I’m stepping away from my usual role as book reviewer to welcome Jo Marshall for an author interview! Jo is the creator of a marvelous series called Twig Stories! Not only has she created a unique group of characters in her wonderful books but she has chosen to highlight pertinent environmental issues as well!
Jo, I’m a firm believer that our life experiences heavily influence our writing. What specific events and incidents led you to write Twig Stories?
We moved a lot when I was a kid, throughout the Southwest and Nevada, but wherever we lived I found wonderful trees, and I climbed every one – gigantic oaks in Texas, prickly mesquite in New Mexico, huge grapefruit trees in Arizona, and towering pines in the Sierras. I can still feel and smell the bark of each one. Of my six siblings, I was the only one brave enough to climb to the very top of every tree. I remember being perched at their tip, and swaying on the branches with the wind. I always loved trees.
Yoho Kicking Horse Canyon in British Columbia, Canada, had a magnificent forest, and I wanted my young daughter, Ali Jo, to experience it as I had when I was young, so in the summer of 2010 I took her to see Kamloops, Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper in Alberta. I was stunned by the extent of bark beetle damage inflicted on the forests. Thousands of trees were dead or dying. When I investigated the reasons, I was saddened to learn entire forests are lost because pine beetles weren’t dying off in the winter months as they had before. It was a consequence of steadily warming temperatures, or climate change.
My daughter was studying climate change at that time in 4th grade, so we learned about these impacts together. I remember feeling it was incredibly unfair that our generation should place the poor environmental choices we made on the shoulders of our young children. We seem to expect they will be able to mend the world we damaged. During this time, Ali Jo and I dreamed up silly adventures about stick creatures battling climate change. So it turned out, trying to help her not be overwhelmed by a changing world was my catalyst to create and write the Twig Stories.
Your appreciation of nature is so evident in your writing! Where did your love of the outdoors originate?
Oh, good heavens, I’m one of seven kids, and our parents were teachers in impoverished schools. We were poor, too, and camping was a natural lifestyle for us. I was running wild in the woods as soon as I could walk, and considered forests to be my frontier forts and Treasure Islands. In the old days, teachers had three months off during the summer, so we’d pack up our truck, and head for every National Park within driving distance. Standing in Carlsbad Caverns or beneath a thousand-year-old sequoia when you’re only five years old is pretty awesome. My love came from incredible, breathtaking encounters with nature.
Most authors have special books they treasured as children. What books inspired you as child?
Mary Norton’s The Borrowers series was my absolute favorite. I read her stories countless times, along with Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne. Irving Stone’s Men to Match My Mountains about the opening of the West was a huge influence. It was the first nonfiction book I read with characters and stories as fantastic as a novel. I also loved Mark Twain’s Roughing It, especially when he wrote about Lake Tahoe and Virginia City.
For some of us, writing is a lifelong dream. Have you always wanted to write children’s books?
No, not at all. I’m still surprised I am. I only started writing Twig Stories for my daughter, Ali Jo. We wanted to remember all the funny stories we made up about Twigs fighting climate change, and share them with other kids. We also wanted to find a vehicle to donate more to conservation nonprofit organizations. I always thought I would write a book when I’d finished living my life, and envisioned writing thrillers or mysteries. So, I created Twig Stories adventures with thrills and puzzling twists. Now I love writing for kids because of their response to fantasies intertwined with nature.
I grew up loving a lot of the classic children’s books in my grandfather’s library. The pictures in your books remind me a little of some of the fairytales Arthur Rackham illustrated. How did you select an illustrator? How much input did you have regarding the illustrations?
Yes, that is very flattering, and I can see the comparison. Being an indie can sometimes be all about having control over your own creation. I withdrew Twig Stories from consideration for publication by traditional houses because they wanted to take 2-4 years to publish the stories, and none would guarantee my choice of an illustrator. So choosing David meant he would be more a collaborator for the stories than simply a wonderful artist responding to my requests. Once I made the decision to publish on my own, I sent requests to illustrators with a short description of the main character, Leaf. I asked if they were interested in doing the entire series because I wanted art consistency from book to book, and what impression did they have for a Twig? I was really surprised with some of the odd characters coming back, not to mention the complicated contracts I’d have to sign. David had published two books, The Majesty series, so when I contacted him about his author experience, I also told him about my ideas for Twig Stories. To my surprise, he offered to illustrate the series, and sent me a sketch of his vision of Leaf. It was fantastic, and Ali Jo and I were just thrilled. David nailed it.
