Author-Illustrator Interview: Matteo Pericoli on The True Story of Stellina

The True Story of Stellina by Matteo Pericoli (Knopf, 2006). From the flap copy:

“Stellina was a bird: ‘CHEEP.’
“A very little bird: ‘Cheep! cheep!’
“So begins critically acclaimed author Matteo Pericoli’s all-true story of how he and his wife, Holly, came to rescue and raise a little finch, Stellina, in the middle of New York City. When no zoo would take the abandoned bird, fallen from her nest onto a busy street, Holly took her home and gave her the best life she could. And there, in a Manhattan apartment, Stellina leaned how to eat, fly, and sing.”

Matteo Pericoli on Matteo Pericoli: “I was born in Milan, Italy, in 1968. My family is from central Italy, from a region called the ‘Marche’ along the Adriatic coast. Cultivated hills roll one after the other accompanied by the sea on one side and the high Apennines on the other. From anywhere you can reach any of these three elements (water, hills or mountains) within a twenty minute drive. The multitide of different cultivations on the hills create a constantly changing color palette; the smells in the air follow the colors and the changing seasons.

“This idyllic image was in net contrast with Milan, a dense, mostly gray city that offers little or no color palette at all. One can easily be color blind in Milan and not realize it for his whole life.

“I studied architecture at the Polytechnic School of Milan. Right after graduation, in 1995, I decided to move to New York to work as an architect here, to learn what it means to be an architect in a place where history counts less than it does in Italy.

“And I moved here because I wanted to understand New York by being in New York. This city seemed far enough (distance-wise) and close enough (culturally speaking) to where I grew up to create a mixture of curiosity and fear about the move that proved to be very fertile. I have been living here since then, and during this time I have ‘been’ an architect, a teacher, an illustrator, a journalist, an author of adult books and, now, an author of children’s book. My wife is from here (she was born in New Jersey), our bird was born in Manhattan, on the corner of 46th Street and Third Avenue, and our daughter (Nadia, two weeks away from her due date–I am writing this on April 11, 2006) will be Italian-American.”

I found myself deeply affected by The True Story of Stellina (Knopf, 2006). For those who’ve yet to read it, could you tell us a bit about your inspiration for the book?

Stellina was a little wild finch that my wife found on a street corner in Manhattan. She reluctantly brought her home hoping to save her and give her away to someone who could take care of her. But since she was ‘just’ a wild finch, there was no one who would take her. So she was stuck with her, and probably vice versa too, they were stuck with each other.

Wild birds are very difficult to raise when they are that small. They die very easily. But my wife persevered, she not only saved her, she ended up raising her.

I met Stellina (and my future wife) at a later stage, when Stellina had already learned to sustain herself at home. When Holly and I moved in together, Stellina followed and I, too, was accepted instantaneously by the bird as a member of the family. We went on like this, i.e. a small family of two humans plus a feathered vertebrate, for almost eight years.

What really pushed me to write this story was my own sense of wonder and disbelief in realizing how such a tiny being (a wild finch is quite small) is capable of so much love. Not only to convey it, but to generate it around her. Every morning was a feast of joy as if that very morning was going to be the first and last of her life. Seeing Holly, my wife, was for Stellina the best thing that could happen to her. And, that’s funny– I thought–that’s how I feel too.

I was raised in a family in which the hunting of birds is a deeply-rooted tradition, and birds such as Stellina often ended up on a plate, roasted, rather than freely flying on someone’s head trying to build a nest. To say that living with a wild bird changed my view of hunting is a definite understatement.

Her death in late 2003 created such an unexpected void in our life that I searched for a way to make a sense of the whole experience. To whomever suggested that I write about it, I answered that it was such a simple and uneventful story that could not be told in an interesting way. But I knew that even simple stories, or especially simple stories, can be very revealing.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

I would say that the major challenge was finding a way to draw Stellina that would convey the idea of Stellina, her character, her presence, her multifaceted personality rather than what she actually looked like. The fact that Stellina was a bird is, in my mind, almost coincidental. I always felt that this was a story about love and, as in most stories about love, joy coexists with sadness, doubts, uncertainties and labor.

What advice do you have for beginning writer-illustrators?

I don’t have any advice. But I have a wish: each of us has a voice, our own way of communicating who we are, what we feel and what we need to convey. My wish is that through work and tries and mistakes and doubts everyone finds her own voice. I am still looking for my own.

As a reader, what are your favorite recent books for the children’s/YA audience and why?

I believe that Edward Gorey found his voice in his books. And you can tell. I also immensely enjoyed, both when I was a kid and now, the work of Gianni Rodari.

What can your fans expect next?

I am currently working on a new children’s book about a line that disappears from a drawing.

Cynsational Notes

What I love about this book is its profound kindness.

Cynsational News & Links

“A Career In Picture Books–Twice!” a chat with Dori Chaconas from the Institute of Children’s Literature. April 13, 2006. Dori answers a lot of great beginner questions with an emphasis on picture books and easy readers.

Congratulations to winners of the Maine Library Association Awards! In the picture book category, the Lupine Award went to A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms by Paul Janeczko, illustrated by Chris Raschka (Candlewick, 2005). The Lupine Honor Award in picture books went to Carmine: A Little More Red by Melissa Sweet (Houghton Mifflin, 2005). In the young adult category, the winner was Stained by Jennifer Richard Jacobson (author interview), and the Honor Award went to Broken Song by Kathryn Lasky (Viking, 2005). In addition the recipient of the Katahdin Award for lifetime achievement (“to recognize an outstanding body of work of children’s literature in Maine by one author or illustrator”) is author Nancy Garden (author interview). Winners were announced April 13th at Reading Round Up (a children’s and young adult literature conference) in Augusta, Maine; they are not yet posted to the website.