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Author Showcase

Spring 2006 Featured Author Jane Kirkland

RT: RT: In preparing for our interview, I learned that you were inspired to learn more about the nature in your “own backyard” after spotting a bald eagle flying over a grocery store parking lot. Did you know from the beginning that your interest would move beyond a hobby into a book series?

Jane: When I first awakened to the nature around me, I had no clue it would become my work. After seeing the Bald Eagle my curiosity and interest in nature almost consumed me! I began photographing nature—birds, plants, insects, anything that I could. That Christmas I wrote a “nature” Christmas card, filled with my photos and interesting things I’d learned about the nature in my neighborhood. It included pictures of snapping turtles that had come up to our garden to lay eggs, a fawn I discovered sleeping in the meadow at the edge of our property, bluebirds who visited our feeder and so on. People responded to my 20-page "Happy Holidays" booklet by telling me how interesting it was to learn so much about nature. Many commented on the quality of the pictures saying things like “you could write a book.” Of course, I’d already written many books but it was at that time that I considered writing nature books for children. Within a few months, I decided to write a series, call them Take A Walk® Books, and begin writing before the year was out. That’s exactly what I did.

RT: One of the things our reviewers love about your books is that in addition to being a guide book, they also are a journal. Do you have any recommendations for parents on ways to bring the books to life for kids?

Jane: I hope that I’ve already done that job. Each book starts with a personal story about nature discovery. Because the books are interactive, they take on a life of their own when readers follow the instructions and make their own discoveries.

RT: In addition to writing the books, you do all of the photography. What is the most interesting part of nature photography? What is the most challenging? Do you find it easier to script the book and then seek out pictures that will fit the theme, or do you start with a series of pictures and then build out the book’s theme?

Jane: The most interesting part of nature photography for me has been the discovery that I can (and do) sit for hours waiting for the right shot. I didn’t know I had it in me to be so patient. Nature is incredibly fascinating to me and well worth the wait for the right shot. The most challenging shots for me have been the bird shots. Birds rarely stay in one place for very long. There was one bird photography challenge I failed to meet—the Peregrine Falcon featured in my city book. I needed falcon shots and the Pennsylvania Game Commission invited me to accompany them when they banded Peregrine Falcon chicks in their nests in the Philadelphia area. I knew this was a fantastic opportunity but panicked when I learned the nests were located on two huge bridges crossing the Delaware River. I’m not a fan of heights and was afraid I’d freeze or worse, cause a distraction for the banders with my fear of heights. I knew in my heart I couldn’t go out on the bridges to take the photos so I arranged for a good friend and professional wildlife photographer, Kevin Loughlin, to take my place. Kevin accompanied the banders and photographed the falcons and chicks while I watched from the safety of the ground below. The manuscript idea comes first, but sometimes text drives photos and vice versa. My first step is to create a list of common species, such as butterflies. For my purposes, “common” means those butterflies with the largest range, that exist in habitats easy to access and that have healthy and large populations. That list becomes the basis for the “field guide” section of my book. Then I focus on the educational goal of the book. I research State and Federal Academic Standards for elementary grades in science, environment, ecology, and literacy and make a list of those I would like to address in our book as well as how I will address them. For this step, the text drives the photos. Next come the special photos. In every book, we include unusual or funny photographs as well as a featured photograph for the opening story. In this step, the photos determine the script. Each book starts with a personal story and featured photograph and I usually have two or three unusual or funny photos that I want to include. In this step, the photos drive the text. the last step is layout. Because my books are visual, I’m unable to separate the text from the final layout. The book is difficult to write in this way but because I have created a successful formula that determines the amount of text, photos, sidebar information, new word introduction, and so forth. In this step, the text drives the need for photos.

RT: You keep an exhausting schedule, frequently speaking with audiences of all ages about nature and environmental preservation. Who is your favorite audience (e.g., children, naturalists, educators, etc.)?

Jane: Definitely children. I love to do school assemblies. Rather than “lecture” the students on the importance of caring for our environment, I tell exciting stories about my own interactions with nature, including stories of mistakes I’ve made. The assemblies are interactive and the kids are excited to hear the adventures I’ve had in my own backyard and neighborhood. By the end of the assembly, they understand that nature is fascinating, exciting, and just waiting for them to discover, too. I challenge kids to take a 20-second nature break™ every day. Months (even years) after visiting a school I still hear from teachers and students taking their 20-second breaks and discovering nature every day. It’s not often in our lives that we have an opportunity to make a difference or leave a mark. I do hear from readers who enjoy my books but certainly not from every one of them. School assemblies give me the opportunity to see the reaction to my books first-hand by presenting the message of the books. Interactive story telling has much more an impact than reading from my books and the assemblies give me an opportunity to get the message of the books across to all the children, reaching even those who might never read my books. These experiences validate my belief that nature is fascinating to all children.

RT: Is there a particular experience you’ve had, whether a formal seminar, TV or radio show, or a chance meeting, where you walked away and said “this is why I want to keep doing this”?

