Today’s picture book is mind blowing. The same author writes on the same topic but this new book is even more incredible! How is that possible?
Laura Purdie Salas has visited my blog a few times now, but it was in 2020 that she visited my blog to discuss loons and her latest book. I was madly in love with that book (and have widely recommended it to teachers), but Laura has written another loon book that is even more incredible! BUT I wouldn’t expect anything less from this talented and prolific writer. 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.
FINDING FAMILY is a nonfiction picture book about a mixed species family. These types of stories aren’t uncommon (monkeys loving kittens, etc.), BUT this one defies scientists understanding as it just shouldn’t have happened! The odds were against a loon couple adopting a duckling are incredible. They are natural enemies and different physically (with different biological needs). And yet … it happened! It made the news, and Laura wrote the story with incredible finesse and lyricism. It’s probably one of my favorite books of the year. Trust me when I say that this is a story you won’t want to miss! It’s phenomenal!
Welcome back Laura!
Me: I understand that this story wasn’t one that you picked but one that found you. How did it come about?
Laura: Carol Hinz, a wonderful Lerner editor I’d worked with several times before, had the idea. She’d seen photos and posts of this family popping up online everywhere and thought it would make a great picture book. She knew I’d already written a picture book about loons and thought I’d be a good fit. I said yes because it’s an honor when an editor approaches you. And because I never fully trust that another book contract will come my way. Carol served as a sounding board as I wrote the manuscript. After acquisitions, Leila S. Sales came on as the new editor and fresh set of eyes. Both Carol and Leila had such good advice and enthusiasm for this story.
Me: This story is SO powerful because of the way you’ve written it. When did a story you were asked to write become your own in this incredibly moving way? What was it that grabbed your pen, heart, and mind?
Laura: Thank you so much! It was when I found out that researchers hadn’t tagged the duckling, so they had no idea what happened to it after the last observation date. They assume it migrated south, but…nobody knows. This transitory family formed despite enormous differences became more meaningful. Knowing we’d never know the final ending of the story made it feel more urgent. I was relieved when Carol wanted to proceed, even without a “happily ever after” ending. Making peace with and finding joy in the moments you have is something I feel strongly about. When I began focusing on that aspect, I grew utterly committed to this book.
Me: Oh my goodness. I love that! This is your second story about loons. Did it help to already have research about loons? Or did you have to research even more to understand the specific dynamics at play between species in this story?
Laura: Hmmm…great question. Yes, the general knowledge I had from writing Secrets of the Loon (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2020) was useful. But because this was a story of one particular mallard-loon family, not about loons in general, this project required a lot of further research. The folks at the Loon Project were so helpful. And, most of all, volunteer photographer Linda Grenzer’s generosity in sending me all of the photos and videos from the six times the family was observed—that was just invaluable! I’m not sure I could’ve written this book without that visual evidence. It wasn’t enough to research loons. I had to watch this set of three waterbirds and write the truth of their situation as best I could.
Me: You mention in the back matter that your repeating refrain of “nobody knows” came from the scientists themselves. You go on to say that all we know and all we have power over is right now. This feels so very apt as the found family’s story starts in 2019, right before the pandemic hit. Then the whole world learned to live from moment to moment and one day at a time. Why is this an important message you wanted to share with young readers?
Laura: Oh, boy. On March 12, 2020, I sent Carol my manuscript. My email started out: “Well, what interesting times we live in. The X building is basically shut down, and Randy is working from home…And we’re wondering about X being able to fly home from Cyprus in a few months for X’s wedding. But mostly I’m just keeping my head down and writing. Seems like the best use of my energy!”
I hadn’t really looked at this exact timing until you asked this question! It seems totally obvious why the acknowledgement of “nobody knows” felt powerful as I wrote Finding Family.
You know, I had the privilege of meeting some asylum-seeking families overseas several years ago. They lived in modified shipping containers in a refugee camp, with little control over their lives. Despite that, I saw examples of both adults and kids finding things to be joyful about even though their lives were touched by tragedy.
I think we all learned during the pandemic what powerlessness and uncertainty feel like. But kids live those feelings all the time! Other people decide what kids will do and when. I believe the kids (and adults) who focus on each moment and connecting with those around them are the ones who will thrive. Who will be the most contented with their lives.
Me: That is very powerful and so true. You actually have several take aways with this story.
1) You were assigned this story, yet made it your own (and that is always possible).
2) We can’t control tomorrow, only now.
3) Families can be found and defy logic. And more!
If you could only pick one, what is the one thing you’d like young readers to remember the most about this book?
Laura: That is so tough! I think #3, Families can be found and defy logic. I want kids who feel lost and alone to get the sense that there’s hope. I want kids who are growing up in an unhappy house, the way I did, to start building their own chosen family as young as they possibly can. That said, #2 was more on my mind as I did the actual writing :>)
Me: The illustrations by Alexandria Neonakis are wonderful. I love how much personality she gave the duckling. Were there any illustration surprises for you? Any favorites?
Laura: Aren’t they lovely? Duckling is so expressive, and I especially love Duckling’s expression as she looks right at the reader with a fish in her mouth. And the image where a getting-too-big Duckling is still riding piggyback, and her chin (?) is resting on her parent’s head. The trust and connection implied there… But the spread that surprises me every single time and makes me tear up is the firefly spread. She takes the mystery and tenderness in the text and transforms it into such a gorgeous captured moment. It makes me wish I could stop time for that family and let them just savor that moment a little longer.
Me: Can you tell us about any future projects you have coming in the near future? What can we look forward to reading from you next?
Laura: It’s a busy time, and I’m grateful. This spring, along with Finding Family, I have a rhyming nonfiction picture book, Zap! Clap! Boom!, and a rhyming board book, Puddle Song.
And in 2024, I’ve got a Great Lakes-based rhyming story called Oskar’s Voyage; a picture book poetry collection called Superhero Tryouts: Poems from Eyeglasses, Wheelchairs, and Other Helpers; and a not-yet-titled fiction picture book involving shapes and imperfection.
Those sound wonderful! I can’t wait to read them. Thank you for stopping by my blog again Laura.
Dear readers, this book is incredibly powerful in so many ways. I cannot recommend it enough. Chalk this one up to a “must” read. But that’s not all.
There is a teacher’s guide, a book trailer, and so much more to be found at Laura’s website here. There are the original blog posts about the duckling to be found here (if you want to read more about the story further yourself).
This is a truly touching story but the writing and illustrations in this book just sing. Don’t miss it!