We are so pleased to have author and science speaker Melissa Stewart take time away from her very busy book-writing schedule to share her answers to burning questions we had after reading No Monkeys, No Chocolate, our Bookstorm this month.
Melissa, when do book ideas usually come knocking on your brain?
Ideas can come anytime, anywhere—so I always have to be ready. I carry a small notebook with me everywhere I go. The idea for No Monkeys, No Chocolate started percolating in my mind when I saw cocoa trees growing in the rain forest during a trip to Costa Rica.
As ecosystems go, how do you isolate one and stick to writing about it?
To me, No Monkeys, No Chocolate isn’t really about the rain forest ecosystem, it’s about a tree and all the creatures it depends on to grow. This is all happening within a rain forest, of course, but my goal was to keep a laser-sharp focus on the tree itself.
You revised this manuscript 56 times, which you share so thoughtfully in classroom-usable detail on your Revision Timeline. Is this typical for all of your writing?
For most of my books, I revise a half dozen times, but concept picture books like No Monkeys, No Chocolate often take quite a bit more work. It can take time and a whole lot of trial and error to find the very best way to present the information to young readers.
Whose idea was it to include the cartoon commentators on each spread? Do you remember why you decided to include them?
The bookworms were my idea. They have two functions—to add humor (which kids love) and to reinforce some of the challenging science ideas presented in the in the book’s main text.
What’s the most vital takeaway you hope to inspire with No Monkeys, No Chocolate?
I hope it will help children (and adults) understand that every living thing on Earth is interconnected, and if we want to keep enjoying our favorite things (like chocolate), we need to protect and preserve the natural world and its amazing cast of creatures.
You worked with a co-author on this book. What role did Allen Young play and how did you work together?
For this book, I needed to know all the different creatures that cocoa trees depend on to live and grow and make more cocoa trees. I read every scientific paper that had ever been written about cocoa trees, but they didn’t have the information I needed. Since it wasn’t possible for me to spend months observing cocoa trees in the rain forest, I needed to find someone who had.
That’s where Allen Young came in. He’s the world’s leading expert in cocoa tree growth and he studied cocoa trees in the Costa Rican rain forest for more than 30 years. I asked Allen if he’d share his knowledge with me, and he said, “Yes,” as long as he could be the co-author of the book.
So I asked him a bunch of questions to get the information I needed, and then I started to write. Later, Allen read the manuscript to make sure that everything was accurate.
What are the second and third most fascinating ecosystems for you?
Oh boy, every ecosystem is fascinating to me. One ecosystem that I’m dying to visit is the American Southwestern desert. I’m hoping to travel to Arizona sometime in the next year.
How do you make sure that the language and concepts in the book fit the intended audience?
Curriculum standards, such as the Next Generation Science Standards, specify what topics and concepts students at various grade levels are studying in school, so that helps me decide whether an idea I have will work best as a picture book or an early reader or as long-form nonfiction for older readers. Once I know who my audience is, I can adjust the voice, point of view, hook, and text complexity to make the writing interesting and age-appropriate.
When you’re at a school talking about ecosystems, what kind of hands-on activities do you do with this book?
Because teachers want to provide students with real-life examples of how revision can improve writing, my school visit for No Monkeys, No Chocolate focuses on my 10-year process of creating the book. I explain why it took so darn long to write the book and why I didn’t just give up. My hope is that hearing my story of my struggle and ultimate success will encourage students to develop stamina as writers.
What has captured your attention currently in the science realm?
Oh, wow, there is always something new and exciting. That’s why I love science. I think it’s really interesting to see all the amazing innovations in robot research. And I’m also closely following stories about new discoveries in space. I’m especially interested in knowing if there really is another planet out there on the lonely outer fringes of our solar system. More and more, it’s looking like the answer is “Yes!”