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In New Book, Barbara Kingsolver and Daughter Lily Teach Children Empathy for Wildlife

Barbara and Lily Kingsolver discuss 'Coyote’s Wild Home,' family publishing and the importance of balance in wild places like Greater Yellowstone

Before the recent Thanksgiving holiday, Lily and Barbara Kingsolver didn't have any author photos together. They planned to use the family gathering as an opportunity to take a few, accompanied by Lily's dog, Ginger. Photo by Steven Hopp
Before the recent Thanksgiving holiday, Lily and Barbara Kingsolver didn't have any author photos together. They planned to use the family gathering as an opportunity to take a few, accompanied by Lily's dog, Ginger. Photo by Steven Hopp
by Keely Larson

In 2007, Harper Collins published Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a memoir of sorts by Barbara Kingsolver about her family’s move to Virginia to eat locally and grow as much of their food as possible. Kingsolver took readers through a year of eating what the farm had to offer—including an overload of zucchinis and coveted morel mushrooms—and forayed into many topics still crucial today: the certainty of climate change, the need to reduce fossil fuel emissions, and the desire to create a better world for future generations.

The bestseller won the James Beard Award and was coauthored by her husband, Steven Hopp, and oldest daughter, Camille Kingsolver. Barbara’s youngest, Lily, wasn’t old enough to sign a publishing agreement to contribute her words at the time.

Now, just over 15 years later, the Kingsolvers are writing together again, this time with Lily leading the charge. Coyote’s Wild Home was published November 28 and is a children’s book that takes readers through a day in the woods with a young girl and her grandfather, along with a coyote pup and his Auntie. Woven through the story and illustrations are bits of information about what a coyote eats, a conversation about predators and prey, and hints at coyotes’ diminishing habitat, all topics poignant in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

“Mom suggested proposing to Gryphon [Press] that we write it together, which I thought was a great idea,” said Lily, now 27 and a preschool teacher in Viera, Florida. “Gryphon Press is also run by a mother-daughter team. [The project] was really convenient because I was just about to move away for school, so it was a really nice
Coyote's Wild Home was written by a mother/daughter team, Lily and Barbara Kingsolver, and published by Gryphon Press, which also includes a mother/daughter team. The book was published on Nov. 28. Art by Paul Mirocha
Coyote's Wild Home was written by a mother/daughter team, Lily and Barbara Kingsolver, and published by Gryphon Press, which also includes a mother/daughter team. The book was published on Nov. 28. Art by Paul Mirocha
way to stay connected now that we're living farther apart than we ever have before.”

Barbara says she’s tried and failed to write children’s books in the past, concluding that it wasn’t in her skillset. She credits Lily, who has spent years working with kids in environmental education, with getting the project off the ground. Lily told her mother it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

Paintings by Paul Mirocha, a dear family friend, reinforce the Kingsolvers’ goal of being accurate in the flora and fauna depicted in the book while also letting them create a love letter to Appalachia. The artwork also gave them an avenue to keep the word count to 1,200 when the proposal they sent rang in at 3,000.

“We had to do a lot of editing, a lot of thinking about how to get this more compact and the greatest revelation was that a picture really is worth 1,000 words,” Barbara said. “A lot of the things we were trying to tell by story, we could ask Paul to tell by pictures.”

With degrees in biology, Barbara Kingsolver has published various written works for 35 years, most recently winning the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for fiction writing with Demon Copperhead. Lily is working on a master’s degree in environmental and informal science at the Florida Institute of Technology.

The Kingsolvers spoke with Mountain Journal from their homes in Virginia (Barbara) and Florida (Lily, for the time being), days before they’d get together on the farm to celebrate Thanksgiving.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Mountain JournalHi Barbara and Lily. It’s a treat to be speaking with you both. I just finished reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle when this interview opportunity arose, so this is feeling quite serendipitous. Where did the idea for Coyote’s Wild Home come from?

Barbara Kingsolver: The idea came from Gryphon Press. They have a series of children's picture books about animals with the goal of engaging young children with nature and to create empathy for creatures other than people. I had some knowledge of coyotes because of a novel [Prodigal Summer] I wrote that was about a coyote biologist. They suggested I write a book in this series about coyotes.

