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Going All-In on Interests with Lynne Kelly

Lynne Kelly, author of The Secret Language of Birds (Delacorte Press), explores the ripples you make when you create a character who is all-in on her interests.

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About the book: The Secret Language of Birds by Lynne Kelly. Published by Delacorte Press.

An instant USA Today bestseller! From the award-winning author of Song for a Whale comes a poignant and heartwarming tale about a girl who discovers a pair of endangered birds about to lay eggs in the marshes of her summer camp...and the secret plan she hatches to help them.

Nina is used to feeling like the odd one out, both at school and in her large family. But while trying to fit in at summer camp, she discovers something even more peculiar: two majestic birds have built a nest in the marsh behind an abandoned infirmary. They appear to be whooping cranes, but that's impossible--Nina is an amateur bird-watcher, and all her resources tell her that those rare birds haven't nested in Texas for over a hundred years.

When Nina reports the sighting to wildlife officials, more questions arise. Experts track all the endangered birds, but they can't identify the female bird that Nina found. Who is she, and where did she come from?

With the help of some fellow campers, Nina sets out to discover who the mystery bird really is. As she gets closer to the truth, will she find a flock of her own?

This instant classic captures the coming-of-age moment of learning to spread your wings in a way you'll never forget.


Matthew: Welcome to the Children’s Book Podcast. I’m Matthew.

I am a teacher, a librarian, a writer, and a fan of kids. 

Today on the podcast: Lynne Kelly and a conversation about the ripples you make when you create a character who is all-in on her interests.

But first, wanna support the show? Go to and click on the “Buy Me a Coffee” tab to send a buck or two my way. All contributions go to covering the costs of running the show and are an easy way to show your appreciation for these conversations. Thanks!

Back in 2019, I read a book about a 12-year-old girl named Iris who was something of a tech smartie. Iris was the only deaf kid in her school and she felt like (and was treated like) somewhat of an outsider. But then Iris learned about Blue 55, a real whale who was unable to speak with other whales. This book, Song for a Whale (Yearling Books), became one of the most recommended books in our library, promoted to readers and teachers alike.

Now Lynne is back with a sequel, or maybe a companion, with every bit as much heart and agency and compassion.

The Secret Language of Birds (Delacorte Press) is a poignant and heartwarming tale about a girl who discovers a pair of endangered birds about to lay eggs in the marshes of her summer camp...and the secret plan she hatches to help them.

Let’s step into my conversation with Lynne Kelly. Ready? Here we go.


Lynne: I'm Lynn Kelly. I live near Houston, Texas, where I write novels for the middle grade audience. And my latest book is the secret language of birds. 

Matthew: Kelly, I'm glad you're here, and I'm glad that you write for that middle grade audience, and I am glad that you write about nature, and I'm glad that you write about kids having agency, and trying to understand their world sometimes ahead of the adults that are in their life. Um, I have to think from reading your books and being a fan that I'm seeing you reflect out from your stories, whether I'm seeing childhood Lynn or I'm seeing grown up Lynn who values kids now. Um, but before I get ahead of myself, um, I'd love to ask you if you could share a little bit of the story of The Secret Language of Birds for all of those readers young and old that haven't read this book yet.

Lynne: Sure. This book is about Nina, who in this story is 13 years old. Readers of Song for a Whale might remember her, and they might remember her not so fondly. She was a minor character in Song for a Whale and a source of annoyance. She is older and wiser now at 13. A year later, but it takes place about a year after Song for a Whale ended.

And, She is in this story. She is an avid birder. Um, in working on this story, I realized, um, so I was creating the character. I realized, uh, Nina is someone who is going to go all in on whatever she's interested in. In Song for a Whale, that was sign language. Uh, maybe overdid it in her excitement a little, and in this case, it's birds, uh, because of an event that takes place in the first chapter, and at her summer camp in East Texas, she sees a pair of nesting whooping cranes, and she knows that, This is a highly improbable event, um, because whooping cranes have not nested in Texas for over a century.

So she knows this is a historic event. These are very rare birds. They do not visit this part of Texas and certainly not, um, during nesting season. at all in the state. So she knows this is something that needs to be reported to those who, uh, watch over this population of cranes. Uh, but the discovery happened when she and her new friends were exploring an off limits part of camp.

To be fair, there is an allegedly haunted infirmary out there, so of course they had to go check it out. during the first full moon. So, um, she has a dilemma there. She needs to report this sighting, but she can't do it without telling on herself and the other campers. So she figures she'll handle it on her own.

