With its Stories from Where We Live series, Milkweed Editions has been trying to restore a feeling of community to the country, one region at a time. The series began in 2000 with the publication of The North Atlantic Coast, and the fifth book, The Great Lakes, will be released this month, as acclaim for the series continues to grow.
The aim of the books is to join literature, ecology, history, natural history and travel in one volume, to remind readers of the heritage of an area they may live in. Each book includes a mixture of poetry, stories, letters, journals and essays, to document how people respond to the natural environment around them.
The idea for the series came about several years ago when the series editor, Sara St. Antoine, was doing a summer internship in the Senora Desert in Arizona. As part of her work in doing a study on how children learn about their desert home, she interviewed a group of kids and asked how they found out about the world around them. " 'Television' was their answer," said St. Antoine. "Direct experience and stories being passed down were being replaced with TV." At that time, the idea for the books, which St. Antoine describes as "regional literature with a sense of place," began brewing in her head, but she thought she would just produce an educational publication for teachers, which never came to fruition.
Eventually, she wrote a proposal letter to Milkweed, a publisher she had been hearing good things about. She discovered that they already had a Literature and Land program in place, and Milkweed thought these books would fit well. "We are a good match," said St. Antoine. "They have the time and patience for this kind of series. They have been every bit as passionate about the books as I am."
St. Antoine and the editors at Milkweed first conceptualized the series as containing 15 titles. According to St. Antoine, they mapped out the various regions within the United States "to honor natural and cultural boundaries. We wanted them big enough to be practical, but small enough to be true."
A Varied Collection
The four regions covered before the Great Lakes are the North Atlantic Coast (2000), the Great North American Prairie (2001), the California Coast (2001) and the Gulf Coast (2002). In order to gather the kinds of information and stories she wants to include in a particular anthology, St. Antoine puts out a call to writers, requesting stories about the area she is working on at that time. "I get flooded with stories and poems," said St. Antoine. "I get about 250—300 submissions. Authors send in their grandparents' stories or a story about raccoons that evokes a sense of place."
Writers of all calibers are included in the books. If a story comes in that needs a lot of work, St. Antoine will put in the time it takes to work through the problems with the author. Contributor Sue Alexander had visited—and was charmed by—Vasquez Rocks, a park in the Mojave Desert northeast of Los Angeles, years before she wrote a poem about the place. She read the call for writers in an SCBWI bulletin, and her poem was eventually acquired and included in the Milkweed anthology on the California coast. Her experience with Milkweed was a very positive one, she said: "I think the books are unique and very valuable. It's the variety of kinds of things that they include that is fascinating."
According to operations manager Hilary Reeves, sales for the series has grown as it has become more well-established. "Having a number of titles in the series makes it much easier for people to get the concept," Reeves said. "Sales and coverage have definitely picked up from the third book onward."
The books are sold in a wide variety of places, including National Park bookstores, zoological societies, map and travel centers and traditional bookstores. Entry into specialty markets has been aided by Milkweed's distributor, PGW, which features the series in its travel and gift catalogues as well as in the children's catalogue.
The books are proving successful in schools and libraries as well. According to Reeves, "A school in the Twin Cities piloted the Gulf Coast book for a full year last year, integrating English, science and social studies instruction with field trips and work on the school's own prairie garden."
St. Antoine has noticed that various retailers tend to shelve the books in different sections in their stores. "Some stores shelve it in the local history section, others shelve it in the travel section," she said. "I've found it in just about every corner of bookstores." The books were originally created for a target audience of ages 9—13, but, as St. Antoine noted, "They have a universal appeal. I discovered that a lot of my peers love them immensely. With these stories, you can reinforce a community's character and history before it's lost forever."