Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Q&A with Jill Esbaum




Jill Esbaum is the author of the new children's picture book biography Bird Girl: Gene Stratton-Porter Shares Her Love of Nature with the World. Esbaum's many other books include Jack Knight's Brave Flight.


Q: What inspired you to write a picture book biography about writer and naturalist Gene Stratton-Porter (1863-1924)?


A: In 2018, I reread Stratton-Porter's Girl of the Limberlost for the first time in 20+ years, but this time, after finishing the book, I found myself wondering about the author. A quick Google search, and I was a goner. 


Gene was a woman ahead of her time, the type who never conformed to society's expectations and tackled any challenge head-on.


I ordered more of her books, including two autobiographical titles, What I Have Done With Birds and Homing With the Birds. Those definitely sparked a "Wow!" in me, and I found that I couldn't not write about her.


It wasn't easy, though. The trouble wasn't a lack of material; the trouble was that this incredible, confident woman was accomplished in so many different areas that it was difficult to choose just one.


Since she spent five years teaching herself bird photography at a time when that meant lugging around heavy cameras and glass plates into the vast (and dangerous!) Limberlost Swamp near her home, that journey is what I finally settled upon.

Q: What do you think Rebecca Gibbon’s illustrations add to the book?


A: She has brought little Geneva–and her bird obsession–to such vivid life, and her farm home, as well! I know kids will be charmed by her.


Fortunately, Gene wrote a great deal about her childhood home of the 1870s, describing everything in minute detail, from the vine-choked fencerows to the kitchen wallpaper!


The way Rebecca captured the Limberlost wilderness, too, serves to underscore how nutty Gene was (according to neighbors/acquaintances) to risk her life there day after day, all in an attempt to capture birds in realistic poses.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, in part, “Though greatly respected in her own time, Gene Stratton-Porter is far less well known today; this work rectifies that oversight—this self-taught woman naturalist will come alive for young readers.” How well known was Stratton-Porter in her day, and what do you see as her legacy today?


A: I read, in one article, that she was as popular in the early years of the 1900s as J.K. Rowling was in the 1990s. That's saying something!


Her daughter wrote a biography of her mother, in which she talked about (and published examples of) the thousands of fan letters she received in a year, many from people wanting to let her know how her books had given them a renewed appreciation for nature's wild places.


Her legacy today can be witnessed as groups work to restore her beloved wetland, Limberlost Swamp, destroyed through a combination of lumber barons stripping old-growth trees, oilmen clearing it for drilling, and farmers draining it to plant crops.


Q: How did you research her life, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I read everything I could get my hands on. All of her novels. Magazine opinion pieces. Her own autobiographies and her daughter's biography.


One thing that especially surprised me, as a writer myself, is that she refused to revise! She told her editor that if he didn't want her books, somebody else would. Can you even imagine?!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I recently finished a chapter book, am working on a baby animal series for Paw Prints called Be Bold!, and am prepping for a couple of nonfiction breakout sessions for the Marvelous Midwest SCBWI conference in April. Among many other things, like promoting this spring's book releases.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Another surprising Gene Stratton-Porter quote that made me laugh out loud, because it perfectly encapsulates her ego and spunk: When one critic panned her books, saying that her characters were too wholesome to be believed and calling her work, "molasses fiction," Gene retorted, "What a wonderful compliment! All the world loves sweets!"


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jill Esbaum.

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