Matthew: I love that you write into the book too that the camp staff knows that kids go out to the allegedly haunted place. The tradition of we sneak out every year. We go look and the counselors are like, we know you do that. We tell you make sure you're safe. Uh, really, I think it just speaks to, it just, it just speaks to how we are just in our own worlds as kids and that's okay.

And in that way, Nina and her friends really think. I'm going to be the one, I have this information, I'm going to be the one to solve this, and I think, in a lot of ways, they do. They, you give them the space and the tools to, to have that discovery on their own and to own that discovery. But also you, I think, really beautifully, Lynn, walk that line of, but at what point should we be telling other people, other stakeholders, other people that are in charge of our safety, different things like that.

And I think that that, um, that certainly raises the stakes for the characters, but yours are books, same with Song for a Whale, yours are books that I, I, I can't help but read them and go, wow, Lynn is really. helping kids to know when you have that thought of I want to save the world this way, I want to go do a thing, helping to have that other voice in your head to go, what might be the best way to do that?

Lynne: I don't know if I'm dancing around something, or not wanting to give too much away, or, I 

Matthew: don't, I don't know what, I just feel in like you, You, it feels, speak to your readers, at least in these two books, you speak to your readers in a way that feels like, I know you, I know who you are, I was that kind of kid too, or whatever.

But also, um, If we want to go run away from home to try to meet up with the scientists that are tracking this whale, or if we want to go, uh, out birding on our own and, and have our, our motion camera set up at night and track all this information and, and, and, and all of these different things that feel exciting knowing what might be the next logical thing that could happen, if I don't think it's always something that we even as adults. But the kids can always imagine what, what could happen if, if I go do this and you create worlds where that is a safe place to explore. 

Lynne: Thanks so much. 

Matthew: Would you mind talking to me a little bit? I'm so fascinated. I am. We talked off recording about, uh, readers discovering that there's a familiar character in Secret Language of Birds and maybe not knowing to expect that.

And, um, I had that experience when Iris, the protagonist from Song for a Whale appears in this book. And so I wanted to ask you, and I'm listening to it on audio. So I'm also having that moment of like, wait, I know this, I know this person, this is still driving, but there's something that's connecting here.

And that was wonderful. Um, but I wonder when Nina came into the, into your writer's mind, uh, whether you. We're picturing a bigger world for Iris all along, or if it was starting with Nina, or if I don't know what, I wonder what that world building and really Nina's story was like for you. 

Lynne: Right. I did not plan on writing a book about Nina.

She really was just a character in a few chapters of Song for a Whale. She was one who, you know, didn't make this school life any easier. for Iris, um, unintentionally. Um, but she, she wasn't great at recognizing boundaries. And, uh, you know, maybe it looks back on that now and, and understands that better, but at the time, uh, she did not.

So, um, really, I did not plan on writing in a story starring Nina. Um, I was surprised to find out some readers actually liked her. And I, I didn't intend that either. I didn't know anyone would really like her, but there were people who, you who recognized, oh, you know, I, I think she wanted to be friends with Iris.

She really did try to communicate with her. Maybe Iris should have cut her some more slack. Um, and so I, I understand that. I just hadn't expected it. And, you know, really, um, maybe she, um, did want to be friends with Iris. I started thinking of that and, um, but of course, Iris was understandably very frustrated and annoyed by her.

She was literally. in her, in her face, trying to assign to her when, um, Iris is trying to tell her, you're not making any sense. I don't understand you. So, you know, just wasn't able to, to step back and, um, and watch and listen and learn. Um, so that's, uh, birding is perhaps a challenging hobby for someone like that to take on because you, um, can't be successful as a birder if you're going to be rushing in and, uh, making noise when you, you see something.

You, um, you want to learn about. So it's one where you, you learn more by stepping back and watching and listening. So, um, it was only after I, um, start, you know, got some of that feedback that, that people did like her. And I started thinking, you know, probably a few years later, I think it wasn't until, um, maybe 2021.

And this book came, you know, Song for a Whale came out in 2019. So, so, you know, two or three years later, I started thinking, well, I wonder if it'd be interesting to get to know this character more. I wonder if she could star in her own story. Um, so I, you know, of course she was not a three dimensional character because I hadn't ascended.

Since she was just meant to be in a couple, or a few chapters of Song for Whales, she wasn't a well developed three dimensional character. So I needed to, get to know this character better as a well rounded character if I wanted her to to star in her own story as a main character.

