I was born in Rochester, MN, where my dad was a doctor at the Mayo Clinic. We lived on the edge of town, and I loved exploring the wild woods and fields nearby. We later settled in Marin County, CA, which was also pretty wild back then, so I could continue to explore my love of nature. It is no surprise I ended up with a Ph.D. in Zoology from U.C. Berkeley. I had married and had two sons while in graduate school, and I decided to make a career of writing nature books for kids so I could work from home, and it has turned out to be the best possible career for me. After lots of moving around, we settled in Missoula, MT, where we’ve lived for almost 40 years; we’re right on the edge of a national forest, so I share my home with a variety of wildlife.
Tell us about the genre of your work.
My early books were all biologically related, but I have branched off into history as well, often combining the two fields as I did in my books Animals on the Trail with Lewis and Clark [ISBN0-395-91415-9] and Plants on the Trail with Lewis and Clark. [ISBN 978-0-618-06776-3] One thing I love about my work is that I can write about the things that interest me and provoke my own passions. I have always been fascinated by the relationships between animals and humans, and I am especially fond of dogs. Hence my latest book, Saving Audie: A Pit Bull Puppy Gets a Second Chance, [ ISBN 978-0-8027-2272-0] is about one of the dogs rescued from the Michael Vick dog fighting operation who has found his loving forever home.
Why did you choose this genre?
It is a natural for me, considering my own curiosity about and love of nature. As a child, I read primarily nonfiction myself, as I wanted to learn about the natural world around me, and I want children to have well-written, accurate books that can excite and satisfy their curiosity. I have a strong streak of ‘teacher’ in me as well and an urge to communicate my own excitement about the living world to others.
What are some of your books, stories that have been published?
I have been at this since 1972 and have had more than 130 books published. Most recently, I have often focused on topics related to the West and to the relationships of people to nature. For example, When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature’s Balance in Yellowstone, [ISBN 978-0802796868] tells a story of the healing of the ecological balance that is being brought about by the return of wolves to Yellowstone that started in 1995. It shows how everything in nature is related and how taking away one important element can disturb the whole system but returning it can lead to healing.
The Buffalo and the Indians: A Shared Destiny [ISBN 978-0-618-48570-3] chronicles the story of how Native Americans on the plains and prairies have interacted with the American Bison on all levels—practical, spiritual, and artistic—for more than 5,000 years. It chronicles the tragic decline of buffalo and Indians alike but also the recovery of the buffalo and the resurgence of the spiritual relationship with these powerful animals that has helped restore pride among Indian peoples.
What ages do you direct your books?
I have written for every age level from kindergarten to adults, but most of my books are directed towards readers ages 8 and up. If I simply sit down to write about a topic, I end up writing at the level of about an intelligent 10 year old. When I target a younger audience, I consciously shorten sentences and paragraphs and make sure to use a simpler vocabulary, but I also introduce new words in context that relate to the subject matter.
Could you tell us more about some of your books?
I really enjoyed the research for my latest book, Saving Audie: A Pit Bull Puppy Gets a Second Chance. My photographer, Bill Muñoz and I flew to Oakland, CA, and met with Audie, his person, Linda, her husband, Bill, and their other beloved pit bull, Aldo. It is a wonderful family, and we got to visit the dog training classes given by BAD RAP (Bay Area Dog Owners Responsible About Pit bulls) in Berkeley every Saturday morning. BAD RAP was instrumental in the rescue efforts for the dogs from the Michael Vick dog-fighting ring, and these folks and their dogs are really great.
Do your books have a teaching objective? If so, what is it?
My main objective in all my books is to give children the information they want to satisfy their curiosity about the world around them. In the process, I hope they will develop a love of reading and learning. I also want them to understand the ways people can both help and harm the health of Earth, their only home. That is what books written by enthusiastic writers did for me when I was a child, and I want to pass on my own passion for the natural world, for domesticated animals, and for diverse human cultures.
A new career development is my association with a new company, Ink Think Tank, which connects the books of some award-winning nonfiction authors with national curriculum standards so that teachers and librarians can find nonfiction trade books that meet their classroom needs. A group of us also offer videoconferences through a division called Author On Call to help schools find ways to inspire reading and learning in their students. With videoconferencing, a group of authors scattered across the country can all provide input at the same time without having to leave their own homes. It is awesome technology.
