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Posts Tagged ‘swift foxes

In a presentation at the 2014 Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival entitled “A Year with Who?”, Jeff Kurrus talked about the life of a writer and photographer who has taken the motto “know your audience” to an entirely new level. Associate editor of the award-winning wildlife publication NEBRASKAland magazine, Kurrus lives in the Midwest and is the author of the Golden-Sower nominee Have You Seen Mary? and The Tale of Jacob Swift. What follows are the highlights of his presentation.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJeff Kurrus began by saying that he is no different from a seven or eight year old kid. When he looks at readers, he wants them to love his books.

On the heels of this statement, Kurrus talked about how photos are an optimal way to teach art and stories. Kurrus displayed a dazzling array of photos and explained that one can stop a room with an image that hasn’t been seen before or with an angle that hasn’t been done before. For example, kids like his photos of a deer that is making a face and of a snake with a head in focus but with the rest of it blurred. Bringing this idea closer to the classroom, Kurrus observed that a popular topic that kids write about is Disney World. He suggested that instead of students writing about the amusement park rides, why not write about the long lines?

When he teaches writing, Kurrus also shows his photos. This makes it personal. He also presents multiple variations of those photos. For example, he might show a photo of a flower and then zoom in on the bee, or he might show a fish but then present it from an underwater perspective. This to him is an ideal way to teach revision.

After this introduction, Kurrus proceeded to give examples of specific activities that teachers might try. Most of them relate to animals, because Kurrus wants to generate an interest in the outdoors.

  • Students can create a photo story. One will be a supervisor. Another one will be the photo editor. And another will be the writer. Students will create a story that others will read and critique. The activity addresses content and audience.
  • Teachers can also photos to talk about research and about animals that kids normally take for granted. For example, one topic could be robins. Teachers could lead students into a discussion of history by connecting robins to the passenger pigeons.
  • Finally, teachers could quiz students to encourage them to learn about animals. By asking leading questions about animals, and requiring students to research the answers, teachers can prompt them to ask: WHY???


After listing various activities for teachers to share with their students, Kurrus talked specifically about his two books. He enlisted about forty students to critique Have You Seen Mary? and about a thousand for The Tale of Jacob Swift. Initially, he was petrified. There are an abundance of chapter books. Most young people don’t know anything about sand hill cranes, the topic of Have You Seen Mary? How would they react to his manuscript?

In teaching students to do peer reviews and to work with one another, Kurrus starts out with two rules:

  • Be nice. I’m sensitive.
    (I have a desire to write but only average talent.)
  • Be specific. Explain why something should be changed and how.
    (I will listen and evaluate. I’m looking for patterns.)

Next, he shares the writing process:

  • Draft
  • Research
  • Organize Photos (10,000 to 40)
  • Revise
  • Polish
  • He stressed that students need to know that writers don’t live on a magic farm. Authors have to revise.

With these basics out of the way, Kurrus will talk with students about the conceptual ideas for a story. From there, they will focus on smaller aspects of the story. And, finally, they will get down to titles.

Kurrus advises that when teaching students to write, the idea is to give them the tools they will need and then have them look at topics in a different way. However, they also need to learn to critique and revise. The writing process is a philosophy for life too.


His presentation over, Kurrus took questions from the audience, starting with one about the inspiration for Have You Seen Mary? He watched the sandhill migration and realized there were hundreds of cranes. He started to think about the individuals. As he researched cranes, Kurrus realized that they mate for life. He began to ask questions from a research-minded point of view: What happens if a pair becomes separated? From there, he kept chasing ideas, having fun with an outline, and then turned to figuring out the structure for a story.

Although Kurrus is a professional photographer, he enlisted others to take photos for his two photo-fiction books. Having others photograph allowed Kurrus to focus on just the content. However, unlike with some picture books, Karrus did have control over who he picked for a photographer and what photos he used. He maintained control of the whole process.

One might think his books would just appeal to those from the Midwest, but specialists from all over the United States will buy hardcover editions to keep and paperbacks for the kids to use. One example of an outside purchase was that of a snow goose festival in California.

As for young people, they relate to the big picture of Have You See Mary? For example, how do you handle losing someone? And what lengths will a person go through to be there for the one they love?

From Jeff Kurrus comes two glorious photo-fiction books for animal lovers of all ages. Have You Seen Mary? is about one sandhill crane’s faithful search for his mate. The Tale of Jacob Swift is about the struggles of a fox family to raise their sons in the harsh but beautiful grasslands. Younger readers will enjoy both the adventurous plots and the spectacular images, while older readers will treasure the coffee-style format and the universal themes.

