Origins of “On Bird Hill”

For as far back as I can remember, I doodled. In elementary and high school I filled reams of blank paper and the margins of my textbooks with tiny little drawings, one-offs that sort of just fell from my brainpan and were soon forgotten (except perhaps by the next users of my textbooks). Only a handful survived.

In college, I very slowly learned how to draw, taking eight semesters of figure drawing and creating hundreds of still-lifes and landscapes. I continued to “doodle”, but two things happened:

1) My doodles became more self-conscious and complex, but were not very “realistic” – I simply allowed the pencil line to go wherever it wanted. This was almost the exact opposite of how I was being taught to draw—i.e., training my eyes to see what’s really there in front of me and training my hand to be able to draw it as accurately as possible. By definition, therefore, doodles weren’t “Art”, which created a major conflict.

2) I solved the problem by continuing to “doodle” – but kept the results hidden in a folder for most of my life. Several years ago, though, I finally realized that I wasn’t afraid of them anymore, and when my friend of thirty-five years, Jane Yolen, visited my studio, I worked up the courage to show her some “weird” drawings that were very different from my nonfiction work as a children’s book illustrator.

To my great surprise she not only loved them, but a few days later wrote a picture book for me titled “What If…?”, based on one of my doodles – a funny elephant with tiny wings (What if elephants could fly…; What if … etc.).

As I was working on the drawings for that book, I got stuck – as often happens (in this particular case, I’m still stuck years later). So I did what I usually do in that situation – I doodled. I found a blank piece of paper, an HB pencil and a kneaded eraser, cleared my mind, and started by drawing a curved line. This time, the curve happened to be pretty rounded and when I followed it, it became an egg which suggested a mother bird who quickly materialized around the egg. Her back, as it sloped away, reminded me of a favorite hill, which led to more hills, which led to a tiny house perched on top on one of them with a winding path leading down and a small figure walking along it. The curve of her tail followed the first curve and quite naturally arched over her back, thereby creating a self-contained little world. All of this occurred very quickly and with little thought – though I should add that winding paths and little houses on hilltops have sporadically appeared – unbidden – in various doodles over the years.

A few weeks later, Jane stopped by my studio to see how the “What If…” sketches were coming along. She saw my still-unfinished pencil drawing of an egg/bird/landscape and asked me to print a copy for her. On her drive home, it turned out, she was already composing a draft in her head for what became “On Bird Hill”. Less than two hours after she left my studio, I received this email from her:

“I was reciting lines over and over to myself as I drove home and halfway there I realized that it had to cycle all the way down again to the perfect ending. Attached is the first full draft.”

I prepared thumbnails and sketches, and then color sketches. As it happened, it took several more years to find just the right publisher – and it took Jane more than a dozen revisions to be happy with her text. Last year, happily, Cornell Lab of Ornithology was developing a brand-new imprint for young children and, as Jane and her family had a long association with the Lab, they approached her about submitting something. She sent them her text and I sent sketches and color samples – and they liked it all.

So that’s how “On Bird Hill” became the very first book – in fact, the only book – on Cornell Lab’s very first list for ages 2-6. And it has now become a series – I’m currently working on “On Duck Pond” (pub. date: spring ‘17), with “On Gull Beach” following not long after that.

FYI: If you follow the link to “some weird drawings” and view the slideshow, there is a seven-slide sequence in about the middle that shows the pencil drawing that became the “On Bird Hill” cover, plus several early color samples and close-ups.