Today’s Simply 7 is a treat I’ve been saving to share with you on its book birthday. It’s full of beautiful word play AND beautiful photographs.
Laura Purdie Salas has visited my blog once before. She is an accomplished poet and author with many books to her credit (more than 125!). Her books have earned the Minnesota Book Award, NCTE Notables, starred reviews, and more. You can learn more about her at her website.
Her latest book (released today! yay!) is a fantastic non-fiction picture book called “Secrets of the Loon.” As a teacher (and a fan), I’ve signed up for Laura’s email newsletter. She put out a call for teachers to review the book and I thought “why not?” I fell instantly and madly in love with this book.
This picture book is an incredible look at the life of a baby loon from birth to migration on her first summer. The nonfiction information is conveyed with beautiful poetry and incredible photographs that are artistically laid out on every page. And the back matter listed other resources I had to instantly track down (at least the ones I could find on the web).
Forgive me while I digress for a minute. I heard my first loon call as a teen. I was on a hike with my brother up into the wilds of Beaver Lake (back home in Sitka). We were just sitting resting after an arduous hike, drinking iced tea we’d brought with us, when I heard that haunting “wail” echoing around the entire lake. I’ll never forget it. If you’ve never heard a loon call, I highly recommend you listen to this resource (Laura mentioned it at the back of her book). When I first found it, I played that call multiple times over and over, remembering that very first time.
Flash forward 20 years, when I’m in a class for teachers called “Picture Writing” that encourages painting to inspire writing. This class would jump start my love of watercolor painting. We had to pick an animal to study (I picked the Seahorse, as some of you may remember) and another classmate picked the loon. She became obsessed and her enthusiasm caught my attention. I never knew that loons can’t really walk on land until that class. Their feet are located too far back on their body and can’t really support their weight. They can fly, swim and dive, but not really walk. This is why their nests are built on the very edge of a lake. Fascinating!
Flash forward again to last fall when my hubby and I bought our house. I didn’t know that there was a lake just down the road from our house until my hubby drove us past it. AND I was astonished to see that there were loons there. I’m SO excited to go explore that lake this summer and see if the loons return.
All this is to say that this book may have popped into my life at the perfect time (as they sometimes do). I cannot stop being amazed at its beauty and fascinated by its delivery. This is simply a book you must read to appreciate how all the pieces came together. It’s stunning.
Welcome back Laura!
Me: The Minnesota Historical Society isn’t a press one tends to think of in the world of picture books. Was this a passion project you proposed to them? Or did they request this manuscript? How did this book come about?
Laura: MHSP is a small, but lovely regional publisher. They put out just a couple of children’s books per year—so, yes, not one of the first names you think of! As a Minnesota writer, I was aware of their titles, and had submitted manuscripts to Managing Editor Shannon Pennefeather before.
In this case, however, she had a basic narrative and a collection of awesome loon photos from Chuck Dayton. She was looking for a children’s author with experience in writing accessible, engaging, science-based stories and thought of me. So she emailed and asked if I might be interested. A flurry of emails followed, and here, in lickety-split time (a year and a few months, which is so fast for a picture book) is “Secrets of the Loon.”
Me: In your newsletter, you mentioned researching about loons. How much research did you need to do in order to write this book?
Laura: A lot more than I expected, actually! Writing to photos that already existed meant I had to manipulate the plot in order to make sure Moon Loon was at precisely the right stage of development at each moment of the story—and it had to be at the same stage of development that Chuck had a photo of the loonling in that situation. Although the story is fictionalized, every loon behavior and fact is carefully researched. Chuck was a great resource, and I also have masses of photos, books, websites, and organizations’ materials that I gathered over the course of the writing. Whew!
Me: What was one of your favorite facts that you learned about loons?
Laura: I learned SO much. One of my favorite facts is that the parents migrate before the young. At first, this made me a bit melancholy, but as I sat with Moon Loon’s story, I loved the power it gave her. She has everything she needs inside of her, thanks to her own development and her parents’ guidance. I now see that fact as a celebration of Moon’s amazing independence!
Me: Aww! I love that! You are an incredible writer and poet and this book definitely shows that. What made you decide to approach the nonfiction material in this book in rhyme?
Laura: Thank you! That’s very kind of you. I actually tried four different approaches to the first few events of the book: a haiku collection; a straight prose story; a diary (a la “My Awesome Summer, by P. Mantis”); and a rhyming story. Everyone agreed that the rhyming approach worked the best, so off I went.
Me: The photographs by Charles Dayton are wonderful. Their layout and design in the book are beautifully done. Did you know what the end result would look like? What were your thoughts when you first saw the final product of your words together with the photos?
Laura: I did see the layout along the way. It’s such a balancing act: photos and words and space. It was a huge collaboration, with everyone weighing in and Shannon and the designer discerning what would be best for the overall book. I love the result. My favorite pages are the simplest ones, such as when Moon Loon learns to float and that amazing autumn photo of her skipping across the water as she learns to fly. Sigh…
Me: Any advice for other picture book writers or poets?
