This year’s most delightful middle grade debut has to be Coo by Kaela Noel, the story of a girl raised by pigeons. On a roof! Speaking pigeon! I couldn’t put it down.
I’m thrilled to have the author here to talk about writing this gem, but first let me tell you about the giveaway! One lucky reader will receive a copy of Coo (hardcover), mailed to the address of their choice in the U.S. or Canada. Hop to the end of this post to sign up, then come back to read the interview. Deadline to enter: Tuesday, October 27, 11:59 PM.
A. B. Westrick: Kaela, welcome to my blog! I’m excited to learn a little about your process in crafting such an imaginative story.
Kaela Noel: Thank you so much for asking me to be a part of your interview series!
ABW: Let’s start with what inspired you to write this book. In an interview on the “Bookends & Beginnings” blog, you said, “I first got the idea while I was walking through an industrial part of Jersey City, NJ, just across the river from Manhattan. I saw a flock of pigeons take off from an abandoned factory roof, and suddenly had the thought: what if someone lived up there with them? A child?” I loved reading this, in part because I can picture it. My daughter lives in Jersey City.
KN: I love that your daughter lives in Jersey City! It’s such a special place. It’s directly across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan and easily accessible to the city, but it has its own sensibility and vibe that is subtly different from New York. As a teenager I was often embarrassed that I lived in Jersey City (it was the butt of a lot of jokes) but I ended up really appreciating it as I got older. And much of that old stigma seems to have faded as Jersey City has undergone so much redevelopment in the past decade.
It does make me a bit wistful, though, as some of its quirks have surely disappeared. As a teenager I spent a lot of time in the main branch of the Jersey City library, which was a veritable haunted house of unrenovated 19th-century beauty. It had a marble staircase with steps worn to a dip in their centers from so many decades of shoes, and an ancient elevator with its own full-time attendant to operate it.
ABW: Oh, yes, my daughter’s building has worn floors in the lobby and an ancient elevator (minus the attendant). Jersey City charm.
KN: The library’s upper floors, beyond the stacks, were full of small exhibitions about city history and dusty research files. The library has since been renovated (and unfortunately also has been closed for years at a stretch for budget reasons). I haven’t been back to see it, but I hope some of the better details remain.
ABW: How wonderful that one of your favorite memories is of a library. I love libraries.
Now I want to ask about your process in writing Coo. What was the very first scene you wrote, and did that early writing become the first chapter in Coo?
KN: The very first scene I set down on paper for Coo is the one that opens the book—the pigeons finding baby Coo abandoned beside the guard house at the rail yard. I ended up revising it more times than I can count, but the core of the first draft of that scene is still there in the finished version.
ABW: That’s great. (I wish I could say the same about my process, but it’s a bit messier.)
Now tell me about the made-up language. Coo and the pigeons are able to communicate—a fact that boggles the mind of many humans in the story. The language you crafted is easy for young readers to understand. How did you go about inventing this language? Did you try multiple possibilities before settling on the one you used?
KN: I experimented with many different versions of the pigeons’ speech before I landed on the one in the book. It was challenging to make their speech understandable but not too complex, yet also able to carry the individual voices of the birds and express their personalities. I ended up making myself a little pigeon grammar guide to reference when I wasn’t sure if I was being consistent.
ABW: Oh, that’s hysterical! A pigeon grammar guide, hahahaha.
KN: It was helpful!
At various points I did mull over making Coo the adopted child of a flock of, say, parrots. Or perhaps ravens. But those would have been quite different books. In the end it’s exactly right she was with her humble, complicated, caring family of pigeons.
ABW: Yes, complicated and caring. And when Coo encounters human devices for the first time (cell phone, TV, shower, among others), you infuse the story with humor. What did you have to do to get inside Coo’s head and describe everyday objects from her point of view?
KN: That was one of the most enjoyable parts of writing the book! It was exciting to daydream about how differently someone would see the world if they’d previously only known it from the point of view of birds.
I spent a lot of time trying to shed my own preconceived notions of things. What this looked like in practice was sitting in front of my laptop with the internet connection turned off, staring into space while I pictured a grocery store, or a kitchen, or a secondhand shop like Goodwill, and tried to see it through Coo’s eyes. I wrote a few of these kinds of scenes that didn’t end up making it into the book. One of my favorites from the cutting room floor is a scene where Tully (Coo’s adoptive human guardian) takes Coo to a toy store and Coo is completely horrified by a wall of lifelike, unmoving dolls.
ABW: There are horror movies with lifelike dolls. Maybe it’s good you cut that!
A scene I found particularly heartbreaking was when Coo got sick with a fever and assumed Tully would kick her out because that’s what a flock of pigeons would do. You noted that “pigeons cared more about the flock than about each bird in it,” but each bird had its own individual personality. This tells me you know a lot about pigeons! Could you talk a bit about the research you did to develop the pigeon characters?
KN: I love research and I did quite a lot for this book (especially when I felt stuck while trying to actually write it!) But Coo remains very much a fairy tale, and I took quite a bit of liberty with the pigeons’ abilities. That said, I did benefit from writing during what felt like a boom time for pigeon research. Every time I went to look for more information, new and fascinating studies had come out—for example, in 2016 researchers showed that some pigeons could be trained to identify words and letters and distinguish them from gibberish.
ABW: Wow, that’s amazing. Fun to know!
How much did the story change while you were writing it? You mentioned cutting a scene with lifelike dolls. Are there other scenes you wrote and later deleted because they weren’t working?
KN: The first third of the book never changed significantly in form or detail from my first draft, but I rewrote the rest so many times I lost count. In one of the earliest drafts, Coo ended up leading flocks of pigeons all the way to Canada! There was also a draft in which I tried to have her encounter the flocks of wild parrots that live near the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn—but I couldn’t quite get it to work.
ABW: Your answer reminds me how much I find the process of writing fascinating—how we put our characters in various situations and some just don’t work.
Last question: how long did it take you to write Coo, and what are you working on now?
KN: It took me more than ten years from idea to publication for Coo, but I wasn’t working on the book 100% of that time. I went to college, worked several different jobs, got married, and had my daughter all before Coo sold to my publisher. In that time I also tried writing a couple of other books, and outlined ideas for many more, but over and over I came back to Coo. I just couldn’t let her story go, and I kept working at it and revising and working some more until I connected with my agent Katie Grimm, and then my editor Virginia Duncan at Greenwillow. I was learning about how to write a book as I went along.
My current work-in-progress is a middle-grade fantasy about a twelve-year-old girl from a village where life revolves around honeybees. When a mysterious insect ailment sweeps the land and all the bees vanish, she sets off with a new friend on a journey to find the cause and save the bees before her world is destroyed.
ABW: That sounds great. We’ve been hearing about declining honeybee populations, so it sounds timely, too.
Thank you again for doing this interview! And for writing such a great book.
KN: Thank you for asking such great questions!
Readers who want to know more can find Kaela at her website, on Instagram, and at Twitter. If you visit, be sure to say so in the Rafflecopter below! Each visit earns you a chance to win a copy of Coo. You can enter on multiple days! The deadline is Tuesday, October 27, 2020, at 11:59 PM. On Wednesday, Oct. 28, I’ll ask Rafflecopter to select a random winner. Good luck!a Rafflecopter giveaway