It’s summer time, it’s hot, and fires about. Have you ever thought about the positive aspect of those fires? Neither had I, until I read today’s picture book that is.
Joanna Cooke is a writer who spent ten years living in the Sierra Nevada, working as an environmental educator and National Park Service Ranger in Yosemite National Park. She lives in Jackson, Wyoming, and this is her third book. You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Twitter.
FIRE SHAPES THE WORLD is a nonfiction lyrical picture book taking a look at both the positive and negative effects of fire. It’s a fascinating look at plants, animals, and how things have evolved to this point with fire that I’ve never considered before. I was thrilled to see Fireweed (a common flower in Alaska) included.
I’ve driven through huge swaths of Alaskan land that had been burnt in a forest fire the year before (on my way to Homer) and was stunned at the gorgeous fuschia landscape. There was nothing but fireweed as far as the eye could see, rolling over every hill. Fireweed is the first flower to bloom in burnt land up here (and it was a bit of a mystery why that was at first). Fascinating! And the illustrations in this book are wonderful. There are some incredibly gorgeous spreads in this book, and the use of those warm fire colors all throughout really make the whole book just glow. This is one you won’t want to miss.
Me: What a fascinating concept! I don’t think I’ve seen any other books about the positive aspects of fire in nature quite like this. What gave you the idea for this story? And why did it seem suited best for a picture book?
Joanna: I knew from the beginning that I wanted the book to have a positive, hopeful message. When I drafted versions with a fictionalized, human protagonist, the text was very centered on loss and recovery. These are certainly important themes when discussing fire and humanity, and yet it wasn’t the overall tone or emphasis I felt would be most inspiring. I also wanted to offer something that, as you say, hadn’t been offered yet. I kept looking for a bigger, broader message. When I dove into the scientific research about fire’s history on Earth, rather than the news stories about human loss, that’s what I found the most inspiring and transformational. I wasn’t really considering making this story into something other than a picture book. My belief is that any topic can be made approachable to any age; that was the challenge.
Me: And it’s based on fact! How long did it take you to research all the different facts about fire that went into your story? Can you tell us a bit about your research process?
Joanna: Some of the facts I knew from my work as a naturalist in Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevada. I read papers on fire ecology, modern human-fire interactions today, paleo-archaeology, fires in the fossil record. I was fortunate to have a draft read by a fire historian, Stephen Pyne, who helped me clarify a few things. Overall, it took me about 2.5 years of research and drafting to have a submittable draft. After the text was accepted by Yosemite Conservancy, the publisher, I did additional research for the back matter, which shows more of the research than the lyrical text. The text was also vetted by a number of people, including Yosemite NP naturalists and fire ecologists.
Me: Wow! That’s impressive! What is your favorite aspect of fire that is included in this story?
Joanna: I love how some animals are drawn to fire. It’s a twist on what most modern, non-Indigenous people might expect.
Me: Was there something you found out in your research that you couldn’t include in the book? What got cut out?
Joanna: For the back matter, we had to cut a section about modern firefighting technologies that was interesting. Things like exoskeletons that firefighters wear to support more weight and gear or flame-throwing helicopters. These are cutting edge methods, or fringe really, but it shows how people are trying to innovate.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Joanna: I love how the science keeps changing our understanding. Since the book has been written, researchers have found fossil evidence of even older fire—430 million years old. That’s exciting to me. To know that we will continue to deepen our understand of how fire has shaped the world.
Me: The illustrations by Cornelia Li and Diana Renzina are incredibly lush. I especially love the color palette used here, mixing hot and cool colors with flair. I also love the way they made fire seem so cozy in some of the spreads. Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Joanna: I wrote the manuscript without illustration notes, and so all the illustrations were surprising! Cornelia did an incredible amount of research in order to make the sketches, and a whole team of people were giving feedback (all through the editor) to make sure that everything was scientifically accurate. I’m especially fond of Cornelia’s final spread—sort of Byrd Baylor inspired. Diana’s main contribution was to render Cornelia’s sketches in color, but she added the final scene of the girl and the woman by the campfire. We’d been struggling with what image might end the book well, and Diana’s suggestion really brings it full circle to this pair enjoying pensive time by a fire.
Me: I love both of those spreads. Any advice for aspiring picture book writers?
Joanna: It’s been said before, but read, write, repeat! Be willing to try LOTS of things, even those that don’t initially seem like what you want. And embrace a village—writing any book takes support, before and after the submission process. Happy writing!
Great advice. Thank you for stopping by my blog today Joanna.
Dear readers, if you haven’t yet had a chance to read this book, I highly recommend it. It’s a positive approach to a relevant and timely topic, and it includes a plethora of STEM information that makes this a really interesting read.