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May 4th, 2016

Characters come to life in many ways. Whether they represent aspects of who the author wants to be, or are composed of traits the author sees in others, characters are made up of what the author knows. Today, Judy Li describes her experiences conducting research in eastern Oregon and the joy of having her characters as new friends. Li explains how the characters and world of her new book, Ricky’s Atlas, the sequel to Ellie’s Log, came to life.


I love the grand landscapes of eastern Oregon, its wildlife, streams, and forests.  Intertwined with memories of those places I conjure unforgettable aromas of Ponderosa, juniper and sage. For almost twenty years I conducted research as a stream ecologist in many of the streams and gentle rivers of those lands, sleeping under the summer stars, snorkeling to watch the trout, collecting the aquatic insects I find endlessly fascinating.  This was the obvious setting for Ricky’s latest adventure in the out-of-doors.  In his Atlas he reverses roles with his buddy Ellie; this time he gets to introduce Ellie to a place he knew.

A great joy of story writing is that my characters become my new friends. I imagined Ricky Zamora as a blend of several smart, lively Mexican American undergraduates I’ve mentored at Oregon State University.  I’d learned a few details of their family lives, and there is a touch of Monty, Jose and Manuel in Ricky’s way of doing things.

Ricky and Ellie are the kind of kids who love exploring in the out of doors, and recording what they experience.  Ricky’s approach is to map out what he sees and observes. We take a broad view of what an atlas might be – a collection not only of spatial maps, but including timelines, geographical information of all kinds.   His notebook is filled with memories of the varied geologies, histories and life zones he encounters. It's truly remarkable that this diversity does indeed exist east of the mountains!

In the rain shadow of the Cascades, dramatic storms are regular summer events. Often great windstorms whipped through our summer campsites, followed by wild lightning and thunder. Besides the excitement of wildfire Ricky’s Atlas describes the amazing adaptations living things have to recover from fire.  It’s exciting to discover the remarkable ways plants and wildlife can survive, even thrive, with fire. The scientist in me is always curious about those variations, and chasing down the details for this book has been a great joy.  For those parts of the story I relied on other scientists who have more experience in those parts of the ecosystems than I.  Science is a team enterprise and we learn much by working together.  This book, like Ellie’s Log, was also an incredible collaboration with Peg Herring who illustrated my ideas and brought new ideas to add to mine.  The sense of whimsy, and down-to-earth moments are often because of her. 

Though the special places Ricky visits are not exactly next door neighbors, the fantastic landscapes of the Painted Hills and Sheep Rock are really not far from the cool lodgepole/Ponderosa forests of the Blue Mountains or the native prairie of the Zumwalt.  Different research projects allowed me to spend significant time in these places and other spots.  I became familiar with their daily rhythms, common wildlife, and little details.   We watched the nighthawks over the John Day near Sheep Rock, followed the golden eagles spiraling above the Imnaha River, and were lulled to sleep by coyotes at the Middle Fork John Day.  Magical moments to share with kids who’d like to explore the great outdoors!  Ricky’s Atlas became a story not only about a panorama of special places but I also hoped to convey a sense of how it feels to live there.

April 27th, 2016

According to Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, there are eight different types of intelligence. To say that one of them is more important than the others, or that one should define us all, would be a disservice to those whose strengths don’t lie in that singular intelligence. While not everyone can identify with “naturalistic intelligence,” there are many things we can learn from someone who does. Today, author Kem Luther explains how he came to explore his naturalistic intelligence and how he has applied it to his new book Boundary Layer.