Well, today is the final day of April. End of National Poetry Month. I have loved every interview this month. Our Poetry Friday host is Matt at Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme and he has winners for books. I will have winners next week so be sure to comment on this or any of my posts for the month by Tuesday, May 4 (May the 4th be with you).
I LOVE trees! And I was so excited to get this new book by Lita Judge. But first, not only is it Lita's interview and National Arbor Day, a little bird told me it was our guest's birthday!
Before you sat under that magnificent thousand year old oak, were there other experiences with trees that helped you form such a bond with them?
LJ: I was born on an island off the coast of Alaska under the giant Douglas fir of the Tongass National Forest. So I grew up surrounded with trees. My dad was a soil scientist with the Forest Service and we spent much of my childhood living in some pretty remote areas. So from an early age I’ve had a great appreciation of nature, and especially trees!
What led you to decide to write THE WISDOM OF TREES?
LJ: I’ve always loved trees, and could identify different species, but I really didn’t know a lot of the recent science about them until I read a research paper talking about how trees communicated, how they fed one another, and even helped each other to fight against attacking insects. I began to realize that the stories trees had to tell were as startling and important as the stories I was creating. I knew I had to learn more about trees and write this book.
Besides the research for the tree facts, what other research did you do?
LJ: I read a lot of the latest research papers and talked to scientists but the most important thing was I traveled extensively to visit different forests both in America and Europe. In order to create the illustrations, I really needed to see different kinds of tree species than what I can find where I live, in New England. I needed to find ancient trees as well. I traveled to visit a yew tree in Northern Wales (UK) estimated to be nearly 4000 years old, and woodland preserves where the forest haven’t been logged and allowed to become old growth. I’ve been fortunate enough to see the bristlecone pines in Nevada which are some of the oldest trees alive. This all helped me to gain the understanding I needed to write the book as well as to illustrate it.
In the process of writing the book, did the poems or the fact paragraphs come first?
LJ: That’s hard to answer. When writing a book I don’t really follow a pattern. I just keep exploring in and around and through an idea. A thought occurs to me and I will tackle a poem. Or I will gain some knowledge to allow me to write the fact paragraphs. It is a lot of back-and-forth. I didn’t know from the beginning I wanted to use both poetry and expository nonfiction. I wanted to give the trees a voice through the poetry because the whole book is about the idea that trees have a language and can communicate. But I definitely wanted this book to be nonfiction and to cover a lot of interesting facts.
Were there facts you wanted in the book but couldn’t put them in?
LJ: Oh, there are always a mountain of facts that fall onto the cutting room floor when you write for children! I think you have to be really curious to write this kind of book, which means you are always diving into material you’ll never possibly be able to fit into the format. Sometimes I feel like I cut more than I keep, but it all goes into creating a book that presents material in a way that is approachable for children. I find people often think writing for children is easier than writing for adults. The particular challenge with writing for children is to understand the topic well enough that you can organize it in a clear and succinct manner. That always takes a huge amount of research and then the ability to find the focus which makes the topic clear.
I think it is so fascinating that trees save one third of their food for fungi.
What was your favorite or most surprising fact?
LJ: I’m fascinated by how much goes on below the surface of the earth. We all love trees for their majestic beauty, and what we can see above the ground, but below ground, they are super organisms, connected to each other, communicating with one another, feeding one another, and helping each other. They have a cooperative wisdom. Their survival depends on the whole community working together.
I am quite fond of all trees but the Oregon White Oak is one of my favorites. Do you have a favorite tree?
LJ: I spent most of my school years in Oregon so I have a particular fondness for the Douglas fir. In the coastal rainforest of the Northwest they grow to be giants, with their gnarled branches covered in moss and lichen. I was married under these giant trees too. And during my ceremony we called in a pair of wild Spotted owls that lived and nested within their limbs.
But I also love aspen. As I mention in the back matter of my book, these trees send up shoots from their roots that grow into genetically identical clones of the original tree. A colony of quaking aspen in Utah contains forty-seven thousand identical trees and is estimated to be around twelve thousand years old!
As not only the author but also the illustrator, could you tell readers a bit about your process?
LJ: My process always begins with a journal. I always carry my journal when I go out to observe and sketch. Working from life is a key part of my creativity and inspiration. All my books begin that way, even my fiction. When I begin each project, I draw long before I ever put a word to paper. I wish drawing was taught in school with subjects like science, and writing, not just for the purpose of creating art. Drawing is learning to see the world well enough to write about it as well as illustrated it. Drawing is a way for me to think about a topic, to understand it, to organize it. I begin with sketches drawn from nature. Then I go back into the studio and begin rough sketches on a storyboard that maps out the book. Only then do I really start putting words to paper. Eventually I do small color studies to get a vision of how the color will tie into the book. A book takes me three or four years to create but it’s only in the last few months that I start creating the watercolors that will eventually become the illustrations for the book.
Was the written material completed before the illustrations?
