Readers, prepare to meet the most memorable middle grade protagonist of 2022. Twelve-year-old Olive Miracle Martin, the instantly endearing hero of Hummingbird, is, in her own words, a “joy-kaboom.” After being homeschooled due to a medical condition called osteogenesis imperfecta (sometimes known as brittle bone disease), Olive begins attending Macklemore Middle School, where local legend tells of a magical, wish-granting hummingbird. Will finding the hummingbird make Olive’s deepest wish come true?
Author Natalie Lloyd brings a uniquely personal perspective to Olive’s story, imbuing her extraordinary hero with unforgettable warmth, honesty and heart.
You and Olive both have osteogenesis imperfecta. In what other ways are you alike? How are you different?
Initially, I was very hesitant to write about a character who had the same disability that I do. I really wanted Olive’s story to be about more than her body, so I tried to smoosh the “bone stuff” to the background. But the more I revised Hummingbird, the more I realized that Olive’s disability is naturally a source of conflict for her, like it is for me. My disability informs how I move through my daily life and the world, and how I exist in my body. It’s only one part of the big constellation of my life, but it’s still a part. So we do have that Big Thing in common, Olive and I.
But we share other things too. Olive and I are both creative, and we both love love. We’re both ardent fans of Dolly Parton and Judy Blume. We both think that one true BFF can make all the difference in helping you feel like you belong. And we’re both a little weird. If I were a character in a book, I would be somewhere between Anne Shirley and Luna Lovegood, and Olive falls on that spectrum too. Even though I’ve always been a bit shy, I love theater. Olive is the same way. She puzzles over the dichotomy of wanting to stand out (in her heart-shaped sunglasses and bedazzled wheelchair) and wanting to blend in and be “normal.”
As far as our differences, Olive has a gentle boldness and assertiveness that I would like to have. Her confidence is still growing, of course, but she’s not afraid to ask hard questions and love completely, and I adore that about her.
Tell us about the word fragile and the role it plays in this story.
Like Olive, being described as “fragile” has been commonplace for me for as long as I can remember. In a literal sense, it’s true. My bones break easily; my body is fragile. And yet, even though that’s true, there has always been a part of me that bristles at that description. Because I know there is so much more to me—to everybody—than a body.
In 2019, I had a hard reckoning with the word fragile. I walked through the kitchen late one night to check a door and slipped in dog drool. I heard the snap in my thigh before I hit the ground and knew I’d broken my femur. That’s supposed to be the strongest bone in a human body, but my femurs have always been fragile. It’s a painful break and a long recovery, so I felt like my world was paused again because of my fragile places.
I had tried so hard to lean into all the other aspects of who I’d become: I was a writer (which still feels like a dream come true). I was independent. I am married to a kind and wonderful man whom I describe as Gilbert Blythe with sleeve tattoos, and I loved the life we’d built. And then something in me broke, again, and I needed help with everything. I told my husband that I felt broken all over, and he said, “Your leg is broken. You aren’t broken.” It helped me get a grip on Olive’s whole story. She starts out on a mission to prove to everybody she’s not fragile. But really, the only person she ever has to prove that to is herself.
Olive’s narration sometimes shifts from prose into verse. How did this choice come about? What role has poetry played in your life?
I wasn’t planning to write any element of Olive’s story in verse, but a whole draft came out that way. I showed it to my brilliant editor, Mallory Kass, and told her that something about it felt really freeing and right for this story, so we looked closely at the text together. I realized the places the verse felt the most important to me was when Olive was reflecting on her body. Those thoughts about her body—how it’s fragile, different and changing—break, just like her bones do. Mallory encouraged me to try writing the story with both forms, and it was the exact blend I wanted. I could lean into Olive’s humor a little easier and explore her world more fully in prose, but verse felt like the right carrier for her weightier thoughts about herself.
Poetry factored big into my middle school era. I wrote some terribly cringey poems that my parents still have. I also got a book of Emily Dickinson poems that’s still on my bookshelf. Back then, I mostly loved Dickinson’s work for its cadence and moodiness. I also loved how she compared big feelings (like hope) to ephemeral things in nature (like “a thing with feathers”). Middle school is also when I wore out Dolly Parton cassette tapes, singing “Eagle When She Flies” to my audience of Popples and Care Bears.