MoJo: How did you get into the mind of a child for this book?

Lily Kingsolver.: I've learned a lot about what is developmentally appropriate for kids. Before the age of 10, really before the age of 6, you're doing a lot of the sensitivity growth that you're going to do in your life. You're developing a lot of the love of nature that you could potentially have. We really had empathy and sensitivity at the core of this project. The ideas of climate change and habitat destruction and some of the things we approach in this book are a little too big for the demographic we’re trying to reach. We wanted to have a gentle introduction based on the idea of empathy and to touch on those other issues without it being overbearing. Introducing it in a neutral way is all you can really do and hope to reach kids in a positive way.
"The best thing about having kids is that they grow up to be your friends. Working on this book gave us an excuse to carve out four hours a week ... but also if we hadn't had that excuse, we still would have texted each other 75 times a week as we do." – Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara Kingsolver has published written works for 35 years and has advanced degrees in biology. Writing 'Coyote's Wild Home' was her first foray into writing children's books, an adventure she undertook with her daughter, Lily. Photo by Steven Hopp
Barbara Kingsolver has published written works for 35 years and has advanced degrees in biology. Writing 'Coyote's Wild Home' was her first foray into writing children's books, an adventure she undertook with her daughter, Lily. Photo by Steven Hopp

MoJo: What are your stories with coyotes and why did you decide this animal was the right character to use to teach young readers about keystone species and respectful interactions with wildlife?

B.K.: As biologists, Lily and I know that predators are extremely important in ecosystems, and when you remove the apex predator, the whole ecosystem falls apart. And, we love coyotes.

L.K.: I did have this experience when I was about seven and we had just moved to Virginia. I was inside reading and I heard something going on in the yard. My chickens were doing something, and if you read AVM [Animal, Vegetable, Miracle], you know that I love my chickens.

B.K.: She’s the chicken girl!

L.K: I ran down the porch steps and found myself 10 feet away from a coyote that had my rooster, Saffron, in its mouth. It looked at me, and I looked at it, and it dropped my rooster and ran away. I think that was a turning point in understanding how wildlife viewed me and how I fit into that larger ecosystem as a very dominant part of it, even as a seven-year-old.

MoJo: I noticed Diana, the young girl, and Coyote Pup never meet in the story. How is that a nudge toward reminding readers of the need to give creatures their own
Lily Kingsolver has worked with kids in environmental education for years and is pursuing a master's degree in environmental education at the Florida Institute of Technology. Pictured here with her dog, Ginger. Photo by Phillip Hall
Lily Kingsolver has worked with kids in environmental education for years and is pursuing a master's degree in environmental education at the Florida Institute of Technology. Pictured here with her dog, Ginger. Photo by Phillip Hall
space?

B.K.: That was a clear decision we made. We bring them close enough—the coyotes see the people, the people don't see the coyotes—and I think that's very accurate. When we go for a walk here in the woods, I know we're being watched. All the animals see us, but we mostly don't see them.

L.K.: Kids are learning a lot about space and it's not that much of a stretch to understand that animals need even more space. When we meet an animal, the kindest thing to do for it is give it space so it doesn't feel afraid.

MoJo: Space, and I think balance was another big theme in the book. Why did balance seem right as the throughline?

L.K.: As people and environmentalists, we are always seeking balance. It all comes back to trying your very best and understanding how you fit into this larger picture. The best way for humans to fit into that picture is to seek balance, to try to be as neutral an influence as you can in the wild environment.

MoJo: A phrase I’ve seen you use to describe this book, Barbara, is “predators need better representation.” Here in Greater Yellowstone, we’re seeing many more human and bear interactions that often result in the bear getting euthanized. Down to about 135 grizzlies in 1975 to over 1,000 in 2021, and continuously expanding to places they haven’t been seen in years—most recently as far east as the Missouri River Breaks—what lessons can Coyote’s Wild Home teach us about predator and prey here in the GYE?

