Introducing BIRD GIRL – Gene Stratton-Porter Shares Her Love of Nature with the World, plus a GIVEAWAY!

Hello, readers. Happy Women’s History month! I’m thrilled today to introduce my newest book (illustrated by the extremely talented Rebecca Gibbon and published by Calkins Creek), a biography of author Gene Stratton-Porter.

One hundred years ago, Gene Stratton-Porter was a monstrously popular woman. She’d written 26 books, both fiction and nonfiction, all of which included a great deal of what she called “nature stuff.” Of the 55 books published between 1895 and 1945 that sold a million copies, 5 of them were hers. How popular was she? She and her husband and daughter had to relocate to a new, more isolated home/property miles from their original small-town Indiana residence simply because fans kept showing up at her door. Or wandering through her yard, trampling her carefully tended flowers and mistaking her for the gardener.

That isn’t something I was aware of while rereading one of her best-sellers, Girl of the Limberlost, back in 2018. But I did a “quick” Google search to learn more about her life, and I was hooked. Down the rabbit hole I went.

What struck me, right from the start, was how her free-range childhood affected her entire life. Geneva Stratton was the youngest of 12 children, and by the time she was 5, her mother was fighting a chronic illness, and many of her siblings were already out on their own. Of those who remained, the boys helped their father in the fields and the girls helped their mother with “women’s work.” As long as little Geneva stayed out from underfoot and showed up at mealtimes, she was free to roam. Lucky kiddo!

Her favorite times were spent observing moths, butterflies, and birds. She became so adept at taming birds and nursing the injured back to health that, for her 8th birthday, her cash-strapped-but-imaginative father gifted her with the care of all the birds on the farm. Geneva promptly located 64 nests––high in trees, deep in vine-covered fencerows, in the family’s orchard––and checked on them every day. She learned how to approach nests without frightening their inhabitants, what each kind of bird species ate, and how to differentiate and identify their various calls and what individual intonations meant. She fed hatchlings by hand while their parents perched on her head and shoulders.

But when she was 11, her life changed abruptly. Her father retired and moved the family to a nearby town where his ailing wife could be closer to doctors. Thus ended that carefree childhood, as Geneva struggled to fit in with the town girls and eventually became a townie herself. 

It wasn’t until she was married and mother to a school-age daughter that she was able to get back to her beloved birds in a big way (her secret dream:  writing about her true experiences with them). But you can read about that in my book. 

Since many of you are fellow writers, I wanted to share inside information about drafting this picture book (guaranteed to make you feel better about your own).

2700 words.

I know, I know. But it was so good! (Feel free to laugh/scoff/snort.) I sent it to my agent, who told me to cut it down. I sent it to my writing bestie Linda Skeers, who told me to cut it down. Then Linda reminded me of a truism about writing picture book biographies:  

Oh, yeah. Right. I knew that. 

Hmm. There were two things I liked most about GSP:  1) her love of nature, and 2) her can-do attitude.

Those two facets of her personality meshed beautifully when GSP decided to teach herself bird photography, which she wanted to use to illustrate her magazine articles and (not yet written) books. Did she know anything about photography? No. BUT because of that free-range childhood on the farm, she knew how to approach birds without alarming them, knew where they liked to make their nests, knew their behavior better than just about anybody. 

So, at a time when women were expected to be genteel and ladylike, GSP ignored conventions of the day. She donned a pair of her husband’s trousers (after first trying long skirts and deeming them too cumbersome), gathered up 40 pounds of photographic equipment (and a handgun in case she encountered rattlesnakes), and headed into the tangled wilderness near their home:  the 13,000 acre Limberlost Swamp. To get the best shot (and always carrying that heavy equipment), she slogged through stagnant ponds, climbed trees, hung over muddy banks (to see into a kingfisher’s tunnel nest), and more. Day after day after day for nearly 5 years. That’s how long it was before she was satisfied that her photos were good enough. (Oh, and she developed into photos those thousands of glass plates herself, too, in the family bathroom!)

