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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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Skinny Dip with C.M. Surrisi

C.M. Surrisi

C.M. Sur­risi

Have you read the Quin­nie Boyd mid­dle-grade mys­ter­ies? The May­pop Kid­nap­ping, Vam­pires on the Run, and A Side of Sab­o­tage? I dis­cov­ered them this spring and I stayed up sev­er­al nights to read them. The author of those books, C.M. Sur­risi, is just as inter­est­ing as you’d think the writer who dreamed up Quin­nie, her friends, and her vil­lage in Maine would be. When I real­ized she had a pic­ture book out, The Best Moth­er, I won­dered if she could car­ry that sense of humor over to a short­er sto­ry­telling form. Yes, indeed. That book’s delight­ful, too. We know you’ll want to learn more about this intrigu­ing author.

What’s the weird­est place you’ve ever read a book?

In a tent in the Rantham­bore Tiger Pre­serve in Sawai Mad­hop­ur Rajasthan, India

Do you keep your book­shelves in a par­tic­u­lar order?

By sub­ject mat­ter. Not quite Dewey Dec­i­mal Clas­si­fi­ca­tion.

How many book­cas­es do you have in your house?

An embar­rass­ing­ly large num­ber.

pho­to: tarzhano­va | 123rf.com

What’s the pre­dom­i­nant col­or in your wardrobe?

Jeans. Is that a col­or? So, blue, I guess. I spent so many years in a world where jeans were not accept­able dress that when I left that world, I embraced jeans again in a big way. I have sev­er­al forms of den­im again now. Light, dark, patched, ripped, cropped, boyfriend, skin­ny, jack­et, cut­off. Sor­ry. I’m all about com­fort now.

Which library springs to your mind when some­one says that word? What do you remem­ber most about it?

When I think library I think of the mid­dle grade fic­tion shelves, with their chunky nov­els, in plas­tic cov­ers, with col­or­ful jack­ets, swollen pages from wear, the deli­cious smell of paper, and scent of glue and ink. That’s where I go first in every library I vis­it.

Which book you read as a child has most influ­enced your life?

The Children of Primrose Lane by Noel StreatfieldThe Chil­dren of Prim­rose Lane by Noël Streat­field.

When I was in fourth grade, I picked this book off the shelf for its size, weight, jack­et image, and all around library book smell.  I didn’t know who Noël Streat­field was, and I hadn’t read any of the bal­let books. I fell into this sto­ry about a group of kids liv­ing in Eng­land dur­ing WWII who took over an aban­doned house on their dead end street as a club­house. Soon they real­ize they were shar­ing the house with a man they sus­pect­ed was a shot-down Ger­man pilot pre­tend­ing to be British. They played along with him until he acci­den­tal­ly over­heard one of the chil­dren say some­thing about the war effort that the child should not have shared. Their mis­sion became keep­ing the pilot from trans­mit­ting the infor­ma­tion to his base.

This was my first expe­ri­ence with chil­dren being involved with high stakes. The kids were all dif­fer­ent, the cir­cum­stances were sear­ing, the dra­ma intense. I have nev­er for­got­ten it. I found a copy of the book as an adult and reread it, only to find some cul­tur­al­ly inap­pro­pri­ate aspects that were asso­ci­at­ed with war pro­pa­gan­da. I real­ized  those aspects of the book didn’t go over my head. I had been indoc­tri­nat­ed by them. The book would have been just as pow­er­ful from a sto­ry per­spec­tive with­out them. I con­tin­ue to hold it in high regard because it opened my world and trans­port­ed me to a place where chil­dren did some­thing noble.

What’s your food weak­ness?

If the item is edi­ble, and attrac­tive­ly pre­pared, I will gen­er­al­ly give it a go.

What’s your favorite form of exer­cise?

