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30 September 2021

Sylvia and the Birds: a Q&A with Sarah Laing and Johanna Emeney

Part graphic biography, part practical guide to protecting our bird wildlife, Sylvia and the Birds: How the bird lady saved thousands of birds, and how you can too! is a new release from Massey University Press. Written by Johanna Emeney and richly illustrated by Sarah Laing, the book is based on the life of ‘The Bird Lady’, Sylvia Durrant, who helped over 140,000 sick, injured and lost birds during her lifetime. We asked the authors ten quick questions about the project.

Where did the notion of this book come from?

JE: The idea for a book about Sylvia came to me in a flash. In 2018, at the age of 85, Sylvia decided to give up bird-ladying (which entailed being the person to whom the whole of the North Shore took sick and injured birds).

In an interview about her decision to step down, she described being brought up in foster care: ‘You knew who you were: you were nobody.’ I knew then that her book had to be written. My mother had been in foster care, and so what Sylvia said struck a poignant chord with me. Nobody is nobody, and Sylvia is a capital-letter Somebody.

The next character who had to be included was Charlie Thomas, a young activist and artist who had attended a lot of the writing workshops my friend Ros Ali and I had put on over the years. Charlie had just been on an awe-inspiring trip to Kure Atoll and was making quite a name for themselves as a mentor for young environmentalists.

Charlie helped Sylvia when they were younger, and the book sees Charlie call in to Sylvia’s iconic Rothesay Bay home for a visit. The young and older environmental activists chat about their history and the threats our birds are up against — most importantly, what we can do to protect our feathered taonga. Sarah Laing’s drawings were what I saw when I imagined the book. She was the only person I could imagine writing it with, as we have similar senses of humour and similar tender spots. We have also been friends for over 12 years.

What is Sylvia Durrant’s legacy?

JE: Sylvia’s dedication to the conservation of birds at a time when it was not fashionable or woke to be environmentally minded places her among the visionaries. Her humility and generosity as a person who cared for birds without funding and who gave her time to educate young people in the local area are remembered by many, and six beautiful bronze statues of kororā on Campbells Bay beach physically commemorate her 35 years of service.

She was so dedicated! Can you imagine getting up in the night to feed a gaggle of hungry penguins?

SL: I am terrible at getting out of bed early. I am still recovering from my breastfeeding days.

JE: There is a great section in the book about Sylvia’s early morning penguin parties.

The book is so layered and complex. How long did it take to get it the stage of handing it over to the publisher?

SL: I worked on this book while also working four days a week as a public servant, so it took me a lot of weekends! Jo began feeding me chunks of text in 2020, but it wasn’t until January 2021 that I took a fortnight’s leave to get my head around it.

She gave me some proposed scripts for initial comics sections, which I tweaked, as Jo often anticipated that far more text could go into panels than actually could! She also gave me Sylvia’s scrapbook sections, which initially I thought could be turned into comics, but soon realised it would be a shame to lose all the old photographs, so instead I began using a combination of illustrations and photography to tell the story. Jo wanted it to be a bit like an annual, with a variety of styles juxtaposed, and to include artwork from the young environmentalists and photographers she had met. It was my job to stitch all the pieces together, adding illustrations where I saw fit, and adapting certain passages into comic strips to tell the story in a more visual manner.

As soon as we finished one section, we began constructing the next section, having vigorous phone discussions about what to include. This book was created organically, as one would a bird’s nest! We gathered material; we threaded it in. We handed our little bird’s nest over to the publisher in late 2021.

What’s one new thing you learned about birds while working on it?

SL: I learnt lots of facts about penguins! Like, a group of penguins is called a raft. And penguins have backward-facing spikes in their tongues to stop the slippery fish and krill from escaping. I also learnt about dotterels — there are only 2500 left! — and how they fake injuries to lure predators away from their nests.

JE: I learned that the kererū is really important to our forests. Kererū are the only birds large enough to swallow the fruits of native trees like karaka. They will then distribute the seeds of the fruit. (There is a lot about poo in our book.)

Favourite bird?

SL: Hmm, that’s a tough one as I like all birds. I am very fond of kererū though, and I had a pair of them living in the tī kōuka tree out my window, just as Sylvia has a pair living in her pūriri tree. They have such beautiful iridescent feathers and lovely white overalls.

JE: Spur-winged plover. I love their masks, how they carry weapons on their wings, how brave they are in defending their eggs and babies — and how ugly their babies are until they grow their own masks. Boy, do those babies need masks.

You had a wee crew of helpers. Tell us about them.

JE: Sylvia and the Birds features some marvellous photographers and artists, some very famous and some emerging: Simon Runting, Peter Cox, Todd Henry and Bevan Smith. This book has been an utter joy to put together, and this mix of media and personnel has been so fortuitous. Advisors such as Tim Lovegrove, Te Kaha Hawaikirangi and Nicola MacDonald have been incredibly gracious in giving their time and expertise to reading parts of the book for us, too.

I think the generosity of spirit surrounding the project has been garnered by Sylvia’s legacy and popularity. It has been quite overwhelming.

It’s tricky, isn’t it, explaining conservation issues to young readers without burdening them with extinction stories. How best to approach that?

SL: I live in Wellington, and the bird conservation story is a very positive one. Thanks to predator trapping and initiatives like Zealandia and Polhill, our biodiversity is flourishing. I can look out my window and my trees are full of tūī and kākā, and there are skinks and wētā in my garden. I feel like it is very easy to feel despairing about things like sea level rise, carbon emissions and the climate crisis, and feel like it’s hard to make a difference.

But kids can make a difference when it comes to biodiversity. They can see how putting a trap in their garden will stop the loss of eggs, and how planting certain trees will encourage birdlife. Also, they can convince their parents not to mow their lawns so much, so that all the insects that feed the birds have a place to live.

JE: A character like Charlie is a great medium. When I asked Charlie if they would mind being a cartoon character, one of the main reasons was because I knew they would be able to talk with young people in a different voice to Sylvia’s. Sylvia is like a really awesome nana you’d have fun learning from, whereas Charlie is like an older kid you’d enjoy being around and have great conversations with.

Now that the advances are back, how proud do you feel?

JE: When I saw the book, I can honestly say it surpassed my expectations. I’d wanted it to be a full-colour hardback from the word go, but I hadn’t envisaged it looking quite as gorgeous as it does. Sarah’s cover is so perfect. I know it’s going to be a family book that people take out to read and do some activities, then take out to remind themselves of a bird’s name or how to get into Predator Free 2050.

What do you hope young readers and their families will take from this book?

SL: I hope that young readers will know what to do if they find an injured bird, or if a bird flies into their house. I also hope that they are reminded to keep their cats inside at night! I hope that they are inspired by Charlie’s story, and can see a pathway to becoming an environmentalist, and how to help out in their communities.

I want them to be inspired by Sylvia’s story, too — here is a woman who faced a lot of difficulties. She was in foster care and was poor. She was told she wasn’t smart at school. And yet she was tenacious and believed in herself and followed her passions and became one of New Zealand’s best-known conservationists. She wasn’t a scientist or a celebrity. She was just an ordinary woman who happened to nurse about 140,000 birds back to health!

JE: A young person reading this book will get so many positive things from it, but for me the greatest one is the message that however difficult our circumstances, we can always achieve, and we can always make a difference for others. Everybody is Somebody.

Find Sylvia and the Birds here.