How long is the final book? About 1200 words. You all KNOW how painful the cutting process was, right? But, ooh, did I go crazy with backmatter!

Three fun facts about GSP (because so many of you are writers):

            1.  When she hit it big, she lounged outdoors in the shade and dictated her novels to a                         secretary, who then typed out the manuscripts.

            2.  She refused to revise. Her editor once asked for revisions, and GSP told him that if he didn’t want to publish a particular manuscript as it was, somebody else would!

            3. When a reviewer called her books “molasses fiction,” saying her characters were too wholesome to be believed, GSP quipped a feisty, “How wonderful! All the world loves sweets.” 

Gene’s life was cut short by an auto accident in December of 1924 when she was only 61. Makes one wonder what else she might have accomplished, had she lived to a ripe old age. She’d just begun producing movies with her daughter and son-in-law, a new venture she felt compelled to begin after seeing a couple of horribly inferior movies someone else had made of her books. Anyway …

Bird Girl – Gene Stratton-Porter Shares Her Love of Nature with the World goes on sale in a week (March 12th). Please preorder if you’re so moved. For a chance at winning a copy of your own, simply leave a comment below. I’ll draw winning names randomly on Friday, March 15th. Astra is sending out books to TWO lucky winners (U.S. addresses only). Good luck, and I hope you enjoy reading about the remarkable Gene Stratton-Porter!

Want to read more about GSP? Check out this Smithsonian article by author Kathryn Aalto.

Jill Esbaum

Jill Esbaum has been picture book crazy since her 3 kids were little, and especially so after her first was published in 2004 (Stink Soup). Recent titles: Stinkbird Has a Superpower, Jack Knight's Brave Flight, Where'd My Jo Go?, Frog Boots, How to Grow a Dinosaur, Frankenbunny, If a T. Rex Crashes Your Birthday Party, Elwood Bigfoot– Wanted: Birdie Friends!, Teeny Tiny Toady, I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo!, and more. Coming in 2024: Parrotfish Has a Superpower (a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection) and Bird Girl: Gene Stratton-Porter Shares Her Love of Nature with the World (another JLG Gold Standard Selection). She's also the author of many nonfiction books for young readers, as well as an early graphic reader series, Thunder & Cluck. Learn more at http://jillesbaum.com.

88 Comments:

  1. Becky Adamski Krische

    What a great female centered picture book! I’m so happy to learn about GSP through this book. The story is perfect and the illustrations are lovely. I can’t wait to get a copy of this book!

  2. Jill, your work – whether it is a post or a picture book – brings a smile. Congratulations on Bird Girl: Gene Stratton-Porter Shares Her Love of Nature with the World. I look forward to reading it.

  3. Sounds wonderful, Jill! Can’t wait to read it!

  4. Jill
    Looks like another winner. It’s hard when there is so much juicy information and you just want to share it all. But cutting 1500 words…now that is an accomplishment! Congrats Jill.

  5. Debra Wolf Goldstein

    Can’t wait to read this book, Jill. I’m writing a PB biography now myself and am finding it sooo painful to cut it down below the magic 1,000-word mark.

  6. Congratulations, Jill! Looking forward to reading about GSP.

  7. Rebecca Gardyn Levington

    Congrats Jill! This sounds so fabulous! 🙂

  8. Patricia Nozell

    What fascinating stories – both Gene’s and your story of writing her biography. Can’t wait to read & share it!

  9. I love birds and I live in Indiana … and yet I had never heard for GSP! Excited to get my hands on this one. Congrats, Jill.

  10. Thank-you for introducing me to another wonderful woman who loved birds. Last summer I read about the intrepid Canadian bird researcher Louise de Kiriline Lawrence by Merilyn Simonds in her wonderful adult book Woman Watching (https://merilynsimonds.com/woman-watching.html). It’s a real pleasure to see a children’s book about another great bird observer and recorder GSP. I’m truly looking forward to reading your book.