Danc­ing. I wish that ball­room danc­ing could be eas­i­ly accom­plished alone. Drat, it’s so pairs ori­ent­ed. Yes, Fred Astaire pulled it off much of the time, but I’m no Fred. I love the feel­ing of pairs danc­ing, but I don’t have a dance part­ner and don’t real­ly want one. So I dance around the house by myself and make do.

Blue Hyacinth

pho­to: Melanie Faul­stick | 123rf.com

What’s your favorite flower?

Blue Hyacinth. The col­or is impor­tant. It adds to the already spec­tac­u­lar­ly cloy­ing smell. I love the spikes with their crowds of bells and the fleshy, glossy, green leaves. When I was a child, my moth­er had a ceram­ic flower pot that was an eight-inch cube that looked like a white woven bas­ket. She filled it with blue hyacinths every spring. They sat in the cen­ter of the kitchen table. A close sec­ond would be old-fash­ioned ros­es. We had a big, unruly old-fash­ioned rose bush next to the back door, and every time we banged the screen door open when we ran out to play, it shook the bush and released the fra­grance.

Who’s at the top of your list of Most Admired Peo­ple?

My hus­band, Chuck. He had a stroke nine years ago, and the full range of emo­tion, ener­gy, deter­mi­na­tion, and humor he’s sum­moned to cope with it has made him my hero.

What for­eign lan­guage would you like to learn?

All of them.

Do you read the end of a book first?

Oh, no. Nev­er.

If you had a choice, would you live under the ocean or in out­er space, and why?

The very thought of either of these makes my head explode. I’m claus­tro­pho­bic.

If you could write any book and know that it would be pub­lished and tens of thou­sands of peo­ple would read it, which book would you write?

If I knew this, I would have already writ­ten it, but then again know­ing it and being able to write it are two dif­fer­ent things, aren’t they? So the answer I guess would have to be “the biggest-heart­ed book.”

If you could be grant­ed one wish, what would you wish for?

That chil­dren would be safe. Safe from adults and safe from each oth­er.

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Aimée Bissonette

Aimée BissonetteIn this inter­view with Aimée Bis­sonette, author of Miss Col­fax’s Light, our Book­storm™ this monthwe asked about writ­ing and research­ing this non­fic­tion pic­ture book biog­ra­phy. 

Aimée, thank you for shar­ing your expe­ri­ences and dis­cov­er­ies with our read­ers. We’re excit­ed about this book that show­cas­es an Every­day Hero, one of Amer­i­ca’s female light­house keep­ers.

Miss Colfax's LightWhen you were writ­ing this book, do you remem­ber edit­ing to include few­er details so the illus­tra­tor could do her work?

Yes, indeed! In fact, that’s half the joy of writ­ing pic­ture books — know­ing the illus­tra­tor will fill in so many details. Eileen Ryan Ewen’s  illus­tra­tions in this book pro­vide won­der­ful fac­tu­al mate­r­i­al. Harriet’s cloth­ing and house­hold items in the book are just like the things Har­ri­et would have worn and owned in the late 1800’s. I did not need to include descrip­tions in the text. Eileen includ­ed so much his­tor­i­cal detail in her illus­tra­tions.

How did you learn that some peo­ple in the city felt Har­ri­et “got her job only because her cousin was a U.S. Con­gress­man”?

In writ­ing the book, I did a lot of research. There were sev­er­al writ­ten accounts of Harriet’s life and the docents at the Light­house Muse­um had a trea­sure trove of infor­ma­tion about Har­ri­et. My favorite source of infor­ma­tion was Har­ri­et her­self. She kept a dai­ly jour­nal, called a log, start­ing in the 1870’s. The idea that Harriet’s cousin, Schuyler Col­fax, a U.S. Con­gress­man who lat­er became Vice Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States, helped Har­ri­et get her job was men­tioned fre­quent­ly in my sources. Specif­i­cal­ly, it is men­tioned in a 1904 Chica­go Tri­bune news­pa­per arti­cle by a reporter who inter­viewed Har­ri­et right before she retired.