LJ: I’m always asked that, and to be honest it kind of startles me. I think there is an assumption that words come first. Perhaps because so many books are illustrated by somebody other than the author, in which case the drawings do come second. But as an author/illustrator I don’t see such a clear divide between the two parts. As I mentioned in the previous question I always begin by drawing. But once I start putting words to the paper I often will go back and change drawings. And then go back to the words. It’s a fluid process for me where I’m constantly shifting between the two forms to tell the story. It’s what I love about being able to do both. I can build up a book organically around the words and illustrations. It feels like such a natural fit for a picture book.
What was the research like for the illustrations?
LJ: Research for illustrations isn’t that much different than for writing. To draw something well for a non-fiction book you really have to understand it. So you learn everything you can about the topic. Whenever possible I work from life. Even for a book that covers historical topics, I will travel on location to find the right architecture, or to go to a museum where I can find examples of clothes that people wore, or the carriages they rode in. If there are people in the book, I will find models to draw from. That can be a lot of fun. I’ve had kids from our town frequently pose for the stories I create. In the case of the trees I go outside and draw them. I spend a lot of time at zoos and in nature to observe animals. Often when I’m drawing I’ll notice something that will make the written part of the book richer, because of the time I took observing and drawing. I love doing both for that reason. They just feed each other, the words and illustrations.
I loved the two poems, “We are the Lofty” and “We are the Ancient”. If you were doing a reading, what poems might you read from this book?
LJ: I would read "Song of Hunger". The concept that an injured tree can send out a message to her fellow trees, and they will answer by sending food along their roots — it’s just so beautiful. It’s what made me fall in love with this topic. And it was my favorite poem to write.
What is your current writing project?
LJ: I have several projects in the works. I am working on a nonfiction book about the evolution of dogs which involves even more research than the trees, perhaps. I also have a fiction book about friendship that is young and whimsical and has been a very joyful piece to work on. And I have another book that is, so far, wordless and hard to describe because it explores creativity and imagination, but in a visual way. So I guess that’s not a writing project. But that’s the nature of the work I do, sometimes my books are almost purely visual. Sometimes words come late in the stage. Who knows what will happen with this one. That is part of the wonderful mystery of creating.
What is one of the best things that readers can do to help the future of forests?
LJ: Think about the products we use every day, the piles of paper we write on, toilet paper, food packaging, etc, and just try to use less. We consume so much in our daily lives. And sadly so much of it isn’t something we really need. We do things out of convenience and that can be thoughtless for the planet. Reuse containers and recycle paper. And with the trees themselves we need to protect the older trees and snags (dead trees). These make the best homes for wildlife. So often people will cut down a dead tree because they think it is unsightly or dangerous. When in fact it is home and food to countless animals and insects. Make informed food choices — every year forested land is cleared for grazing livestock. Also educate your friends and family about how trees help our planet, and how our actions affect forests around the world. Plant native trees in your yard. Trees native to your region will promote healthy insect and wildlife diversity.
Thank you, Lita for a wonderful interview. I hope it's filled with trees, poetry and cake.
Before You Go...
You might want to read these pervious interviews if you haven't yet. Next week I will announce winners for some of these books.
I have five great interviews lined up:
April 2 POETRY FRIDAY: ALLAN WOLF
April 9 POETRY FRIDAY: LISA FIPPS
April 16 POETRY FRIDAY: CHRIS BARON
April 23 POETRY FRIDAY:
JOANNE ROSSMASSLER FRITZ
April 30 POETRY FRIDAY: LITA JUDGE
I love getting books into the hands of readers so there will be prizes for stopping by and saying hi.
4/30/2021 04:29:37 am
Oh, my goodness...I have really enjoyed your interviews this month. Each one has been inspiring. Thank you for using your talents for teaching US this poetry month. I simply must get my hands on a copy of The Life of Trees. I really enjoyed hearing how this book came together and again, I realize that the process is different and not always linear. I'm used to trying to be efficient in life for my family and my work. But, efficient in art is different in so many ways. I love that--learning is fun for me. Thanks for a great Poetry Month!
4/30/2021 02:23:43 pm
What a fascinating interview, interesting life. Author-illustrators have a different process so I'm glad you asked Lita about her process. I can't wait to read this book. Thanks, Jone.
Matt Forrest Esenwine
4/30/2021 04:13:35 pm
I was so happy for Lita when she first mentioned she was putting this together a couple of years ago...it really is a beautiful book, all the way around!
5/1/2021 07:00:05 am
Hi Jone, thank you for all this month's interviews. I've enjoyed every one. I have read Lita's book and loved every part. It seems quite right to include poetry, too, doesn't it? Trees are a poetic part of our lives to me. I, too, loved the "Song of Hunger" and learning that trees help each other in specific (and amazing) ways. We humans think we know it all, but there is much we don't know still. Thanks for a beautiful interview, Jone, and a beautiful book, Lita.
5/4/2021 06:33:14 pm
Fascinating interview with Lita Judge. I too am taken by the conversations and actions that trees have beneath the ground, so intriguing. I also liked hearing about Lita's process of going back and forth between art and words. Sounds and looks like a very unique and special book, thanks for this in depth review Jone!
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