Even better, David agreed to illustrate the whole Twig Stories series, and he gave me the rights to each sketch and the full cover art. This way Ali Jo and I can have fun creating puzzles for the website, and using them for marketing. It was only after David agreed to do the whole series for us that we learned he was a professional, award-winning Disney and Universal Pictures artist, and his screen credits included Brother Bear, Tarzan, Lilo & Stitch, Mulan, Curious George, and many others.
David is so patient and creative. I give him a description of the a scene – how I see it in my mind; how the action happens in that part of the story – and David comes back with a more awesome vision of the scene than I imagined myself. He really wants to get each one just right. I love his art. He uses pen and ink for the sketches, and photo-shops the covers. The more you zoom in on his art, the more details you see and appreciate. Ali Jo and I get so excited whenever we see one of his emails pop up, and we know he sent another illustration.
What age group will your books appeal to?
Elementary school kids from 4th grade to 6th seem to get the biggest kick out of the books, although reviewers say the books are for middle-school, which is a surprise to me. Perhaps they think older kids relate to the serious theme of climate change. Another surprise to me were that teachers and librarians in elementary schools that read and loved the books. A university bark beetle researcher told me he read them to his 4-6 year olds, and they both enjoyed the stories very much, so it’s great a parent can read them aloud to even younger children. Of course, I have enthusiastic endorsements from several officers with environmental nonprofits. Such support broadens the books’ appeal to conservationists.
As a youth service librarian, I moderate three Book Discussion Groups for kids and young adults. Do you have a teacher’s guide to accompany your books?
Not yet, but it’s in the works. The stories are fantasies and adventures, and it’s easy for a child to be swept into the challenge of a warming world. Yet, many teachers aren’t aware of the climatic events in the Pacific Northwest, such as bark beetle infestations, threatened ecosystems and wildlife, drought-sparked forest fires, and glacial outburst floods. I’d like the study guides to clearly describe the elements of the natural world impacted by climate change. The last book, Leaf & Echo Peak, deals primarily with adaptation to change, so the regeneration of life on Mount Saint Helens is the perfect example of this.
Are there any craft or art activities that would compliment a discussion of one of your books?
That’s a very good question. I had to ask Ali Jo for ideas, too.
Just for fun, Twigs can easily be made from pipe stems. Each Twig Branch in the story originates from a different species of tree, so Twigs can be created while discussing different tree-related characteristics. Learning about trees is important, I think, especially rare, endangered species like thousand-year-old whitebark pine and yellow cedars. There is an enormous variety of trees in the Pacific Northwest.
Identifying the ecosystems in the stories that actually exist in the Pacific Northwest is a key element. Drawing or using craft materials to create volcanoes, glaciers, rainforests, and prairies may be fun. Ali wanted to be sure wildlife would be included in this activity, like the critically endangered spirit bear and black-tailed prairie dogs.
Re-creating beaver dams and ponds on tables (minus the water) with its lodges, and the complexities of its canals and food stores is certainly a group activity. In Leaf & the Rushing Waters a goliath beaver named Slapper builds a mighty dam, and saves Leaf’s home, so that’s pretty cool.
My favorite – issue challenges to student groups to think of solutions to specific climate change impacts. Here are a few ‘how would you do it’ challenges being seriously researched today: 1) save forests from bark beetle infestations, 2) conserve fresh water from shrinking glaciers, 3) protect wildlife and their habitats when threatened by wildfire and flood, and 4) rescue species such as woodland caribou, pikas, and frogs that will go extinct without intervention.
How many books do you envision for the Twig Stories series?
So far we’re doing several four books series for the overall Twig Stories collection. One series is for Leaf about specific climate change and geologic events, and another series is for Fern, Leaf’s sister, and is focused primarily on endangered wildlife in the redwood forests of Northern California and the Northwest. Later, we’ll do a series for the Twig twins, Buddy and Burba, with adventures about endangered marine life on the Olympic Coast. Of course, I want to have accompanying teacher and student study guides for each series.
Thank you so much, Jo! You given us such a lot of information to think about. What message would you like kids to remember after reading Twig Stories?
I’d like them to recognize beaver dams as natural solutions for flood and drought. I hope they begin to think about the connection between a warmer world and its impact on vanishing forests and wildlife. Students need to know adaptation and change because of climate change is now inevitable. But they can protect key species during this journey into climate crisis, and choose to make of better environmental decisions than we did to protect and save our natural world.
Twig Stories are available worldwide from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle(Royalties are shared with environmental nonprofits.)
Publisher’s direct E-store offers 20% discount on paperbacks:
Leaf & the Rushing Waters https://www.createspace.com/3604681
Leaf & the Sky of Fire https://www.createspace.com/3494005