Welcome Natalie Lloyd, a New York Times bestselling author and one of the kindest people working in children’s literature. Natalie, I’m so excited to talk to you about your newest book. Could you please tell us about Hummingbird?
Hey, Caroline! Thanks so much for inviting me to be here. I love the stories you send out into the world, so I’m a little squealy about a chance to talk about Hummingbird here! (Er … write about Hummingbird. You know what I mean.)
Hummingbird is my new novel for middle grade readers and will be published by Scholastic in August of 2022. Olive Miracle Martin, age 11, is desperate to go to the local middle school and find her future BFF, but her parents are hesitant. (Olive was born with a brittle bone disease called osteogenesis imperfecta, so they’ve always been a little anxious about her attending a big public school.) When Olive finally convinces her family to let her attend, she assumes it will be the most magical experience of her life … but it’s not. (Not at first, at least.) Her first day is mostly rotten until she hears a local legend about a creature in the woods who grants wishes to those brave enough to seek it. Olive sets out to make the deepest wish of her heart come true, unprepared for the wild new magic she’s about to set free in her town –- and in herself.
You and Olive share the same genetic disorder, osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease. We’ve exchanged a few emails about vulnerability and courage in writing, and what you’ve created in Olive’s character is brave and true. How did you do this? How did you dig so deep?
Initially, I didn’t dig very deep. When I first pictured Olive with OI, I even hedged a little bit. The hesitation seemed so weird at first. I’ve had brittle bones my whole life and always will (there’s no cure for the disease). There are other disabled characters in my stories. But I’d never written about my disability as a source of conflict before, and I didn’t know if I wanted to do that. To really write authentically about disability, I knew it was important to write the whole kaleidoscope of feelings I have surrounding my experience. So, at first, Olive had OI and she was also fully adjusted to her world, having big adventures and best friends and crushes and big feelings. And I tried to make OI more of an afterthought. I loved her voice. I loved her journey … but something felt off about the writing in those early days. It’s like I was missing the heartbeat of her story.
I had many long talks with my editor, Mallory Kass, who is brilliant and kind and has this magical knack for helping me turn my heart inside out when I write. She kept nudging me to push further on Olive’s experience, but I hesitated again and again. And then in 2019, I broke my leg. I slipped in dog drool and broke my femur, which is typically the strongest bone in a person’s body. But femurs were the bones I broke most often as a kid. It was a painful, frustrating time. And so many of the insecurities I had as a disabled kid, I realized, had not magically changed because I was a disabled adult. There are days disability is not that big a deal for me now –- I have a life that I love, that I’m grateful I get to live. But disability is still challenging –- for me it comes with chronic pain, inaccessible spaces, and daily challenges that can be frustrating. I told my husband, Justin, all of that. I said, “I just feel fragile all over.” And he said, “Your bones are fragile. You aren’t.” Between Justin and Mallory, I found my way to the better story –- the right story –- that included the full experience I had. That’s what Olive has, too: bones like lace. Heart like a lion. She still has a big adventure, big feelings, friendship and magic in her world. And she has a disability that’s sometimes very frustrating for her.
How did the idea of the hummingbird come to you?
I feel very lucky to have grown up Appalachian – the mix of faith and folklore in this region creates fertile ground for wild, wonderful stories. I think Appalachian people also have a deep connection to nature and seasons. Woods have always been a source of incredible peace and wonder for me – I think I’ve had a scene in the woods in every book I’ve written so far. I’d been reading folklore about various monsters and creatures and the idea of a hummingbird came to me. I’ve always loved watching them zoom and flutter. My grandmother loved them; my grandfather was afraid of them because he claims they zoomed too close to his face. (And he was onto something! Hummingbirds can remember faces!) I started reading about those birds in particular and they’re fascinating. They’re one of a billion miracles of nature. I loved the idea that a creature so fragile could fly. And that a creature so small could carry so much magic on its wings.
I love the idea that all of us are fragile in some way. Can you expand a bit on this idea and how you made it real to young readers?
Throughout the book, Olive meets lots of eccentric people in her town. (I should say that my world wasn’t as small as hers early on. I spent lots of time with my family and felt the most comfortable there, but also went to a small school and I was part of a church.) Olive is experiencing all this for the first time, that connection with people in her community at different ages and life spaces. Through that, she realizes we all have a “fragile” place: something in our lives that makes us feel very vulnerable in a painful way. For some people it’s a dream they hope for that hasn’t come true yet, or it’s the grief of loss, or it’s regret … there are so many things that make us feel fragile. I think kids become aware of this feeling early on — one thing I love about writing for them is that they have such empathetic, kind hearts and a real sensitivity toward each other and the bigger world. I think they’re always trying to make spaces where anybody with a fragile heart feels safe.
I was really struck by the scene where Olive, who is trying out for a school play, doesn’t want to feel “selfish” for wanting a ramp to the stage. Wow. Thank you for helping me see how often I take everyday able-bodied privileges for granted. I was also struck by Olive’s assessment that “A body should be the least interesting thing about a person.” At an age where young readers are becoming aware of their bodies — what they can and can’t do, how they look and “fit in” when compared to others — what do you hope they take from your book?
First, I hope kids know accessibility is never selfish. Not ever. I felt like Olive when I was younger, like I was making it hard on someone else if I needed a ramp. But the truth is that every person needs some form of accessibility. Maybe you can climb stairs, but what if a building didn’t have stairs at all? It might be hard for you (or impossible for you) to get inside. Any opportunity we take as a culture to make places more accessible, in more and more creative ways, is good for every kind of body.
As far as young readers, I hope they have fun in the book and feel like they’re part of this world. And if they connect to Olive, I hope it reminds them that they get to take up space –- deserve to take up space –- in this world in exactly the body they have. Their story matters, and so does their experience as they move through their wild and magical lives.
Much of Hummingbird is about friendship — the longing for it, the importance of it. Can you talk a bit about this and specifically the friendships Olive forms with Grace and Hatch?
I love writing friendships. I have always been lucky to have a few close friends. I’m not outgoing and have never been popular. But I think one true friend (no matter your age) can make the world feel technicolor. Olive and Grace have some fun stuff in common: they’re both artsy, love to read, and love their families. In Grace, Olive sees a confidence she loves and wants for herself. In Olive, Grace finds a friend who listens and connects and cares. Olive’s relationship with Hatch is different and changes at a slower pace. He’s her stepbrother, and initially, they have a hard time connecting. I don’t want to spoil their relationship for the reader, but through Hatch, Olive realizes not every friendship has to be instant to become special. (She also realizes snap-judgements are dangerous and silly.)
In some ways, our 2022 books, Hummingbird and Miraculous, share some striking similarities: They are both tied up in hope and faith and things our characters long to change. Why did you choose to explore these ideas for a middle grade audience?
Welp, one, I can’t wait to read Miraculous! I would love to see your answer to this question, too!
I just read the most beautiful quote by author k.a. holt – she says we’re all just kids in grown-up skin. I think that’s a lovely way to describe why middle grade feels so important to read, no matter your age. In my experience, young readers aren’t so clouded by skepticism yet. They’re open to the wonder in the world. They’re experiencing hard things, and wonderful things, and huge feelings – still figuring how it all comes together and who they are. For me, middle school is also when I first started feeling my body was “wrong” because it didn’t look like other bodies. I always thought my happiness would be complete if I could just look “normal” — but then, and now, I keep realizing normal is so subjective. My true sources of joy are loving my people and my pets and living with compassion and creativity. I want to live with an open heart, even if that means it gets broken sometimes. Young readers remind me to do that, and it’s an honor to write for them.
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