Images courtesy of Capstone
When Sam Hundley’s Gifts of the Magpie was released by Capstone Editions on March 1 of this year, the retired Virginian-Pilot graphic designer and Norfolk-based “American Scrap Artist” added children’s book author and illustrator to his resume.
Stories abound about magpies and other blackbirds gifting their humans with all manner of detritus—twine, marbles and rusted metals bits—often as a kind of “thank you.” In this tale for readers ages 8-12, Hundley’s clever wordplay and scrap constructions—how fitting—combine to tell the story of a big-hearted bird whose apparently goofed gifts turn out to be exactly what his friends need.
Recently, Hundley sat down to answer a few questions about his story of found objects and friends for CoVa readers:
CoVa Mag: How did your approach to this concept originate—a flash of inspiration, a gradually emerging idea, or something in between—and what do you think it contributes to the literary tradition of stories about gift-giving birds?
Sam Hundley: Years ago, while reflecting on The Meaning of Life, I remembered my mother had called me a magpie as a child because I was always collecting junk. Magpies have always captured my imagination, so I began concentrating on a generous magpie who finds things in order to help her friends. A perfect vehicle for a scrap artist, right?
It seems that a lot of “creatives” have a children’s book idea just waiting for a publisher. How did your book deal come about?
I had no idea what to do, other than design a book and sell it. I thought it would be easy—but in reality, it’s almost impossible to get anyone in publishing to actually LOOK at something new and different … [Ultimately it was a former newspaper colleague who connected me with] Capstone in Minnesota, and they loved it. Because they LOOKED. Still, the process was relatively quick. I signed a contract on Sept. 11, three-and-a-half months after the book was completed.
The illustrations, of course, are your signature scrap metal constructions or assemblages which, I presume, are as delightful to all ages as they are to me. And yet, your clever writing seems pretty sophisticated for a young audience. At what level do young audiences need to grasp your wit in order to understand the book’s message?
My editors wondered about the references to Shakespeare and signing a lease on an apartment. They asked, ‘Do kids know who Shakespeare is?’ ‘Probably not,’ I said. ‘So, you tell them, Shakespeare is the greatest writer who ever lived. Then they get it.’ The lease is easily explained. I trusted the expertise of editors who know children and they did not push back. I think educators like introducing concepts that are a bit advanced. The art is no different – kids don’t know what those dug relics once were. But it’s fun to wonder about as a tangent. A good children’s book should be simple but also have some layers, provoke thought and conversation. As a little kid, I loved ‘Norwegian Wood’ by the Beatles, but I never understood the line, ‘This bird has flown.’ The mature theme was over my head. Didn’t stop me from loving the song, though, and I eventually figured it out. Kids are smart.
I know you to be quite humble, but will you share the book’s benchmarks of success and of what you are most proud?
I don’t think it’s hit any benchmarks yet, although when it first popped up on Amazon, I was blindsided with emotion. I instantly thought of my father, who died in 2002. During our last conversation—about a children’s book I was plotting—he cautioned, ‘Don’t let that sit—ya gotta jump on it while it’s fresh.’ This admonition echoed within me for 20 years, urging me on. I thanked him for that and told him he was right.
Is this your first or last children’s picture book, or does only the magpie know for sure?
Tag and the Magic Squeaker, about a clever mouse who puts one over on the dog and cat, also illustrated with scrap, will be released one year from now. ‘Sigh, said the mouse.’
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Sam Hundley’s Gifts of the Magpie is available on Amazon.com and where fine books are sold.