Denise Brennan-Nelson has written a number of books for children, including Tallulah: Mermaid of the Great Lakes, Leopold the Lion, Someday Is Not a Day of the Week, My Momma Likes to Say, Santa’s Secret, and the popular Willow series. As a national speaker, Denise encourages adults and children to tap into their imaginations to create richer, fuller lives. She travels the country, sharing her reading and writing enthusiasm with schoolchildren and teachers. Denise lives in Howell, Michigan with her husband, Bob. She strives to spend each day teaching and learning with a creative spirit. Find out more about Denise at www.denisebrennannelson.com.
Today, I’m really thrilled to be talking with Denise Brennan-Nelson about her inspiring story, her journey in writing it, and how we can all appreciate the life around us. My blog partner Jakki’s sons, Jack and Steve, also loves Mae the Mayfly and had a few questions of their own.
Jack wonders: What inspired you to write about a mayfly?
The inspiration to write about a mayfly came when I discovered that they live, on an average, only one day. I started digging and discovered that while mayflies have many interesting qualities, it was their life cycle that reeled me in and set the basis for the story: a mayfly begins as an egg, then hatches into a nymph. It then lives as a nymph for one to three years before emerging from the water as an adult. Once they have molted––the only insect known to molt twice!––they only have about a day to live. ONE DAY? How do you live your entire life in ONE day? Where would you go? What would you do? I had so many questions. And so, the journey began!
Steve would like to know: Where is your favorite place to go and enjoy nature?
Our backyard has many trees and a few paths to meander on. One of those paths leads to a playhouse that my husband built years ago for our children, Rebecca and Rachel. I love to sit on the steps and take it all in––especially the forever-changing trees and the way the light filters through them. It’s quiet and I watch the birds and the chipmunks, squirrels, and occasionally deer show up. It’s far enough away from our house that I can forget about my “to-do” list and relax.
There are also a couple of parks nearby that have trails and lakes and offer a beautiful place to enjoy nature.
Jack and Steve asked if you spent a lot of time at a pond while creating the story.
No, I didn’t spend a lot of time at a pond, but I did a lot of research to help me visualize the setting.
In early drafts, I pictured Mae’s life beginning on a pond but as the story emerged it turned into a river. Unlike a pond, a river “flows.” It seemed to fit with the ebb and flow of Mae’s life.
The river became integral to the story; Mae’s life began there, she experiences a harrowing ordeal with Trout, which causes her to flee the river out of fear, but ultimately, Mae returns “home” to the river and completes her life. (This was in keeping with a mayfly’s lifecycle.)
Hi Denise! I love your answers to Jack and Steve’s questions! What an amazing character a mayfly makes. You’ve published many, many books for kids. What inspired you to become a children’s writer? What’s the best part about your job?
I had been happily writing for myself – journals and poetry mostly – when inspiration came knocking at my door in the form of a documented study about bumblebees. According to scientists, bumblebees are not “equipped” to fly. Aeronautically, their wings are too small for their bodies. Upon hearing that, I was compelled to write what was in my head and my heart. I wanted to answer the questions I had: What would happen if bumblebees found out about their small wings? Would fear and doubt stop them from doing what they love to do? Once it was written, I felt I had written something that I wanted to share with others. Four years and many rejection letters later, my first book, Buzzy the Bumblebee was published.
The best part about my job is creating something – taking an idea and turning it into something new that entertains and inspires children and adults. I also love the freedom to work when and where I want to, often in my pajamas in the wee hours of the morning.
Mae the Mayfly is a gorgeous, poignant reminder for both kids and adults to look around and appreciate the beauty all around us. Not only the mayfly, but all of the sights that Mae sees are ephemeral parts of nature. How did you choose each of these?
I felt they had to be simple, yet remarkable acts of nature that would draw Mae out from the hollow of a tree. You know that awe-inspiring feeling you get when you discover a bird’s nest or a spider’s web? That was the basis for the sights and sounds Mae encountered.
I also drew from a trip to Yellowstone where the vivid images of rivers, flowers, bear cubs, and other magnificent acts of nature are forever embedded in my mind.
The rhymes of Mae the Mayfly are as light as she is, and your rhythm is as jaunty as a mayfly’s flight. Could you describe your journey in writing this story?
After learning of a mayfly’s short lifespan, the mulling-over period ensued. A lot of thinking and dialogue in my head takes place before taking pen to paper. Often, I share my initial thoughts with family and friends which helps the pieces come together.
