Q&A: A Pigeon Takes Flight in New Children's Book

An illustration from "Woot!" | Courtesy of Janice Lipsky
An illustration from "Woot!" | Courtesy of Janice Lipsky

Most people know very little (or nothing) about pigeon racing and competitive breeding. Just a few years ago, Janice Lipsky was one of those people. Where she lives, Lipsky seldom sees pigeons, so it caught her attention when she noticed one single, rather large pigeon frequenting her bird feeder. Upon closer inspection, she saw that the bird had a green band on its leg. After looking it up online, suddenly Lipsky found herself immersed in research about the little-known world of pigeon racing and breeding. Lipsky was inspired by what she learned and decided to write a fictional children’s book, Woot!, named after the very pigeon she found in her backyard.

We recently spoke with Lipsky about her new book and the inspiration behind it. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Tell us about yourself.
I’m a New Yorker originally; my husband and I moved to Arizona 12 years ago for my job in pharmaceutical marketing. I’m a social psychologist by education, so I’ve always had an observant take on the things around me. I’ve always been a cat person. I have three cats and never really gave birds, or pigeons, much thought until recently.

What inspired you to write your book, Woot!, and how did it all come together?
In 2014, a solo pigeon showed up on our bird feeder in our backyard. We live in a rural area in North Scottsdale, by Cave Creek, so we don’t have many pigeons here; we mainly see doves, quail and other wildlife. I noticed it was a little more robust, bigger and glossier. But I didn’t think too much of it until he kept coming back. I saw on his little leg that there was a green ankle band. My first thought was that it was for some kind of research project, but I looked it up and all of this stuff came up about racing pigeons and competitive pigeon breeding.

There’s a whole industry, clubs around the country and the world, that breed pigeons selectively for looks or for performance. I became completely captivated by what I was reading. These birds are highly intelligent and really underrated. They can be trained to recognize malignancies on a mammogram. They are super smart, and we kind of look down on them because they are so abundant and they poop a lot. But I learned more about the callousness of some, not all, of the people in the pigeon breeding industry — they selectively breed them, but if they don’t measure up to what they’re looking for, they are capable of culling them or snapping their necks.

So the story crystallized. All of these thoughts were in my brain and in my heart, and I was inspired to write a novel. I joined the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators, I took classes, and I wrote my book. I met Carrie Schultz, a talented artist and illustrator, and she made nine illustrations and the book cover for the novel. From idea generation to publication, the whole process took me about two years.

What is the book about, and who would enjoy reading it?
Woot! is a fictional account of a 12-year-old boy, Daniel, and his father, where the boy symbolizes compassion. He sees the birds and animals in his world as individuals; they are personified and speak only to him. And then there’s the adult world, some of the more callous pigeon crowd, who are more into pigeon racing and breeding for a profit or looks. Daniel and his father don’t see eye to eye on the purpose of the birds, and an adventure unfolds when his pigeon, Woot, competes in the Southwest Regional Pigeon Race.

The book is for third- to seventh-graders, but I also write for animal-loving adults. I think the story will hold the interest of adults who love animals, as well as middle-school-age children and younger children.

Is there a deeper message in Woot! that you hope to get across to readers?
Yes, there’s a deeper message I would like to tell about being at the top of the food chain. If you’re at the top of the food chain, like we are, can you still appreciate and admire the different qualities of the species in our environment?

I would also like to contribute to breaking stereotypes about pigeons. I think the way we perceive them as pests may be misguided and is not the whole story. I’m inspired to at least open people’s eyes and make them think about it.

Generally speaking, pigeons mate for life. They have a very strong pair bond, and they have their eggs and they raise the fledglings together. They take turns feeding and taking care of the babies. What the racing crowd typically does is remove one of the pair-bonded birds and then they fly them progressively farther distances away. The bird is trying to get back to its mate, so they’re kind of exploiting the homing instinct. They were domesticated by people; they’re not indigenous to the United States. The ones that are selectively bred are sort of in a predicament, because they can’t really be released on their own. The pigeons that live in downtown Phoenix are just surviving, and they live only about two years. A pigeon in captivity could live up to 20 years. There’s a lot of really fascinating facts about pigeons. So in my book, in an entertaining way, I kind of try to turn the tables.

Any other upcoming projects in the works?
There’s been interest on the education front, so I have created a curriculum document that I’m offering for free that is aligned with the Common Core standards. I have also been working on a movie screenplay version of the book and a TV show pilot. There’s a lot of scenes in the book that take place in the Sonoran Desert and would look nice visually on screen. That would be a big dream, to see the book as a movie or TV show.

Woot! is available at Barnes and Noble and on Amazon. You can see the latest news about the book on Facebook and Instagram. For questions or to contact Janice Lipsky, email her at [email protected].

— Emily Balli

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