It is difficult for me to say which draws me in first, the plot or the pictures. In Have You Seen Mary? John and Mary Crane have returned once again on their annual migration to the Platte River in Nebraska. In the middle of eating and drinking and being on guard against enemies, John loses sight of Mary. At first, John doesn’t panic. He simply gets some needed rest, confident that in the morning the two will meet up again. But the following morning, Mary is still gone. John watches his fellow cranes. Not once does he see her. He revisits their favorite haunts. Not once does he hear her. He even asks other animals. Not one can help him. Ever so slowly, Karrus heightens the tension, until the pivotal moment when after a month of searching John forces himself to think of a spot he has avoided: the power lines.

Similarly, in The Tale of Jacob Swift, two brothers emerge from their family den for the first time. They’re greeted by the sight of a rainbow hanging over the short grass prairie. And Jacob wonders, “Why do we live here? There’s nothing here.” His parents try to caution the brothers on the need to listen better, for there are eagles and coyotes and other dangerous predators. There are also prairie dogs and ground squirrels and other prey. One day, when the parents leave the pups alone, the two brothers begin to discover the thrill of the hunt but also the danger of being the hunted. As they grow up, they start to get stronger and faster, but will their abilities prove enough to survive? Again, ever so slowly, Karrus heightens the tension, until the pivotal moment when Jacob decides it’s time for him to leave. And his parents are not ready to let him go.

The photos in both books were taken by internationally-renowned photographers. In Have You Seen Mary?, Michael Forsberg delights with images of the sandhill cranes, their feeding grounds, and their migration route. Of these, I particularly enjoyed the shots of the cranes as they bathed, fought, danced, and courted. Interspersed are also photos of friends, foes, and scenic sites. I appreciated those of the skies filled with cranes and of Nebraska sunsets. My absolute favorite shot appears near the end, as John is trying to describe Mary, and tells of how she holds her chicks.

In The Tale of Jacob Swift, Rob Palmer similarly delights with images of the swift fox and their moments of family bonding, hunting, and playing together. Of these, I love the rough-and-tumble shots, as well as the blurred action ones, and…. Truly, it’s hard to pick just a few, because Palmer has so endearingly captured the sibling interactions of swift foxes. Interspersed as also photos of predators, prey, and the prairie landscape. I marveled at those of the magnificent eagles and raptor, and laughed at the portrait of a dancing prairie dog. My favorite shot, if I force myself to pick one, is of Jacob nuzzling his mother.

Naturally, both books have educational themes. Have You Seen Mary? points out in story form that sandhill cranes are fascinating animals who in some ways are like humans. They have families and rivalries. They pride themselves on their grooming. And they communicate through body language and different calls. The Tale of Jacob Swift tells of a species which used to exist in great abundance across the Great Plains, but now their numbers have declined. It is important for us to understand the importance of the grasslands if we are to see the swift fox thrive again.

As for the universal themes, I can’t do justice to them without spoiling the plot. Suffice to say, Have You Seen Mary? ranks high on the list of tender love stories, while The Tale of Jacob Swift is a poignant to tribute to family life which should strike a chord with parents and siblings everywhere.

At the end of each book, Jeff Kurrus shares the inspiration, writing process, and revision steps in creating his two photo-fiction tales. The hours, weeks, and months that he put into their writing and publication are obvious. The result is two entertaining and attractive books for which I have only praise.

My rating? Bag them: Carry them with you. Make them a top priority to read.

How would you rate these books?

JeffKarrusThe last presenter I had the privilege to hear at the 2014 Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival was Jeff Kurrus. Associate editor of the award-winning wildlife publication NEBRASKAland magazine, Karrus lives in the Midwest with his wife and two-year-old daughter. Karrus is the author of Have You Seen Mary?, which was nominated for the Golden Sower Award, and The Tale of Jacob Swift.

Kurrus had been an editor for roughly 17 years before joining the staff of NEBRASKAland. He also taught at the high school and college levels, which gave him experience helping students improve their work.

Although his title at NEBRASKALand is associate editor, editing is just one part of what he does. His responsibilities include writing, photographing, and editing. In addition to his contributions to the magazine, Karrus also regularly posts to his NEBRASKAland blog. Kurrus’ job relies on a combination of his love for nature and writing.

In Editing Matters, Kurrus offered a bit of advice for those interested in editing for a living. “You’re going to have to go and combine talent with an extreme amount of drive.” He says there are many other people out there working to improve themselves as writers and editors, and more than likely they’ll be the ones who get the jobs.

Over the next few days, I’ll post highlights from his presentation, review his two books, and provide a photo post of a local wildlife safari. Save the dates: November 5-8!


ALLISON: If you were to show us your childhood in photographs only, what types of images might we see?

JEFF: Lots of hunting and fishing photographs, time with family, and me dressed in various sports uniforms—namely baseball.

ALLISON: You have said in interviews that you are a writer first. What is your earliest memory of enjoying to write?

