Ooh, do I have a treat for you today! Cindy Derby (author-illustrator of How to Walk an Ant and illustrator of Outside In, among others) has her second book as an author/illustrator releasing November 10, 2020 — Two Many Birds! And I’ve got both an interview with Cindy, as well as a giveaway of Two Many Birds happening over on my Instagram page. Check out the fascinating interview below, and be sure to pop over to Instagram for your chance to win a signed copy of Two Many Birds as well as an original bird painting from Cindy!
Below, you’ll find my interview with Cindy Derby. You’ll find my questions to Cindy in bold, with her answers directly below each question. She’s also contributed delightful photographs of the final product, her work in progress, and her writing process.
Me: Two Many Birds is described as a “story about the power of community, inclusion, and empathy.” You’ve taken experiences many children can understand (waiting in long lines, being turned away when something is at capacity, an adult or person of power barking rules endlessly — and creating new rules on a whim…) and put a fun twist on them to make them light-hearted but still impactful. How did you come up with this idea?
Cindy: Two Many Birds is my second author/illustrated book with the rad folks at Roaring Brook Press. It is a story about a community of birds that line up to sit on a tree and are constantly bombarded by a shouting ‘bird monitor’ who enforces a ticketing system, arbitrary rules, and enforces a 100-bird capacity limit.
Waiting in long lines has always been fascinating to me. Whether it is in line to go on a roller coaster ride, in line at the grocery store, or in line to use a public restroom. As a kid and as an adult, you are constantly reminded to wait your turn.
This was my very first drawing that resulted in the momentum of Two Many Birds…
What are these birds waiting for? I didn’t know yet—but drawing birds wearing fancy outfits was so very satisfying.
That’s when I thought: “Wouldn’t it be funny if they were in line to sit in a tree?”,
This eventually led to “what are the rules for sitting on this tree?” and“what if there was a limit to how many birds were allowed to sit in the tree?”
I created a ‘bird monitor’ in a tall lifeguard-style chair. I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back, that was the closest thing to my aha moment. It went from a thing…to the beginning of a story.
When I was in kindergarten, I had a teacher who made me sit in the corner and watch a sand timer for ten minutes because I faced my crayon box the wrong way on the table. I watched every little grain of sand filter through the top to the bottom of the glass, which I remember feeling like was the size of a building. While at that sand timer, I reflected a lot about this punishment of facing my crayons that way. And after a few minutes of deep reflection, I let out a HUGE cackle (I had an adult sounding laugh at five years old). And I got in trouble again and clocked on an additional ten minutes to the sand timer. So I flipped the sand timer over to begin the process over again. And…of course…I cackled even harder the second time.
Rules are meant to evolve. The change is driven by those that question and stand up to rules when they do not feel fair. My cackle spurred the other students in the class, and from that moment forward the other students faced their crayons the wrong way.
The status quo created by the bird monitor in Two Many Birds is to keep the 100-bird capacity on the tree. When two baby birds are born from a hidden egg while on the tree and the bird monitor charges at them, the community of birds flock together to fight against the injustice.
Breaking this rule sparked the innovation needed to create a community that focuses on the growth of new trees and includes everyone.
Me: Many of the birds in this book have their own unique style and personality that shows through your illustrations. Is there a bird in Two Many Birds that reflects your own personality? If so, which one?
Cindy: Well…I think each of the birds has a little bit of me in them if my personality were to be split up into a hundred different ways.
I love this bird the most because he reminds me of Pig-Pen from Charlie Brown…a bit unkempt. Definitely me as a kid…and still me today.
Me: When you write a story, do you know the whole plot line when you start or does it create itself as you write?
Cindy: That’s a good question…I wish I knew the whole plot line when I started. Then again, I’m happy it isn’t that easy. I tend to come up with good stuff when I don’t force my drawing to give me an outcome.
Two Many Birds began on lots of post-it notes. The post-it notes were just random thoughts that popped into my head. Nothing important.
After I spewed out a bunch of jokes, I thought “Hey…this is funny…let’s see what happens if I put it in a book.” Then I froze. I thought, “Oh no, this needs to make sense, this needs to be good.” So, as I went on, my book dummies got smaller and smaller. I was trying to recreate the playfulness I had with the post-it notes. And the smaller the book’s physical size…the less intimidated I felt.
In my very first version of the story, the monitor bird is cast out of society and the story ends right there. The plot gained momentum…then fell flat.
That’s when my editor Emily Feinberg suggested I push it further. So I did. “What now?” I asked myself after the bird monitor lay there with no purpose anymore. And slowly but surely, with help from my agent and editor and critique partners…I found the ending. My editor even made some pretty great bird doodles along the way to help me get there.
Me: You’ve illustrated many books, but this is your second book as an author/illustrator. Please share some similarities and differences between illustrating your own story and illustrating someone else’s story.
Cindy: Yes! I have illustrated many different stories, all about very different subjects. I’ve illustrated a book about grieving the death of a parent, a book about the joy of a birthday, a book about reconnecting with nature, a book about the experience of a newborn baby, and a glorious book of poems.
When working on a book as the illustrator, I receive the manuscript and already there is a story in place. I can steer off course, but the words are always my guiding light. That is why I think picture book authors are so brilliant. They are an illustrator’s lighthouse in an endless storm of possibility.
When I am working on both the words and the pictures as the author/illustrator— it can be challenging because there are too many options. My solution for this is a deadline and boundaries.
For example, I created a limited set up in Two Many Birds. I created only the tree and the line of birds. I didn’t branch off and have the birds go to the lake or some fox’s house down the street. I stuck to that one tree. With this very simple set up, I was able to be much more creative.
The similarities are that they both require patience and the difference is that when I create my own book, I make more rules for myself then break them later.
Me: How old were you when you wrote and illustrated your first “book?” How about your first published book?
Cindy: When I was seven years old, I wrote and illustrated a story about a booger. I went into great detail with it and read it in front of my class. I don’t think it really landed with the other students, but I didn’t care because I was just so proud of it.
I began working on How to Walk an Ant when I was 29 years old.
After a long journey, it was published when I was 32 years old, and now I am 34 years old. My dog, Banjo is 12 years old and his book comes out next year.
Me: What is a picture book you remember reading as a child? What stands out about it in your memory?
Cindy: The Mitten by Jan Brett. I will always remember the texture of that beautifully woven mitten. Jan, if you ever read this…I’m gonna be talking about the texture of that mitten for the rest of my life. So anyway, this mitten stretched and formed as animals made their way inside to stay warm. I love how at the end of that book, the boy finds his lost mitten and it is completely overstretched but he has no idea why. This book is as heartwarming as the inside of that mitten.
Me: If you weren’t an author and an illustrator, what career would you want to have?
Cindy: I always thought it would be fascinating to be a documentary filmmaker. Or a food critic with only nice things to say.
Too Many Birds will be available for purchase everywhere on November 10, 2020! Many thanks to Roaring Brook Press for the advance reader’s edition of Too Many Birds. All links above go directly to Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan Publishers and are not affiliate links.
In addition to this delightful interview, Cindy is giving one lucky follower a signed book and a bird painting from her! The giveaway could be for US/Canada only, and is sponsored by Roaring Brook Press. Head over to my Instagram page and visit my latest post for your chance to win!