Thursday, May 8, 2014

Introducing The New Birder's Guide!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

My latest book is out this week and I’m kind of excited about it. It’s The New Birder’s Guide published by my great friends at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Boston. This book’s core content—simple species profiles of 300 of the most-commonly encountered North American birds—is based upon The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America which is aimed at young people between the ages of 8 and 12.

The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America was itself an expanded version (with 100 western bird species added) of my original book in this series The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America which was a best seller among nature books in its time and the winner of several book awards. After the publication of the eastern YBG I wanted to do a version for young birders in the western United States, but the folks at HMH were more enthusiastic about doing a guide for all of North America, so that’s the direction we took.

My original idea for doing a field guide for young birders came from my own experience as a 7-year-old who had sparked on birds but struggled with the available resources. It wasn’t until my family moved from Iowa to Ohio in 1971 and my mom fell in with a gang of birding women that I discovered that bird watching was a hobby and there were other people who thought birds were cool. This was also my introduction to Pat Murphy, leader of The Betsey Birders (affiliated with a local organization for women and girls known as The Betsey Mills Club) who became a birding mentor to our family and to dozens of others in the Marietta, Ohio region. Pat introduced us to field guides and bird feeders and taught us bird identification and bird songs. She also gave me my first look through a spotting scope. This gave my interest in birds and nature an enormous boost and eventually led to my family starting Bird Watcher’s Digest. But that’s another story…

So when it was time for me to propose a new book idea, my talented editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Lisa A. White, asked my what I wanted to do. I told her I wanted to create a field guide for young birders. She asked what my vision was and I replied, “I want to create the field guide that I wish I’d had as a young person interested in birds.”

Lisa liked this concept but wondered aloud how I would make this book different from “all the other kids books out there on birds and nature.”

“I’m going to use my daughter Phoebe’s 4th grade class as my focus group!”

And that was the genesis of these three books. Phoebe and her classmates helped me for their 4th and 5th grade years, choosing photos, critiquing design samples, refining the content, and this made the entire book-creating process incredibly inspiring for me. We started out by going birding and using every single field guide I could find—both for kids and for adults. The kids told me what they liked and didn’t like. We followed the progress of the book through concept development, writing, editing, re-writing, more editing, image and illustration selection, design samples, production, proofing, galleys, and—finally—finished books. The day I walked into Salem Liberty Elementary School, halfway through their 6th grade year, and handed out copies of The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America to each of the students was the single proudest day of my professional life. I still get choked up thinking about it. We DID it! We made a BOOK! We all just stood there beaming…

The original Young Birder's Guide to eastern birds.
A month or so later I was at a birding festival—I can’t remember where—giving my first talk based upon the Young Birder’s Guide. Afterwards I was selling and signing copies of the book and the very first person to buy one was a friendly woman of about 70 who was buying a copy for her grandson who had shown some interest in birds. I signed the book and endorsed it to her grandson; she thanked me and walked out of the auditorium. About 20 minutes later I saw her come back into the room and get back in line. Soon she was back at my table, shaking her right forefinger at me.

“You should have called this The NEW Birder’s Guide! I was leafing through it in my car and the content and approach are so easy to understand! It’s PERFECT for a new birder like me. I’ll take another one and you can autograph it to me, my name is Irene.”

A light bulb went off in my head as I signed her book. And now, six years after that encounter, here is The New Birder’s Guide. It includes the same 300 species profiles as the all-of-North-America version of the YBG but redesigned for adults. And it features almost 40 pages of new introductory material for the adult beginning birder. These introductory pages include advice on finding and identifying birds, on field craft, on bird conservation, how to dress, how to gear-up for a birding trip, how to choose optics, and so on. Perhaps my favorite section is the one entitled “You Might be a Birder if…” I’ll let you be the judge of whether or not I get things right. At the very least I hope it’ll give you a chuckle.
That's me guiding young birders in Massachusetts.
If you are a new birder, or if you know a new (or young) birder, I hope you’ll consider getting them a copy of one of these books. After all, Phoebe is off to college this fall and we’re counting every penny. Have you seen what college tuition costs these days? Yikes!
Phoebe has helped me at many book signings.

Thanks for coming along with me on this journey. I’ll see you out there with the birds!

Bill of the Birds

P.S. When The Young Birders Guide to Birds of North America came out in 2012, covering 300 species for the continent, it replaced The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. The good folks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt allowed me to acquire the remaining 1,500 copies of the eastern YBG with the stipulation that I not sell them. So I gave them away to young birder’s clubs, nature centers, scout groups, teachers, schools, and to kids who’d already “sparked” on birds. I know this may have taken away of a few sales of my books, but I’ve always felt that my main mission on this planet is to help people discover the joys of bird watching. And there’s no better way to accomplish that than by giving someone a copy of the book I wished I’d had as a child—way back in 1968, when a snowy owl flew into our Iowa front yard and my life was changed forever.


On May 8, 2014 at 9:10 AM Jason Kessler said...

Excellent news.