JEFF: I used to write westerns as a child. I’d call them my “books” and have one of my older sisters write titles in bubble letters on the front pages. I remember writing stories on top of a toy box, so it was in my early elementary school years. Mostly they were carbon copies of what I had read in books or seen in shows. The first one was entitled “Tom Horn,” and it was my interpretation of the movie of the same name. I remember revisiting that story a few years later (already a reviser) to try to make it better. The stories were written on notebook paper and placed in folders. I have no idea where they are now but would love to read them.

ALLISON: If you could “rewrite” one part of your life, what would it be?

JEFF: I don’t have a ton of regrets. My childhood was great, followed by excellent high school and college years. There were rough times, of course, but re-writing would be a bit strong of a word.

But, I would do a few things differently, if I knew that nothing in my current life would change. I’d listen in elementary school music class and learn how to play a guitar, I’d take photo classes in high school, and I’d date my current wife even longer when we were kids instead of being around anyone else when I was younger. Most of all, I would have more fun on a day-to-day basis. Nothing is as stressful as it seemed like it was two weeks later. I wish I could have always kept that in mind.

ALLISON: You taught in high school and college, but now are an editor. What do you miss about being in the classroom?

JEFF: The interaction with students. Sharing what I know about the writing process and seeing them develop as creatives. Being inspired by their work. Talking about writing.

ALLISON: If you were to return to the classroom, what would miss about being an editor?

JEFF: Being able to make decisions on content selection for our publication. Interacting with professional writers and photographers. Sitting down on a day-to-day basis with graphic artists and designers and watching a project come to fruition.


ALLISON: You love nature. What has been your most dangerous experience in exploring the Nebraskan outdoors?

JEFF: While hunting one morning, the father of a very close friend became entangled with a tree stand and was screaming for help, which in turn led my dad (who was hunting with us) to find him first and trying to keep the man’s leg’s from breaking because of the way he was hanging from this tree. I had to jump on my dad’s bad back and cut this man out of these foot straps to free him from this stand in the tree. If he had been hunting alone he would have died. It was lots of adrenaline, pressing this 200 pound man above my head and lowering him to the ground. (Normally, I am very weak and the last person you want with you in a fight). It was a very scary experience.

ALLISON: You have taken many photographs of animals. What has been your most memorable animal moment?

JEFF: The one that always sticks out to me is photographing a snapping turtle on a roadside. The photo, while nice, isn’t altogether unique, but it always reminds me of my buddy that was with me and how he pulled the truck over without me even having to ask. He knew I would want to photograph the turtle, and it reminds me of how in sync two lifelong friends can be when they’re together.

ALLISON: As an editor, you are aware of the importance of revision. How do you teach its importance to students?

JEFF: I tell them it’s everything. The first draft is for yourself, and then you start thinking about audience. I do this by going into the classroom and showing students how to revise using my work as test subjects. The students, after five minutes, feel quite comfortable helping me edit my work. I teach them that everyone revises, and show them how many drafts I do for individual pieces and how long they take me. I do a lot of modeling appropriate revision practices, hoping something sticks with them in their own work.

ALLISON: What do you hope readers will gain from your two books: Have You Seen Mary? and Tale of Jacob Swift?

JEFF: A couple of things. I want students to learn about these species and their habitats. All animals are really cool for different reasons, and I hope these books are a jump start for students to continue their own outdoor development. I also want students to understand that there is more than one way to tell a story, and that having a mean character isn’t necessary. Some of literature’s greatest stories have conflict built on circumstance, and I think this is an interesting way to create tension without having bullies, mean-spirited people, etc. In Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, the conflict is Mount Everest and everything that is involved with trying to summit that peak. Even though it’s non-fiction, there’s something fascinating in that premise to me. Nature provides this outlet as well. Even when the golden eagle is trying to eat Jacob, it’s not doing so out of meanness. It’s doing so because golden eagles eat swift foxes. Nature just provides the perfect outlet for telling relatable stories to kids with fascinating photos.

ALLISON: What was it like to have Have You Seen Mary nominated for a Golden Sower award?

JEFF: It was amazing. Truly. I knew nothing about the award until schools starting contacting me and I found out how special it was to be included on this list. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me and I am extremely grateful that so many students were able to learn about these amazing birds.

ALLISON: What’s next?

JEFF: That’s always an interesting question. Here’s what I’m working on right now, in no definite order: 1) The Magic Brush Shoppe, a short chapter book about a man who owns a hair brush store in a town where nearly everyone shaves their head. 2) The sequel to Have You Seen Mary? It’s a story I’ve been chasing for a long time. 3) Turtle’s Big Idea, a photo-fiction story about an animal Olympics being held on the tall grass prairie. 4) An unnamed photo-fiction project about an animal that just doesn’t think he’s good enough to be conserved.

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