Miss Colfax's Light log book

The author and illus­tra­tor chose to include depic­tions of Miss Col­fax’s log book through­out the book.

There are short seg­ments of entries from Harriet’s jour­nal includ­ed through­out the book. Did you have to get per­mis­sion to use those? How did you know who to ask?

Those short seg­ments are entries from the “log” I men­tioned above. Har­ri­et main­tained that log as part of her offi­cial light­house keep­er duties so the log tech­ni­cal­ly is “owned” by the U.S. Gov­ern­ment. Her log is kept in the Nation­al Archives. I did not need to get per­mis­sion to use it because it is not pro­tect­ed by copy­right. Keep in mind, though, much of the mate­r­i­al a writer uncov­ers while doing research for a non­fic­tion book is pro­tect­ed by copy­right. Writ­ers need to be aware of this and ask per­mis­sion when they use oth­er people’s copy­right­ed work in the books they write.

Did you have to research the Light­house Board and the Light­house Inspec­tor before you could write this book?

The ref­er­ences in the book to the Light­house Board and Light­house Inspec­tor are based on Harriet’s log entries. There are many more log entries than are includ­ed in the book — 30 years’ worth, in fact! Read­ing them was tremen­dous­ly eye-open­ing. Har­ri­et referred often to the Board and the Inspec­tor in her entries. I did addi­tion­al read­ing about the Light­house Board and how light­hous­es were man­aged in the 1800’s, but most­ly relied on Harriet’s own words when writ­ing about the Board and Inspec­tor.

Oth­er than “I can do this,” there is no dia­logue in the book. Why did you choose to leave out dia­logue?

That’s a good ques­tion! I think the main rea­son is that, although I had Harriet’s log entries and her let­ters and I had a sense of what she might say and how she might say it, I didn’t know exact­ly what she would have said in a con­ver­sa­tion. I felt if I made up dia­logue, it would take away from the fac­tu­al accu­ra­cy of the book. We can’t even be 100% cer­tain that Har­ri­et would have thought or said “I can do this.” But giv­en all I learned about Har­ri­et — her dri­ve, her intel­li­gence, the hard­ships she faced — I felt it fit and I allowed that one excep­tion.

Miss Colfax's Light

What do you want read­ers to know that they didn’t know before from the text you wrote?

I want read­ers to think about Har­ri­et and oth­ers like her — the every­day heroes whose work makes life bet­ter for all of us. We don’t often think of light­house keep­ers as “heroes,” but the work Har­ri­et did was crit­i­cal to sea cap­tains and sailors and the peo­ple of Indi­ana who depend­ed on the goods brought in by ship. I also want read­ers to think about how Har­ri­et and many oth­er women of that time defied the restric­tions placed on women and did incred­i­ble things — all with­out the cool tech­nol­o­gy we have today.

Would you have cho­sen to do Harriet’s job if you were alive then?

I like to think that I would have, yes. I think there is a lit­tle bit of me in Har­ri­et. Like Har­ri­et, I love a good chal­lenge!

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Skinny Dip with Barbara O’Connor

 

Which book do you find your­self rec­om­mend­ing pas­sion­ate­ly?

Missing MayMiss­ing May by Cyn­thia Rylant. I read it at a time when I was strug­gling to find my writ­ing voice. I was so struck by the strong sense of place in that book. It was obvi­ous that West Vir­ginia was Rylant’s heart’s home. So I decid­ed to write sto­ries that were set in my heart’s home—the South—and specif­i­cal­ly the Smoky Moun­tains. I wrote her a let­ter to tell her the impact her book had on me and she sent me a love­ly hand-writ­ten note back, signed “Take good care. Cyn­di Rylant.” *swoon*

Favorite sea­son of the year? Why?

SUMMER all the way!! I love the heat. The flow­ers. The long days. Love it all.

What gives you shiv­ers?

Heights. OMG….. And one more thing: snakes. *shiv­ers*

What’s your hid­den tal­ent?

