You grew up in Germany and have lived all over the world. Your previous books have been set in historical Germany and present day India. What made you want to write a book set in the United States?
I often start a book with setting. The ‘seed idea’ for Be Light Like a Bird came to me the first time I saw a landfill. My husband and I had cleaned out the cabin my husband inherited from his father in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I couldn’t believe it when he drove all the stuff to a landfill nearby, a big hole where people bury unwanted items. In Germany we recycle or incinerate most of our garbage, so it left an impression on me when I saw a guy dropping a vacuum cleaner, a book shelf and an entire carpet into this landfill…a cemetery for junk.
I learned more about this landfill and read about the people in the community who had fought its expansion. Then I asked myself a “What if…?” question: What if there were a girl who loved birds and whose bird watching was threatened by the expansion of the landfill? Once I had that girl in my mind I found myself asking more and more about her life. How did she get to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula? And why was birding so important to her? I learned that her father had recently died and that her mother had more or less dragged her up north. She was grieving and lonely and once she arrived in Upper Michigan she came up with a plan to make her mother stay. From there the story of Wren developed.
Before Wren’s father died, one of their favorite things to do together was bird watch. In her new home in Pyramid, Michigan, Wren finds a secluded pond that’s perfect for bird watching. Are you a birdwatcher? What are some of your favorite places in nature?
I am not a serious birdwatcher, but I have created a large flower garden around my house and we try to attract as many songbirds as we can and so I watch thrashers, wrens and gold finches from my window. But I don’t go out like Wren with binoculars and note bird sightings in a journal. As for my favorite places in nature – I love forests. Hiking in the forest, just being surrounded by trees gives me great pleasure.
The characters in Be Light Like a Bird grieve in many different ways – tears, anger, detachment, moving on, not moving on – and it can be hard for Wren to get a handle on how she or others are “supposed to” act. In fact, at one point she says “I wondered if the stages [of grief] were just something people who’d never lost someone had invented.” What do you want readers to understand about grief and mourning?
Grief and mourning are difficult and hard emotions to go through and, while there may be similarities in the ways people deal with the loss of a loved one, I don’t think there is “one right way” to process them. That’s why I wanted to create characters who show a variety of reactions to their pain. I hope it helps young readers to deal with their own grief.
One of Wren’s ways of grieving is to bury roadkill she finds on the side of the road. How and why did you decide to have her do this?
I tried to put myself in Wren’s position and felt that her desperation about the loss of her father and her mother’s distant behavior needed an equally desperate outlet. The idea with the roadkill came to me on my morning run in my North Carolina neighborhood where on any given day one may find small animals dead on the road. I often wonder what it says about people’s relationship to animals that so many of them are killed in this way and then left dead and unattended on the asphalt.
Tweens and teens can have complicated and difficult relationships with their parents, even when a major life-changing event (such as a death in the family) doesn’t occur. What can readers learn from Wren’s changing relationship with her mother?
It takes a long time for Wren to finally learn what causes her mother to act the way she does. It was only in my twenties that I realized the reason for my longstanding conflict with my mother. That understanding enabled me to see her with more empathy, and be less judgmental. It may not be possible for a 12-year old to see past her own emotions when judging a parent but I hope that reading about Wren and her mother helps young readers to realize that adults have their own struggles to deal with and these might cause them to act in a way children might find inexplicable.
Wren and Theo’s growing friendship and environmental activism was such an uplifting theme in the book. What do you hope readers will take away from Wren and Theo’s campaign to stop the town dump expansion?
I would like to encourage readers to get involved in campaigns that help save our environment. I hope readers learn from Wren and Theo’s story that young people don’t have to wait to be adults to have an impact on their communities, but that they can make a difference when they put themselves to it, find the right allies and stay the course.
What are you working on next?
I am working on two projects, a middle-grade mystery novel set in Calcutta 1832, and I have submitted a manuscript for a picture book about my dog, Frank, whom we adopted from the streets of India. In it Frank exchanges a series of letters with a dog-friend back in Delhi, describing his new, spoiled life in the US.