Erin Alladin's Outside, You Notice (Pajama Press, illustrated by Andrea Blinick) is just the sort of book we could all use right now. Thoughtful, joyful, and gentle, its celebration of the outdoors, imagination, and exploration is something young readers will connect with and their grown ups will find refreshing. The nonfiction observations about animals, birds, and plants (in settings ranging from backyards to city parks to sidewalks) pair with dreamy impressions of nature, proving that science and imagination can easily coexist.
The winning combination of Alladin's lyric, imaginative text and Blinick's fun and inclusive artwork earned the book a coveted Kirkus starred review, which praised the book's ability to "immerse readers in the feeling of being outside, fully attentive and relaxed".
We're happy to welcome Erin to Open Book today to talk about Outside, You Notice as part of our True Story series where writers speak about nonfiction works. Erin tells us the natural connection she found between mindfulness and teaching kids to love the outdoors, how the rhythm of taking a simple walk outside is one of her most helpful writing tools, and the fascinating and sustainable agriculture initiatives that may serve to inspire her next outdoorsy writing project.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be. What made you passionate about the subject matter you're exploring?
I’ve always felt strongly that children are born as little scientists and naturalists who are hard-wired to learn about the world around them. Some of that learning comes from asking questions and consuming other sources like books or videos, but a huge amount of it comes from close observation. Quiet, slow observation is one of the great losses we’ve experienced as our society has moved indoors and into fast-paced lives. And we don’t always remember to let kids exercise it for as long as they can.
I’ve been paying attention to the conversation around mindfulness for the last several years. The way we teach it to children has so much in common with the way I think about learning through observation. We tell them to be still, to use their senses, to pay attention to details. And with demand growing for books about mindfulness and books about getting outside, I started wondering if I could weave the two ideas together.
Outside, You Notice is the result. It’s a nonfiction picture book illustrated by Andrea Blinick that recreates the experience of being a curious child using their senses to observe the natural world around them and turning their curiosity into inquiry. There’s a central thread of poetic text that makes the kind of sensory observations a child would about the smell of rain and the colour of a carrot and the feeling of digging a hole and getting dirty all over. The illustrations show a wide range of outdoor spaces to remind readers that nature is everywhere, even on a city sidewalk. And each illustration has interesting facts tucked into it related to a particular theme, like pollinators or animal homes or seeds.
What do you love about writing nonfiction? What are some of the strengths of the genre, in your opinion?
Writing nonfiction for kids is a joy because they cannot get enough of it. If you walk into a primary classroom, you’ll see kids just devouring biographies, illustrated encyclopedias, books about animals, books about technology... At that age they are so eager to learn about how to the world works, and nonfiction lets them take in knowledge in big, exciting gulps. Plus, it’s a lot more convenient than asking an exasperated adult “why” for the fourteenth time.
Do you have an opinion on how the word nonfiction is set – i.e. with or without a hyphen?
I’m a trained editor in my day job, so I know all the usage rules. And the rule is, it depends on the company’s style guide and I have nothing to say about it!
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I usually need to start indoors, in quiet, with a ruled notebook that lies flat and has a good page texture (I’m tactile defensive and rubbing my hand over a texture my brain doesn’t like is like nails on a chalkboard). A cup of tea is always a good idea too. I start making notes. I rarely decide when to stop making notes; one of them will just extend itself into an actual draft for a section and I’ll follow where it goes.
Once I have a solid idea of what I want to happen in my writing, then I can go for a walk. Walks are especially good when my project is lyrical or poetic like the main text in Outside, You Notice, because my footsteps ground the rhythm of the words as I compose them. I wrote a lot of Outside, You Notice while pacing around the sidewalks of Leslieville in Toronto, where I was living at the time. It was actually really helpful to write a book about nature while surrounded by the city, because one of my goals was to point out how anyone can get outdoors and observe the natural world, even in an urban setting. I could pay attention to my own sensory experiences as I walked, then work them into the text. I would come up with a sentence I liked, jot it down in a pocket notebook or my phone, and then move on to another one.
What are you working on now?
I have a blog called Earth Undaunted where I write about regenerative agriculture and break down the big concepts in ways that make sense to people without much of a science or gardening background. Most of all the blog is about how people can apply regenerative agriculture techniques on a home scale to make their soil more fertile and to sequester carbon on their own little patch of land.
I got very passionate about permaculture in my twenties. A very short and incomplete explanation of permaculture is that it’s a set of principles for designing landscapes as food-producing ecosystems where humans are integrated into the system instead of disrupting it. In 2014 I founded a community permaculture garden in Toronto called Garden@Kimbourne. Since I moved away in 2020 it has continued to run, and I’ve kept on researching, experimenting, and writing in my new home near Parry Sound. I especially love to research large-scale projects where communities have come together to restore entire landscapes. There just might be a future book in that.
Erin Alladin is an editor, a writer, and an ecology enthusiast who is always looking for ways to combine her passions. Born in Northern Ontario to a gardener and a forester, she spent most of her early life looking at and thinking about the natural world. As a young adult she spent nearly a decade immersed in Toronto’s children’s literature scene before retreating back up north, where she continues to edit while growing vegetables and writing about regenerative agriculture. Erin lives near Parry Sound with her husband, her garden, and not quite enough bookshelves.