Friday, August 18, 2023

If you Burn a Forest Down...

Devastating wildfires have been in the news all summer, from Canada to Hawai’i, too often with deadly consequences for people and wildlife living in the path of flames. After a fire, people might choose to rebuild their homes and communities. But what about the forest? 

The Glorious Forest that Fire Built 
by Ginny Neil 
32 pages; ages 6-8
Amicus Ink, 2023

theme: ecology, wildfires, nonfiction

I am the forest. I am the fire, with flames whirling round. I swallow the forest…

When a fire consumes a forest, not much is left but black ground. But seeds fall, fungi sprout, flowers bloom, brambles and berries begin to grow, and animals move in. In this book Ginny shows the process of succession, from meadow back to forest.

What I like about this book: I like the cumulative way the story builds, adding one thing at a time to create a new forest where trees once stood. Succession is a process, and it happens bit by bit. Ginny tells a tale using rhyme and a familiar structure that kids will recognize. I like that it’s told from the point of view of the forest, and that once the trees have grown tall, there’s the realization that change is a constant in the environment. And I like the back matter, with a timeline of forest succession. 

What I like Best: This book ends with actions kids can take to protect forests from fire and a warming climate. In her author’s notes, Ginny admits that writing about fire when so many people have been affected is difficult. “The long view reveals that they also give much back to the land that they have ravaged,” she writes. She explains that the combination of fire suppression and climate change has contributed to the huge, catastrophic wildfires we’ve been seeing most recently. 

I wanted to know more about Ginny's writing, so I asked her  
A Couple Questions:

Me: What inspired you to write about fire succession?

Ginny: As a teenager, I spent my summers at a great camp in Virginia. The leader, John Ensign, took us on forest walks and one day he pointed out to us that hardwoods are the air conditioners of the earth. I began to wonder what would happen if they disappeared. That was a very early seed for the book.

After I married, we took our family out west to Colorado and drove through areas that had just been burned. I was intrigued to see bits of green poking up here and there – another seed.
Ten years ago, I retired from full time teaching and began writing. By 2017 I had a manuscript in progress called “This is the Forest that Wind Built” but in 2020 the news was all about forest fires and I remembered that trip to Colorado. I turned my focus to thinking about what happens to a forest after a fire. 

Me: How did revising/revisioning help you clarify the story you were writing?

Ginny: I think you finally know you are a writer when you recognize the importance of drafting. There were 42 drafts of The Glorious Forest that Fire Built, maybe more. 

I've learned to trust my gut. I will get a certain feeling when something is as good as I can get it and that's when I need to put my pencil down. 

This story started in 2017 with these lines, "This is the forest the wind built..This is the field that is home to forest the wind built...." About draft ten, fire made an appearance, but this manuscript still had a long ways to go...First lines were, "These are the flames that danced bright and hot..."

In 2021, on my 20th draft, I tried writing it in first person and suddenly I knew I was closer to saying what I wanted to say. The first three lines were almost word for word what is currently in the book, but the rest was a mess.

Ten drafts later, my agent Lisa Amstutz began helping me refine it, but it was pretty close at that point. We were just tweaking meter and rhyme.

This amount of drafting is pretty normal for me. I'm not sure how it is for other authors. Sometimes, I don't even know what I want to say until I have tried it a lot of different ways.  I do not like first drafts, but I can also spend too much time agonizing over every single word in a rewrite. I am trying to find a happy medium.

Me: Thanks for sharing your process, Ginny.

Beyond the Books:

Go for a forest walk. What do you notice about the temperature when you are walking beneath the trees? What do you hear as you walk in the forest? What kinds of plants do you see? What does your forest smell like?

Draw a picture of one of the trees that lives in a wooded park or forest near you. If you can, do a bark rubbing, collect a leaf, take a photo.

You can learn more about forest fires and succession here.

Ginny Neil is an award-winning teacher, a master naturalist, and a member of #STEAMTeam2023. You can find out more about her at her website

We’ll join Perfect Picture Book Friday once they resume. It’s a wonderful gathering where bloggers share great picture books  at Susanna Leonard Hill's website. Review copy provided by the publisher.

1 comment:

  1. What a great interview! Thanks for sharing your process.