Interview with Melissa Stewart and Sarah Brannen

First off, congrats! We were all very excited Feathers won. Can you tell us a bit about how you came up with the idea for this book?
MS: Thanks so much! Sarah and I were thrilled to hear that our book had won.

While I was doing research for another book, I stumbled across an article in Birder’s World (now BirdWatching magazine) with a fact that blew my mind—a bird’s eyelashes are made of tiny feathers. (You can see Sarah’s drawing of these bristle feathers in the backmatter of Feathers.)

That fact made me ask a question: How else do birds use their feathers in unexpected ways? It was such an intriguing question that I knew I had to explore it. But first I had to finish the book I was working on. So I photocopied the article and pinned it to the idea board in my office. A few months later, I finally found some time to dig into the research.

Melissa_Stewart_pressIt didn’t take long to realize that I’d struck gold. There was plenty of information for a book. But finding a truly engaging structure took a whole lot of trial and error. I spent more than three years writing and revising before I latched onto the idea of comparing the unusual ways birds use their feathers to objects in our everyday lives.

SB:  Thank you! Melissa and I are delighted, honored and thrilled.

We are in the same (writing) critique group, as I am an author as well as an illustrator. I saw an early version of the manuscript when Melissa read it for the group, and I was very excited by it — I told Melissa that I thought it was going to be a great book, and I wanted to illustrate it! Of course we know the business doesn’t work that way, but I started drawing the feathers local birds obligingly dropped in my yard. I put a couple of feather illustrations up on my web site and kept my fingers crossed. It took three years, but one day I got an email from Diane Earley, the associate art director at Charlesbridge, asking if I’d be interested in illustrating the book! I still can’t believe it actually worked out in the end.

We were wondering if you and Sarah consulted at all on the illustrations?
MS: We were excited when Charlesbridge acquired Feathers because Sarah had illustrated other books for them. When my editor asked for illustrator suggestions, I enthusiastically recommended Sarah. And when she was hired, we both assumed it was based on my suggestion. Later, we discovered that my editor had never shared my comments with the art director. The art director had chosen Sarah independently. Amazing!

I knew I had to let Sarah bring her own creative ideas to the project, so we made a pact not to discuss the book at all. It was really hard because we saw each other twice a month at critique group meetings. Sarah did an incredible amount of research as she was creating the illustrations, and all her effort is certainly apparent in the final art.

Sarah also deserves all the credit for the book’s wonderful scrapbook/journal format. It was her clever solution to a big problem—having to incorporate so many different visual elements into each spread.

!cid_276B4EA6-D3E6-48B7-9C1F-B0F56692EBB3@homeSB: We both had a pretty strong feeling that it would be best if we didn’t. I brought my notion of designing the book as a collection – it was a cabinet at first, and then became a scrapbook – to the team at Charlesbridge and they loved it. It took some months to develop it, and I saw Melissa regularly at critique group meetings while I was working on it. I didn’t tell her anything about it, but of course I couldn’t wait for the moment when she finally saw the finished sketches. I was pleased and relieved that she liked my concept!

What kind of research did you do for writing/illustrating this book?
MS: As I do for all my books, I turned to four main sources for information:

  • the library (for books, magazines, and newspapers)
  • databases (for scientific journal articles)
  • the Internet (to locate experts, in this case ornithologists)
  • my own nature journals

Many of the examples in this book are based on my personal observations in the natural world. Others come from interviews with scientists and/or reports in scholarly books and scientific journals.

SB:  Each illustration needed a lot of research, because of the different layers of meaning: I needed to accurately draw a feather, I needed to find imagery of the bird doing the activity described in the book, and I had to find all the other images that fill out each illustration. Diane Earley at Charlesbridge was very helpful, and sometimes Melissa was able to help (through Charlesbridge). The amazing scope of YouTube helped a lot — it was amazing how often I was able to find a video of each bird doing the very thing discussed in the text.

Are you (or have you been) a birdwatcher?
MS: When I was in college, I had a friend who’d grown up in a family of avid birders. He taught me how to use binoculars and a spotting scope, and he introduced me to birding events like the Christmas Bird Count. He taught me to appreciate birds in a whole new way, and I’ve carried that with me ever since.

My friend went on to study birds in graduate school, while I became more of a generalist. When I visit natural places today, my goal is to take a broad look at everything around me and think about the interactions among all the living things and their environment. Maybe that’s why I ended up connecting and comparing feather functions with common objects in Feathers.

SB: Compared to real “birders,” I’m a very recreational birdwatcher. But I do like to watch birds, from the ones at the feeders in my yard to more exotic species I see when I travel. My whole family likes birds.

If you don’t mind us asking, what are you working on next?
MS: LOL. I have another bird book coming out in April. It’s an updated edition of A Place for Birds, which is the book I was researching when I first read about bristle feathers.

The original edition was published in 2009. Because so much has changed for birds since then, my publisher asked me to update the text. The book also has a brand-new, gorgeous cover, some new interior art, and new backmatter.

A Place for Birds focuses on simple things people (including children) are doing to protect birds and preserve their habitats. With vibrant, realistic illustrations by Higgins Bond and layered text, the book will appeal to a broad range of elementary-aged children. I can’t wait to hold the book in my hands.

SB:  I’ve just finished work on the sequel to the most recent book I wrote and illustrated, Madame Martine. Madame Martine Breaks the Rules will be out in the fall from Albert Whitman & Co. I’m currently working on several picture books, and I hope that at least one of them will find its way to bookshelves in the future.

Thanks to both of you!

Be sure to follow both Melissa and Sarah on Twitter (@mstewartscience and @sarahbrannen), as well as at their individual websites.