Author Interview: Kaela Noel

With us today we have Kaela Noel who is the author of a new middle grade novel, Coo. It’s such a wonderful and wholesome story about a girl who is raised by pigeons in NYC. When her pigeon friend, Burr, is injured and rescued by a retired postal worker, Tully, she must learn to navigate the human world. So, onto the questions:

How did you come up with the concept of this book and why pigeons?

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 went home and drafted the first chapter, and it began from there. I drew on my longtime fascination with the mythology of feral children, and my affection for the part of Queens that inspired the setting in the book.

The question, “Why pigeons?” is maybe a little more complicated. I’m fascinated by their ability to adapt to the hostile urban landscapes humans have created, and by their intelligence. Coo is a fairy tale, and pigeons in real life of course cannot raise a child, but they are very smart birds. Besides their ability to precisely navigate back to where they were born from thousands of miles away, with training they can also recognize letters and identify familiar words with typos in them. And they’ve passed the famous “mirror test” that researchers use as a benchmark for animal intelligence—many pigeons know when they look into a mirror that they are gazing at themselves, not another bird. Most animal species don’t have that level of self-awareness (at least not in the limited ways humans have developed to measure it).

I did toy with having Coo be raised by another bird species entirely—parrots, or maybe ravens. It’s still fun to think about sometimes. Changing the type of bird produces a radically different book and plot!

The pigeon language is such a fun but important element of the story. How did you come to create this language?

During the drafting process, I went back and forth for quite some time deciding how to depict the pigeons’ language. My goal was to make it clear that their language was simpler than ours, but also have it be flexible enough for the pigeons to express themselves as individuals. Roohoo, the grumpiest pigeon in the flock, speaks quite different from Burr, who is much more even-tempered. 

Did you draw any inspiration from other children’s authors—or even movies— if so, which ones?

Oh my goodness, lots! When I was a kid, I read Karen Hesse’s The Music of Dolphins, a novel about a girl raised by dolphins and what happens after she is discovered and returned to the human world. I found it fascinating, and a little disturbing, too. (It’s a much more intense and wrenching story than Coo.) It stayed with me for years, and planted a seed of wanting to explore some of the same themes and questions. But, I also love cozy books, and I knew I wanted Coo to feel friendlier and gentler as a story.

Also, when I was about 8 or 9, I saw an episode of Hey Arnold! that screened unexpectedly before a film in a movie theater where I had gone for a classmate’s birthday party. The episode was “The Pigeon Man” and it was about a hermit-like pigeon healer who lives alone on a rooftop. Arnold, the main character, seeks him out for help when his pet pigeon is injured. I remember sitting in the theater and being completely riveted—especially by the final scene when the pigeon man flies away with his birds. I’ve never seen the episode again since, but it remains etched in my mind.

This is your first book and it got onto the indie next top ten list—congratulations on this! What was the publication process like for you? Would you do anything differently?

Thank you so much! The process from idea to publication was quite long for me. It took many years. I think it took such a while because I was learning how to write as I went along, and I ended up revising Coo from scratch several times while querying agents, and then again over several drafts before my wonderful (and immensely patient and insightful) agent Katie Grimm sent it out on submission. I was fortunate to land with the extraordinary editor Virginia Duncan at Greenwillow, an imprint of HarperCollins. Virginia made the book even better.

Do you have any advice for anyone who is writing a children’s book, or a book in general?

I was fortunate to study with Zadie Smith while I was in college. She is brilliant, and a fantastic teacher. Her course was technically in the creative writing department, but instead of writing and critiquing work, she had us read one novel per week and write a short, critical essay on it. Her reasoning was that focused reading like this would make us better writers than any creative writing instruction, and she was absolutely correct. You learn to be a great writer by reading other great writers, and my strongest advice is to read widely and voraciously. You cannot read too much. And whenever you feel stuck, step away and take a break by reading something. It will open your mind, hone your voice, and strengthen your skills.

Do you have a favorite read-aloud for kids?

Too many to list! My daughter is a toddler and we both love Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series and Kevin Henkes’s Penny books (among many others). I’m also looking forward to reading some less well-known gems with her when she’s a bit older, like Arabel and Mortimer and Arabel’s Raven by Joan Aiken and its sequels. The Arabel and Mortimer stories were published in the 1970s and are about a seven-ish-year-old girl who lives in a working class neighborhood in London. Her life changes after her father hits a large black raven with his taxi cab and brings the bird—Mortimer—home to convalesce. Many antics follow. The books are illustrated by Quentin Blake and are a bit zany, but filled with wonderful characters and details. 

I read somewhere that you enjoy answering the question, “what books have you read recently and loved?”

I’ve been reading so many wonderful new middle grade books. I just started Claribel Ortega’s Ghost Squad, and it’s the perfect mix of cozy and scary—a great comfort read. I recently finished Me & Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King (the same person as YA author A.S. King) and it was a wonderful, slightly magical story about family, ecological grief, and navigating the harsh emotional reality of not having the power to stop all environmental destruction on your own. In terms of upcoming releases, I’m very much looking forward to Erin Entrada Kelly’s new book We Dream of Space. Erin is a phenomenal writer and I am antsy to get my hands on my copy.

I also read a lot of books not meant for kids, and among those one of the best I’ve read recently is Braiding Sweetgrass, a non-fiction memoir and essay collection by indigenous botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer. 

Do you currently have a favorite comfort read?

Yes! I reread Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle about once a year. I love the details, the setting, and the sensibility of it, but my favorite aspect of it is the way Sophie grows as a character and figures out ways to solve her problems. It’s a very comforting read. 

Have you developed any quarantine hobbies?

In my daydreams! I live with my family in a small apartment in New York City, one of the epicenters of the outbreak. I really wish we had a garden. I would love to be weeding, planting, and growing things right now. 

Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview! To purchase this fabulous book click here. The first 4 orders will come signed and with a special Coo bookmark!

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