Tap DanceI’m actu­al­ly a pret­ty good tap dancer. I took tap lessons for years, from child­hood all the way up until just a few years ago. I love to tap dance. It total­ly suits me much more than yoga.

Morn­ing per­son? Night per­son?

Morn­ing all the way. I turn into a pump­kin about 8 o’clock. My writ­ing day nev­er extends beyond about 3 o’clock … cause I’m head­ing toward Pump­kin Town. (Triv­ia for you: There is actu­al­ly a town near my home­town of Greenville, SC, called Pump­kin Town.)

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Lisa Bullard: My Not-So-Overnight Success

ShoesEar­ly on, when peo­ple would ask my kid self what I want­ed to be when I grew up, I’d answer “Shoe Sales­per­son.” But then I dis­cov­ered that feet some­times smell, and I moved on to a dif­fer­ent dream: Book Writer.

I could invent a great sto­ry and tell you that I craft­ed a long-term plan to real­ize my dream. But instead, this is a tale of false starts and mis­di­rect­ed wan­der­ings. Per­haps you’ll find it inspir­ing if you’ve made mis­steps on the way to cap­tur­ing your own dream!

I wrote all the time as a kid—songs, sto­ries, poems, com­ic strips. But I didn’t believe that any­one would pay me to do some­thing I loved so much. And my first sev­er­al jobs didn’t serve as mod­els for ful­fill­ing work: babysit­ter, fast food employ­ee, card­board box mak­er, school jan­i­tor.

That meant my expec­ta­tions for the world of work, even after grad­u­at­ing from col­lege, weren’t all that high. With no clear ambi­tion oth­er than “it would be great to get a job that didn’t involve scrap­ing gum off desks”—a key fea­ture of the school jan­i­tor job—I moved to Min­neapo­lis, rent­ed a drafty apart­ment with my cousin, and took on a series of unin­spir­ing temp jobs. I wrote in my spare time, but my efforts went no fur­ther than my file cab­i­net.

Insurance FormsThen one day I arrived home from my posi­tion as Forms Clerk (tem­po­rary) at an insur­ance com­pa­ny to find the first heat bill had arrived. It totaled over $800. And the insur­ance com­pa­ny had just offered me a job. That is the “care­ful­ly plot­ted” career tra­jec­to­ry that result­ed in my posi­tion as Chief Forms Clerk (per­ma­nent)! But despite this mete­oric rise, and my will­ing­ness to work very hard, I found I didn’t enjoy sort­ing forms. I start­ed vis­it­ing the human resources depart­ment for guid­ance, and a very kind woman took me under her wing. She gave me a bar­rage of career assess­ment tests, then looked me in the eyes and said, “Lisa, I don’t think there IS a job in insur­ance that will make you hap­py.”

That HR per­son did me two great ser­vices. First, her notion that hap­pi­ness might be a valid fac­tor in job selec­tion was a rev­e­la­tion to me. And sec­ond, she knew of the Den­ver Pub­lish­ing Insti­tute—an inten­sive sum­mer course focus­ing on book publishing—and she rec­om­mend­ed that I con­sid­er attend­ing. A few months lat­er I moved on from the world of insur­ance and attend­ed the Den­ver pro­gram.

CockroachPer­haps the most impor­tant thing I learned there is that pub­lish­ing hous­es are mon­ey-mak­ing enter­pris­es. Pub­lish­ing is a cre­ative indus­try full of peo­ple ded­i­cat­ed to books and the writ­ten word, but it’s also a tough busi­ness. Very few peo­ple get rich off of books. Day after day at the Insti­tute, pub­lish­ing pro­fes­sion­als came in to share the real­i­ties of work­ing in the indus­try, and they’d all con­clude by say­ing, “If you want to work real­ly hard, make almost no mon­ey, and live in a roach-infest­ed apart­ment in New York, this is the field for you!”

