Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A letter from Susan Stockdale about her book Bring on the birds

Bring On the BirdsNot long ago a wonderful book arrived in mail called Bring on the Birds by Susan Stockdale.I was so delighted with the book that I wrote to the author/illustrator and I asked her to tell us a little about how the book came into being. This is what Susan told me about her writing process.

Dear TTLG:
My fascination with birds began with childhood visits to the Parrot Jungle in Miami, Florida, where I grew up. I was enchanted by the birds’ brilliant, bold colors and their elegant patterns. They seemed so exotic to me.

A rough sketch of blue-footed boobies
Recently, an American Robin built a nest on the ledge above my front door. Because there is a glass pane above the ledge, I was able to stand on a ladder and peer into the nest every day. My whole family got involved! It was exciting to see the turquoise eggs appear, one by one. We marveled at the patience of the mother Robin as she sat on them day after day. Then the nestlings hatched, grew by leaps and bounds every day, and finally flew from the nest. This beautiful spectacle was the inspiration behind Bring On the Birds. I also liked the idea of creating a book about birds because they are so accessible. You just look up in the sky, and there they are – no admission fee required.

As with all my books, my first step was to write the words. I was concerned about how they sounded; I actually said them out loud as I wrote them. I thought about their alliteration and rhythm. For Bring On the Birds, I began by writing the rhyme scheme:

Stage two for the boobies
“Swooping birds, whooping birds, birds with puffy chests.
Dancing birds, diving birds, birds with fluffy crests.”
Then I headed to the library to determine: Which birds swoop? Whoop? Have puffy chests? I selected birds that had the most visual appeal to me as an illustrator. And, because I celebrate biodiversity among animals in all my books, I was looking for birds from disparate geographic areas. For example, for “Swooping birds,” I came up with a list of 10 birds of prey. From this list, I chose the Great Horned Owl because I was drawn to the beautiful patterns on its face and wings. I knew they’d be wonderful to paint.

The background is added
My research is extensive. First, I consult books and magazines at the library, as well as online resources. After writing my manuscript and creating a dummy with the illustration sketches, I find experts to review both This is easy to achieve in the Washington, DC area where I live, with its abundance of museums and
experts in every possible field. 

I always have three scientists vet my work. For Bring On the Birds, I worked with ornithologists Dr. Carla Dove of the National Museum of Natural History and Dr.John Rappole of the National Zoo. I also consulted with Anne Hobbs, a Public Information Officer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. These experts advised me
about the best way to present the birds realistically in my text and illustrations. Clearly, every piece of information that I convey to my young readers has to be 100% accurate. So far, none of my books have contained incorrect information!

More background and detail is added
I tried to see as many of the birds in my book as possible. I visited zoos and I examined bird specimens at the National Museum of Natural History. Certainly, my most exotic trip was to the Galapagos Islands, where I saw the Blue-footed Boobies and the Great Frigatebird. It was thrilling to watch the Boobies perform their comical mating dance, and the Great Frigatebird puff out its startling crimson chest.

After I finalized my manuscript, I selected photographs of the 21 birds I intended to paint. My reference photographs helped me determine which characteristics I wanted to dramatize in each bird, like the multi-colored beak of the Atlantic Puffin.

The illustration is complete
Next, I created sketches – sometimes as many as 20 - before arriving at the image I wanted to illustrate for each bird. Once I selected a final image, I consulted again with experts to ensure that it was visually accurate. Then I revised the sketch into a detailed drawing and traced it onto heavy paper. Then I began painting. For each color, I applied three or more layers of acrylic paint, giving the images a flat, almost silkscreen-like appearance. To produce such fine detail in my work I used small brushes. I am lucky to have a very steady hand. I loved the challenge of interpreting the unique quality of each bird in my own style while staying true to its anatomy --an approach I consider stylized realism. I played visually with every color, shape and pattern until my eye was satisfied. Having worked as a textile designer for the clothing industry, it has become instinctive for me to find patterns in everything I paint. I worked as a visual choreographer, choosing carefully where to place even a hair-thin bird feather. People often ask me, why do I create books about animals? To me, they are the most beautiful, elegant and outrageous of subjects, and I love to paint them. Their quirky individuality provides me with the perfect opportunity to express my passion for color, pattern, and design.

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