Tracy Edward Wymer's latest middle grade novel, Soar, is the story of seventh grader Eddie, who sets off on a bird-watching quest to find an elusive golden eagle after his father leaves home for good. There are so many bird jokes we could make about unflappable Eddie (sorry) and his quest, but Wymer's got that covered in a Behind the Book essay, wherein he shares his tumultuous birding beginnings.
I never thought I’d write a book about birds. I mean, NEVER!
Birds? Who cares about birds? They chirp, fly around and poop on bikes.
I had simply never given birds much thought. But then there was this one bird, a northern mockingbird, that nested in a tree limb hanging over my roof, right above my bedroom. Right above my head! And every morning it would start singing a “Hello, how are you doing?” song at 3 a.m.
Every. Single. Morning.
Then mating season ended and the song vanished—just like that. My beauty rest and sanity were saved!
A couple of years before the three a.m. singing bird, I moved from teaching fourth-grade language arts to teaching sixth-grade English. I remember being suddenly thrown into a cross-curricular research project on North American birds. I was shocked. Birds? This is English class. We read Shakespeare and other classics, like The Outsiders. No one here cares about birds. All I could think about was that mockingbird waking me up every morning at three a.m. and how I wanted it to migrate somewhere far away and never come back.
During my first year teaching the bird research project, I barely survived. Between learning which birds lived where, and which birds migrated, and which birds stayed home year-round, I felt as blind as a bat (not a bird). Then there was keeping track of students’ progress and helping them find resources about that rare hummingbird that might—just might!—fly over North American airspace every other year.
This bird research project was a staple of the sixth-grade curriculum, and if I wanted to keep teaching middle school English, I needed to commit and invest myself. I needed to put my best foot forward. That meant I’d have to take a genuine interest in BIRDS!
Biiiiirrrrrrrds… (eye roll)
To make our teaching lives more tolerable, my colleague and I curated a list of North American birds that allowed students to experience more success during their research. It also exposed students to a wider range of resources. We streamlined the project to include research categories such as appearance, habitat, migration, diet and mating. We also created writing projects that went along with each category of research. Students were suddenly having fun. WE were having fun!
All this time, I was learning to love birds, and I didn’t even know it.
Over the next several years, I came to appreciate birds and their various behaviors, quirks and personalities. Birds are, after all, similar to people. They’re social and habitual, and they teach their young to fly. Okay, people don’t literally teach their children to fly, but we do guide them out of the nest at some point. And isn’t that like flying?
I was also writing a lot during this time. In 2012, I published a book called The Color of Bones, a book I’d worked on for a few years. I was searching for my next writing project, and little did I know it was staring me right in the face.
One day, while hovering over a stack of students’ note cards, I thought to myself, “What if there was a boy who couldn’t find a bird? What if he searched for this bird every day, like his life depended on it? What if he was searching for a bird and no one believed he could ever find it?”
A couple of years later, after hundreds of hours of research, poring over field guides and websites, and then hundreds of hours of writing, I finished writing a book called Bird Nerd. Which gained me an agent, and then sold to Simon & Schuster as Might Fly Away. Which then molted (one last bird reference!) into its final incarnation as Soar.
Title changes. That’s another essay in itself.
Author photo credit Kremer/Johnson.