Kate Garchinsky and Julie Zickefoose on Nature Writing for Kids

Aug 14, 2017 | Community Good News

Up in the Garden and Down in the DirtI was in a preschool classroom last week. We read one of my favorite nature books: Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt by Kate Messner. We used the book to explore the outdoors. Could we find the same busy bugs that Kate wrote about? And would I keep my cool when a garter snake came for a visit in the dirt? (The answer to both questions was not yes.)

kids exploringI’ll never tire of seeing kids in the dirt exploring. With soil-covered discoveries in their hands, I see them connect to our planet in a special way. I am grateful for the many fiction and nonfiction books that allow me to ignite learning and motivating children to make their own observations and explorations in nature. How many fellow teachers will pull Leafman from the shelf in late September? Or Seed, Sprout, Pumpkin, Pie come October? Both titles paired with vegetation investigations.

At the Highlights Foundation this fall, we’ll pull out our best nature stories as well. Like children in schools all over the country, we’ll head out into nature to observe, explore, and investigate. The only difference is that our students will also discover ways to write and illustrate books about nature for children. Our workshop, The Art and Craft of Nature Writing and Illustration, returns this October for four days of field study, one-on-one manuscript critiquing, and lecture. Kate Garchinsky and Julie Zickefoose, along with their guests, will guide writers and illustrators in the classroom and over the scenic grounds of the Highlights Foundation.

Julie and Kate stopped by the blog to share details about their forthcoming projects and their upcoming workshop.

Alison: Hi, Kate! Hi, Julie! Thank you for joining us on the blog today.

Julie, your Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest is a spectacular showcase of birds. I love the way young children connect with your illustrations. What will you “look into” next?

Baby BirdsJulie: Hi, Alison. This has been the Summer of the Blue Jay for me, and I’m studying, photographing, thinking about, and writing about blue jays most of the time. In mid-May, I happened to be given an 11-day old nestling, found on a city sidewalk in Marietta, Ohio, and I’ve spent the entire summer raising and releasing her and keeping our continually stretching bond intact so I can keep learning from her. She teaches me something every day. If you’re curious, see my Instagram feed (@juliezickefoose). With about 10 swipes of your finger, you can see this little jay grow, then be released through still photos and videos. She’s my Rosetta Stone into the world of blue jays.

Alison: Thank you for all of the photographs. We look forward to a book from you about the blue jay.

Kate, your path to publication is tied closely to the Highlights Foundation. We would love to hear a bit about your journey and also about any upcoming books you’re working on.

The Secret Life of the Red FoxKate: Hi, Alison, and thank you. Everyone who visits the Highlights Foundation calls it “special.” For me, it has been my chrysalis, my personal space for metamorphosis. Three years ago I attended the “Writing About Nature” workshop. That’s where I met Laurence [Larry] Pringle. I returned a month later for Chautauqua East (now called “Summer Camp”), and Larry became my mentor. During one of our one-to-one sessions, Larry told me that he had a story about a Red Fox in need of an illustrator. I doodled a fox in the margins of my sketchbook for him to evaluate. I didn’t expect for that doodle to open the door to publication, but, earlier this year The Secret Life of the Red Fox was published—it is my first children’s book, and Laurence Pringle’s 116th. We now have two more “Secret Life” books in the works. By 2019 I’ll have four books out in the world. For years I’d been told I was ready to “break out” at other conferences and critique events. With the mentorship, education, and connections I found at the Highlights Foundation, at last, I finally did. Flap, flap, flitter-flutter.

Alison: Kate, we look forward to more “Secret Life” books.

Julie, one of the field exercises that you have planned for the Nature Writers workshop is Situational Awareness. Can you tell our readers what to expect from this exercise?

Julie: Situational Awareness and the Art of Disappearing is such a large and unwieldy topic that it pretty much has to become a book soon. It’s about how to get more out of your field experiences — how to go through the environment with all senses open and receptive. It’s woodcraft, but it’s also about living better and more fully, letting nature both soothe and excite you with its ever-changing show.

leaf stencil

For example, can you spot the leaf stencil in this image?

What do you see in this image of bindweed?


I want to help writers and illustrators tune in to nature as they work to create books for children. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone at the workshop and learning as much from them as they do from me.

Alison: Kate, you are no stranger to learning from observation. You attended a workshop last fall where I recall you were curled into a bat pose as you spoke about illustrating your Secret Life of Little Brown Bat (2018). You’ve experienced our workshops as a special guest and conferee. Now you’ll be our host. Can you tell us a bit about what you’re looking forward to in your role as host of this workshop? 

Kate: With every trip I take to the Foundation, I feel more connected to the Barn, the open meadows, the cabins, and every fern and fir in the surrounding woodlands. I cannot wait to share all of this with illustrators and writers who, like me, feel most at home in nature. I look forward to being a “field guide” for deeper creativity.

autumnOne exercise that I will host is called, “Come to Your Senses.” In this indoor/outdoor session, I’ll ask fellow writers and illustrators to try out strategies for resisting distractions and using all five senses. These are helpful tips for quieting the noise that sometimes takes us from the page and together we can build our creative muscles. I’ll bring the conferees out into the field with me, journals in hands. We’ll work through prompts and observations and then follow the exercise with an open discussion.

The entire workshop will be filled with walks, journaling, and the nuts and bolts kind of information that writers and illustrators need to know as they create books (and more) for children about nature. I’m thrilled to host the workshop along with Julie and our impressive group of special guests.

Alison: Thank you, Kate and Julie! See you this fall!

— Interview by Alison Green Myers

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