Curiouser and Curiouser with Melissa Stewart

Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and StinkersThis month we’re fea­tur­ing Melis­sa Stew­art, author of sci­ence books for young read­ers and a seem­ing­ly tire­less advo­cate for read­ing non­fic­tion books, par­tic­u­lar­ly expos­i­to­ry non­fic­tion (“5 Kinds of Non­fic­tion”). Melis­sa has writ­ten more than 180 books in her career, the first of which was pub­lished in 1998 and the most recent of which is Pipsqueaks, Slow­pokes, and Stinkers: Cel­e­brat­ing Ani­mal Under­dogs (illus­trat­ed by Stephanie Laberis, pub­lished by Peachtree Pub­lish­ers). We recent­ly put our heads togeth­er for an inter­view address­ing our curios­i­ty about Melissa’s books and her work. Pull up a chair to the table and join us!

Do you work on more than one book at a time?

Yes, I usually work on at least a half dozen books at a time. I might be writing the rough draft of one and revising one or two others. I might be researching one, and waiting for research materials for another. I could be reviewing illustrator sketches or checking layouts or reviewing notes from an editor or copy editor. There’s a lot of juggling. Each day, before I stop working, I make a list of what I plan to work on the next day. This helps to keep me organized.

Melissa Stewart
Melis­sa Stewart

You work on many different types of books within the plethora of knowledge about our natural world. How do you clear your head to work on a joke book after you’ve written about the droughts in our world?

Sometimes it’s a struggle, especially when I need to shift gears between writing with a lively, humorous voice and a more lyrical voice. If my voice is off, I stop writing and start reading to get in the right mindset. It’s sort of like cleansing my palate with sorbet or pickled ginger between different courses of a meal.

You write for a variety of publishers including Peachtree Publishers, National Geographic Kids, Beach Lane Books, and HarperCollins. Do you pitch your ideas to these companies or do they come to you with ideas for the books they’d like?

A little bit of both. When publishers have a large mass market series, such as National Geographic Readers or HarperCollins’s Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out-Science®, they usually decide what topics they would like to add and then search for a writer. But for picture books and other trade books, I develop the idea. For picture books, I need to submit the complete manuscript, and then the publisher may accept it or they may reject it. For longer books, I submit a proposal with an outline and writing sample.

author Melissa Stewart reading When Rain Falls with a kindergarten class
Author Melis­sa Stew­art read­ing When Rain Falls with a kinder­garten class

When you’re writing a book that a publisher hired you to write, do you have parameters within which you need to stay?

Yes. They give me a word count and usually tell me what text features to include. I use existing books in the series as models.

Do you find that difficult to do?

No. I find it com­fort­ing to have guide­lines. It’s sort of like putting togeth­er a jig­saw puz­zle. All the pieces are there. I just have to fig­ure out the right way to put them together.

With pic­ture books, I’m invent­ing the puz­zle. I find that chal­leng­ing, but I enjoy being able to exper­i­ment and play. It’s a more cre­ative experience. 

How do you keep your research organized?

I don’t really have a good system. I type all my notes into a Word file. Over time, it becomes unwieldy.

Before I start writ­ing, I think about the major cat­e­gories of infor­ma­tion I’ll need. Then I cut and paste, cut and paste to cre­ate major chunks of relat­ed infor­ma­tion. Depend­ing on the book, even these chunks can still be unwieldy. Thank good­ness Word allows me to do search­es to find exact­ly the infor­ma­tion I need.

Some­times I use index cards or sticky notes to help me decide the order in which these chunks will be pre­sent­ed in the book. I like that I can phys­i­cal­ly move them around.

Do you return to that research when you’re writing a new book?

Sometimes I try. After all, it would be more efficient, but there are two reasons that it usually doesn’t work out.

  1. Because our knowl­edge of the world is chang­ing so quick­ly, notes I took 5 or even 3 years ago may be out of date.
  2. Even when I include the same ani­mal in two books, my hook is inevitably dif­fer­ent, so my notes may not have the spe­cif­ic details I need.

Who finds the photos that are included in your books?

Sometimes me. Sometimes a photo researcher who works for the publishing company. And sometimes we work together. It depends on the publisher and the project.

Can an Aardvark Bark, Under the Snow, A Place for Birds

Do you have any input for the illustrators who have worked on books such as Can an Aardvark Bark? and Under the Snow and A Place for Birds?

Sometimes I play a role in selecting the illustrator, and sometimes I don’t. It depends on the publisher and the project. Sometimes I provide a package of reference materials for the illustrator.

Because I’m the con­tent expert, I always have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to review the illustrator’s sketch­es and com­ment on any­thing that isn’t sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly sound. It isn’t unusu­al for the illus­tra­tor to do sev­er­al sets of sketch­es. S/he keeps work­ing until all the details in the art are accurate.

Melissa Stewart's office
a look at Melis­sa Stew­art’s office

If you could break your week down into the percentages of what you do, how much time do you spend on the different tasks required of a successful writer?

This has shifted a lot over the years. When my first book was published 20 years ago, authors weren’t expected to play a role in marketing. Most children’s books were sold to schools and libraries. But in the early 2000s, school book budgets were slashed and many school librarians lost their jobs. For a while, there were several large brick-and-mortar bookstore chains, and they were major players in the market. But now, most of them are gone.

Today social media is explod­ing and authors are expect­ed to be active­ly involved in sell­ing their books. And so I spend a lot of time blog­ging and tweet­ing and devel­op­ing mate­ri­als for my web­site. That means I have less time to actu­al­ly work on books.

While there real­ly is no typ­i­cal day or week, I can say that I now spend only about 50 per­cent of my time work­ing on books. The rest of the time is devot­ed to mar­ket­ing, speak­ing at schools, attend­ing con­fer­ences, and read­ing recent­ly pub­lished children’s books.

Of the time I do spend work­ing on books, prob­a­bly about 50 per­cent of the time is spent phys­i­cal­ly writ­ing. The rest of the time, I’m doing research, devel­op­ing ideas for new projects, or read­ing adult books and arti­cles about science.

What’s your favorite aspect of your career?

The physical act of writing, especially those magical hours “spent in the flow.” But a close second is spending time in schools speaking with and listening to kids.

What do you wish were different about your career?

I don’t think anyone likes rejections, but it’s an inevitable part of the writing process.

If you could select one of your backlist titles, which book would you like to see people reading with more frequency? Can you tell us why?

Because sci­ence is always chang­ing, some of my old­er books con­tain infor­ma­tion that is out of date. In fact, I some­times cheer when I find out a title is going out of print. I’m more than hap­py to have young read­ers focus on titles I’ve pub­lished in the last 5 or 6 years.

Curi­ous about Melissa’s books? Vis­it her web­site.

Edu­ca­tors, don’t miss the many, many resources Melis­sa has made avail­able for you. Her site is a ver­i­ta­ble trea­sure lode!

Melissa Stewart's Educators' Resources

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5 years ago

Thanks for the inter­view! I love Melis­sa’s books & am excit­ed to read Pipsqueaks 🙂