Sound of Snow Falling by Maggie Umber

How a 10th grade biology paper inspired a graphic novel

In my tenth grade biology class we did the usual things: dissected frogs, identified birds from slide shows, and raised plants from seedlings in paper towels. It seemed like the typical high school science experience until we were asked to write a research paper in first person from an animal’s perspective. My imagination went into overdrive. The idea took ahold of me like nothing has since. For three weeks in tenth grade I became a great horned owl.

I graduated from high school and then college, traveled with the circus, and worked at some science and art museums. I began my career as a cartoonist. A few years after that our friend Justin, my future husband Raighne and I co-founded the comics publishing company 2dcloud. Our flagship publication was a comics anthology called Good Minnesotan. For our third issue, I was looking for subject matter for my contribution and I thought to dig out my tenth grade biology paper about the great horned owl.

It had been ten years since I had written that paper. However, the emotional attachment I felt to the assignment never left me. I made a five page comic for GMN3 called You Are The Great Horned Owl and it opened the floodgates again. I decided that I would make a graphic novel about great horned owls.

Sound of Snow Falling by Maggie Umber

There is the old adage to write what you know. I found that when I began to storyboard Sound of Snow Falling what I knew wasn’t enough. I began again, the same way I had when I was writing the research paper. I got books from the library and I also spent a lot of time on the internet googling things. A big break through came when we were having dinner with a friend and she suggested that I do google alerts for great horned owls. This led me to my first live owl cam and everything changed. I got to watch owl behavior in real time and I became obsessed.

I spent four years telling myself the story of a pair of great horned owls in winter, over and over again. I storyboarded it and put the pages in a three-ring binder. I read and re-read it and each time I did I changed the page order and added or subtracted pages. I bought the weather books of Jim Gilbert and memorized birdsongs and owl research papers. I did everything I could to make the fiction story as true-to-life as possible.

Sound of Snow Falling by Maggie Umber

Technology was an interesting collaborator in my graphic novel. When I first wrote the research paper, the internet was in its infancy. There was no way to stream owl cams or listen to podcasts, read blogs or image search photos. The depth of my experience as a great horned owl in tenth grade was mostly one of my imagination; the depth of my experience as a great horned owl ten years later was a full-fledged live action experience.

My life was forever shaped by that single atypical writing assignment. Was there anyone else in my biology class that was affected in this way? I doubt it. Even the idea itself when applied to other subjects didn’t interest me as much. When we had to write a first person paper about a food product traveling through the human body I had fun writing it, but I was never inspired to revisit the paper. I don’t even have a copy of it anymore.

What was it that made that particular animal research paper resonate with me so strongly? It was my childhood. My Dad was always dragging us kids through the woods, teaching us how to identify trees and helping us break open owl pellets. My Mom read me bird identification books in my high chair until I memorized their names. They took us to nature centers and let me have weird pets like corns snakes, anoles, katydids and crickets. We watched monarch caterpillars eat milkweed and form cocoons on the side of the house. We did science fairs together. Those childhood experiences made Sound of Snow Falling the story that I needed to tell.

 Sound of Snow Falling by Maggie Umber will be published by 2dcloud in early 2017.