So I started working on that and and figuring out, okay, why does she come across as a know it all? Um, why is she so desperate to show off what little she knows and sort of pretend she knows a lot more than she does? What's going on with Um, and then I brainstorm from there. Well, she, I think is someone who must not feel very smart because those who are comfortable with what they know or don't know, um, don't feel a need to shout about it, um, about, about how much they know.

So there must be a reason that, for, for that. Maybe she's in a, a big family and everyone seems perfect and she feels a little lost or overlooked. And so it grew from there. And that's where I figured out, okay, she's someone who is all in on whatever her interest is at the moment. And that's where that came from.

And I think she, um, she does want to be seen as knowledgeable. And I do love it when characters get the opposite of what they want because of their own actions. So she's someone who wants to be seen as knowledgeable, and she is. But if she overdoes it, and Pretends that she knows more. Well, then it becomes obvious, uh, this girl doesn't know what she's talking about, and then she ends up getting the opposite of that.

So, um, really it grew from there just thinking about, all right, maybe this is a character who's worthy of her own story. And then, uh, got to know her from there and then had to figure out, all right, what's her story now that I, I think. Yeah. 

Matthew: I would say, is that your writing process is, is pre writing time just Asking yourself questions about this character, trying to know the character.

I don't mean to put words in your mouth, but I'm just trying to process that. Know the character before you even have them tell you their story. Come into a, uh, knowing them enough that you can drop them into a problem and see how they would behave in that space. 

Lynne: Yeah, I do like to get to know the character really well before I write the story.

And of course along the way I'll get to know them more. Um, so I feel like I'm constantly getting to know more about them. But that way I feel like, um, it does help me write the story because I know how this person will react. to what's happening. And I know, for example, what this person is afraid of. Well, they're going to have to face that somehow in the story.

And actually until, until this, um, the, the books I'd written had started out with something interesting. I learned about an animal. So some fascination I had with a particular animal. So in Song for a Whale, it was, I didn't have the character yet. I didn't have the story yet, but I found out about the life of the so-called lonely whale. Yes. 52 blue in real life, 55 in the story. Um, learned about this whale who kind of sings his own language, doesn't have a song that other whales understand, because he's singing at a much higher frequency than they do. And I kept thinking about this whale. And after a couple of days, I thought, maybe I need to write something down about him.

Maybe there's a story here. If I'm so connected and so fascinated, maybe others will be too. And then from there, I thought, all right, now who's the character? Um, I think I, I know I'm gonna write about this whale. Looks like there'll be a story here. Who's the character who's going to feel so fascinated, she will feel compelled to track him down?

Must be someone who feels like she has a similar life. In some way. And so that became Iris, someone who feels like as the only deaf kid in school, she understands that song. She feels lonely even when she's in a crowd, because she doesn't share the language of those around her. And. So with this one, it was the, um, the character came first cause I kind of had this character and then thought, I do want to give her a story.

And it was, um, actually when I was brainstorming about the next book, um, with my agent, Molly O'Neill, who I think you, you probably know. Molly, sure. Yes, we're talking about, all right, what's my next book? This whale is a hard act to follow. Um, he's not many, how many animals out there who are that unusual, like alone in their species as having their language.

So what do I, what do I do now? Um, and so I mentioned, I've been thinking about Nina and writing a story about her, but. I'm not sure what that story is. Maybe something about birds and we, you know, start brainstorming about what, what could this story be? And then she starts doing an online search as we're talking about Texas and birds and said, Oh, here's a Texas monthly article.

Did you know whooping cranes are nesting in Texas for the first time in over a hundred years? Um, no, I hadn't read that issue yet. I did. I probably have it here at home and I hadn't, hadn't come across that. That seems like it's a, it could be a fascinating story. And so. That's why I decided, okay, Nina is a birder and she's someone who is going to have this sighting.

And she's going to know, she'll be someone who knows this is a big deal. So. Uh, there were, um, this population of, uh, birds I wrote about, um, is a non migratory flock in Louisiana. There are around 80 of them in that, in that flock. And so that's why it makes sense, you know, being next door. It's not a, not a long journey over to East Texas.

And two couples have, um, come over into Texas during nesting season and have found some. Some hospitable land to, uh, build a nest on and the, um, the fish and wildlife, um, department there who oversee these cranes and monitor and track each one of them, because they are very rare and they need to, um, keep tabs on them.

Uh, they were very thankful for these landowners who called to tell them, um, Hey, you have a couple of whipping cranes on my land. They knew who they, who they belonged to and who would want to know. So they were thankful not only for their report, because their trackers don't always work, um, so thankful for their report, for one, and also that those landowners were very respectful and they were honored by the presence of these very rare birds choosing their property, um, even though it might not be convenient if they have, uh, maybe some farmland, for example, have to work around them and give them their space.