I did more research, too. I watched a video showing how some mayfly nymphs resist the pull to come to the surface when it is time to shed their outer covering and expose their wings. After spending years at the bottom of the dark river, why would they resist? I wondered. Why would they want to stay at the bottom of the river when they could break through the surface into the light, and fly––if only for a day?
It was starting to come together – I would write about a mayfly and how beautiful and meaningful one day could be, if she can overcome her fears.
Initially, the story was written in prose and then I wrote it in verse. At one point, I even wrote a funny version for my kids about Mae being stubborn and not listening to her mama. That version didn’t end well for Mae, because, well, she didn’t listen to her mama! My kids got a kick out of it.
Before she was Mae, she was Martha. From Martha to Marvin. Then I changed it to May. And then May became Mae.
My first submission was declined. So, I gave it a rest. The idea was there but I needed to start over. I believed in this story with my whole being and I wasn’t giving up. In June 2018, I resubmitted it and in August I learned that Sleeping Bear Press wanted to move forward with it. I signed the contract in September and it was released in March of 2020 amid a pandemic. It wasn’t the launch I envisioned, but the story is about appreciating the simple things and living life to the fullest. It is also about empathy, fear, and gratitude. Perhaps the timing was just right.
Florence Weiser’s illustrations are adorable while truly highlighting the beauty of what Mae sees. Do you have a favorite spread? Why do you love it?
I love the cover and the end sheets, and the illustration of Mama saying good-bye to Mae tugs at my heart. But my favorite is the spread where Mae encounters Trout tangled in fishing line and Mae sees herself – literally and figuratively – in Trout’s eyes. Mae is confronted with a difficult decision between fear, or courage and compassion. This was a pivotal part of the story and Florence did a remarkable job capturing the emotion of both Mae and Trout.
You encourage people to be aware of and open to inspiration and those small moments in life that make them the best version of themselves they can be. How can kids and adults practice this kind of mindfulness while at home during this time of self-isolating and social distancing?
In a robust and enthusiastic voice my dad often proclaims, “This is living!” He says it with such conviction that you might think he won the lottery. On the contrary, he says it to express his delight over life’s simple/small pleasures; a sunset, eating a fresh-picked tomato from the vine, watching the birds, the daffodils sprouting, a delectable meal, a rainstorm . . .
I am by no means an expert on mindfulness, but I have learned a few things that help me enjoy life a little bit more:
- Be aware/pay attention – the list of things to delight over is endless when we notice what is going on around us
- Make room for quiet time and stillness every day
- Focus on one thing at a time and do it with intention and purpose
- Write down 3-5 things daily that you are grateful for. Do it as a family with a “family journal” or get a notebook for every member and make it a nightly ritual
Lately I’ve been asking people, “What do you like most about the shelter-in-place order that we are being asked to follow?” Over and over, I’ve heard, “It feels good to slow down . . . less hectic . . .” I hope we emerge from this unique experience with the realization that life is not a race, it’s a gift.
What’s up next for you?
My publisher is currently reviewing two stories that I have submitted. Fingers crossed that they accept both of them!
What inspires you each time you start a new story?
When I have an idea that interests me I feel invigorated and purposeful. What can I do with it? Where will it take me? What can I learn from it?
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes, “If you are writing the clearest, truest words you can find and doing the best you can to understand and communicate, this will shine on paper like its only little lighthouse.”
Each time I begin a story I am hopeful that what I write “will shine on paper like its own little lighthouse.”
Thanks so much, Denise! This has been such a wonderful talk! I wish you all the best with Mae, the Mayfly and can’t wait to see more from you in the future.
You can connect with Denise Brennan-Nelson on
May Day Review
About the Holiday
May Day has for centuries celebrated the coming of spring. In ancient calendars May 1 heralded the first day of summer. Often celebrated with flowers and dancing, May Day has ushered in many traditions, such as dancing around a Maypole and May Day baskets, which are cone-shaped baskets filled with flowers. A May Day basket is usually given in secret as the giver hangs it on a friend’s doorknob and then rings the doorbell and runs away. (Which sounds like a perfect way to celebrate the holiday in these days of social distancing.) Whether nature is blooming in full or just starting to bud where you live, May Day offers the promise of brighter days ahead. Today’s book—and its adorable character Mae—shows us how to celebrate that feeling every day.
