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Melissa Stewart

Melissa StewartWe 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?

Melissa's NotebookIdeas 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.

Cocoa tree

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.

No Monkeys, No Chocolate bookwormsWhose 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.

Allen YoungYou 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.

Melissa Stewart working with a student during a school visitWhen 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!”

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Telling a Story the Hard Way

Space Dumplinsby Vic­ki Palmquist

I’ve just fin­ished read­ing the graph­ic nov­el Space Dumplins by Craig Thomp­son, with col­or by Dave Stew­art (Graphix, 2015). I am over­whelmed by the work that went into this book. First off, it’s an engross­ing, turn-the-page sto­ry with an appeal­ing cast of char­ac­ters. As read­ers, we care about what will hap­pen. That’s a good start.

Now, imag­ine that you are sit­ting down with a pen­cil to sketch one of the spreads in this book. Per­haps you’ve picked the pages where Vio­let, our hero­ine, first gets a look at SHELL-TAR, the inte­ri­or of the space sta­tion. You start by draw­ing the intri­ca­cies of the gleam­ing steam­punk time clock and then you draw all of the activ­i­ty going on inside the trans­par­ent trans­port tubes, large enough to accom­mo­date per­son­al space­ships. Next you fill in the many habi­tats, the glob­u­lar trees, the peo­ple at the beach. Then you insert our cast of char­ac­ters into the scene along with the robot­ic Chaper­drone (a babysit­ter). Whew. That’s a lot of draw­ing for two pages.

Of course, you’re pro­vid­ing this as a back­drop for the fast-paced sto­ry of three new friends, quick-wit­ted, learn­ing to work as a team, doing their best to save the peo­ple they love and their cor­ner of the uni­verse. You’ve already writ­ten the sto­ry, the script, and worked through the sur­pris­es that will delight your read­ers, mak­ing it a tight and believ­able hero’s jour­ney set in the Mucky Way.

Vio­let, Zac­cha­eus, and Eliot are unlike­ly heroes except that Vio­let has a wel­com­ing heart, a brave out­look on adven­ture, and an opti­mism as big as out­er space. She can see qual­i­ties in her new friends that they can’t see them­selves. Eliot, the chick­en, is stu­dious, intro­vert­ed, wide­ly read, and some­what psy­chic. Zac­cha­eus, the last of the Lump­kins (well, almost the last, because space whales ate his plan­et) is chaot­ic, impul­sive, and ready for a fight. All three of the friends are good at prob­lem-solv­ing, espe­cial­ly when they work togeth­er. The mil­i­tary can’t defeat the space whales: they can only clean up after them. It’s these three who fig­ure out the true heart of the prob­lem.

Craig Thompson Space Dumplins ballpoint

from Craig Thomp­son’s web­site, copy­right Craig Thomp­son

Once you’ve sketched all of this, applied ball­point pen, then brushed ink, you ask some­one else to col­or every­thing in.  Togeth­er, you’re cre­at­ing a book full of these sto­ry-telling images, rich­ly col­ored, high­ly detailed, and ulti­mate­ly believ­able as a look at life that’s real­ly hap­pen­ing some­where “out there.”

The rest of the main cast of char­ac­ters include Violet’s par­ents, the reformed felon Gar and the fash­ion design­er Cera, Gar’s fish­ing bud­dies Mr. Tin­der and crew, Cera’s boss at the Fash­ion Fac­to­ry, Mas­ter Adam Arnold, and the most inven­tive space vehi­cles I’ve ever seen. Every being (they’re not all human) in this book has a unique look. No cook­ie-cut­ter, repet­i­tive char­ac­ters to save on draw­ing time.

It’s a movie set on paper, except that you’ve had to con­ceive of, write, draw, and col­or every bit of it. There are no cam­eras and crew to bring your vision to life. Exhaust­ed yet?

Even the end­pa­pers are atten­tion-riv­et­ing. The con­stel­la­tions fill the skies of Space Dumplins and they often make an appear­ance, remind­ing us that we share the same space even though the set­ting feels alien and won­drous.

early concept

ear­ly con­cept of space­ship, copy­right Craig Thomp­son

You know those kids who are con­stant­ly doo­dling in class? They’ll love this book. And the kids who stay up long past their bed­times try­ing to fin­ish a chap­ter? They’ll love this book. And the kids who don’t know what to read next but they don’t want it to be bor­ing? Yup, they’re gonna love it. Space Dumplins reads like a TV series, a movie, a video game, and a sol­id, excit­ing sto­ry all between book cov­ers. Bril­liant.

Asides:

Be sure to notice the homage to a num­ber of cul­tur­al icons in this book. H.A. Rey’s The Con­stel­la­tions? Strange Brew? Space­balls? And the real Trike (it exists!).

Be sure to read Craig Thomp­son’s answers to Five Ques­tions on The Book Rat’s blog. You’ll find out how long it took him to cre­ate Space Dumplins.

For a look at what Craig Thomp­son is work­ing on and where he’s appear­ing, vis­it his web­site.

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