So they were, they were thankful for that. And, um, in fact, they said that they, um, they sent a copy of the book to that, that first landowner who called and told them that they, they had some, uh, some cranes on his land. So the, the guy who really kind of kicked off this story, um, it has, has a copy of the book now from the fish and wildlife.

You slightly changed, 

Matthew: you slightly changed the name of the whale that is based on In Song for a Whale, were, were the Whooping Cranes like closely named to Willie Nelson and 

Lynne: Dolly Parton? They um, they actually don't usually name them, they all have a number, and I didn't want to use this one. um, because then I might be identifying a particular individual, like it's their story.

So I think they, um, they do give them some nicknames sometimes. It might be someone there. Um, Who, you know, who, you know, works with them and might get to name them, or they might let someone like, I dunno if they might've said to the landowner, do you want to name this, this chick, if it hatches, they might've done that.

So many of them have some have names. And so I, I decided for this, we'll just, we'll just go with names with them and give them, um, like they have a theme, like these are, there's a group of, um, you know, named after country music singers and there might be a group named after, you know, actors or something else.


Matthew: you know, the things that you, the things that you teach us as readers. I'm saying this as, as an adult who's reading your books and enjoying them as well, is that you're teaching me that, uh, not only did I not know that, that this rare bird, uh, has a non migratory group and that they're They live here next door to where you are.

But I also learned, and it makes sense, but I just didn't have reason to know it before, that there would be a, a journal, a book, a, um, a database of all of these birds. It makes perfect sense. Even it made me then go, well, yeah, I guess for any species where we go, we know there's only this number remaining.

Right. How would we know that number if not by tracking and through conservation efforts and through things like that? So there were just little, little new wrinkles in my brain that you were placing there that, uh, allowed me then to really transpose that onto other facts about wildlife. And I found that really interesting.

And so I also felt like I need to ask you about conservation, about being a conservation conscious kid. Perhaps Coincidentally, the new episode of, I don't know if you listened to, there's a wonderful podcast called Decoder Ring, where they decode different pieces of pop culture. And the episode of, of this week, uh, was on Captain Planet and how Ted Turner created this character and his mission to really bring more consciousness to what at the time we were referring to as, as, um, the greenhouse effect and global warming and what we now refer big picture as climate change, but that he created this cartoon. I don't need to tell you the episode, but it just being a kid of the eighties and being raised around that time of that cartoon.

I was eight. It was the perfect time for me to be watching that show, uh, eight or nine. Um, I didn't realize that. context in our country or in our world with which that was happening. And so similar, I'm hearing, so I grew up going like, Oh yeah, we need to save the rainforest. And we had fern gully and we had these different things.

And here I am now also reading these books of yours and, and, and I can't help, but it reverberate in me that you are speaking to kids, dropping these touch points of what are, what's going on in their world. that they might not realize until they. grow a little older that, oh, when I read that book, it was a really big deal thing that was happening in science, uh, or in my backyard as I was growing up.

So I wonder for you, Lynn, big circle to come back to just wondering if that was something that was on your mind as a child too. Was the environment something that was compelling you? Was science something and research something that was compelling you as a kid? 

Lynne: Yeah, I was, uh, I think not conservation in particular, but I was interested in wildlife all along.

So I've, I've always been interested in animals. I love, um, you know, thinking about their communication, you know, I would love to know what they're saying to each other and their family groups, how, how they live, where they live, how they, build their homes, their behavior. So I'm fascinated by animal communication and behavior.

So I've always been interested in animals. I've always loved wildlife and we would, um, being so close to the Gulf coast, we would go to the, um, the beaches near here when I was growing up often. So I, um, loved ocean life, especially, and was, I would love finding shark teeth and, um, and things like that. Yeah.

Oh, that's neat. 

Matthew: I. It strikes me too, not only are you speaking to these animal loving kids, which I hope have always been there. I hope we have all always been animal loving kids, and I hope that's just a thing that kids continue to be, um, How can I save these animals? These animals are endangered. What do we do?

Are zoos okay for animals? Are these conservation efforts working? All of those different things. How does it, how do we impact everything? Um, but I, I wrote in that question to you ahead of time too, thinking about how it feels to me like your books are planting seeds for future citizen scientists, which is, you know, a newer term for me.

