Acclaimed children’s book author and photo-illustrator April Pulley Sayre, known for her many books spotlighting the wonders of science and nature, died on November 6 in South Bend, Ind., of metastatic breast cancer. She was 55.
Sayre was born April 11, 1966 in Greenville, S.C., to David and Elizabeth Pulley. While growing up in Greenville, she wrote in her website biography, she learned about the plants and birds of her family’s backyard from her mother, and learned to pick peas, hoe beans, and tend the cows during summers at her grandparents’ nearby farm. While volunteering at a raptor rehab center in Greenville, she helped care for hawks and owls. Sayre also recalled favorite family memories of being in the mountains on trips to North Carolina and Virginia when she was a girl. It was during childhood that Sayre first began taking photographs, as well, borrowing her mother’s camera. These early experiences fueled her fascination for the natural world. “I’ve been passionate about nature, photography, and science since I was a very little girl. I cannot remember not loving these three,” she said in a 2014 interview on the Writers’ Rumpus blog.
Sayre’s love for the natural world only grew deeper as she became a teenager. Upon graduating high school—which she did in three years and was named class salutatorian—she studied primatology and anthropology at Duke University earning her B.A. in biology in 1987. At Duke, she wrote for, and then became editor of, Vertices, a popular science magazine on campus. Sayre continued to combine her interest in natural science with writing during a post-college internship with the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, D.C., where she wrote for the organization’s newsletter. An internship at the National Geographic Society followed, and then in 1988, Sayre was offered a full-time position at NWF producing educational materials for teachers. While at NWF she met her husband Jeffrey Sayre, an author, naturalist, and conservationist who was also employed there. The couple married in 1989.
It was a newspaper ad that led Sayre to her children’s book career. In an interview with author Cynthia Leitich Smith on her Cynsations blog, Sayre recalled answering an advertisement in the Washington Post seeking children’s biographies of scientists. “My husband and I had just returned from studying with a primatologist in Madagascar, so I wrote about her,” Sayre noted. She and Jeffrey had traveled to that part of Africa the first year they were married to participate in an assessment of the flora and fauna of Madagascar’s first proposed national park. Once they were back in the U.S., the Sayres settled in South Bend, Ind., an adopted hometown they loved and which would eventually feature in some of her work.
The biography Sayre wrote had been accepted, edited, and ready to print when the project was abruptly canceled after the publisher (Twenty-First Century Books) was acquired by Henry Holt. Though Sayre was crushed by this outcome, she quickly turned things around when she contacted Twenty-First Century and re-pitched herself to them touting her resume of qualifications. As a result, she went on to publish 28 school and library titles with the company, beginning with the Exploring Earth’s Biomes series in 1994.
Sayre’s first trade picture book, If You Should Hear a Honey Guide, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Houghton Mifflin, 1995), was discovered in the slush pile. The title won the John Burroughs Award (given to “excellent natural history books for young readers”) among other accolades. With several early successes already under her belt, Sayre attended Vermont College and earned an M.F.A. in creative writing in 2000. Her books were especially lauded by educators and were frequently selected for “best of” lists from various organizations recognizing excellence in science books for children. Sayre’s title Vulture View (Holt, 2007), illustrated by Steve Jenkins, was named a 2008 Theodor Geisel Honor Book.
In the most recent phase of her work, Sayre photo-illustrated her own texts, beginning with Rah, Rah, Radishes! A Vegetable Chant (S&S/Beach Lane, 2011). Her latest project in this vein, Happy Sloth Day!, a collaboration with her husband, will be published by Beach Lane in March 2022.
In all, Sayre created more than 80 books for young readers, many of them praised for their rhythm and clever wordplay. “I try to choose phrases and words that are as juicy as possible,” she told Writers’ Rumpus. “I encourage schoolkids to collect delicious words—yummy words that make their mouths happy when they say them.”
Sayre and her husband traveled to 27 countries during their years together, and until the recurrence of her cancer in 2020, Sayre visited with more than 17,000 students across the country each year. “I try to communicate the excitement I feel about nature and my fascination with the way scientists discover how nature works,” she told Something About the Author in 1997. “I also feel it’s important to write about the environmental problems our planet faces and what’s being done to solve those problems.”
Andrea Welch, executive editor of Beach Lane Books and Sayre’s longtime editor there, shared this remembrance: “April was endlessly curious about nature and a poet and artist at heart, and this was reflected in each of the 12 picture books we made together. She loved to explore beneath the surface of things, and it was always so fun to be along for the ride. We had long conversations on topics ranging from leaves to lemurs to an especially charismatic frog living in her pond that she named Lemon. I’ll never forget the time she asked for an extension one spring because she had been distracted by ‘an excessive amount of cuteness going on in the yard.’ Though I will miss April tremendously, it’s comforting to know that her books will continue to give children the gift of seeing and appreciating the natural world from her inimitable point of view.”