I was will­ing to take on every­thing oth­er than the roach­es. For­tu­nate­ly I dis­cov­ered there was a boom­ing pub­lish­ing indus­try in Min­neso­ta, so I flew back home and began my six­teen-year career as a pub­lish­ing employ­ee. I worked with a lot of amaz­ing peo­ple, both co-work­ers and writ­ers, build­ing rela­tion­ships I still val­ue high­ly. I rev­eled in being able to do work I was pas­sion­ate about, despite the fact that the warn­ing about low pay proved all too true.

Not Enough Beds!Towards the end of those six­teen years, I cel­e­brat­ed a life-chang­ing event: my first book was pub­lished. I believe it final­ly hap­pened part­ly because I had con­tin­ued to refine my writ­ing skills, part­ly because I had learned what makes a book con­cept sal­able, and part­ly because I had built impor­tant con­nec­tions in the indus­try. I am the oppo­site of an overnight suc­cess: it took me four­teen years work­ing in pub­lish­ing to get pub­lished myself!

Lat­er, with anoth­er book in the wings, I decid­ed to shift my focus from pub­lish­ing employ­ee to writer, and I start­ed offi­cial­ly call­ing myself a Children’s Book Writer—a job I am proud to have now cel­e­brat­ed through many years and nine­ty books. I still don’t make very much mon­ey. I still work real­ly hard. Some­times I even get bored. But I love that I’m actu­al­ly liv­ing my dream, and nobody expects me to scrape gum off desks.

I’m think­ing that’s not too shab­by for a lit­tle girl who once dreamed of sell­ing shoes.

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Stephanie Greene

Stephanie GreeneIs the “impos­si­ble game” some­thing you ran across or is it some­thing you invent­ed?

I read about it on a blog or the Inter­net, I can’t remem­ber. I try to keep abreast of what six-year-olds are doing by talk­ing to my nieces, who have lit­tle girls, or friends who do, or the chil­dren on the street where we live – any­where I can find infor­ma­tion.

How do you main­tain your sense of what a first grad­er thinks about, feels, and wor­ries about?

When I was writ­ing the books, I didn’t think about that. Posey got under my skin and I was able to con­vey the feel­ings and indig­na­tions and con­cerns of a lit­tle girl her age. But now that you ask and I look back, I think she’s prob­a­bly a bit like me at that age. I’m glad I didn’t real­ize it at the time because I find it impos­si­ble to write if I think that who I’m writ­ing about is myself. My moth­er once said I was always well-inten­tioned as a child and I think Posey is, too. I guess I uncon­scious­ly pulled on the often con­flict­ed feel­ings of hav­ing four sib­lings, too. They’re the uni­ver­sal emo­tions of chil­dren.

Do you find your­self writ­ing words, actions, con­cerns, and then check­ing with “author­i­ties” to see if your writ­ing is age-accu­rate?

No. I come up with the cen­tral con­cept and write it. My edi­tor offers her opin­ion, of course, and some­times ques­tions what I’ve had Posey say or do. Togeth­er, we iron out any­thing that doesn’t feel authen­tic.

Did you keep a jour­nal when your own child was this age … or when you were this age?

No, but I sure wish I had. I did jot down things my son said (and have used almost all of them in oth­er books), but I nev­er kept a jour­nal when I was a kid. I didn’t dare – hav­ing read my old­er sister’s diary on a reg­u­lar basis, I knew one of my sib­lings was bound to read mine.

You’ve writ­ten about an ele­men­tary-school boy, Owen Foote, and a mid­dle school girl, Sophie Hart­ley, and the pri­ma­ry-school-aged Posey. From where do you draw your infor­ma­tion about what’s a part of these children’s lives at dif­fer­ent ages?

Owen Foote, Sophie Hartley, Princess PoseyMany things have led to what I’m proud to think are books that reflect the authen­tic lives of chil­dren at what­ev­er age I’ve cho­sen. For starters, I remem­ber a lot of the events and emo­tions of my own child­hood. I’ve also spent many years as a vol­un­teer in schools to keep abreast of what’s going on. And I spy and eaves­drop inces­sant­ly on chil­dren to this day – my own and oth­ers wher­ev­er I see them. I have a con­stant anten­na out to see what’s going on in the world as it per­tains to chil­dren. Every­thing in life is fod­der to an author.

