On her first visit to New York City, my daughter fell endlessly, helplessly, and passionately in love with the pigeons. It was an extraordinarily cold weekend in the city, and she kept asking if she could please invite the pigeons to get inside her coat and come home with us. I let her know she could ask, but I was pretty sure the pigeons outside that coffeeshop had just stopped by to pick up the bagels for the all-pigeon meeting taking place in the park. I was proven right as not one pigeon was able to accept her generous offer.
For these reasons and more, you might understand my excitement over a new middle grades title about a girl who was raised by pigeons in New York. Somewhat implausible? Sure! Fascinating all the same? Definitely. Coo is both the title of the book and the name of the girl, and her story is one that young readers (including my daughter!) will enjoy.
Kaela Noel is the author of Coo, and it is her debut. I've mentioned before my love of the debut. I love to celebrate with and for and around these emerging authors. I understand the lengths they have gone to get to this moment, and I know that even an overnight success isn't really that at all. There's no overnight about it. In Coo, Noel has married the unrealistic (abandoned baby survives into childhood living in dovecote) with the true, the righteous, and the good. When Coo is discovered and subsequently taken in by the generous and loving Tully, we celebrate the truth of found families and caring for those in need. When Coo realizes that her flock is being threatened by city policies, we recognize her righteous anger and her loyalty. And when change comes - to Coo, to the city, to her flock - we know it to be the good we wish in the world.
Once you get to know Kaela Noel as I have begun to do through this lovely interview, you can see these forces of good and of fighting for those things we want to preserve shining through in every word. Thanks so much to Kaela for her commitment to the good and for introducing us to Coo. And thank you, Kaela, for taking the time to share your thoughts.
SBW: Coo is a fascinating and unusual story, full of fantastic details. Perhaps the most impressive element is the language of the pigeons. How did you develop that language, and was it difficult to maintain consistency throughout?
KN: I’m fascinated by languages and linguistics, and devising the pigeons’ speech was one of my favorite aspects of writing the book. During the drafting process, I experimented with a few different possibilities, ranging from a more simplistic and vocabulary-limited version of the unusual syntax in the final book, to a version in which they spoke just like people. None of these were quite right, and I settled on making their speech distinctive and strange but still complex enough to verbally express personality and distinctive voices within the flock. I wrote myself a little pigeon grammar guide at one point, too, which helped me stick with it consistently.
SBW: Young readers of Coo might feel a stirring to make their voices heard on big issues in their cities (like the decision to “clean up” the city that affected Coo so personally). What would you say to those young activists who want to get involved but are worried they are too little to make a difference?
KN: I would say the most important thing for young people is not to lose hope, even when things seem very bleak. There may be limited possibilities to change the world in a huge way, but don’t let that dissuade you from caring. Don’t give up. You can start with practicing kindness and consideration and reverence in the parts of your life you have some influence over, such as how you treat people and animals.
SBW: When faced with difficulty, Coo falls back on a hope that there might be a place “up north” where she and the flock will be safe. I am drawn to stories of hope, but I am also intrigued when our hopes aren’t always leading us in the right direction. Especially in light of the current state of things, what do you think is important about our hopes and the ways we are guided by them?
KN: What an interesting question! It’s not something I necessarily focus on consciously, but I can’t function in the absence of hope. It’s a kind of sustenance and fuel. At the same time I tend to play down many positive possibilities as a kind of self-protection, focusing on the worst outcome so I can prepare myself. It’s a sort of psychological survival method, for better or worse.
I think its foundation was laid when I was a child and first learned about things like environmental destruction, clearcutting of forests, the extinction of species, factory farming, animal cruelty… I found it extraordinarily upsetting, to the point of being physically ill and unable to stop crying when I read details and felt acutely the extent of my own inability to directly stop the suffering and destruction.