  11. I am not a writer, but can imagine how hard it was to cut half your words about a subject you were so excited about. It is biography season at the school I work in. This will make a great addition to our shelves.

  12. My mother loved GIRL OF THE LIMBERLOST. So did I. So did my daughter! So fun reading what a character Stratton-Porter was! I’ll share this picture book with my granddaughter (who’s still too young for LIMBERLOST!)

    • SUCH a character! Fun to hear from somebody else who’s known and enjoyed her most famous book, Tricia! I’ve always thought that one felt like two books in one … and I love both.

  13. Becky Scharnhorst

    I always enjoy learning about someone I haven’t heard of before, so thank you for introducing me to GSP! Her life and your book both sound fascinating! I look forward to reading it! Of the books she wrote, which would you recommend?

    • Her most famous is GIRL OF THE LIMBERLOST, but FRECKLES is actually a lead-in, so maybe start with that one. You’ll soon see why her editor thought she should, perhaps, cut down on some of the “nature stuff.” 🙂

  14. Wow-such inspiration! I love birds too, so I can relate. Congrats!

  15. Congratulations on Bird Girl I can’t wait to read it. Thanks for sharing how you were able to cut down the word count by focusing on one or two traits.

  16. Oh, Jill. I feel your pain! It seems a travesty to cut and cull these remarkable people’s lives to X word count, but otherwise, many readers wouldn’t get the opportunity to know them. At least, that’s what I have to keep telling myself with my bios. Can’t wait to get my hands on Bird Girl!

    • I wrote an article for a magazine biog contest about Virginia Apgar (early 2000s), so I know exactly the kinds of things you mean, Carrie! LOVE Virginia Wouldn’t Slow Down! Another amazing woman who never met a challenge she couldn’t overcome.

  17. Congratulations, Jill! She sounds like an amazing woman, and I look forward to reading more about her in your book.

  18. What a fascinating woman and a fascinating life!
    I found your post interesting and informative.
    Congratulations Jill!

  19. Congratulations, Jill! I am looking forward to reading this…we went to her house/Historic Site for a homeschool field trip a number of years ago. It was very cool!

    • Very cool, yes! We visited both sites on a vacation in 2019 and talked to the folks who worked there. So interesting! The woman could. do. anything.

  20. Stefanie Raszler

    Great post, Jill! I can’t wait to read this book to find out more!

  21. Bird Girl sounds like a fantastic account of an inspirational woman – can’t wait to get a copy! I have a hunch my daughter will resonate with her…they sound very similar 😉 Thank you for sharing your journey and some interesting facts about your main character!

  22. Congrats, Jill! This looks wonderful & perfect for a bird nerd like me. Excited to read it!!

  23. danielle hammelef

    Congratulations, Jill! Thank you for introducing me to this amazing woman who lived her dreams to the fullest and never seemed to let anything or anyone hold her back. I can’t wait to read this book.

    • That sums her up perfectly, Danielle. She never hesitated to go after something new — and then master it!

  24. What an informative post! I’ve been toying with a PB biography and this is inspiring. Also, love the illustrations. Can’t wait to read.

  25. I cannot wait to read this and learn all about GSP!

    Am I the only one to think she might have been best friends – in an alternate reality – with the wonderful Elwood Bigfoot?

    <3

  26. Sounds absolutely fascinating, Jill! Thanks so much for the background and your writer notes. Can you imagine never revising your work? I’m really looking forward to reading this!

    • Not for one minute, Tess! Some of her personality traits are so inspiring. But being confident enough to say NO to revision suggestions?! That’s just … cuckoo. A little revision would have made her books even better, honestly.

  27. Jill, congratulations!!! What an amazing subject. I can empathize with all the cutting you had to do, but gosh, Bird Girl looks beautiful!

  28. Thank you, Jill, for sharing the story behind this amazing book! I just put in an order for our local library, and I can’t wait to see this PB biography.

