How sleeping birds gave flight to a career in writing

Alum David Obuchowski and his wife, Sarah Pedry, write and illustrate "How Birds Sleep"
Sarah Pedry and David Obuchowski
Sarah Pedry and David Obuchowski were inspired to write "How Birds Sleep" after a discovery at a used bookstore. (Provided)

Perusing a used bookstore was nothing out of the ordinary for David Obuchowski (BA, ’01, English) and his wife, Sarah Pedry, but the excursion was anything but typical the day that they found “Birds Asleep,” a 1989 scientific and comprehensive survey of bird sleeping habits written by naturalist Alexander Skutch. The discovery began a creative journey for Pedry and Obuchowski that has enhanced their careers.

Skutch’s book explained the habits of different bird species. Obuchowski and Pedry used it as reference and inspiration for their own book, “How Birds Sleep,” published by Minerva in March of 2023. Obuchowski co-wrote the book with Pedry, who also illustrated it.

“How Birds Sleep,” a nonfiction children’s book, explores the  sleeping habits of birds and their environments. The book glides from species to species, detailing the sleeping conditions that birds thrive within. From illustrations of pigeons huddled together on a city rooftop to descriptions of what factors birds consider when they are choosing where to sleep, the book describes the sleeping habits of more than 20 bird species.

“While some may settle down, others settle up—in the tops of trees, that is,” it reads. “That way, they’re out of reach of predators below. Some even sleep stacked, one on top of the other.”

Pedry and Obuchowski live in Colorado. Recently signed by literary agent Andrea Cascardi of the Transatlantic Agency, the couple looks forward to new projects. It’s also given Obuchowski a chance to look back, and he fondly remembers his alma mater. As a student at the U of I he worked for the Daily Illini and wrote award-winning short stories in class. He wrote advertisements for a local car dealer and WPGU, the student radio station. He also wrote plays for the On The Rocks festival at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

“I do think there's something to be said about your time at University of Illinois—or any university I imagine but I can only speak to UIUC,” Obuchowski said. “It can be a great experiment, especially if you’re trying to be a creative.”

Author and illustrator at a book signing event
Sarah Pedry and David Obuchowski sign copies of "How Birds Sleep" at an event at New York University. (Provided)

Obuchowski recalled the gratification he felt after writing a short story in his short fiction class taught by English professor Micheal Madonick. After much hard work, he wrote a story that was praised by Madonick and won first place, the John L. Rainey Award, in the University of Illinois Undergraduate Fiction Contest. It was a happy moment, but Obuchowski noted that it did not guarantee success.

“I don’t know what was more important: winning that award and having that validation or trying for 15 years and failing and getting rejected,” Obuchowski said. “But rejection is not proof of your inability to do something, but it is an inherent part of the process.”

Struggles may be part of the process, but for now Obuchowski and Pedry are receiving a lot of encouragement from how well “How Birds Sleep.” It’s received an average of 4.9 out of 5 stars on Amazon and the couple has been invited to speak in a variety of venues, from New York University workshops to local library book readings. Families and educators are viewing the book as an effective teaching tool.

“Accessible nature writing at its best… a wondrous investigation into the sleep habits of birds,” wrote School Library Journal.

The Nonfiction Detectives, a nonfiction children’s book reviewer, remarked, “Gorgeous illustrations... delicious- luminescent... A perfect companion for any reader, regardless of age, who has ever wondered how do birds sleep…. perfect to share all ages. A jumping off place to spark conversations on the importance of preserving natural habitats.”

David Obuchowski
David Obuchowski (provided)

Obuchowski drew inspiration from the illustrations of his wife, who has always been passionate about nature and wildlife and has long wanted to write a children's book. After reading Skutch’s “Birds Asleep,” Pedry did her own research and began creating sketches, which she eventually turned into colorful illustrations for the book. Obuchowski added the narrative. 

“I write a lot of fiction and have had some two dozen      stories published, a ton of essays published, I have a documentary podcast (“Tempest”) that was adapted into a television series. And as a writer, I am all about voice,” explained Obuchowski. “So, this was no different, looking at the research and illustrations created an atmosphere for me.”

His hope is that the book creates both a learning experience and a yearning for further knowledge.

“I really wanted to have something that not only entertained (readers) and left them with a sense of wonder but also make them feel smart and not spoken down to. I think a lot of that is done in the tact that you show,” Obuchowski said.

Writing a children’s book was a new experience, but it was one that Obuchowski learned from—and he feels that aspiring writers can learn from it, too.

“You should try things and don’t let people tell you, ‘No you can’t do that,’ or ‘No, you can’t do that yet.’ Just insist on doing it and don’t give up. When you’re that age you have the freedom to do that—there’s not quite as much at stake in getting rejected and it’s a real time to explore,” Obuchowski said. “Speak up for yourself and you can learn how to advocate for yourself.”

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Ella Dame