Q&A: Bay Area author Deborah Underwood on the power and allure of nature

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"Outside In," by Deborah Underwood - Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/San Jose Mercury News/TNS

“Outside In,” the latest offering from Bay Area children’s author Deborah Underwood, has been billed as the book we need now.

At a time when so many of us have been sequestered in our homes, it’s a lyrical reminder of the allure and healing power of nature — all adorned with gorgeous watercolor illustrations by Cindy Derby. As one reviewer writes, the book “is a stirring invitation to play.”

Underwood recently took time to chat about “Outside In” and more.

Q: You, of course, were working on “Outside In” before the pandemic. What was your inspiration?

A: In the summer of 2015, I was attending a conference and I ducked out to escape the crowds for a while. I noticed a nearby church was open, so I went inside to sit in the quiet. While there, I heard a passing bird calling from the outside. I found it fascinating that even though I was sitting in this huge, human-made building of brick and glass, a single bird’s cry could still reach me. It felt like nature was trying to remind humans of our connection to it.

Q: Is there an outdoor activity that you missed more than you expected to during the COVID-19 crisis?

A: One of the places I used to go on my walks was the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Like all of us, I racked up disappointments as the pandemic’s scope became apparent — a cancelled trip to Florida to see a musical adaptation of my book “Interstellar Cinderella,” the suspension of my choir’s rehearsals and so on. But when I found out the garden was closing, it was a total gut punch. I hadn’t realized how much a part of my creative process my wanderings there were. And I didn’t realize you could miss a place as viscerally as you miss a person.

Q: What’s your favorite time of day — and why?

A: Oh, that’s such an interesting question! I think it’s a tie between dawn and sunset. For some reason, I’m getting up earlier now than I did when I was younger — my cat Bella is only partly to blame. My desk faces east, and I love watching the colors in the sky as the sun rises. The day feels so full of promise then. And I love the blue of the sky at twilight, and seeing the sunset reflected in windows across the block from me. Those transition times are magical.

Q: You once were a street musician. How does one go from that pursuit to being a children’s author?

A: I graduated from Pomona College with a degree in philosophy. I wasn’t sure what to do, and to my 21-year-old brain, being a street musician seemed like a logical choice. I went on to work in an office for many years but did all sorts of writing in my off-hours. I sold articles, puzzles and greeting cards, and I wrote a few screenplays that no one bought. It took me years to realize that since children’s books are closest to my heart, I probably should be writing them.

Q: How big an inspiration is Bella — and does she critique your writing?

A: She was the direct inspiration for the “Here Comes Cat” series. She even claims writing credit on the back flaps of those books. And she critiques everything — most recently the inadequate breakfast hours at the cafe I seem to be running. She thinks they should start before 6 a.m. I am expecting a bad Yelp review.

3 picture book picks from Underwood

“Southwest Sunrise” by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Wendell Minor, celebrates the beauty of the Southwest as a young boy sees it for the first time.

“We are Water Protectors” by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade, is about a girl fighting to protect the precious water on her people’s land. (It) was inspired by Indigenous-led movements across North America.

“A Way with Wild Things” by Larissa Theule, illustrated by Sara Palacios, is the story of a shy, nature-loving girl who is more at home outdoors than with people.


©2020 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)