B.K.: What's happening with bears is what's happening with coyotes as we, in a generational way, have learned to stop killing and be more supportive and protective of our very important large predators. The consequences? Their numbers increase, and we start to see them more. The problem isn't the bears, the problem isn't the coyotes. The problem is the people who haven't learned how to treat an animal, how to give it space. It all comes back to education and starting early and that's what we want to do.
"The best way for humans to fit into that picture is to seek balance, to try to be as neutral an influence as you can in the wild environment." – Lily Kingsolver
MoJo: Talk about the mother/daughter collaboration that went into creating this book.

L.K.: It was honestly a good excuse for me to call Mom on a Wednesday because we needed to talk about some page [we were working on]. It was a way to keep us connected when I moved away. I've missed home a lot. Working on this book … we hoped would be a love letter to Appalachia and to predators. [It] has been such a nice way to stay connected to Appalachia and to stay connected to my family.

B.K.: The best thing about having kids is that they grow up to be your friends. It's true, as Lily said, that working on this book gave us an excuse to carve out four hours a week working on the book, but also if we hadn't had that excuse, we still would have texted each other 75 times a week as we do.
Lily Kingsolver sent GPS coordinates to her mother and artist Paul Mirocha of spots she had a fondness for, including this rhododendron tunnel at a state park where she used to work. Art by Paul Mirocha
Lily Kingsolver sent GPS coordinates to her mother and artist Paul Mirocha of spots she had a fondness for, including this rhododendron tunnel at a state park where she used to work. Art by Paul Mirocha

MoJo: I was struck by some of the themes in the first edition of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle that are still being discussed now in similar ways. I found that kind of depressing. Can you respond to that?

B.K.: The world has taken huge steps forward in terms of the industrial food system. When we proposed that book, I actually thought we invented the word “locavore” because we had never heard it used anywhere. A couple of years after that it was the word of the year in the American Heritage Dictionary. Now I would say it's more common than not that people have at least thought about the source of their food. I've lived long enough to see the world change for the better in so many ways, so I'm really hopeful.

MoJo: Barbara, you talked about how pictures are worth 1,000 words, especially in a children’s book context. Tell me about your relationship with Paul Mirocha, the painter, and what the conversations around the illustrations were like.

B.K.: Biological accuracy really matters to us. We wanted the coyotes to look like coyotes. We wanted the meadow to look like a real meadow, the forest to look like a real Appalachian forest. Paul was our first choice. He stayed with us at my house for a week, and everyday went out into the woods and photographed and did sketches. Lily and I chose particular spots that we wanted.

L.K.: I would send them GPS coordinates of my favorite spots in the woods. The rhododendron tunnel … was my favorite trail at [Hungry Mother State Park] where I worked. They really went on some journeys.
"The problem isn't the bears, the problem isn't the coyotes. The problem is the people who haven't learned how to treat an animal, how to give it space." – Barbara Kingsolver
MoJo: What’s next for you both in your lives and careers?

B.K.: Maybe we should answer this for each other! You're going to see more children's books from Lily. I happen to know she already has several ideas in the works.

L.K.: Mom is going to keep writing because you can't stop her from writing. I imagine she's already working on three more novels, and probably some movies.

MoJo: Writing has weaved its way through your life, Barbara, even as you declared a career path as a biologist “in the practical hope of someday earning a living.” What advice do you give to science and environmental writers trying to scrape their way into a career?

B.K.: I would wish you courage because journalism is especially hard right now. But people will always need information. We're going to take back control of our news sources, in much the same way as we've taken back control of our food system. I think the industrial information system has become the next big bugaboo. You also have to have something to say. I think getting a degree in biology before I became a full-time writer was the smartest thing I ever did, even though I didn't know what I was doing. Don't give up because the world really needs environmental journalists.

Coyote’s Wild Home is available online or wherever you shop for books.

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Mountain Journal is the only nonprofit, public-interest journalism organization of its kind dedicated to covering the wildlife and wild lands of Greater Yellowstone. We take pride in our work, yet to keep bold, independent journalism free, we need your support. Please donate here. Thank you.

Keely Larson
About Keely Larson

Keely Larson writes about water, health policy and the environment in Montana. Her work has been published in The New Republic, U.S. News & World Report and Montana Free Press among other outlets. She graduated from the University of Montana in 2023 with a master's degree in environmental journalism.
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