Jane: Truthfully, every time I do a school assembly program I am overwhelmed with excitement and satisfaction. After an assembly, I stand at the exit door so I can high five or shake hands with kids as they leave. Kids line up to tell me about the bird they saw in their backyard, the turtle they helped across the road, the time they found a really cool shell or rock. The very fact that kids are eager to share their experiences with me indicates that I have struck a chord and that they know I am interested in hearing their experiences. In other words, they know I respect them and want to hear what they have to say. What better gift can you give a child? And what better gift can you receive? One of my favorite comments from kids is one I was surprised to hear the first time someone said it to me and one that I hear after every assembly—“good job”. Those two words tell me a lot about my work. First, and most importantly, it indicates that the student is confident that his words and his opinion matter to me otherwise, he wouldn’t say anything. Second, it indicates that the student realizes that I have worked hard to entertain and educate him and that he believes I have succeeded. “Good job” — words to live for, don’t you think?

RT: Before you started writing your Take A Walk® series, you authored several computer books. Given the hand-guide nature of your material, do you find that it took some transitioning to write for a non-technical audience?

Jane: I had authored or co-authored almost 40 books on computer software. The transition from adult readers to children took almost two years. I didn’t really stop writing for a non-technical audience, though. Think about it. Science is technical and Take A Walk Books are filled with science and instructions. I’d been writing instructions for years. I anticipated a major change in style as I transitioned from adult readers to young readers. As part of my research, I blind-tested the first three manuscripts on 8- to 12-year-olds. That was a real eye opener. I had underestimated the maturity of today’s youth. Children want challenge. Without it they have no measure for success. In the end, I discovered that my best voice and style for this age group is the same voice I use when writing for adults. Because t readers enjoyed the challenge of a technical vocabulary I added word definitions and pronunciations to help my young readers. I learned that if I wanted to be taken seriously, I needed to take my reader seriously. When I raised the bar, readers responded with excitement and anticipation.

RT: Your Take a Walk® Book series has won innumerable awards from organizations ranging garden specialists and naturalists to scientists, teachers, and literary panels. Is there a particular category of awards that you find truly validates your work?

Jane: The education awards. I wrote the books as trade books and testing them helped assure me that I had the right topic and voice for my audience. I knew kids liked the books but I didn’t know how the educators would feel. The awards speak to that. I’m thrilled and particularly proud of having a series that is as practical in the classroom as it is popular with our readers. Soon, we’ll even be able to add “profitable” to the mix. What more could an author want?

RT: Where can we hope to take a walk next?

Jane: In three places. First, Take A Cloud Walk will be available soon and it will be offered as a PDF file at our website. This book is free! Cloud Walk was one of the original three manuscripts we tested and it was quite popular. However, I haven’t been successful in matching it to the series with 32 pages and lots of inter-activity. The book will come in somewhere around 25 or 26 pages so I’ve decided to give it away. I’m hoping this will increase traffic at our website and help to increase sales of the series. The second new book is for educators. It’s called Creating a Field Guide to Your Schoolyard. It should be available by the end of June. I’m very excited about this opportunity to teach educators how to find, observe, and identify the nature in their schoolyard and show them how to lead their students in the creation of a field guide to that nature. The next book for the Take A Walk® series has kids taking a walk along the beach and it will launch next spring.

RT: Have you found it difficult to convey your message to your target audience? We hear so much about how they spend their time sitting at computers, watching TV, etc. Have you found that to be the case? Would you happen to have any examples “converts” who spend less time with electronic media that parents/teachers might be able to use?

Jane: Conveying my message is the easiest thing in the world. Even though our children are spending too much time indoors, it takes little to no effort to “convert” them. We all have an innate interest and curiosity and even connection to nature. Bringing my message to kids and getting them to buy it takes only one thing —selling. Getting an audience with my prospect reader is more difficult and that’s why I do school assemblies. Nature is universal. Thanks to Discovery, Animal Planet, and PBS, there is lots of nature on TV. Most of that nature is in exotic, tropical, and far away places (of course, that’s where the colorful creatures live). All I need to do is convince kids (through personal stories and photos) that nature is as exciting in their own backyard. Others might not have as easy a time of it as I do, but when you love your work, your subject, and your audience, your enthusiasm can be nothing short of infectious and contagious. The examples of “converts” are many but one remains closest to my heart if only because of the timing and the odds of it happening. I had given a talk at a nature center to a large group of families (several hundred people) on a Saturday. I polled the audience and no one had ever seen a Bald Eagle in the area. I then promised them that if they took the time to look up on a daily basis they would see a Bald Eagle before the end of winter. The talk was in November. My husband was mortified that I would make such a promise, pointing out that I was putting my reputation on the line. I was confident that there were enough eagles in the area to support my promise. Sure enough, on Monday, I received an email from an 11-year-old who attended the talk with his parents. On their way home they discussed the likelihood of seeing an eagle and decided that they weren’t likely to see one since they’d never seen one before. On Sunday, the father was taking the trash to the curb when he remembered what I said and he looked up. There, above his head, in all its glory, was a mature Bald Eagle. He screamed for the family who then joined him as they looked with astonishment to the skies above their home. Just as it happened to me, a Bald Eagle changed their lives—their attitudes—and convinced them that nature is right above their heads and below their feet. As long as they live, they will always remember that day. If God himself had scripted that moment it could not have been more perfect for that family—or for me.

RT: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Jane: Thank you, yes. Remember these lines from the Joni Mitchell song “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. They’ve paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”? Thanks to destruction of habitat, global warming, over-harvesting, nature is disappearing right before our eyes. Know what you’ve got before it’s gone. Take a 20-second nature break™ today. It’s good for your mind, your body, your soul—and your nature!

Website: http://www.takeawalk.com


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