Joanne Levy – How Bird Poop Inspired a Book

March 1, 2024

Author Joanne Levy and her African Grey parrot, GabbyWelcome to Cantastic Authorpalooza, featuring posts by and about great Canadian children’s book creators! Today’s guest: Joanne Levy. Take it away, Joanne!

One of the most common questions I get from young readers is, “Where do you get your ideas?” If you’re an author reading this, I’m sure you’re nodding along—it’s very common.

I take this question to mean that the person asking is struggling to figure out how to be creative. How to come up with amazing stories like the ones they love to read. But they’re asking the wrong question; the key is not coming up with great ideas, the key is to being open to them when they strike you.

What I tell aspiring authors (even if they don’t overtly identify as would-be writers – to my mind, when they ask that question, they have just self-identified as an aspiring) is that ideas are literally everywhere and that they already are creative, that they have the capacity for lots of ideas. They may even know this already, but they need to turn off that internal editor that says an idea is too silly, or won’t work, or who would want to read a story about that?

Thinking about my own childhood favourites: a farm filled with talking animals, including a wise spider; a group of siblings that escape through a wardrobe to a whole other world; a peace-loving bull who loves smelling flowers, an orphan showing up on a farm, only to find out she wasn’t the child the family had been hoping for.

Cover of Bird Brain by Joanne LevyWhat if the authors of those books had let that self-editor get in the way of them telling their stories?

Hence my mantra: Be open to any and all ideas. You can always toss them later, but always, always be open to them. Because until you sit with them and let them germinate, you may not recognize that you can turn poop into gold. Or, more accurately, turn poop into a book.

Here’s my real-life example: I have an African Grey parrot named Gabby and, as you may know, parrots are very messy. They throw food around and, like all living creatures, they eat and then they poop. Gabby’s cage has bars at the bottom and then a tray underneath where I layer newspapers and grocery store flyers that catch her poop (and all that wasted food!). This makes cleaning up her messes a bit easier.

One day, back in 2015, I was cleaning her cage, changing papers and scrubbing poop, and I wondered what would happen if Gabby were able to read the papers and store flyers that I use to line her cage tray. She’s a pretty good talker and says many things in proper context, but what if she was over-the-top smart?  What would she say? What would she do with the ability to read? What would her story be?

Boom: book idea.

Of course, that was just the seed of an idea, but as soon as I had that, my mental gears started turning. That’s where the real fun is: Building a story around an idea and creating a character, using my own pet as a model.

Living with a parrot means I have an appreciation for how clever they are in real life. I am also familiar with Dr. Irene Pepperberg whose life work is studying African Grey parrots and how smart they are and how they can acquire and use language. I felt that weaving some of that real stuff in was important, not only to deepen the character of Ludwig the parrot, but also so readers would see that the parts I made up have some basis in fact. (I also include an author’s note so readers can separate the fact from fiction.)

It was such a joy to write what I think is a truly unique book that I know kids will love. Pets are a popular topic for kids but while there are so many books out there that feature dogs and cats, I was able to create a book that will entertain readers and teach them a bit about birds and how smart (and challenging and messy!) they can be.

I’m grateful that on a day way back when, I was open to ideas even as I was surrounded by poop and a clever parrot.

By the way, I can honestly say that I’ve also gotten great ideas when scooping my cats’ litter box, so great ideas are definitely not limited to bird poop.

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