Welcome to MG Book Village, Kaela, we’re so glad you could join us today!
Thank you so much, Kathie! I’m thrilled to be here. MG Book Village is a treasure trove, an incredible resource for readers, writers, librarians, and educators. I’m honored to be included on the site.
Your debut middle grade book, COO, has a very unique synopsis, can you please tell us about it?
Ten-year-old Coo has spent her whole life being raised in secret by a flock of pigeons. When her dearest friend Burr is injured by a hawk, she’s forced to venture into the human world for the first time. She finds warmth, love, and family—and also discovers that not everyone in her newfound community loves pigeons.
I’m so curious to learn where the inspiration for this story came from?
I first got the idea more than a decade ago when I was walking in a half-abandoned industrial area of Jersey City just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. I lived in Jersey City for most of my teenage years and my early twenties. I was looking at an old factory building that was in the process of being demolished and rebuilt, and I saw a flock of pigeons take off from the roof. I suddenly wondered what it would be like if someone lived up there in secret with them. I went home and started writing, and soon Coo emerged as a character.
There are so many wonderful characters in this book, but I think Tully is my favorite because of her big heart and desire to do what she truly believes is in Coo’s best interest. Did you have a favorite character to write?
Oh my goodness, it’s hard to choose! I love Tully so much, but I think Roohoo, the most intelligent and grumpiest member of the flock, was my favorite to bring to life on the page.
I didn’t realize until I had finished writing the book that Roohoo’s personality is strongly inspired by Edgar, a bird who landed in my family when I was about nine years old. He wasn’t a pigeon, but a cockatiel—one of those yellowish birds with the round pink cheeks and little crest of feathers on their heads.
Edgar was very smart and very, very angry. He originally belonged to a classmate’s family who asked my mother to birdsit him over winter break while they went on vacation. But…they never came back for him, and when my mom finally reached them they insisted he was now ours. Edgar clearly knew he had been abandoned by his original family and was upset about it. He and his large, hulking cage ended up near my bed, where he glowered at me at night from his spot hunched up in a corner. We let him out frequently, but it was an exercise in frustration. He was very destructive—he loved to grab my drawings and shred them to bits, and he even got to my homework a few times. He would retreat to nooks and crannies above cabinets and the fridge, where he sat mournfully brooding. My mother and I lived in a very tiny one bedroom apartment, yet she would still end up chasing him all over it for ages while he scurried away, nipping at her when she got close. We were both bewildered by him.
But for all of his disagreeableness, I found Edgar fascinating and heartbreaking. For someone who weighed less than a pound, he had so much pathos, personality, and self-expression. He really opened my eyes to how complex birds are, and definitely inspired Roohoo.
And I should add that Edgar’s story does end well! My mom ended up getting to know a woman who took in parrots and had several rooms of her house devoted to them. She adopted Edgar, and when we visited him later he was a changed bird—cheerful, social, and affectionate. He lived another fifteen years with her and her other birds, and by all accounts, despite his early tragedies, he was happy.
I love this story, thanks for sharing! I’m sure writing from the perspective of pigeons was an interesting challenge. Could you share with us another writing challenge you had to face while writing this book, and how it helped you grow as a writer?
I had a long road to publication, one that included querying dozens of agents over several years and then revising the manuscript extensively after I signed with my agent Katie Grimm in 2016. But that seems par for the course!
Prior to all of that, I was raised by a single mom and until I was a teenager our finances were constantly, frighteningly precarious. We moved over a dozen times, and every year I was a free or reduced-price lunch kid in social settings where that wasn’t always the norm. Public and school libraries were an absolute lifeline for me. To be very honest, I’m not sure I would be a writer without having had access to them, since purchasing books was a luxury we couldn’t afford, and I was hugely inspired by the books I read—they made me want to write my own. I was blessed to have a mother who really believed in reading, too. Even though she was tired from working and taking care of me by herself, she brought me to the library at least twice a week throughout my childhood and read to me every night without fail. She also wrote down the stories I told her before I knew how to write them myself, and always told me I could be an author if I wanted. She gave me every advantage she could in our difficult circumstances, and I’ll be forever grateful for that.
It always warms my heart to hear about the importance of a library to a young person.
What do you hope that readers will take away from your story?
I hope Coo’s story inspires kids and everyone to think more imaginatively and compassionately about how we relate to others, about the possibilities of love, and what the bonds are that make us family. Most of all I hope that they find Coo both comforting and exciting, like an old friend. Almost all of my favorite books are like that.
What is the release date for COO, and where can readers go to find out more about your writing?
Thanks again for chatting with us today, Kaela, and all the best to you in your debut year.
Thank you so much, Kathie!
Kaela Noel was born in San Francisco and raised in New Jersey. She lives in New York City with her family.