I don't remember having that when I was, uh, a kid, but I think nonetheless, through the help of my teachers and other adults in my life, I was absolutely a citizen scientist helping with our, our, uh, stream cleanup in different, collection, data collection pieces like that. I, so I wonder, as you're writing these books, how much, how much you're thinking about that as you're writing.

I assume you're, you hear from a lot of kids. And so as a teacher, it makes me wonder what it, what responsibility, do you feel bearing responsibility as you write these books that you, you are having these, these, you're, you're having these ripples on children? 

Lynne: Right. I hope it does have some, some positive ripple effects on the kids just having this, um, story.

And then, um, if we, if we connect to that, then I think we do care about the world more and we, as we learn about the world and we learn how interesting these animals are and in this case, how endangered they are. And that's because of us. Um, their, their 40 less. Um, a good bounce back from the low twenties they read in the 1940s.

But wow. They can see too that, um, yeah, so as close to extinction as you can get without becoming extinct, so, yeah. Um, so they could see too, yes, we, um, we cause a lot of problems, but there are also people working to. Help these populations bounce back and to help, um, preserve the habitats and help protect these, these animals and, and the world around us.

So there we, you know, we can, we can do, um, something to try to help instead of. Sometimes, um, it just means, uh, like we mentioned, giving these animals their space, um, staying out of their way when they're, when they're doing fine. You know, that's why they, they never, um, mention, uh, say with these, with these whooping cranes.

The, uh, they'll announce, Oh, good news. There's a nest. Um, and now there's a hatchling. Here they are. Here's the family. They'll never say where they are specifically. They'll say a county or in Louisiana parish, um, because they don't want even the best intention people to rush in and take a photo and scare them off.

So even if we're, even if we aren't purposely trying to, to harm an animal, um, best to keep our distance when they're, when we're looking at wildlife, if we can. Um, and there, there are certainly things we can do more actively to help. Um, like they, the characters in this book, they report to wildlife officials that these cranes are here.

And other than that, they're mainly watching over them, staying hidden so they don't scare them off. 

Matthew: Yeah. 

Lynne: And so, yeah, there are always, you know, things we can do to, to make things better and try to, try to counteract, uh, a lot of the, the challenges that wildlife has. 

Matthew: It felt to me in that way, like growing up hearing to write to your congressman to know that, oh, when there's something happening, there's other authority that I can reach out to that, that are there to help exactly with this.

And, um, Even all of the what ifs of, Oh, they're, they're going to have an egg. What if they don't care for it? Or what if the egg isn't viable? There were so many different things, um, that you made room for in this story that, uh, I'm just going to leave you with that. I, that this reader really appreciated being able to have the opportunity to read or have this book read to me via audio book, Lynn, you have a wonderful gift and I, I'm so grateful that you share this specific voice with with readers. I can't wait to keep reading your books because it feels like I have like a teacher buddy along with me telling me stories. I'm really grateful for you. 

Lynne: Thank you so much. I do aim, you know, I aim first to, um, to tell a good story that that readers will connect to.

And then for the, cause you mentioned about the, um, You know, teaching kids about conservation of wildlife. Um, that comes more in the revision really, or like as I'm writing along the way, because I want to, I want the story to be accurate. I want anything the, the readers pick up. I want it to be accurate information as, as much as I can, as I can get it there.

Matthew: Well, I appreciate that. Lynn, I'm going to close with you by sharing that I will see a library full of children tomorrow morning. Is there a message that I can bring to them from you? 

Lynne: Oh, well, I would say for one, thank you for reading our stories, because without readers, um, we authors don't have anything to do.

We don't have, we don't have anything, anyone to write for. So thank you for reading our books. Um, I would say too, if you, um, well, anyone, has a story to tell. So if you're interested in writing, I would say start writing your stories down because you have stories to tell. And I would say too, if you think that you have not found books that you really enjoy yet, talk to the librarians about what your interests are and what, what books you do like.

There are people who read very widely. I like to read a lot of different kinds of books and read for different ages. Other people are choosier about what stories they like to read, but I think there's something out there for everyone. So I would talk to your librarians to help you find those books that you'll connect to.


Matthew: Thank you to Lynne Kelly for joining me on The Children’s Book Podcast. 

You can pick up your own copy of The Secret Language of Birds (Delacorte Press) and Song for a Whale (Yearling Books) wherever books are found. Consider supporting independent bookstores by shopping through You can also use my affiliate link by clicking on the book’s name in our show notes. I highly recommend checking out the audiobooks! Both are available through and you can support independent bookstores in the process! 

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Be well. And read on.

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