Professors Author Book for Teens, Tweens

photo of book cover

What if there’s a chance that an extinct bird is still around? That’s the premise of a new book for teens and tweens by Eastern Kentucky University professors Marie Mitchell and Mason Smith.

The book, “UFO: Unidentified Feathered Object,” was inspired by the ivory-billed woodpecker. It went extinct in the 1940s, but about six years ago researchers combed 523,000 acres in eight southeastern states, searching in vain for a surviving population.     

“Mason’s been an avid birdwatcher for years,” Mitchell said. “He hardly ever leaves home without a pair of binoculars — just in case he spies a bird that he can add to his life list. He has about 120 sightings already.”

The authors are also die-hard “Star Trek” fans, fascinated by the possibility of strange new worlds and life forms. Mitchell applied to be the first journalist in space but that program was scrubbed after the Challenger disaster in 1986. “I still managed to space travel,” Mitchell said, “on a mission at the awesome Challenger Space Center in Hazard. It was an amazing experience although I never actually left earth.”           

In “UFO,” a nature nut named Felix Wilson reports seeing a Cape May Woodpecker in a swamp in his fictional Kentucky town. However, it’s been extinct since 1937. Felix just caught a glimpse of the woodpecker’s red topknot, nearly all-white wings and black tail feathers. He didn’t snap a picture, but he did record the bird’s distinctive call: “kik-kik-kikik.” That was enough to bring state officials to the swamp to investigate, along with a flock of birdwatchers wanting to spot the woodpecker themselves.

Now, Felix isn’t the best eye-witness. He has also reported seeing UFOs of the flying, not just feathered, kind. “But two teen cousins believe him,” Smith said. “Kind-hearted Abby wants to protect the bird before its habitat becomes a road to an Industrial Park. Tim’s motivation is more self-centered. He’s hoping for a reward so he can upgrade his video game system.”

The teens enlist the help of Abby’s older sister, Alice, an intern at the local newspaper who has been reporting on developments in the search for the elusive bird.

“It’s a complicated process to identify any bird, let alone a rare one or one believed to be extinct,” Smith said. “You have to be very specific about its size, shape and markings, along with where and when it was seen and its particular call.

“Anyone who has played the game where you briefly look at several items in a box, then have to recall each one from memory, knows how hard it is to remember them all,” Mitchell said. “It’s even more challenging to observe and identify a bird’s unique features after only one quick look.”

There are other complications to identifying, locating and protecting the Cape May. The cousins’ grandmother, who may have painted a picture of the woodpecker nearly a decade earlier, has Alzheimer’s Disease. So there are gaps in her memory. “She has sketches in her field journal,” Smith said, “but the notations about the bird were written in shorthand, which not many people can still decipher.”

Other characters include the oddly dressed birdwatchers, a shady businessman and wacky weatherman, not to mention a scary Bog Monster — and aliens from Zeta Reticuli.

“Tim calls them the ‘Zany Ridiculous Ones,’” Mitchell said. “They’re not here to take over the world, just to make sure we take care of what’s in it.”

This is the authors’ third Kentucky-based book for teens and tweens. Their first book, “The Lost Dispatch,” is set at a Civil War re-enactment of the Battle of Perryville, followed by “48 Hours” about making a short movie in two days. Graphic artist Ryan Lanigan, of Stanford, illustrated all three books.

For more information about the authors, visit The books are available on Amazon or through the publisher, Clark Legacies, LLC in Lexington. 

“All of our books are classroom friendly,” Mitchell said. “We have discussion questions for each chapter, project ideas for students and Accelerated Reading quizzes. We want our readers to enjoy reading the books for fun, but we also want them to learn something along the way.”



Published on May 12, 2011

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