A Conversation with Amy Ludwig VanDerwater and Emma Virján about IF THIS BIRD HAD POCKETS

An ideal gift for children who love animals, IF THIS BIRD HAD POCKETS A Poem in Your Pocket Day Celebration (Wordsong), written by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater and illustrated by Emma Virján, is a charmingly illustrated collection of playful poems about 19 different creatures. Featuring fascinating information about the animals (yes, sea otters have pockets!) tucked into short, lively poems with bright, bold artwork, this collection is perfect for National Poetry Month—or any day of the year.  Here, Amy and Emma discuss the book!

IF THIS BIRD HAD POCKETS is a celebration of Poem in Your Pocket Day. Why did you focus the book around this day?  

Amy: The origin story for this book involves social media in a funny way. On Poem in Your Pocket Day 2017, I opened Twitter to find one of my blog poems (“Look Up”)  illustrated by Emma Virján. The cartoon showed a vest-wearing goose pulling a poem out of its pocket, reading it on stage. 

Emma: I had a drawing of a goose who was a poet and I was trying to come up with a poem that she would pen for Poem in Your Pocket Day. I couldn’t come up with anything and I remembered Amy’s poem. I had to search for the poem online, but I found it and decided to pair it with the illustration of the goose walking on stage and reading it.

Amy: I was charmed! I retweeted the illustration and wrote to thank Emma. We had never met, and I was honored to be part of her post.  Then we got chatting in direct messages: What if we collaborated on a whole COLLECTION of such animal pocket poems? We could make a BOOK! No, we can’t do that. Illustrators and authors do not collaborate before selling manuscripts. But…maybe we could try?

Emma: So we tried. We drafted and illustrated and continued to tweet collaborations on successive Poem in Your Pocket Days. We wrote to Rebecca Davis, Editorial Director at Wordsong/Astra Books for Young Readers. Amy revised based on her feedback. And I made a full color, glossy dummy copy of the pages we’d made.

And in 2019, to our great delight, Rebecca acquired the manuscript.

Why is it important for young readers to learn about Poem in Your Pocket Day? 

Amy: Poem in Your Pocket Day celebrates something both big and small. Poems are big. They change us and help us understand ourselves and the world. And poems are small too. They fit in our pockets. I know people who carry poems in their wallets. I have two lines of poetry (“Good books./Good times.” – Lee Bennett Hopkins) tattooed on my right forearm. 

A line from a poem can ignite a memory, inspire a laugh, or carry us through a season of darkness. Poems are free for the copying and carrying. Poems give us strength and make us whole. It is difficult to imagine a more simple and empowering idea to celebrate.

The different animals featured in the poems are so varied.  How did you choose the animals to write about?  Did some “speak” to you more than others?

Amy: All animals surely have complete poetry collections that they could write and carry, but for this collection, we wanted variety. There should be birds and fish, reptiles, invertebrates, mammals, and amphibians. 

After gathering facts, I tried to mentally become each of these animals, channeling what each would say. It joyfully stretched me to write as grand Barren-Ground Caribou and wise Spotted Turtle. Writing as the young girl in the opening and closing poems, I thought about all of the animal-loving children I know. And as often happens when creating, the animals, including the child, spoke to me.

Emma, your illustrations in the book are bold and vibrant. What was your illustrative process? 

Emma: The process began with reading the poems. I printed copies and hung them in the studio so that I could become familiar with them and get a sense of the animal in each poem.

Then came the research. I’m a naturalist at heart, so this was a very fun, enjoyable part of the process, as I loved learning about all of the different animals. The highlight of this research was speaking to an owner of a reindeer farm in Alaska. She was a wealth of information and I learned so much from her.  

Sketches, and tons of them, were next. I learned to draw by mimicking the works of others – shout out to Charles M. Schulz – so I wanted to keep the sketches as simple as possible so that if any of the readers want to try and draw the animal, they can.

I painted the sketches by scanning them and then placing them into Adobe Illustrator, my software of choice. I referenced all the images I had collected so that I could be sure to get the colors correct. Each animal/spread had its own palette, but I also had to pay attention to how they worked as a group. I absolutely love this part! There is a lot of trial and error and sometimes those errors are actually not wrong at all. I like that element of surprise to the process 

Poetry is experiencing a resurgence of sorts in our national conversation. Why do you believe poetry is essential for young readers? 

Amy: Poetry enchants. Poetry heals. Poetry uplifts. Poetry connects. Always and in this moment too, humans need enchantment, healing, uplifting, and connection. No matter our ages, we thrill in the sounds of words playfully arranged. 

Poetry is song. And we deserve and long and need to sing…

Emma: ​​Poetry is key to expression. It’s a way to play with language. The best way to explain this is with a personal example.

When I was a sophomore in high school, Melinda Schwab, my English teacher, was launching a poetry unit. I was not a huge fan of poetry. My limited exposure to it had been mostly the works of deceased males, “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” kind of stuff.  I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a living poet. When Mrs. Schwab announced she was bringing a poet to class, I rolled my eyes. She caught me doing so and after class, pulled me aside and asked me to keep an open mind and open heart when the poet arrived the following week.

The day arrived and as we were filing into the classroom, Mrs. Schwab looked at me and mouthed, “Open mind. Open heart.”  

The poet had a long, black braid, a flowing dress and she had brought her guitar. I thought it would be a little too ‘crunchy-granola’ for me but I promised Mrs. Schwab, so I listened intently as the poet read a poem and then sang a song about a rutabaga. It was a poem so different from any I had read or heard. She shared with us how she went about writing her poetry and how we could express ourselves with poetry. She was not wrong. She guided us through some exercises and showed us how to put our feelings on paper. It changed my life. I am not kidding. She showed us how to play with words and language. I realized that all that journaling I had been doing was actually writing and that I shared a love of words just like she did.

She read our poems and called us poets.

The poet was Naomi Shihab Nye. The year was 1980 and she was the only author visit I experienced as a student.

Poetry is essential.

I remain eternally grateful to both Naomi Shihab Nye and Mrs. Schwab.

Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s acclaimed books for children includeRead! Read! Read! and Write! Write! Write!, both of which are NCTE Notable Poetry Books. A writing teacher and blogger at The Poem Farm, she lives on an old farm in Western New York with her husband Mark and their dogs, cats, chickens, and bees. Visit amyludwigvanderwater.com.

Emma J. Virján is the author-illustrator of the Pig in a Wig series, including What This Story Needs is a Pig in a Wig and What This Story Needs is a Hush and a Shush. Visit emmavirjan.com.