Laura: So much advice—more than you want. Reading and writing poetry and picture books—tons of them—is the best way to learn. I also use mentor texts a lot, taking a technique another writer uses and trying it out in my own writing on a totally different topic. I have some resources writers might find helpful on my site:
Writing for Children (includes links to lots of my articles on writing poetry and writing picture books)
Writer in Progress: (I share behind-the-scenes writing with my Patreon community. In fact, I documented the creation of this book in 61 [yep, 61] short videos over the course of the last year. I also share poetry drafts and various other things.)
Me: Alaska also has loons that migrate here every summer. Are there loons close to where you live? Have you ever seen loons in the wild?
Laura: We do have loons here in Minnesota during the breeding season. I have seen loons in the wild only a few times up in northern Minnesota. I’ve never seen loon chicks riding piggyback like that, and that was another favorite fact about loons that I learned! Because of the tight timelines, I wrote this book mostly during the period before loons come north to Minnesota, so I didn’t get to see them as I was writing. I was pretty heartbroken about that. Hoping to see some this summer, though!
Aww! Me too! Thank you for stopping by my blog again Laura. But wait, dear readers, there’s more! Today I get to introduce you (and the world at large) to Chuck Dayton for the first time as a photographer. FIRST time! I didn’t believe it either when I saw those stunning photos, but it’s true!
Chuck Dayton is a retired environmental lawyer turned nature photographer. Now he spends summers on a small lake in northern Minnesota, often photographing a pair of beloved loons and their chicks. For 5 summers, he has observed and photographed the development of loon chicks, from their first peek out of the egg until they learn to fly and migrate.
Me: I understand that this particular book project started because of your interest in loons. What first drew you to them?
Chuck: I have been in love with the lake country of Northern Minnesota ever since my first canoe trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness as a high school student. My family bought a place on Jasper Lake near the BWCAW and for many years operated a guiding and outfitting business. Now my 3 brothers and our families enjoy being in this lovely setting.
I began photographing loon chicks without any thought of a book. Loons, with their magical calls, their beautiful plumage, and their presence throughout the northland are the favorite of all who know them. And they’re the Minnesota State bird! When the idea of a children’s book occurred, after two summers worth of photos, I kept shooting and learning about these fascinating creatures. For five years now, I have been going out on our lake early, as the sun comes up, in a peddle kayak so that I can propel the boat while leaving my hands free for photography with a telephoto lens. The loon family seems to know me, and doesn’t mind my presence if I keep my distance.
Me: Wow! That’s amazing. The photos in this book are fantastic. Were they all taken in one location? Or did you have to visit several different locations to get them all?
Chuck: Almost all the photos were taken from my peddle kayak, on our own little lake.
Me: Incredible! Have you always been a photographer? When did you start taking photos?
Chuck: I got serious when I retired and digital photography became available. I took online and in persons courses, and got a good telephoto lens.
Me: The design layout of the book is incredibly creative. Did you have any influence on that, as the photographer?
Chuck: I crafted the initial draft of the story accompanying the photos, which was then skillfully written by Laura in kid-speak poetry. The graphic designer came up with the design layout, and I agree that it is very creative.
Me: Were there any surprises for you in the creation process of this book?
Chuck: I was surprised at how much work it took to find just the right image.
Me: I can only imagine. Any advice for other picture book illustrators who are also photographers?
Chuck: This is my first attempt so I’m not in much of a position to give advice. I did have a great coach, Consie Powell, an experienced author and illustrator of children’s books, who was incredibly helpful.
Me: Having a mentor is a great opportunity. I understand that you were once an environmental attorney and are now traveling the world pursing your passion of environmentalism. Have you ever been to Alaska? If yes, what brought you here?
Chuck: Yes, I have been to Alaska 4 times, as recently as last summer. And I’ve been to other high latitudes several times as well: Antarctica, the Arctic, and Greenland.
Wow! You’re a real world traveler! Thank you again for stopping by Chuck.
Dear readers, if you haven’t read this book, you must track down a copy to read. The way this book teaches is so subtle you don’t even realize you’re being taught. The writing just sings! Look at these opening lines of the book:
Below white pines, at water’s edge,
in guarded nest of mud and sedge,
squeezed inside an olive egg,
bill meets wing meets folded leg.
Those words are inspired! I love that line “bill meets wing meets folded leg” to describe the jumble inside the egg. And aren’t those photos breath-taking? This is definitely a book to treasure.
And if you want to WIN a copy, consider this: Laura Purdie Salas and Chuck Dayton will be having an online book launch party for SECRETS OF THE LOON on May 4 at 3pm Central Time on Facebook. It will feature a read aloud by me, a little backstory from Chuck, Q&A, and giveaways of THREE signed copies of the book. You can find more info here.