Between Emily and Dolly, I fell in love with poetry, and I still adore it. I used to say that I ate poems for breakfast, by which I mean: I would read a Mary Oliver poem every morning. I still try to do that. It makes my heart feel awake. And of course, I love folk and alt-country, singer-songwriter music—poetry with a banjo in the mix.
Olive’s grandfather is a well-known birder, and it’s a passion he shares with his granddaughter. Did your research include delving into birds and birding? If so, what are some of your favorite things that you learned?
There’s a subtle connection Olive and I have: While my granny wasn’t a birder, she was obsessed with birds. She could name a bird by its song, and I always thought that was such a cool way to be connected to the world. I enjoy reading about birds and watching them, too.
Sometimes when I see a hummingbird, I gasp. I know they aren’t uncommon but they feel special to me. I like their bejeweled feathers and buzzy wings. Reading about them was especially fun as I wrote this book. Here are some fun facts: Most hummingbirds weigh about as much as a nickel, they can fly backwards, and—this is my favorite—they remember human faces. There are also lots of legends and folklore connected to hummingbirds. I’m smitten with the idea of big magic existing in a small creature.
Olive’s story feels inextricable from its setting, and I think many readers will wish they could visit Olive’s fictional hometown of Wildwood, Tennessee. Why was creating such a strong sense of place important to you? Do you have any recommendations for real-world spots that might feel a little like Wildwood?
It’s fun to create a town in a novel because I get to pack it full of spots I love. But I definitely understand the need to see the real inspiration. Some of my favorite go-to towns for inspiration in Tennessee are Lenoir City, Signal Mountain and Sweetwater. I also like to visit towns in the Blue Ridge Mountains, like Franklin and Hendersonville in North Carolina, when I need some fodder. If readers are ever able to visit the Smoky Mountains, I highly recommend it. That would give them a good idea of the scope of Olive’s natural world. It’s a misty, magical place full of woods and babbling brooks. And birdsong. And ghost stories. And a hummingbird, or two.
Hummingbird beautifully depicts so many different characters’ relationships to faith and spirituality. Was this an element of the book from the beginning? What was the most challenging part of incorporating it?
Olive’s spirituality was always threaded through the book. The biggest challenge in writing about her faith was this: I want every reader, regardless of what they believe, to feel safe in my books. Olive’s personal wrestling with her faith is connected to mine. I’m a person of faith, but when bones break and I’m in pain (or when someone I love is in pain), obviously that’s hard to process. One of my favorite attributes of Southern fiction is how faith and folklore collide; it felt right for Olive to interact with both. And it felt right—and true—that the people Olive loves all have different relationships to faith, too.
Your books often include elements of magic, and Olive herself loves fantasy and fairy tales. What draws you to incorporating this into your work? What’s magical to you?
I think we all write what we love to read, and I was once (and always) a queen in Narnia. I adored books like Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Lynne Reid Banks’ The Fairy Rebel and stories where magic was a flicker in a very real world. I’m still drawn to that gentle magic in books. Deep down, I love that the world is sometimes un-figure-out-able.
It sounds cheesy, but the best magic for me is love. There are certainly moments of little magic in every day: birds singing, dogs that snuggle, sunsets smeared on a mountain sky, cherry popsicles on a hot day, a perfect song lyric. But there’s no magic like love, like hearing the voice of someone you love. Like hugging someone you love and have missed. So much of what I write comes down to how much I love and miss people. Every story is a love story.
What did you learn about yourself from writing Olive’s story?
I don’t want to spoil anything, but what Olive and I both learned is reflected in the last line of the book. And while my first hope for readers is that Hummingbird gives them joy-kabooms, I also hope that it’s found by anyone who needs that last-line reminder.
And I also learned this: You get to take up as much space as you want on this planet in exactly the body you are in. You deserve to move through the world with joy and confidence. Your experience matters. One thing I love about the KidLit community, and all the readers, writers, teachers, librarians and publishing people who abide in it, is our determination to create safe spaces where kids get to grow into their most authentic selves. It’s a deep honor to be a little part of that world.