The Young Birder's Guide
Dad (BT, jr.) is in the middle and brother Andy is on the right.
I saw my spark bird in November of 1969, when I was 7 years old. It was a snowy owl that flew into a tree in our front yard in Pella, Iowa. I keyed the bird out in my mom's Chester A. Reed Bird Guide.
The Reed Guide was basic by today's field guide standards, but it served my purpose. I keyed out the snowy owl—there was no doubt about it.
Then I noticed all the other birds in the guide! And I set out in the woods behind our house to find some of the other species depicted in the Reed Guide. Little did I know that all the bobolinks and painted buntings and indigo buntings and eastern kingbirds were far to the south of Iowa in November. So I set about identifying the cardinals and tufted titmice and dark-eyed juncos in the evergreen windbreak and the house sparrows in our barn.
We moved to Ohio in 1971, and my mom once again gave my interest in birds a boost. She joined a local bird club made up mostly of women, who were happy to have my brother Andy and me along one Friday a month. These gals went birding somewhere every week! And the leader Pat Murphy, wrote about their trips and sightings in our local newspaper, The Marietta Times. Every club member had a nickname (perhaps to avoid putting their real names in the paper—birding was not yet socially acceptable). My mom was The Catbird—a name which fits her chatty, high-energy nature, and which has stuck to her to this day.
During these early years of bird watching, the seeds of what would eventually become Bird Watcher's Digest were planted. It would be another seven years before we'd start the magazine in our living room, but during each of those years we became more interested in birds.
As a kid, I would have LOVED to have had a basic field guide that was somewhere between the Reed Guide and the Peterson or Golden Guides. Those latter guides were wonderful, but they were far too all-inclusive for me. I was constantly identifying birds only to find out that they were nowhere near our area. Of course this was in my youth, when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth.
Fast forward to a couple of years ago, when I started working on the concept of a field guide for young birders. I wanted it to be welcome mat for all those 8 to 12 year olds out there who are sort of interested in birds, but who are not yet bitten by the bird watching bug. My goal was to create a guide that would be a starting place for them. A book they'd LIKE READING as well as using to ID birds. So we knew we'd need to include some puke, some guts, some screaming, a few gross-outs, and so on, and, baby this book's got 'em!
I made some initial notes and started talking to the kids in Phoebe's elementary school class about it. The kids and their teachers and I worked on the guide for almost three years! We studied how books are created from idea to proposal to manuscript to layouts to final galleys. In a eureka moment, we realized with that in being written, printed, shipped, and distributed, the book would actually travel around the world!
The kids helped me with the design of The Young Birder's Guide, they helped me write some of the text. We chose many photographs together. We selected page layout preferences. We worked on tweaking the cover design. I must have gone in to Phoebe's fourth, fifth, and sixth grade classes more than a dozen times in all to work with her classmates on the book.
Now it's all done and being printed and we CAN'T WAIT to see it. I've seen a bound galley and it looks and feels just like I hoped it would. It's narrow and tall—easy to use for smaller hands and easily stuffed in a pocket or backpack. The pages are packed with color—one species per page with photographs as illustrations.
The publisher, Houghton Mifflin is debuting the book at this weekend's birding industry trade show, BirdWatch America in Atlanta. I'm heading down to give a talk about getting kids into birding and, I have to admit, I'm completely excited about the launch of this book.
The kids at Phoebe and Liam's school are excited, too. Anytime they see me they ask about the book and when it's going to be here. It does seem like a long time coming. But that's publishing for you.
Of all the books I've been involved in as author, editor, project manager, or idea-monger, this is the one that is closest to my heart. Why? Because I want my own kids (fingers crossed) to know the joy of watching birds.
And because I believe that the future of this planet is in their hands. We need them to know about birds and nature so they understand the value of the natural world. And the Playstation or the Wii is not going to teach them the difference between the song of an American robin and a rose-breasted grosbeak.
But this book just might accomplish that. The good folks at birdJam have created a playlist of 160 of the 200 species in the book. Kids can augment their copy of The Young Birder's Guide with the songs and images on this optional digital download.
Too bad it's going to be several weeks yet before we see actual copies, shipped express from the printer overseas.
I won't really feel the book is real until I walk into Phoebe's class with a box full of copies for all the kids who helped with the project. THAT'S going to be awesome!
And here is a glimpse at the cover. I've got more to say about this book, but will save that for later. Right now I've got to finish writing my talk about getting kids interested in birds!
In case you're curious about it, the on-sale date for this book is sometime in mid-to-late April. I'll certainly keep y'all posted on that.