Your books read as con­tem­po­rary fic­tion. Are you con­cerned about adding in cell phones and com­put­ers and video games?

Yes. Not com­put­ers and videos games, as much, because I can have a char­ac­ter sit down with one of those as part of a larg­er scene with­out hav­ing to go into detail as to what they’re doing. But cell phones? I only used those in one Sophie Hart­ley book and I kept their pres­ence short. (Thad broke up with his girl­friend via a text, which I know kids do. Nora longed for one.) As an adult who sees more and more chil­dren tex­ting and watch­ing things on their cell phones when they’re with one anoth­er, or should be look­ing at the world around them, cell phones dis­tress me. They have an adverse effect on young people’s abil­i­ty to relate to one anoth­er or even hold a con­ver­sa­tion. So far, I haven’t want­ed to be par­ty to that. Should I come up with an idea in which a cell phone played a cru­cial role …? I guess I’ll wait and see what I do with that.

Read­ing a Posey book on their own is com­fort­able for read­ers ages 5 to 7, depend­ing on their read­ing skill. Do you think about the words you’re using when you write for these read­ers?

Not real­ly, no. I write them using the lan­guage Posey and her friends use. If I’d made Posey ten, the books would have been writ­ten dif­fer­ent­ly. The age of the pro­tag­o­nist deter­mines the lan­guage.

Your moth­er, Con­stance C. Greene, wrote A Girl Called Al, which is a humor­ous book writ­ten for what we then called young adults, as well as the oth­er books in that series. She also wrote a book about grief and sor­row called Beat the Tur­tle Drum that moved many read­ers. When you were grow­ing up, were you aware of what your moth­er did for a liv­ing? Did she involve you in any way?

A Girl Called AlMy moth­er sold A Girl Called Al when I was a junior in high school. Before then, she wrote short sto­ries for the New York Dai­ly News and oth­er news­pa­pers, includ­ing a woman’s mag­a­zine in Scot­land. She nev­er direct­ly involved any of us in her writ­ing, but since she wrote on the din­ing room table, we were all aware of it. Writ­ing was what she did. She was very good and she loved doing it, but she was mat­ter-of-fact about it. All she ever did was cau­tion me against ever show­ing my spouse any­thing I’d writ­ten – long before I start­ed writ­ing. Or was even dat­ing.

At what age did you real­ize you want­ed to write books for chil­dren … and why?

I guess I start­ed when my son was lit­tle. Watch­ing him with his friends was often hilar­i­ous. They were so absorbed by, and intent on, what­ev­er it was they were doing. It wasn’t until the day I lis­tened to Bet­sy Byars give an hilar­i­ous talk at an SCBWI con­fer­ence, how­ev­er, that I actu­al­ly sat down and wrote. It was my first Owen Foote book and I was so inspired by her that I wrote it in one draft.

Here’s a tough ques­tion: how do you write a humor­ous book? What do you keep in mind?

As my edi­tor Dinah Steven­son once said, “You can’t make kids laugh by say­ing something’s fun­ny.” i.e., writ­ing that a kid “cracked up” or “laughed so hard” when what made him/her do that isn’t very fun­ny. Hav­ing kids doing awk­ward or embar­rass­ing things is kind of a cheap trick (although farts and burps are help­ful tools). As with all emo­tions, you have to earn a reader’s laugh­ter. I think hav­ing a good sense of humor is impor­tant, or see­ing the world in a humor­ous way, or hav­ing an iron­ic view­point about things. Writ­ers who write humor well gen­er­al­ly have a kind feel­ing for peo­ple, I think. The best humor isn’t mean-spir­it­ed. Plus that, chil­dren are basi­cal­ly fun­ny. Their view of life is so untaint­ed and they say what they mean. Some­times the humor aris­es from the fact that what they’re try­ing to accom­plish is com­plete­ly at odds with the sit­u­a­tion. If you can get inside their heads and put it on paper the way they see it, it can be fun­ny.

