Author Q&A: Jennifer Frick-Ruppert- The Legend of Skyco: Spirit Quest
Skyco, an Algonquin boy, is heir to the great chief Menatonon, but he has much to learn before he can take his place within the tribe. After helping rescue the tribe's shaman, Roncommock, from a bear attack, Skyco learns that the bear is his spirit animal and will guide him on his quest to become a man. Roncommock teaches Skyco how to enter the spirit world and communicate not just with the spirits who guide their people, but also how to connect with the animals around them. He steps into the bodies and minds of an ant, a fish, and a bird, and each show him something new about the world—knowledge that he will need to be a great leader. He also learns other practical skills like hunting, canoe building, and how to start a fire. Learning to properly use an atlatl and a bow are just precursors to Skyco's ultimate test, the husquenaugh, when Skyco is challenged to use his hard-earned skills to survive the harrowing, life-or-death ritual. Can Skyco pass the ultimate test and take his rightful place as heir?
This debut middle grade novel is an educational adventure that readers won't forget! Learn about the culture and environment of the North Carolina's in the 1500's through the eyes of a young Algonquin boy. Jennifer Frick-Ruppert has brought history to life in this entertaining story of The Legend of Skyco: Spirit Quest.
We got an inside look at her creative process in using her education and expertise to write from the perspective of some of her favorite animals and how she hopes to inspire young readers to learn and engage with their enviornment.
AJ: We love how much young readers learn about animals and the environment through Skyco’s eyes in Spirit Quest. Can you tell us about how your educational background inspired you?
JFR: I became a biologist because I have always been curious about nature. I wanted to find out as much as possible about how trees grow leaves, or why monarch butterflies migrate, or how the shape of a bird’s feather helps lift it into the air. The college where I teach, Brevard College, encourages great teaching through experiential education, which means that I engage with my students by finding ways to have them interact with the subject we are studying and to reflect on their relationship with the world around them. Since my specialty is the natural world, I have the opportunity to see animals, plants, and their environments not only through my own eyes, but also those of my students every time I show them something new. Teaching others can be a delightful career! I see The Legend of Skyco as an entertaining form of teaching, of turning some rather academic historical documents into engaging stories.
AJ: What is your favorite animal that Skyco interacts with?
JFR: My favorite animal that Skyco interacts with is probably the ants, because they live so differently from the way that we normally perceive our environment. Since we humans are visually oriented, imagining a life full of scents instead of sight, well, requires imagination! Insects are weird, but fascinating and incredibly successful creatures. So much about them differs significantly from us, from their small size to their faceted eyes to the way their bodies work. I wanted readers to appreciate some of those stranger inhabitants of the world around us. No matter where you live, ants live there too, and maybe after reading about Skyco, someone will crouch down by an anthill and wonder what those little creatures are doing. They are running around, looking for food, caring for their larvae, fighting battles with other ants. They share the world with us, yet we know so little about them. And maybe, even though they seem so different, they really are doing some of the same things we do, just in a different way.
AJ: Why did you choose the animals that you did for Skyco to learn about?
JFR: Each animal that Skyco encounters teaches him about living successfully in a particular environment and gives him a different perspective on the world. Once you learn enough about animals, it is possible to imagine how they might experience the world around them, which will be different from our everyday experiences. In the story, I have Skyco’s teacher help him understand the animals, but anyone with enough knowledge can imagine what it might be like to be those animals. The fish swims in water, breathes with gills, identifies its natal stream with a combination of scent and taste, and senses changing water pressure with lateral lines. The bird flies through air and probably feels the wind over her feathers the way we feel wind through our hair, but when peregrine falcons dive after prey, they are faster than any other animal on Earth and must be able to hit another flying bird at that speed without killing themselves in the process! And ants are just fascinating. If readers imagine what it is like to be a bird or fish or ant, if they start to understand and identify with them, then they will be more inclined to protect their habitat and appreciate other forms of life. I also wanted readers to consider that we, as humans, can learn about human nature, too, when we study the lifeforms around us. Skyco learns about cooperation, teamwork, calm and measured behavior, and so much more when he considers how other animals live.
AJ: What is something that surprised you when doing the research for this book?
JFR: Two thoughts come to mind. Firstly, I enjoy fishing on Pamlico Sound, and get really excited when I catch a 20-inch spot-tailed bass (red drum). Learning about drum and striped bass that historically reached 6 feet in length and sturgeon that reached over twice that (13 feet) really amazed me! I’ve never even seen a living sturgeon in its natural habi tat, but have heard stories about how you could sit quietly in a canoe and see these big fish slowly rolling and swimming in the clear water below. That image is what inspired the section of the book when Skyco describes sturgeon dancing to the song of the river. Secondly, learning about the historical and cultural aspects of the native people of the Southeast was both inspiring and disturbing. There were so many different native tribes and languages, and in the Southeast in particular, we seem to have forgotten about these people, some of whom still exist today. Most people who live in North Carolina don’t realize that in addition to the Cherokee (Eastern Band), who are the only federally recognized tribe in the state, we also have many that were Algonquin, Sioux, or Iroquois. Too many people think that these groups are only western or northern, but they are southeastern too, and always have been. I was inspired to learn that people of the Chowanoke Indian Nation are today still living on the land they occupied when Skyco was alive and working to develop a formal relationship with the United States government.
AJ: What do you hope young readers will take away from The Legend of Skyco: Spirit Quest?
JFR: I hope that young readers will love and appreciate the real world we live in. Instead of a book of fantasy or science fiction (which I also love to read, by the way), I hope that The Legend of Skyco comes across as a book of fiction, but one grounded in history, biology, and anthropology. A little bit magical, perhaps, certainly respectful and loving of the Earth and its interesting inhabitants, but most of all, a realistic portrayal of nature and of human nature.