Thursday, April 4, 2024

Q&A with Christina Wilsdon




Christina Wilsdon is the author of the new children's picture book Swallows Swirl. Her many other books include For Horse-Crazy Girls Only. She lives in the Pacific Northwest.


Q: What inspired you to write Swallows Swirl?

A: I think the idea first hatched when I was a little girl and saw Canada geese flying high in an autumn sky, honking and forming their classic V-shape pattern; I was told that they were "flying south for the winter."


Of course, I had no idea back then that I would ever write a book, that I'd ever be a birder, or even that I lived in the northeastern United States, let alone what this "south" place was.


But in reading about the great advances in the study of birds and migration over the past few decades, I recalled this snippet of memory. 


I thought it was fascinating how the birds we think of as "our" birds have this whole other life on their wintering grounds--and likewise, people in the southern hemisphere would consider these same birds as "their" birds that are just on loan to us in the north for a while.


And that's how the girl in the story came to be. Originally, I'd thought I'd be focusing on one bird and its migration experience.


Q: What do you think Jess Mason’s illustrations add to the story?


A: The illustrations do far more than add to the story, they tell a story of their own! They depict the swooping and diving, dipping and darting of swallow flight and depict the changing of the seasons.


But there are also details that deepen the subject in thought-provoking ways.


For example, on the page where the girl is in bed as winter sets in, you can see a pattern on the wall. Is it the shadow of the tree outside, or is it a dreamy rendition of the reeds and grasses where the migrating swallows are bedding down for the night on the next spread?


Then there's the swallow nest that's fallen off the shed into the snow, symbolizing the birds' absence.


And though it's not mentioned what the people harvesting in the South American field think of the swallows, the illustration gets across the notion that there are people in the swallows' southern range, with all their own observations about the birds.


Q: Did you need to do any research to write the book, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I did loads of research, reading any book and article I could find about barn swallows. I also asked a scientist who studies barn swallows, David Winkler, to review the manuscript in case I'd made any glaring errors. He was very kind and helpful.

The most surprising fact I learned was that some barn swallows have altered their migratory and breeding behavior in recent decades. 


Barn swallows in the western hemisphere have always migrated to points south in winter (our winter, but summer in the southern hemisphere) and migrated to Central and North America for the breeding season.


But now it appears that a population of barn swallows in Argentina have really switched things up. About 30 years ago, birds in this population began nesting in Argentina and raising young--in February, on their "wintering grounds" and outside of the expected breeding season.

Though these swallows haven't given up migrating. They just go about it differently. When winter sets in in South America, they fly north for the winter to warmer regions in South America near the equator. Then they go back to Argentina for the summer breeding season. Apparently they've given up their vacation homes in North and Central America for good!


Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?


A: I hope that they enjoy the story and marvel at the illustrations. I also hope the story inspires them to notice the birds around them, and how our "backyard birds" all lead remarkable lives--whether or not they stick around for the winter or vanish for months on end. And that birds, oblivious to our human-created borders, weave the world together in a beautiful way.


I hope this book and all the other wonderful books about wildlife contribute to understanding the importance of healthy habitat on both ends of birds' migratory pathways as well as all the stopover sites along the way.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Another picture book--this time about a small mammal who doesn't migrate anywhere at all.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Barn swallows really will swoop and swirl around you if you walk across a big grassy field in spring or summer. That happened to me one time and it was like walking through some enchanted fairy tale setting.


At least, it was enchanting for me. To the birds, I was just a large creature who stirred up insects from the grass with every step--insects they could snatch up as I walked by.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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