In your dai­ly life, would the peo­ple who know you think of you as fun­ny?

Ha! That would depend on who they are and what their rela­tion is to me. My friends con­sid­er me fun­ny, I think, but I’ve been told that peo­ple who don’t know me very well think I’m for­bid­ding or remote. It’s not my fault. I have my father’s fore­head – it’s per­pet­u­al­ly fur­rowed.

Where do you write and what is your rou­tine for writ­ing? (Can you send a pho­to of your writ­ing space?)

Stephanie Greene's officeI write ear­ly in the morn­ing. By about noon, I’m worn out and spend the after­noon doing oth­er writ­ing-relat­ed things. If I have sev­er­al projects going at the same time, I might switch to one in a dif­fer­ent genre. We’ve lived in sev­er­al hous­es since I start­ed writ­ing, so my work area has changed. I’ve writ­ten in a tiny room off the laun­dry room, in the liv­ing room, in an extra bed­room, and now, in a small space at the end of our upstairs hall with a win­dow over­look­ing the street. I’ve nev­er had a for­mal office, per se. One place where I can’t work is in any pub­lic place.

Get­ting back to Posey, in par­tic­u­lar, when you write a series, how do you keep your char­ac­ters con­sis­tent?

I fol­low their lead. They become real peo­ple to me, so I put them in a cer­tain sit­u­a­tion, give them their heads, and watch what they do. As with peo­ple, they act in char­ac­ter most of the time. All I have to do is lis­ten and write. I love writ­ing char­ac­ter-dri­ven books. Once I have inter­nal­ized the char­ac­ter, he or she does most of the work.

Although this is a series, it is not pre­sent­ed in a “sto­ry arc” that requires read­ing the books in order. It’s help­ful to start with Book No. 1, Princess Posey and the First Grade Parade, but oth­er­wise the sto­ries stand on their own. When you began writ­ing Posey’s sto­ry did you make a deci­sion to write in this par­tic­u­lar way? Did you plan out what would hap­pen over 10 books or did you think of her next sto­ry after you’d com­plet­ed the first?

Princess Posey and the Crazy, Lazy VacationI wrote the first book as a one-off. The lit­tle girl was called Megan. It was prompt­ed by the response I had to a sign I saw in front of a school. I nev­er imag­ined in a mil­lion years that it would become a series. It was Susan Kochan, my edi­tor at Put­nam, who told me I’d cre­at­ed a “hook” in the pink tutu. She asked if I had any more ideas, so I thought for a bit, came up with a list of short sce­nar­ios, and she asked for three more. That’s the way the entire series has gone.

Do you have any fan mail about Posey to share with us? Some­thing that par­tic­u­lar­ly tick­led or moved you?

Many of the let­ters and emails I get come from par­ents because their child is five or six. I got one from the moth­er of a boy with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties who loves Posey. She sent me a pic­ture of him hold­ing one. More recent­ly, the moth­er of an eight-year-old girl with dyslex­ia wrote to tell me that her daugh­ter hat­ed read­ing before she dis­cov­ered Posey, and that it makes her so hap­py to walk into the liv­ing room and see her daugh­ter curled up on the couch with one of the books in the series. I’m thrilled to think that my books mean some­thing to emerg­ing read­ers, and that Posey becomes real to them so they care about her. Only when a book mat­ters do chil­dren real­ize that books have some­thing to offer them.

Stephanie, thank you sin­cere­ly for writ­ing the books you do. It’s so sat­is­fy­ing to have a series of books to rec­om­mend that you know will appeal to read­ers of this age, all the while mak­ing them laugh, and feed­ing their “need to read.”

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