The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Robert Burleigh
"My guiding principle is that every child has in him or her
the wish to grow and the ability to express things that matter."
~ Robert Burleigh
Robert Burleigh was born and raised in Chicago. He graduated from DePauw University (Greencastle, Indiana) and later received an MA in humanities from the University of Chicago.
He is the award-winning author of poems, reviews, essays, many filmstrips and videos, and more than 40 children's picture books, including: O Captain, My Captain: Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War (2019); Night Train, Night Train (2018); Sylvia's Bookshop: The Story of Paris's Beloved Bookstore and Its Founder (As Told by the Bookstore Itself!) (2018); Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea (2016); Trapped: A Whale’s Rescue (2015); and Flight of the Last Dragon (2012).
As you can see, his books - including numerous unpublished ones! - run a broad gamut, from stories geared for preschoolers to survival stories and biographies aimed at seven to eleven-year-olds. His work is wide-ranging because, basically, he's a generalist by experience - and inclination! In addition to writing, he paints regularly under the art name Burleigh Kronquist and has shown work in one-person and group shows in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere around the country.
His newest picture book, Tiny Bird: A Hummingbird’s Amazing Journey, releases tomorrow.
Welcome Robert, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest book and writing.
ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
ROBERT: I usually write in the mornings. I’ve been writing—including poetry and childrens books—for 40 years or more. I really like survival stories, and still someday hope to write about the greatest survival story I know about: Shackleton’s escape from Antarctica in the early 1900s. And I always enjoy writing poetically, when it feels like the right approach for a book!
That sounds like an interesting book! I do hope you write it. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
Probably in the book world, few know that I paint regularly, perhaps more than I write: My art might be described as a kind of metaphorical abstraction. Happily, I’ve had a number of art shows in Chicago and New York and elsewhere, under the art-name Burleigh Kronquist.
It's cool to have multiple creative outlets. How has your experience as a painter influenced your writing?
The emphasis on imagery and immediacy in painting has definitely influenced my writing style and the subjects I’m interested in writing about. It translates in that I attempt to use vivid and expressive language in my writing.
I adore hummingbirds and immediately fell in love with this cover. What was the inspiration for Tiny Bird: A Hummingbird’s Amazing Journey?
There was a hummer that came frequently a few years ago to sip at the flowers on our back porch. So I read a bit about them and was amazed by the huge journey some undertake to travel to warmer climates for the winter: thus, this book. The little hummer (I think it’s the same one, but I’m not absolutely sure) has returned (I think) two or three years in a row!
Was your experience writing Tiny Bird easier or harder than Fly, Cher Ami, Fly!: The Pigeon Who Saved the Lost Battalion (2008) or Trapped: A Whale’s Rescue (2015)?
Every book has its particular problems—that’s what makes writing interesting!
What made the hummingbird book a bit easier was the fact that it was one long trip, whereas the other two had a few more twists and turns.
Interesting. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
Wow! You’re asking a guy to stumble back many, many years! We had a series of books called My Book House, containing lots of nursery rhymes and short stories. It must have been much used because when I came back years later to clean out my parents’ house, the book was still there – with many rips and tears! I know that lots of the rhymes stuck with me a long time and a line or two still pops up. There’s a lot of secret wisdom in those little tidbits!
Sounds like it might be worth finding a copy of this series. Do you have a favorite spread in Tiny Bird or one that surprised you?
Text © Robert Burleigh, 2020. Image © Wendell Minor, 2020.
I like the spread where the bird is crossing the water. Especially the picture on the page where the creature seems to be coming right at you, the reader!
Wendell Minor certainly did an amazing job with this spread and the rest of the book. With such a diverse spectrum of work, what or who is your greatest source of inspiration?
Poetry and art always help. The poet who most consistently inspires me is Walt Whitman (at his best), but I also love to quote lines from Willy Yeats—and I love many contemporary artists’ work. Then there are the people I’ve known who have reminded me of the joy of being alive. And of course, the natural world is a constant source of renewal and inspiration.
With so much inspiration it's no wonder you can write so many different books. What was the toughest aspect of writing Tiny Bird?
Finding the best approach for the book. Every possible subject has many doors by which to enter. So one has to browse the subject (so to speak) until an idea hits. But here I think the long and miraculous migration flight of this little bird made it an easy choice.
Oh, I love that analogy. Is there something you want your readers to know about Tiny Bird?
It was a lot of fun to imagine what it might feel like to be such a small, yet strong, creature.
You and Wendell really do a great job of putting the reader into the bird's "shoes." What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer for you? Any advice for unpublished authors?
Because my work is fairly wide-ranging, I’m not able to focus on one particular area as much as I’d sometimes like to do. But I also enjoy learning about many different people, historic periods, and natural phenomena.
For aspiring authors, I’d recommend getting involved in local and national book organizations, going to conferences, participating in writing workshops, and seeking an agent who specializes in children’s literature.
Interesting conundrum. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I have several projects in the works, but I’m superstitious about discussing them until I feel surer about their direction! But given our current moment, perhaps something about pandemics might be appropriate!
Totally understandable. Good luck with them. What is your favorite animal? Why?
I love dolphins—maybe because I love swimming. In fact, my wife calls me 'Otter Man' when we swim together, so I guess I’m drawn to otters, too!
Thank you so much, Robert for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.
Be sure to stop back by on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Tiny Bird: A Hummingbird's Journey.
To find out more about Robert Burleigh, or get in touch with him:
Website (visual art): http://www.burleighkronquist.com/