gotten too excited while watching all the sloths, migrating hawks, toucans, and other spectacular things. She literally needed to rest and calm down. So, I sat with her. As I did, I looked out the window and a troop of howlers came and peeked in at us but I couldn't tell her they were there. Then, vultures started circling up out of a valley and suddenly I could hear in my head how my new book, VULTURE VIEW, should go. I had to grab a notebook and scribble the words.

In 2008, another spectacular book is coming: TROUT ARE MADE OF TREES. Of course this will be a great pairing with my book TROUT, TROUT, TROUT: A FISH CHANT. But TROUT ARE MADE OF TREES, from Charlesbridge, is another one of my deep lyrical nonfiction books, about how leaves fall into streams and are eaten by insects that are eaten by trout that are eaten by people and bears. It begins "Trout are made of trees. In fall, trees let go of leaves, which twirl and swirl and slip into streams..." I just saw the first art by Kate Endle. It is colorful and amazing collage...almost quilt like. It shows a family exploring the aquatic side of a stream.

Anything else?

Well, I just returned from speaking at the Dublin Literacy Conference, near Columbus, Ohio. It's run by you and the teachers of your district. Perhaps you're too modest to mention it, but that conference ROCKS! Any authors who are invited should definitely go. My only complaint is that I had to speak so I couldn't attend all the sessions. Moan. Moan. But I'm already using some of what I learned there.

On another note, one of the things I emphasize to kids is that not all the "cool" stuff is in rain forests and far away countries. Many of my great nature experiences have happened right here in the Midwest, in my Indiana backyard. The biodiversity here is terrific and there are lots of camouflaged, wild and wonderful creatures to see. My husband used to run a native plants nursery and he's kind of an expert in that field. So we've landscaped our tiny yard with prairie, wetland, and forest plants that bring creatures to our door.

Even a small patch of milkweed and other butterfly plants can bring great wildlife viewing to a yard or schoolyard. The future of wild life and wild experiences in the U.S. is really in the hands of landowners, even those with tiny yards. It's about planting trees and allowing places to be a little bit wild so there is room for birds, frogs, and the berries and insects they depend upon. Seeing a butterfly or a frog can make my whole day and many children feel that way, too. We need to keep that, for our health and quality of life.

I welcome teachers to take a look at my site, It has lots of extension activities for my books. When I visit schools I try to take photos of what teachers are doing with the books and post those photos on my site. I better get to work because I have a lot of new material to add!

1 comment:

  1. Mary Lee,

    Thanks for this fine interview with April Pulley Sayre. I really like her nonfiction picture books. DIG, WAIT, LISTEN: A DESERT TOAD'S TALE is one of my favorites. I read it aloud every semester to the students in my children's literature course. I love Sayre's use of onomatopoeia and the way she conveys information to children through her text in that book.
    THE BUMBLEBEE QUEEN is a neat book, too.


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