• Sandy Stark-McGinnis

    Sandy Stark-McGinnis



    APRIL 2018

    EXTRAORDINARY BIRDS follows 11-year-old December, who has a passion for birds and how they fly, believing that one day her own wings will uncurl from the scars on her back and she will take flight and find her mother, and herself.

    Through the story, December navigates school and new foster homes until she is placed with Eleanor and a different future for herself starts to unfold; but can she let the old one go?

    We asked debut author SANDY STARK-MCGINNIS to tell us more about her writing and how EXTRAORDINARY BIRDS developed:

    Q: EXTRAORDINARY BIRDS is your debut novel, what is your day job and what brought you into writing?

    A: I'm an elementary school teacher (I teach 5th grade.) by day. My writing journey actually evolved from a love for cinema. Through film, I fell in love with stories, both narratives and documentaries. That passion evolved to an interest in photography and poetry, which led me to writing prose.

    Q: Extraordinary Birds follows December, and her journey from a fear to trust. Why did you decide to explore that using a bird metaphor and December's belief that one day she will fly?

    A: I thought birds and flight were perfect metaphors to use to explore how December deals with her past. And, I've always wanted to try and write a realistic story about a child who believes she/he can fly.

    Q: Do you, like December, share a passion for birds or did writing this book demand a lot of research?

    A: My researched focused on specific birds. December uses her knowledge of them to navigate her way through the world. So, the hard / fun part was exploring specific birds and their behaviors, and using them to parallel December's own interactions with people and / or situations in which she found herself.

    Q: Do any of December's bird facts stand out for you?

    A: The two I keep coming back to are the facts about how flamingos feed in mudflats, or lagoons, and the amazing facts about the nests of social weaver birds. I think they resonate because I'm immediately reminded of the characters and how those facts are connected to them.

    Q: Why did you decide to write the story as first person, with December reading from her 'Bird Girl' diary and gradually revealing her past to us?

    A: I really love to explore voice in characters. It's my favorite part of writing. And, I wanted to play with the element of an "unreliable narrator", and use the element to add layers and complexity to December's inner world, but also have that inner world be accessible for young readers.

    Q: Through December's story, we gradually learn about her traumatic childhood and the mental health issues she faces as a result. Was this area, children and trauma, something you needed to research for this book?

    A: To get inside December's head and heart, I focused on how she dealt with her own tragedy. I started from there and then spent a lot of time trying to find her voice and cadence, her perspective of the world based on her past experiences. Once I knew what motivated her, it was easier to capture her inner-life and how she responded to events that happened to her.

    I've also had the privilege of working with children all my life, and so I've been in a position to observe and watch how children navigate their lives.

    December is also a foster child. When I had specific questions about foster care, I found someone who worked in the California system, and he generously took time to answer any questions I had. Most of the inquiries had to do with making sure December's experience was authentic.

    Q: December's new foster parent, Eleanor, helps her move towards trust - Eleanor is a lovely character, how did she develop?

    A: I've known a lot of people with a love for animals and the one characteristic they have in common is a deep level of compassion for all living things. So, I think that's where I began in developing Eleanor. I also thought about what December needed. What kind of person was going to be up for the challenge of helping December heal?

    Q: At her new school December meets Cheryllyn, born a boy, who has already identified as a girl, and who stands up to her bullies. Cheryllyn supports the theme in your story of discovering one's identity beautifully, but do you also feel it's important to include positive transgender characters and role models in children's books?

    A: Cheryllynn is a heroine. She, like December, is vulnerable and strong, but she's more grounded than December. I think because she has roots - a home, a mom who is there for her - she's able to navigate who she is and her own conflicts with honesty and a trust that December has to learn is possible.

    Art reflects our world, and I think as a writing community we need to do everything we can to make sure all kids see themselves in books. They deserve it. And, every child needs (and, again, deserves) access to stories of all kinds because it makes them better able to respond to the world - people - with compassion.

    Q: Where and when are your favourite times / places to write?

    A: In my house, we have a small loft above the living room that is my writing space / library. Since I work during the day, and I'm not a night person, I get up early and dedicate about an hour and a half to writing each morning.

    Q: What are you writing now?

    A: I'm working on a second middle grade novel, exploring a young girl's journey in dealing with her mom who has early-onset Alzheimer's.

    Q: Are there other children's authors / recent books you would recommend to our readers?

    A: Two middle grade novels I've read recently that have stayed with me are Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes and Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn.

    Q: What are your favourite escapes from your desk?

    A: Any time I have a chance to spend outside, whether it's in the mountains, desert, ocean, park or in our back yard, is the best.