Kathy M. Miller: Who is Chippy Chipmunk and What is he learning from his Friends in the Garden?
An Interview with Kathy M. Miller: Who is Chippy Chipmunk and What is he learning from his Friends in the Garden?
Michael F. Shaughnessy
1) Kathy, I have just read a wonderful book of yours about nature, animals, friendship and death. How did you get the idea for the book?
I received a request from Denise Whalen, Licensed Professional Counselor, to have Chippy Chipmunk deal with something that is tough for kids to experience. She used the first two Chippy Chipmunk books to help children express their emotions. “Loss” seemed a good topic to explore using nature photography. I had lost both of my parents during the writing of my first two books, so it was a topic I thought a lot about.
Around that same time, a friend of mine who teaches 3rd grade, lost a student from her class in a house fire. My friend was struggling to find books that worked with young children. That is why I chose a friend for Chippy to lose as opposed to a family member. The book shows how friends help each other through difficult times.
2) I am not sure what is better- the photography or the writing- how do you manage to combine both, with an educational emphasis?
I am a teacher, so it’s important for me to maximize what can be learned from each book. My research provides wording for the narrative to keep it realistic. i.e. “The chipmunk slurped up the water,” indicates how they drink. In my 2nd book, the front pages of the book explains who the baby chipmunks are named after. It gave me the opportunity to introduce Rachel Carson and Rosalie Edges, two pioneers in the field of conservation that most children have never heard of. I was incorporating informational text even before it became the focus of the Common Core standards.
As a nature photographer, getting kids interested in the outdoors underlies everything I do. It is my way of helping with the nature deficit disorder facing today’s youth. The thrust of my school presentations is to show students how they can go outdoors and photograph their own surroundings for stories ideas or non-fiction writing.
Ideas come easy to me but writing is a struggle. I rely on editors to ensure that the story flows and is clear.
Since I’m not an expert on grief, I assembled a team of counselors, teachers, and school librarians to review the manuscript. This helped ensure the book would work for Kindergarten as well as older students.
I like the creative challenge of synthesizing my story ideas with photographs. Sometimes a photograph will inspire a story line or cause me to tweak the wording. Other times, I have the idea first and need to acquire the photograph for my vision. I create a storyboard and move things around. I’m a tactile person, so this is done on a large table, rather than a computer. It’s certainly not the typical linear process used when a story is written before it is illustrated.
3) Tell us about the other two books in this series.
“Chippy Chipmunk Parties in the Garden” gives readers a close up view of the daily life of an adorable chipmunk named Chippy. He encounters backyard birds and other critters. He stuffs his cheeks full of nuts and stashes them in his burrow. He gathers leaves for his nest. He crashes a peanut party and raids the feeder, has to watch out for snakes, and then escapes from a red-tailed hawk. The fun facts in the back of the book relate to basic chipmunk information (i.e. they can collect over 100 acorns per hour.)
“Chippy Chipmunk: Babies in the Garden” offers a rare glimpse of a chipmunk family. Once the babies emerge from the burrow at six weeks old, they are only together with their mother for another two weeks, before they disperse. This book focuses on the babies exploring their new world. Their safety is threatened by Chester, the cat. The fun facts in the back of the book relate to a chipmunk family (i.e. There are two litters per year with an average of 4-5 offspring per litter.)
Both books received multiple awards. (see website for details.)
4) Why is it that children relate better to animals than parents?
Fluffy stuffed animals and family pets provide comfort to children. Watching an animal’s life and experience is less direct. They can relate to the animal’s situation and make their own connections. Denise Whalen, Licensed Professional Counselor said: “A lot of times we don’t use a direct approach to communicate with children about difficult issues. They show us through their experiences or their actions. So I have used the Chippy Chipmunk books to open a discussion.” Melissa Carr, the guidance counselor who authored the ‘Notes to Educators’ page in the book, says, “Looking at beautiful pictures and the underlying meaning is sometimes easier than talking about grandpa who passed away.”
5) Where did you get the wonderful pictures in the book?
Most photographs are from my own yard. When I need a character I don’t have available, I travel. For the owls in the latest book I traveled to Canada. I also list information in the back of my books for any captive animals. I encourage children to visit zoos and nature preserves to photograph animals for their own stories.
6) Do you have future books planned in this series?
I have some ideas percolating.
7) You also include some information that is educational and have some additional materials from a counselor and teacher- tell us about that.
All of my books contain science facts in the back. This book is eight pages longer than the other two as I needed more space for the added material. I included two activity pages where readers can practice finding the ‘heart’ in each photo, then draw a picture of a memory they have of the person they lost. It extends the healing process beyond the story.
The ‘Note to Parents’ and ‘Note to Educators’ pages were contributed by a licensed professional counselor and school guidance counselor. They give adults some tools for using the book when there has been a loss.
Most adults in our society are uncomfortable talking about death. This can make children feel isolated in their grief. They may be suffering in silence. Consider this:
The New York Life Foundation worked with the National Alliance for Grieving Children (NAGC), a nationwide association of bereavement centers, on a groundbreaking survey of children who’ve lost a parent or sibling. The grade kids gave their schools/teachers on helping them deal with their loved one’s death: A 29%, B 23%, C 15%, D 10% and F 23%.
Teachers and other school staff generally want to help grieving children, but often have insufficient training. They worry about saying and doing the wrong thing, believing it is a private experience for family members, and often do not do enough to aid the grieving child.”
8) Where can people order this book for their kids or learn more about it?
It is available from any bookseller. I also offer inscribed copies on my website:
9) What have I neglected to ask?
Here’s the answer to the 2nd part of your question in your title – “What is he learning from his Friends in the Garden?”
Chippy Chipmunk learns from his friends that:
– Everyone deals with death
– It’s okay to cry and be sad sometimes
– It’s good to talk about the life of someone you’ve lost
– A friend can be memorialized through a dedication
– It takes time to heal
– Every day gets better