Bringing the Boy Home, an Amazon adventure story, arrives in bookstores on July 1st. Full of suspense—and surprises—the novel features two boys on the cusp of manhood. One has lived his entire life with his tribe in the remote Amazon jungle; the other, adopted by an American woman, is returning to his place of birth for the first time in years.
Debut author N.A. (Nina) Nelson is practically a neighbor, living one town over from me, and earlier this month we sat down at a library cafe on the banks of the Saugatuck River, not a caiman or jaguar in sight, and talked about her book for ten- to thirteen-year-old readers.
How did you come up with the idea for this story?
Well, originally, I wanted to write a story about five kids who each had a special “sense” talent. For example, one kid would be able to see what happened in a photo fifteen seconds before and after the picture was taken, and another kid would be able to smell what happened in the photo fifteen seconds before and after, and another kid could hear, and another could taste, and another could touch what happened, and then they would join forces and solve mysteries. But when I told my critique group about this “novel” idea, one of the members said, “There’s already a book out where a boy can see photos move,” and I thought, “Hmmm, I don’t want to write a book that’s already been written,” so I tried to incorporate the five senses into a story that didn’t involve magic, which led me to thinking about the Amazon jungle people and how they use their senses every day to survive and the book just formed from there.
You have visited the Amazon jungle, but was it hard for you to write from the viewpoint of two thirteen year-old tribal boys?
I’m so glad you asked that, because I’ve been wanting to share this story forever: while I was writing Bringing the Boy Home, I watched a lot of videos about jungle tribes, and during one particular video, the camera followed this ten year-old boy and his pet tapir around and it reminded me exactly of a relationship between a boy and his dog: they went swimming together, wrestled around and were completely inseparable. It was the Amazon version of "Old Yeller." Later, the boy’s father was teasing him and said something like, “Oh, he’ll never find a girl—he’ll have to kiss frogs for the rest of his life.” And I thought, “Isn’t that funny that the Amazon jungle people say the same thing we do about kissing frogs?” From what I’ve read and seen—and from all the traveling I’ve done myself—I believe that no matter where you live, we all experience the same things: jealousy, heartbreak, love, anger, power struggles and yes, even kissing frogs.
Bringing the Boy Home is a work of fiction, but are there aspects of the novel that are based on real life?
I gave myself a lot of freedom by making the Takunami a fictional tribe; this allowed my imagination to run wild without worrying about someone later questioning the authenticity of my research. The jungle people are also very spiritual, so I was able to use that aspect to take the story in a couple cool, different directions. BUT even with the flexibility those two things afforded me, I wanted to incorporate as much tradition, language, flora and fauna of the Amazon as possible, so I really tried to educate myself on tribal life, ethnobotany and wilderness survival.
One of the biggest compliments I’ve received is when readers tell me that they were surprised to find out the Takunami aren’t a real tribe. That’s nice to hear.
What's the Amazon
Conservation Team? Are you on it?
The Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) is this amazing non-for-profit organization who “works in partnership with indigenous people in conserving biodiversity, health, and culture in tropical America.”
During my research; I kept returning to one book, Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, by Mark J. Plotkin, for information and inspiration and when I decided that I wanted to somehow give back, I automatically googled Dr. Plotkin and found ACT (he co-founded it). The group has supporters such as Al Gore, Sting, Julian Lennon, Susan Sarandon and (laugh)—me.
Two of its better known programs are helping tribes map out their land, so unsavory logging companies can’t come in and say, “Oh, this little plot is yours and the rest of the rainforest is ours,” and providing support to shamans so that they can continue practicing their medicine and also pass their knowledge on to the younger generation.
I’m “teaming” up with ACT by donating a portion of the profits from Bringing the Boy Home to its Shamans and Apprentices Program.
I hear you're working on something new. What's the next book about?
It’s nothing like Bringing the Boy Home; it’s a humorous, contemporary YA, that takes place in Missouri, which is much closer to home since that’s where I was raised. I can’t divulge much else, because I’m a little superstitious when it comes to talking about my WIP, but I will say that I’m totally enjoying writing it: the characters crack me up everyday (in a good way) and I can’t wait to see how it ends.