I received a copy of Mae the Mayfly from Sleeping Bear Press for review consideration. All opinions of the book are my own.
Mae the Mayfly
Written by Denise Brennan-Nelson | Illustrated by Florence Weiser
“Near the bank of the river one warm spring day / a new life began, and her name was Mae.” Before her mama said goodbye, she hugged her daughter and told her that she had her “whole life—a day, perhaps more” to explore her world. As Mae flitted along the river, a large, hungry trout waited for just the right moment to lure her in. It smiled deceitfully and beckoned to her, and, even though her inner voice told her not to, Mae flew down closer to take a look.
That’s when the trout leapt from the water to snatch Mae from the air. But she darted and dodged and got away. Shaking with fear, Mae found a hole in a hollow tree and flew in. “I’ll stay here forever! I’m not coming out!” she told herself. But once her heart stopped beating so loud, she heard a happy tweet and peeked out of the tree. She saw a mother robin feeding her chicks and a spider web glittered in the sun. “The mist on the river was a fine, pink cloak. / A bullfrog bellowed his morning croak.”
Mae remembered what her Mama had said and “launched herself from the dark, hollow place.” She followed the river, where she saw flowers and birds, a deer and a bear and one “stubby toad.” Then, she came to a clearing where she found “a singing, dancing jamboree… a wild mayfly jubilee! / Joining in, Mae danced with glee!”
As morning turned to afternoon, Mae was floating on the breeze when she heard a call for help. She went in search of who it was and found Trout lying motionless and barely breathing. Fearful that he might leap at her again, she carefully went closer to inspect. “But Trout was weak, no flip or flail. / Tangled line had caught his tail.” Then Mae noticed something else—his shimmering “rainbow stripes in every hue, silver, pink, and shades of blue.” And in his eyes she saw his fear and realized that she and Trout were alike.
Mae went to work to try to free him. The knot was tight, but Mae worked patiently until the line slipped free and Trout swam away with the current. Mae hoped that he would be okay. Just then she saw a flash as Trout returned and with a flip of his tail said, “Thank you.” As nighttime settled over the river and the moon rose high, Mae settled on a cattail leaf. She listened to the bullfrogs and watched the fireflies glow. “The stars came out early for sweet, little Mae. / She counted each one… then called it a day.”
Back matter includes a message about mindfulness, an exercise to try and facts about mayflies.
Soaring and uplifting, Denise Brennan-Nelson’s unique story reminds children and adults alike to live each day to the fullest and reveals where the treasures that make life so fulfilling can be found. The short lifespan of a mayfly gives Brennan-Nelson a perfect canvas for compressing the lessons of a lifetime into one day, and her superlative storytelling incorporates parental love, fear, appreciation for our surroundings, courage, selflessness, and friendship. Her language is triumphant, carried breezily on rhyming couplets that are a joy to read aloud. The pitch-perfect ending may bring a tear to the eye but spur readers to find the beauty in every day.
Through Florence Weiser’s lovely textured illustrations, readers can almost feel the breeze ruffling the tall grasses, the spray of river water, and the warmth of the sun as they follow Mae on her adventure. Mae is a cutie with lacy wings and a sweet, expressive face. A powerful image of empathy comes in a close-up, two-page spread in which Mae, looking into Trout’s frightened eye, sees her own reflection. Whereas up to now Mae has been an observer of life, she now becomes an active participant by helping a fellow creature. Working in perfect tandem with Brennan-Nelson’s text, Weiser’s pages take readers on a journey of growth and discovery they’ll take to heart. Calming shades of green dotted with subtle pinks, purples blues, and browns reflect Mae’s mindful approach to life, making this a delightful book to share for quiet story times.
Beautiful and resonant, Mae the Mayfly is highly recommended and would be an often-asked-for addition to home, school, and public library collections.
Ages 5 – 8
Sleeping Bear Press, 2020 | ISBN 978-1534110519
Discover more about Denise Brennan-Nelson and her books on her website.
To learn more about Florence Weiser, her books, and her art, visit her website.
May Day Activity
Mae the Mayfly Mindfulness Activity
Like Mae, you can calm your mind and be present in the moment as you enjoy your surroundings. Use this printable activity to get into that peaceful state of mind. Just look at the picture inside the star and follow the breathing directions as you trace each arm. You can download it from the Sleeping Bear Press Website under Teachers Guides here:
You can find Mae the Mayfly at these booksellers
Picture Book Review