To say I am grateful to count Brenda Guiberson as a friend is an understatement. Brenda has been a mentor and confident and encourager for me for a long, long time. I knew her work — Cactus Hotel! — before I knew her. I admire her curiosity about the natural world, as well as her ability to share what she’s learned in a kid-friendly way. Today we are celebrating her latest, a unique collaboration with Joe Hutto, (also the illustrator of the book), When I Was a Turkey: Based on the PBS Documentary My Life As A Turkey (Christy Ottaviano/Henry Holt).
My latest book involves Joe Hutto, a naturalist/artist/writer and excellent turkey talker. In the early 1990s he began an experiment with wild turkeys by talking to them while they were a collection of eggs in an incubator. Purr, trill, puttputt. He was a bit embarrassed but stuck to it. Then one day he got an answer. From inside the eggs came a soft chorus of peep peep peep.
As the poults began to break out of their shells, Joe positioned himself to be the first thing seen by each hatchling. This process, called imprinting, made him the “mother” to a flock of 23. As they grew he documented their seasonal food preferences and natural curiosity about the landscape of northern Florida. The birds developed distinct personalities and each was given a suitable name, like Little Friend, Turkey Boy and Bright Eyes. His dawn to dusk efforts to protect them were wonderful but also exhausting. Some birds died despite his best efforts.
Eventually Joe organized his drawings and notes into a book for adults called Illumination in the Flatwoods. Later PBS recreated his experiment with an actor, got some terrific results, and produced an Emmy award-winning documentary called My Life As A Turkey.
So where do I fit in? I took on the project of turning all of this into a middle-grade nonfiction book titled When I Was a Turkey. An adaptation? After 30 books, this was a first for me.
I began by reading Joe’s book, watching the video, and talking with him about what he considered his most important concepts and feelings.
Not all sources lined up. The actor in the PBS film took a bite into a live grasshopper. In his book, Joe joined the turkeys in a grasshopper hunt, but did he indulge? Joe said no and speculated that the actor received extra pay for that crunchy drama.
During this process, some things were condensed from Joe’s longer book, but other information was expanded to “show” younger readers what was happening. For instance, Joe wrote that he was submissive to Turkey Boy. But how did he do it? Answers to many questions came through phone calls, emails and a bit of waiting as Joe was often in the field and away from contact.
It was intriguing to learn how Joe expanded his turkey knowledge into an understanding of shrugs, grimaces, intelligence and curiosity. In return the birds urged him to behave, dress, and view the world like a proper turkey. They shared scientific moments investigating bones, digging up an arrowhead, and identifying overhead birds and species of snakes.
So how did Joe become that person who would spend over a year as a member of a flock of wild turkeys? Here is a clue. As a child he once shared his bedroom with a small bobcat, a seven-foot boa constrictor (not poisonous) and a gray squirrel.