Meet Maura Shaw


Q: What inspired you to write a book like Owl"s Journey, which covers 400 years of American history?

A: I've always loved history, and I am especially interested in the lives of ordinary people - how they find courage and wisdom, how they interact with people of other backgrounds and ages, how they are the strength of America. Although some of my books for young readers are biographies of famous people, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., in Owl's Journey I wanted to show how ordinary people lived over four centuries in America. Historical fiction allowed me to bring in lots of factual information and still be able to tell exciting stories.

Q: Was it difficult to cover such a long period of time?

A: When I started to outline the book, I thought I would need a sheet of paper the length of a city block! But by dividing the timeline into intervals of thirty to forty years, each containing some event of national historical importance, I was able to convincingly move the stone owl from period to period and owner to owner. What's really fun is to hear how the students find the clues in each chapter that tell you where stone owl was last seen and where it will be traveling next. For instance, in the "Circuses and Steamboats" chapter, the owl is in Sam's pocket heading north on the steamboat - and it turns up about thirty years later in the belly of a giant sturgeon caught in the Hudson River. The sturgeon are bottom-feeders, so I imagine that the stone fell out of Sam's pocket and sank to the bottom of the river, to be gobbled up by the fish. Sturgeon can live for a very long time.

Q: What made you choose the Hudson River in New York as the locale for the stories?

A: My ancestors came here to the Hudson Valley from Holland in the mid-1600s, so I feel as if this is my river - as Mark Twain felt that the Mississippi River was his. And so many events in American history could be tied to this area. I was able to bring in the Native American people's experience as Henry Hudson sailed up the river in 1609, the early settlers, the pirates, the Revolutionary War, the beginnings of industry, the Underground Railroad and the Civil War, the waves of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, the early aviation pioneers, even the local response to the Holocaust in the chapter about my favorite First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. And of course I enjoyed ending the story with the launch of the sloop Clearwater, with its message of hope for the environment. I was thrilled to learn that a school in Texas was using Owl's Journey in their study of rivers of America, to show how people lived in an Eastern river environment, as contrasted with their own local Rio Grande.

Q: What have teachers shared with you about why the book is so enjoyable to work with?

A: Teachers have been using Owl's Journey in the classroom for over nine years now, mostly in social studies curricula, and the response I've gotten from both teachers and students has been wonderful. The teachers can see that the book follows the national standards for teaching American history - the events, the cultures, the immigrant groups, the industries, and so on - and that each paragraph is packed with ideas that can be opened up for exploration and discussion. But that isn't what the students see - they are reading for the excitement of the stories, the mystery of where the owl goes next, the humor and bravery of the boys and girls in each chapter. When I talk with classes as a visiting author, I am amazed at the perceptive, informed questions the students ask!

Q: Are there favorite activities that teachers use to teach with the book?

A: Again, the creativity of the teachers and students is simply unbelievable. Owl's Journey has a life of its own, it seems. Kids make their own owls out of stone using markers to draw in the feathers and eyes, or they carve them from soap, or mold them from clay or sculpture materials. They make timelines, posters, and lots of other craft projects. They dissect owl pellets in science class! I've seen plays based on the chapters, and handmade journals that travel with their own stone owls across the country and back. One of the most exciting activities - at least from my point of view - is when the students write their own last chapters to the book. I ended the story in 1969, with the launch of the Clearwater, to give kids an opportunity to bring the story up into their own time period. And that little stone owl has traveled to the moon, played in the World Series, and done just about anything that a boy or girl in the 21st century could imagine.

Q: Whats the question most commonly asked by the students when you visit classrooms?

A: Well, after they ask if I'm rich and if I ride in a limousine (to which I answer, "No, I work as an editor, and I drive a silver pickup truck"), the favorite question seems to be "When did you become a writer?" I use that question to encourage students in their own writing and drawing, by telling them that I've been writing stories ever since I could write sentences, and I wrote my first chapter book when I was in 4th or 5th grade - but it took a long time to get published, so it's important to keep trying. My husband, Joe Tantillo, who illustrated Owl's Journey, also began drawing when he was in elementary school, and he has had a long career as a graphic artist. The illustrations for Owl's Journey were drawn in regular lead pencil on paper, just the way the students illustrate their own book reports and stories. And then I also tell them that when I was first born, my grandfather came to see me in the hospital nursery, and when he looked at me, he said, 'Maura D. Shaw, now that's a name for a writer!' So I never really felt that I had a choice. Luckily I love writing more than anything else that I do!

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