What is your favorite thing about your book/s?
That’s a hard question to answer, but I guess it would be the knowledge that I’m meeting curious children’s need for books they can count on to be interesting to read and accurate. As for myself, I have to admit that I love the research part of my work best of all. Sometimes the writing itself is almost anticlimactic, but it is what I need to do to get my experiences and ideas out there.
Is your book illustrated? If so, would you tell us by whom, and if you worked with an illustrator, can you discuss that experience?
Most of my books are illustrated by photographer William Muñoz. We have worked together for more than 25 years and have developed an excellent professional partnership. Since children’s books are becoming more and more visual, with fewer words, Bill strives to create photos that convey as much information as possible so I can save the words for things that are harder to illustrate. Sometimes the idea for a book comes from me, sometimes from him, and sometimes from a conversation we are having. Once in awhile, an editor comes up with an idea she knows we would love to develop into a book.
I have also worked with artists, especially with fine artist Kendahl Jan Jubb on a number of nonfiction picture books, starting with “Flashy Fantastic Rain Forest Frogs.”[ISBN 978-0802775368] We also worked closely together, with Kendahl sending me her proposed layouts and me providing her with reference material when I could. Kendahl is very flexible and willing to listen to suggestion, which made her a dream to work with.
How is writing in the genre you write, different than other genre?
Nonfiction trade books for children really are a genre of their own. Authors like me strive to write more than just the basic facts about our subject matter. We want our readers to be able to place our subjects in a context beyond just the information they might need to write a report. For example, in The Bald Eagle Returns, [978-0395914168] Bill and I show how scientists study these magnificent birds so they can help protect the habitats the birds depend on. In The Buffalo and the Indians: A Shared Destiny, [ISBN 978-0618485703] we link the wild animals with the humans who shared their habitat and who depended upon them. The message in Saving Audie is about responsible pet ownership and the importance of love as a healer.
Are there any problems in getting children’s’ books published?
I think it is getting more difficult every year to get any kind of book published because of the uncertainty of the future of physical books, but children’s nonfiction trade books are especially problematic because of decreased funding for book purchases by school libraries, which used to be the primary market. In addition, some publishers focus on series books that cover a curriculum area, such as the Founding Fathers or wild ecosystems. These books are written in a consistent format, with rules for what is covered in Chapter One, for Chapter Two, and so on. There is little room for creativity and for that special quality of nonfiction trade books of going beyond the basic facts into a larger context.
What is your writing schedule?
When I am actually working on a manuscript, I try to get essential email out of the way first, and then work on writing, since morning is my best time for writing. I do other tasks, such as other correspondence and household tasks in the afternoon. Sometimes I edit manuscripts in the early morning while I am sipping coffee in bed!
What projects are you working on now, or plan for the future?
I always have more ideas than I can work on, but these days the first thing an author has to think about after getting an idea is whether or not a publisher might even consider it. There needs to be some “platform” for the project—a connection to a major news story; or the author has to have a huge blog following; or the subject matter has to have a very large number of reachable people interested enough to buy the book. At present, I have some ideas, but no more contracts. My completed book with Bill Münoz, The Horse and the Plains Indians: A Powerful Partnership will come out in Spring, 2012.
What kind of advice or tips to you have for someone who wants to write and get published?
I tell prospective writers that the first thing on their list needs to be to become acquainted with the business aspects of publishing. You wouldn’t open a hardware store unless you knew just which screws, bolts, and garden equipment you needed to carry. Writing is no different from any other business, yet people seem to think they can just sit down and write something and then sell it somehow. These days you also need to think about the various self-publishing options, as well as traditional publishing. I always recommend that children’s writers join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (http://www.scbwi.org/), which provides all sorts of helpful information on their website, in their bulletin, and at their conferences.
As for getting the work itself done, I tell people to go to the library and take out and read a big stack of recently published books in their genre so they can get a feel both for what’s already out there and for what publishers expect in a book. Then they need to set aside time to write, inviolable time, just as if they had to show up at the office of a company they work for at a particular time. They should experiment with different times of day, too, to see when their brains work best in writer mode; it may turn out that their ‘writing day’ begins at 11pm!
What do you do when you are not writing?
I love to travel and take photos, I garden and hike, and I like to paint with watercolors and Chinese paint.
| "I'm so lucky to live where I can see|
beautiful vistas like this from my own home."
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