  29. Claire Freeland

    This book looks beautiful. I can’t wait to read it. And what gorgeous illustrations.

  30. Bonnie J. Lawhorn

    I had never heard of her, so thank you for enlightening me on yet another talented author. Just think, 55 books published, that is quite an accomplishment.

  31. Thank you, Jill. I look forward to reading all about Gene Stratton-Porter–an amazing woman.

    The illustrations are delightful.

    I’m quite certain the word count of 1,200 was just the right amount of words to tell Bird Girl’s story.

    • Thanks, Suzy!
      I’m not wild about text-heavy picture books, so I don’t know WHAT I was thinking! Ha. It’s very easy to get carried away when there’s so much fabulous information. GSP had no qualms over writing about herself (thank goodness!).

  32. This sounds spectacular! I’ve never heard of her before, but I am intrigued.

    • That’s what sent me down the rabbit hole, Kevan. I just couldn’t believe how diverse and numerous her accomplishments were! I just kept discovering more.

  33. Jill, What an amazing story! Can’t wait to read this book and learn more about Gene Stratton-Porter! Congrats on this fascinating new biography!

  34. This book looks so fun!

  35. What a fascinating woman! Thanks for sharing your writing journey with the book — it’s so helpful and inspiring.

  36. Debra Kempf Shumaker

    Oh my, I cannot wait to read this! Congrats!

  37. Claire W Bobrow

    What a fascinating subject and story — can’t wait to read it! Monitoring all those nests without startling the parent birds? Count me impressed!

    • And at 8 years old, Claire! She must’ve had an innate understanding, or else she was a very quick learner!

  38. This sounds amazing!

  39. Thanks, Andrea!

  40. My mother loved Girl of the Limberlost and gave it to me. I loved it and gave it to my daughter. I offer it in a book club for middle schoolers and those who read it, love it. So, your book will travel alongside me with my further sharing of Limberlost. Thanks for writing it!

  41. Oh, I love discovering others familiar with Girl of the Limberlost! Thank you, Helene, for using my new book as you share the remarkable GSP with book clubs. You’ve made my day. 🙂

  42. Angie Quantrell

    Free-range girl! I LOVE it! This sounds like a book for me, adventure, girl-power, birds, nature, and on and on! Yay! Thanks for sharing!

  43. My mother gave me “A Girl of the Limberlost” when I was in my late teens. I’m now in my 60’s. I adore that book, and have since collected any GSP vintage books I come across. I was completely obsessed to see you had written on her life! Fabulous idea and wonderful result!

  44. Thanks for the inside scoop on drafting your book. I always love hearing those details. The spreads you shared are beautiful! Gene sounds spunky and confident. I love that birds perched on her head and shoulders. WOW! Congratulations, Jill! I’m looking forward to reading this.

  45. My favorite surprising fact: they had to move because of all her fans! I love this. She wasn’t a movie star. Wait a minute, I just looked her up, she was a film producer too. Anyway I am delighted she had so many followers, even without instagram! The illustrations are beautiful

  46. I asked my library to order this! But I don’t think I can wait. I’ll get my own copy.

  47. Stephanie D Jones

    I love your tale of cutting down your words, because – what a story! Thanks for sharing it!

  48. Thanks for sharing your beautiful new book, Jill. I can’t wait to read about GSP! Oh, to be able to say “no revisions!” but then we all know revisions (and less than 2700 words) are what we have to do! Great job!

  49. Thanks for sharing your beautiful new book. I can’t wait to read about GSP! Oh, to be able to say “no revisions!” but we all know revisions (or at least less than 2700 words) is what we have to do. Great job!

  50. Congratulations, Jill! What a lovely book. The cover and illustrations are so inviting. I love interesting picture books that teach kids…AND adults!

  51. Your new book sounds delightful, Jill. Congratulations! I enjoyed reading your post and ordered a copy today!

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