Butterflies and Blades of Grass: Cindy Trumbore and Susan L. Roth in Conversation

In this blog post, we’re highlighting author Cindy Trumbore and Susan L. Roth‘s titles! The Sibert Award-winning team has collaborated on four Lee & Low titles including Butterfly for a King: Saving Hawai’i’s Kamehameha Butterflies, Prairie Dog Song, Parrots Over Puerto Rico, and The Mangrove TreeIn time for Earth Day and World Environment Day, authors Cindy Trumbore and Susan L. Roth share their favorite moments and fascinating tidbits about each collaboration.

Butterfly for a King: Saving Hawai’i’s Kamehameha Butterflies

Cover of Butterfly for a King: Saving Hawai'i's Kamehameha ButterfliesCindy Trumbore:  I researched the testimony from the fifth-graders who successfully lobbied the Hawai’i state legislature to make the Kamehameha butterfly the state insect. I touch on some of their ideas in the “Children spoke up” spread, but I found what each of the six children actually said; they’d done a lot of research and were extremely convincing. One said that the group got the idea because they were studying forest ecosystems of Hawai’i, and there were a lot of insects. That made them wonder why the state didn’t have a state insect when it had a state mammal, tree, and flower. Another one said, “The more I learned about this wonderful insect, the more I fell in love with it,” which pretty much sums up the way I feel about the butterfly.

Susan L. Roth: Since this book is about VERY SPECIFIC BUTTERFLIES, I was anxious to be able to capture their SPECIFIC beauty. I studied hard, copied photographs over and over, and finally, looked and looked and looked at the real butterflies while we were in Hawaii, for as long as any one of them held still. The designs are so intricate, so specific and so constant! When I finally (I hope!) captured their design including the specific differences between the males and the females, I felt exalted and awed and humbled all at the same time. I have been trying to interpret nature through my illustrations for close to 40 years but it took my appreciation of OUR butterfly to move me to this almost religious experience. Where does Nature get its ideas?!

View the Butterfly for a King: Saving Hawai’i’s Kamehameha Butterflies teacher’s guide.
Watch the book trailer here.

Prairie Dog Song

Cover of Prairie Dog SongCindy Trumbore: My favorite part was the research trip that Susan and I took to Otero Mesa, New Mexico, to see prairie dogs. The grasslands are part of the northern Chihuahua Desert and have the same grasses as the Janos, Mexico prairie dog complex in the book. My husband drove Susan and me into Otero Mesa—two hours in and two hours out—to find a spot where a Bureau of Land Management employee had said we’d find prairie dogs. It was a long, dusty trip, and when we finally found the prairie dog town, we barely had time to take a few photographs before we were chased away by a very angry cow.

Susan L. Roth: My inspiration for this book was NOT the prairie dog, even though they are pretty cute in real life. What moved me most were the huge expanses of land filled with those grasses, topped by those huge open skies, filled with colors and light. Those grassy fields are so vast and yet so alive with details! And this is why every single blade of grass in this book was pasted down by me, one at a time, in an effort to recall what I saw. As I write this down I am wondering if there aren’t other things besides butterflies that are able to humble my cutting and pasting hands and heart. Maybe.

View the Prairie Dog Song teacher’s guide.

Parrots Over Puerto Rico

Cover of Parrots Over Puerto RicoCindy Trumbore: I got the idea for Parrots Over Puerto Rico after seeing an article about the El Yunque National Forest quarter, which features a Puerto Rican parrot. The working title for the book was “In the Treetops and Down Below.” From the beginning, Susan and I saw the story as taking place in two realms: the treetops, where the Puerto Rican parrots live, and down below, where human activity very much parallels and affects that of the parrots. The turning point of the story would be the place where the humans and parrots interact—when human hands reach up into the trees to collect eggs and start the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program. Susan and I batted title ideas back and forth for ages before we finally hit on Parrots Over Puerto Rico. I was sitting in my office when we came up with it, and I practically fell out of my chair because it seemed so perfect.

Susan L. Roth: Being in Puerto Rico to do the research for this book made it possible to see and taste and feel the island as I never did on previous visits. The brilliant colors of the whole place are so vibrant and brilliant and sunny! They dominated all my interpretations of the text. My favorite colors, green and blue and every color in between were the ones that made me desperate to keep everything else off of the cover. Those dazzling colors, lit with the dazzling sunlight of Puerto Rico, are astonishing and electrifying. I only hope that I was half able to catch even half of the way it all really looks.

View the Parrots Over Puerto Rico teacher’s guide.
Read an interview between Cindy Trumbore and Susan L. Roth about Parrots Over Puerto Rico.

The Mangrove Tree

Cover of The Mangrove TreeCindy Trumbore: When I research nonfiction books, I always try to find at least one fact that hasn’t appeared anywhere else. With The Mangrove Tree, I had read in several sources that the Manzanar Project was inspired by Gordon Sato’s experience of growing vegetables in the desert of Manzanar when his family was interned there during World War II. But I’d never read what, exactly, he grew. When Susan Roth and I interviewed Gordon, I asked him, and he answered, “Corn.” So that’s in our Afterword.

Susan L. Roth: We were not able to go to Eritrea for a first hand look because at that time Gordon Sato insisted that it was much too dangerous there (even though he threw all caution to the wind for himself, and went there whenever he wished). And so I relied on visits to the Eritrean immigrant neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and to photographs and books and reports from Gordon for my inspirations. But when it came to creating the large portrait of Gordon HIMSELF, I felt that I could not possibly do him justice. And that’s why I pasted down his big photograph right into the collaged background on that page. I felt that any interpretation of him that I might make could never REALLY look like him, and besides that, it seemed most important for the reader to see the way he REALLY looked.

As for the rest of the images, captured as best I could from the sources above, I am so happy to know that they must have captured enough of the real essence of the story of planting and growing and sustaining in order to inspire the naming of THREE!!! new preschools in Calgary, Canada, each called THE MANGROVE TREE PRESCHOOL! You can find more information at their website.

View The Mangrove Tree teacher’s guide.
Read an interview between Cindy Trumbore and Susan L. Roth about The Mangrove Tree.

Learn more about Cindy Trumbore and Susan L. Roth’s titles below:
Interview: Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore on Collaboration
Butterfly for a King: Saving Hawai’i’s Kamehameha Butterflies
Prairie Dog Song
Parrots Over Puerto Rico
The Mangrove Tree

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