It was extreme enough that during one of our environmental study units in fourth grade, I was referred to the school psychologist. She asked me many questions about why I reacted so intensely to hearing about things like species going extinct, and I remember that we didn’t see eye to eye on any of it—she was really baffled. It was around the same time Free Willy was shown at my school, and I couldn’t make it past the first scene with the orca being separated from his family. I began crying hysterically and had to be taken out of the classroom. I remember sitting in the hallway with an aide and then being sent to the library until the film was over. And I felt like I was the only person who had these extreme feelings about this stuff (which was not true at all! But sadly I didn’t know others like me at the time). I was really sensitive, and I still am, but by the time I was a teenager, I had learned coping and numbing mechanisms. I’m not sure if this exactly answers the question about hope—but for me it is all wrapped up together, hoping and coping.
The circumstances that industrialization, consumption, and materialism have led our ecosystems into are tremendously bleak, but it helps to focus on very small steps you can take: planting flowers for pollinators in your garden if you have one, not using pesticides, buying organic if you can afford it, working on local activist projects to preserve habitats and prevent reckless development.
And here are a few questions generated by my pigeon-loving daughter:
How did you come up with the names for the pigeons?
I listened to a bunch of different pigeon sounds and tried to think what was in the realm of possible, if “possible” was nudged just a bit into the realm of a fairy tale. I kept the names to two syllables and tried to make them...well, pigeonish! I also wondered if pigeons would use the same name for many different people, much like we humans do, which is how there ended up being a “New Tiktik” and an “Old Tiktik.”
Do you wish you lived in a dovecote?
I am very much obsessed with round houses and old vernacular architecture, including dovecotes. I had a really fun time researching historic dovecote designs from all over the world, and some of them are lovely enough (and large enough!) to make interesting homes for people, too, if they were adapted a bit. Some of the most beautiful dovecotes in the world are in Iran—I highly recommend looking up pictures of them. They are huge!
Did an appreciation for the noises they make help inspire the book?
Definitely. Pigeons make beautiful sounds and I like to listen to them. The Public Domain Review website recently posted scans from a book called The Expressions of Emotion in the Pigeons, written in 1911 by a scientist named Wallace Craig who carefully noted pigeon sounds in musical notation!
What is your personal stance on pigeons as pests?
People and pigeons have lived in close proximity for thousands of years. I empathize with people frustrated by the problems that arise when flocks become too dense, or settle in areas that can’t support them. There are many humane ways to encourage them to relocate, and I support those when necessary to prevent more conflict.
What is your favorite breed of pigeon?
Definitely the common rock dove that lives in our cities, but I also love mourning doves. A pair lives on our street, and I enjoy listening to their calls every day. They are the first bird call my daughter Alice has learned to identify.
Do you wish you could fly?
Nope. I’m actually quite terrified of heights! It’s gotten a little better for me over the years, but I even struggle with things like walking up clear or skeletal staircases. And I loathe see-through barriers on mezzanines. I don’t like airplanes much, either!
And now the requisite SBW top ten
Who are your heroes?
I have so many. Reading about people who have come before me and done important things is very inspiring and humbling. My daughter is named Alice, and among her namesakes are the chef and gardener Alice Waters and the jazz musician and yogini Alice Coltrane (Turiyasangitananda). Both Waters and Coltrane are (to me) semi-magical in a way, and deeply connected to California, the place where I was born and where my father’s family had deep roots.
In terms of the writing world—I am forever grateful to Ursula K. LeGuin for her incredible talents and abilities and her prophetic, mind bending books.
Do you consider yourself a reader or a writer first?
I would say both. Before I learned to read or write, I used to dictate stories to my mother, who patiently wrote them out in longhand. But my reading shapes me as a writer. The most important thing any writer can do is read widely and constantly. It’s the best way to learn the craft.
Who/what are you reading these days?
