From Creature Tales to Children’s Books

Two pileated woodpecker nestlings looking out of their nest a few days before they fledged

I can write 500 words in my sleep.

Or, so I thought.

I write about business finance, and I’ve produced thousands of pages of course material, journal articles, and books. Naturally, I assumed writing a 32-page, 500-word picture book would be both fun and easy. The stories unfolding out my window practically tell themselves, like the bad-boy nestling story in this post’s video clip.

Turning these stories into children’s literature should have been a walk in the park. Or in my case, a walk in the woods.

I could not have been more mistaken.

My new writing direction started after a pair of pileated woodpeckers nested just outside my window. For weeks, I watched the birds excavate a nest cavity, take turns incubating eggs, and raise their kids. I learned to predict the parents’ arrival and departure times. I knew when the nestlings would break into a raspy chorus of yaps. I also began to see nuance in the birds’ behavior.

I realized that these woodpecker parents and I shared some parenting experiences. They watched the door impatiently, wishing the other spouse to arrive for a turn at kid care. When the cute little nestlings grew unruly toward their parents, mom and dad, laser-focused on their child-rearing job, took the bad behavior in icy-calm stride.

The kids’ misbehavior shouted ‘story’ to me, and I wanted to tell it from the nestlings’ point of view. The nestlings behaved badly because they had a legitimate complaint: Their parents were withholding food to encourage them to fledge. Mom and dad had stopped cleaning, too, so the kids ‘room’ was probably getting both cramped and uncomfortable. All kids complain about unfair parents, not realizing until much later that ‘unfair’ parenting is helping-you-grow-up parenting. The show outside my window seemed the perfect underpinning for a story about growing pains.

Two years, three picture-book writing courses, and oh…twenty-seven book drafts later, I’m still working on that fun and easy project. Fun still applies. But easy? Not! I’m getting closer to a polished manuscript I feel good about, but I still have work to do.

I’ll tell more about my writing attempts in the weeks to come, but meanwhile, I’ll share a video snippet of the true-life story that got me started. In this video, you’ll see the unruly behavior I’m talking about.

I just love how the nestlings’ faces turn from adorable to angry and back within seconds. I laugh at their ‘what did I do?’ expression when mom leaves, as though the little temper tantrum had nothing to do with her departure. It’s not seen in this short clip, but after most kid swipes and bites, the parents simply stepped aside–they barely reacted to what we called snit fits when my own children were little.

I must admit I’m totally guilty of anthropomorphizing here: I’m imagining emotions where there are none, but it sure is easy to see feelings and attitudes in the family dynamic you see in the video.

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