“Frogs make me happy,” says prolific nature author April Pulley Sayre. Each of her nonfiction titles focuses on a fascinating aspect of nature that for the average writer would require months of research, but not for Sayre. “My daily life is science goofiness,” she says. “I wake up in the morning and read science news online, we have natural history magazines on our coffee table, I watch nature documentaries, our travel is keyed to events that have to do with nature and seasons…I spend four to eight hours a day working on my photography sometimes out in nature studying ice, studying birds. So the books spin out of that. It’s hard to call it research when it’s your daily passion.”
When Sayre first began writing she chose exotic habitats and creatures she encountered on her travels, but she realized that her readers did not even know about the squirrels in their yards or the Canada Geese in the sky. “[I thought that] knowing the interesting connections and…the poetry of their everyday life and the nature they actually see would give them more of a sense of wonder because they know the shape of a goose or a flower or a squirrel.”
Sayre began writing as a child, and particularly remembers crafting poems about snow and icicles in a little notebook while sitting in the back seat of the car enroute to one of her family’s many ski trips. She collected poetry books as a child and recalls savoring the deliciousness of language—copying out her favorite passages and memorizing them. Throughout high school and college Sayre remembers searching for the perfect form for her writing. “I didn’t think widely enough for the novel,” she says. Even short stories were too long. Although she loved poetry, it limited her. “But the picture book fit my brain in a way other genres don’t,” she says, and much of her success with the picture book format comes from the fact that she has not lost that sense of wonder and joy inherent to childhood. “I get to celebrate the wonders of nature in my books,” she says.
Initially, Sayre began writing teacher guides for the National Geographic Society and the National Wildlife Federation, followed by the straight-forward writing that characterizes many school and library series. A week-long writing workshop sponsored by Highlightsshowed her different types of picture books and she recalls saying, “I could do that with nonfiction…I learned through experimentation and failure and I’m thankful to the editors that rejected my work or gave me hints because they contributed to my work whether I did books with them or not.”
Sayre’s book ideas usually come from moments when her mind is in an open state. The idea for Vulture View, winner of a Theodore Geisel Award for the most outstanding book for a beginning reader, occurred while Sayre gazed out over the Panama Canal. But most often ideas come when she starts to wake in the morning. Eat Like a Bear began with a phrase that popped into her head early one morning: to be a bear. “What would it be like to be a bear?” she remembers asking herself. “What would it be like to have the claws of a bear? To scratch and rip things apart. I was thinking of the whole experience of being like a bear, but when I started writing the book…I was just writing about eating.” Sayre wrote with a steady confidence that the book idea would pull together—a confidence most writers don’t often feel at the start of a new project.
Rhythm and rhyme figure prominently in Sayre’s current work, whether it’s the energetic chant of Rah, Rah, Radishes or Go, Go, Grapes, or the lyrical free verse rich with vocabulary in Eat Like a Bear. With each book Sayre plays to find the right voice to match the age of her audience and the content she’s trying to convey. “I have many books that I’ve written in different ways where the voice is not working,” she admits. “It’s annoying when you can’t find the right voice.”
Raindrops Roll, an upcoming title, features Sayre’s photographs. She spent four months last summer photographing various creatures during rainstorms: butterflies with raindrops on their heads; raindrops falling on leaves; caterpillars and katydids with raindrops on them. “I got really, really obsessed with raindrops and I could not stop.” When she submitted the book to her publisher she says, “I was kind of scared because I loved it so much,” and she worried that her editor wouldn’t. The manuscript sold in only five days.
Sayre’s overall goal with every book she writers is to transmit wonder. When young readers pick up one of her books, it is clear to them that she shares their joy at seeing a frog’s face.