Cheryl Blackford fulfills her dream with ‘Hungry Coyote’

Writer Cheryl Blackford of North Oaks awaits the May 1 publication of “Hungry Coyote,” her children’s picture book about a year in the life of an urban coyote. (courtesy Jessie DeCorsey)
Writer Cheryl Blackford of North Oaks awaits the May 1 publication of “Hungry Coyote,” her children’s picture book about a year in the life of an urban coyote. (courtesy Jessie DeCorsey)
In an illustration by artist Laurie Caple, a coyote appears to yip in contentment at the end of summer.  (courtesy Minnesota Historical Society Press)
In an illustration by artist Laurie Caple, a coyote appears to yip in contentment at the end of summer. (courtesy Minnesota Historical Society Press)
Illustrations for “Hungry Coyote” are by natural history artist Laurie Caple, and the book is published by the Minnesota Historical Society. (courtesy Minnesota Historical Society Press)
Illustrations for “Hungry Coyote” are by natural history artist Laurie Caple, and the book is published by the Minnesota Historical Society. (courtesy Minnesota Historical Society Press)

North Oaks author's book to be released May 1

On one of her many walks through the woods near her North Oaks home, author Cheryl Blackford saw a "lone coyote trotting across the frozen lake" and wondered how it lived successfully so close to an urban area.

Blackford says she walks outside almost every day, regardless of the weather. It's her thinking time for writing stories, including imagining the setting for her newly published children's picture book, "Hungry Coyote," a story about a year in the life of an urban coyote.

Blackford grew up in England. Moving to the Twin Cities, she was fascinated by American wildlife, so the coyote crossing the lake led her to do some research. She learned that coyotes are smart animals, have active populations in Minneapolis as well as other larger cities, and they eat mice, rats and rabbits.

Coyotes are still widely viewed as undesirable, and are freely hunted and trapped in Minnesota outside the boundaries of cities that ban the activities.

"I hope my book helps children, their parents, and their teachers gain a greater understanding of this interesting creature," Blackford says. "I hope it makes people think that learning to live with coyotes is preferable to killing them."

Rhythms of language

Blackford's book follows a male coyote through the seasons, and illustrations by natural history artist Laurie Caple portray Coyote moving through his half-developed, half-natural territory.

Caple's realistic pictures bring youngsters right into the scene, and Blackford's free-verse text delights both adult readers and their listeners, with vocabulary that sparkles with alliteration, rhymes and unusual words.

River Falls resident and former librarian Elise Nooney, upon reading an advance copy of the book, says Blackford's phrasing is "beautiful and fanciful," featuring active phrases like "poke, dabble and babble," "drools, darts and snatches," and attention-getting descriptions such as "meaty snakes" and "slurpy turtle eggs," She says adults will love playing with the words as they read it to their children and grandchildren.

Children will enjoy the words, too. "Hawooooo," howled two preschoolers listening to Coyote's story, enjoying mimicking him themselves.

Time running out

Before earning a master's degree in scientific and technical communication and working in technical writing for a number of years, Blackford taught 5- to 7-year-olds in England. She'd long thought about writing a children's book, thinking in her free moments about ideas and formats she might pursue.

Suddenly, she realized that if she wanted a literary career, she'd better start one.

"Eight years ago, I realized time was running out — if I was going to write children's books, I'd better get started," she says.

She resigned from her technical writing job at Target, began reading as many children's books as she could and signed up for writing classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.

Blackford discovered the writing process — especially for children's storybooks, where every word is key — is a lengthy process of review, reflection and revision. When she thought she had something promising, she would present it to her Loft critique group, which included several published writers, and then follow up on their suggestions.

"Stories aren't magically good the first time an author writes them," Blackford explains, noting it was the 23rd version she finally decided was polished enough to present.

Blackford submitted her coyote tale to the Minnesota Historical Society Press, knowing they were interested in local authors and regional subjects.

It was a special thrill when they bought her story because, she points out, they publish "wonderful, high-quality books."

Still, her new editor suggested further revisions. Finally, 2 1/2 years after completing the story, "Hungry Coyote" was finished.

Her editor had Caple in mind as an illustrator, but Blackford had to wait almost a year for Caple to finish another project first.

The wait was worth it because the illustrations, originally done in watercolor, are "extraordinary," Blackford says.

'Lizzie' and more

In the meantime, Blackford was writing other books. Her factual texts for young readers range from the geography and culture of the country of Colombia to everything a gradeschooler might want to know about military trivia or muscle cars.

A novel for preteens, partially set in Blackford's hometown of Hull, England, is set for publication next January.

In "Lizzie and the Lost Baby," 10-year-old Lizzie is sent from World War II-era Hull, the second-most bombed city in the England, to the safety of the country. There, Lizzie befriends a local gypsy boy and finds an abandoned baby.

Her new friendship is put to the test as she tries to find the baby's parents.

In the novel, Blackford not only brings the experience of the "home front" to a new generation, she also explores themes of abandonment and prejudice as seen through young eyes.

"Stories are a way for [children] to have experiences they wouldn't otherwise encounter, to build empathy and understanding and to be offered hope," Blackford says. The former primary-school teacher knows her audience is "open and receptive to new ideas and information."

One of her friends at the Loft told Blackford about her editor at education publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, so Blackford's writing teacher and mentor, Jane Resh Thomas, herself an award-winning children's author, sent a letter of recommendation on her behalf.

"The editor read my story and made me an offer almost immediately," Blackford says.

To be a successful author you have write on a regular basis, work on your skills, learn about the publishing industry and network, she advises.

"But I think there's an element of luck involved too," she adds. "You have to find the editor that absolutely loves your story and who has room for it on his or her list. I think I was very fortunate to find an editor who did love my story."

For more information about Cheryl Blackford, visit www.cherylblackford.com.

Pamela O'Meara can be reached at pomeara@lillienews.com.


Launching ‘Hungry Coyote’

“‘Hungry Coyote’ is a beautiful tribute to a much maligned animal with which we share our world,” according to an article in Kirkus Reviews.

Author Cheryl Blackford of North Oaks invites parents and children to her launch party and book signing at 10:30 a.m. May 16 at the Red Balloon Bookshop, 891 Grand Ave., St. Paul.

Puppets and a craft activity will be featured.

The book is available for purchase May 1 from the Minnesota Historical Society Press at www.mnhspress.org, at www.amazon.com and at Barnes & Noble.
 

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