Author Helen Phillips “Zooms” with Middle School Students

Here Where the Sunbeams are Green

It is always a treat when an author comes to Poly and students get to speak with a favorite writer. As part of the school’s ongoing speaker visits, we were excited to welcome Helen Phillips, author of Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green, virtually on December 11. She read aloud the first chapter of her book followed by a Q&A during a Zoom session from Colorado.

In inviting students, Middle & Upper School Librarian Brian Lorenzen said,Helen is the author of five books, including the YA adventure novel Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green. This novel follows two sisters, Mad and Roo, as they search for their ornithologist father in a Central American rainforest. Helen will be discussing her own story of how she became a writer, the research and work she had to do to write this book, as well as talk about what you can do to become writers yourselves.”  He shared chapter one of the book with students in advance.

Phillips is an associate professor at Brooklyn College. She is spending time in Colorado with her family during the pandemic.

Phillips began the visit by asking if any of the students are 11 years old. Hands were raised virtually. She explained that when she was 11 years old she developed the condition alopecia and lost all her hair. This, of course, affected her greatly as a middle school student, but she came to see this as “something that makes me stand out” and “what seemed like a disadvantage now seems like a superpower.”

She then went on to read aloud the first chapter of Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green, which begins with the two sisters in a plane above the jungle. “The book is about sisterhood,” she said. Phillips explained the importance of the first few pages where she sets the scene and introduces the main characters, noting the narrator “gets nervous about things,” while her sister is brave. Their father, who they are searching for, is a “world class ornithologist” who is looking for a bird threatened by extinction.

Author Helen Phillips
Helen Phillips (photo (c) David Barry)

In the chat feature, students commented about the narrator, Mad. Savannah P. ’28 wrote, “I think she is hard on herself.”

“I wanted to create a world on a page.”

A student asked how old Phillips was when she decided to become a writer. “At age six or seven,” she answered. “I wanted to create a world on a page.” As a published author, she said, “The dream came true.” She added that writing helped her “deal with alopecia.” At age 13, she said, her New Year’s resolution was to “every day read one poem and write one poem.” She added, “Poetry was a place I could be in full control.”

Phillips told the students it was years before she earned any money from her writing. “I have a day job,” she said, as an associate professor of English at Brooklyn College.

Miro K. ’27 asked, “Do you base the characters on people in your life?”

“That’s a great question, Miro!” she said, noting she does have a younger sister. Phillips said the story resembles their relationship, “The relative dynamics are pulled from my life.” She added that she grew up in Colorado and lived in Costa Rica for two summers. The natural life and color of Costa Roca was “dazzling to me,” she said, noting that 50% of the world’s species can be found in Costa Rica. Phillips said she gave her characters another challenge by having them in an environment where they do not speak the language.

Momo M-Q. ’27 asked, “how long did it take to write the book?” Phillips replied that it took four years. She added that she had set a challenge for herself in her first book, And Yet They Were Happy, a collection of stories, which were each 340 words long.

Phillips concluded the session by reading the Author’s Note from Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green. She recalled feeling upset as a child when she learned about extinction, which is a theme of the book. This prompted Savannah P. ’28 to ask what Phillips thought of the prospect of using DNA to “bring back the woolly mammoth.” This elicited a lively virtual discussion among the students and Phillips about the positive and negative aspects of having the woolly mammoth roaming the earth again.