Many things! I keep hopping around among different books. I just finished Fanny Singer’s Always Home, a memoir of food and family and her mother. It’s beautifully written and so warm and funny. I’m also reading Tyll, a novel by Daniel Kehlmann translated from German. It’s about a trickster figure from German mythology, and it’s set during the very violent and capricious Thirty Years’ War. It’s quite frightening but thought-provoking, and he does an excellent job of convincingly world-building the 17th century in Germany.
In terms of middle grade/children’s, I’ve recently read and enjoyed The Lonely Heart of Maybelle Lane by Kate O’Shaughnessy, The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye, Bernard Pepperlin by Cara Hoffman, and Stargazing by Jen Wang, among many others.
What’s a book that stood out to you in the last year or so?
A.S. King’s middle grade novel Me & Marvin Gardens. Obe, the book’s main character, is a boy who discovers a strange, friendly, plastic-eating creature hiding in a creek at the same time as the land around his family’s home is being recklessly redeveloped. Oh, how I wish this absolutely excellent book had existed when I was in elementary and middle school and struggling with so many of the same feelings as Obe—overwhelming grief for how I saw the environment and animals being treated, and panicked feelings of total inability to change anything or halt the disaster. Sarig’s book is the best novel on this subject, for any age group, that I’ve ever read. It deals with themes of ecological grief, environmentalism, bullying, animal cruelty, class-related conflict, and financial precarity, and it is so sensitively and deftly written. And it’s funny! I want to hand out copies to everyone I know. It has a spot on my shelf of most cherished books.
What else is included in your media diet (tv, movies, podcasts, albums…)?
I don’t really watch TV or anything that streams, and don’t listen to podcasts. I just don’t have very much free time and there’s always another book I’m eager to finish. I did recently watch a season of The Great British Bake-off with my husband, which I loved! I don’t like scary or emotionally-wrenching TV or films. When I was younger, I did watch movies more frequently. Some of my favorites are by Éric Rohmer, a French director who passed away in 2010 and made many films about girls and young women navigating coming of age. They’re funny and stylish, and emotionally often pitch-perfect. My favorites are among the many he made as part of two different semi-linked series in the 1980s. One of the best of these is Pauline at the Beach, which is about a teenage girl on vacation and how she deals with maintaining her dignity and independence when in conflict with the adults around her. Rohmer’s films are not kids’ films at all, but I think his1980s films are good to watch as an older teenager and young person in your 20s as you try to answer big questions about how to relate to other people and figure out who you are.
Some of my favorite children’s movies when I was a child were The Neverending Story, Escape to Witch Mountain (I borrowed it from my library about 100 times!), The Labyrinth...I could keep going and going. There are so many wonderful children’s movies out there. I recently introduced my daughter Alice to one of my favorites, Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, and she loved it.
I do listen to music! My husband used to work at a record shop, and we have an extensive record collection. Some of my favorite musicians/composers include Alice Coltrane/Turiysangitananda, Robbie Basho, J.D. Emmanuel, and Pharoah Sanders. I also listen to a lot of recordings of medieval-era European composers, like Léonin and Hildegard von Bingen.
What is one important lesson you got from your parents (or upbringing, more generally)?
I was raised with a lot of economic uncertainties and constraints. My mother raised me to understand that monetary value and true worth are two different things and to be suspect of consumerism and materialism as fulfilling pursuits. I was also raised to love and respect books and libraries.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Always a “writer and—”. For a while my focus was on becoming an epidemiologist, because I found disease fascinating. So I wanted to be an epidemiologist who also wrote novels. And I always wanted to be a mother, too.
What constitutes a really good day for you?
Spending time with my family, time reading a good book, time outside in a garden or forest, and time writing something that feels worth keeping. It’s hard to do all of that in one day—so even just one of those things is wonderful. My family is more important to me than anything. My daughter Alice has been the most incredible gift in my life.
What is one thing you are afraid of?
Ecological catastrophe beyond the Earth's ability to recover.
What is one thing you hope for?
The will, on a mass scale, to resist materialism, destruction, and greed.