Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Mitali Perkins, author of Tiger Boy

Mitali Perkins is the author of nine books for young people, many set in far flung lands or featuring characters who straddle two cultures. Her titles have won great acclaim and earned starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, and Kirkus. She blogs at Mitali’s Fire Escape,  safe place to think, chat, and read about life between cultures. She is also a lecturer at Saint Mary’s College of California.

Mitali was born in Kolkata (Calcutta), India and she lived in Ghana, Cameroon, London, New York, and Mexico before settling in small town California when she was in middle school. She married a minister and continued to travel widely, only recently returning to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Mitali is here today to talk about her illustrated novel for intermediate readers, Tiger Boy. When a tiger cub escapes from a reserve in West Bengal's Sundarban Islands, Neel is determined to find it before the greedy Gupta can kill the cub and sell its body parts on the black market. 

Welcome, Mitali! Tiger Boy combines mystery, suspense, and a marvelous cast of characters. What sparked the idea for Tiger Boy? Did it begin with Neel, the main character? With the issue of protecting Bengali Tigers? With the setting in the Sundarbans? Or something else?

Place came first. I was fascinated with the Sundarbans, a unique ecosystem where animals have adapted to drink saltwater, roots poke upwards through the mud in their search for oxygen, and tigers attack and eat people on a regular basis – all only a few hours’ drive from Kolkata, the massive city that is my birthplace.

Setting is such an important element in many of your novels, such as Bamboo People, which is set in Burma. You do such a beautiful job of vividly evoking a sense of place. In Tiger Boy, for example, you describe the hiss Neel’s father’s boat as it slips through the deltas, the golpata branches swaying in the monsoon rains, and the evening smell of jasmine flowers. How do research your settings? Do you usually write about places you have been? Did you visit the Sundarbans when you were writing Tiger Boy?

I typically write about places I have experienced in person with all five of my senses. That’s probably why I don’t write fantasy or science fiction. I remember seeing photographs and videos of sights like the Taj Mahal and the Grand Canyon, but media can’t convey the smell of jasmine flowers, sounds that carry across the vastness of space, the taste of spicy peanuts bought from a vendor, or the feel of a cool breeze against your skin.  I like to receive a place through sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, and try to empower my readers’ imaginations to do the same as they read my fiction.

I found a photograph of you petting a Bengali tiger. Where were you? What was it like to be so close to such a powerful animal?

I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand visiting a tiger preserve. Unfortunately (for the tigers), the beautiful creatures were sedated heavily. We’ve heard that a tourist was recently mauled and the practice of skin-on-skin visits with the tigers is now banned.

Tiger Boy explores the intricate dance between the needs of struggling people and the needs of wildlife. You handled this so sensitively. How did you manage to capture the interplay of cross-purposes in a small Sundarban village so well? Have you met a boy like Neel?

Thank you. I hope I did. I read and researched widely and studied this subject in my graduate work at UC Berkeley. As for Neel, my father was a small brown boy trudging through a Bengali village to school.

What about your varied cast of secondary characters, Neel’s father, his friend Ajay, the headmaster…and so many more? Where did they come from?

My imagination! It is incredibly fun to create characters – you know what I mean. They leap into your mind and live there while you are writing. You come to love them and know them.

It amazed me that Neel cared so much about the tigers, even though they could be very dangerous. I wondered if Americans would be as protective in Neel’s situation. Do you see a difference between how first world and third world countries approach conservation?

That is a big question that deserves at least a Master’s thesis to answer. May I just say yes? And no? Generally the villagers in the Sunderbans understand how valuable the tigers are to their economy and ecosystem. Unfortunately, these impoverished communities are on the way to becoming “climate refugees” because of how fast the islands are shrinking, mostly thanks to deforestation and erosion.

You have lived so many places, straddled so many cultures. What have you learned about adapting to new places? How are people the same? How are they different? What advice can you give to young people struggling to bridge cultures?

I wrote an essay about this to answer such questions. It’s called “A Note to Young Immigrants,” and I invite your blog visitors to head to Teaching Tolerance to read it.

Are you working on something new? Could you tell us a little about it?

Yes! And no! This has been an exciting year in my career. I am about to make a couple of big announcements but I can’t say anything about them yet. Let’s just say I’m VERY encouraged after years of slogging away in this vocation.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

A cup of Darjeeling tea, scones, and clotted cream? Thanks so much for hosting me, Linda.

Thank you so much for being my guest today, Mitali!

If you’d like learn more about Mitali Perkins or her books, you can visit Mitali’s Fire Escape blog. You can also follow her on twitter  or facebook .

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Interview with Picture Book Author Sandra Horning and Book Give-away!

Sandra Horning the award-winning author of books for young children including The Giant Hug and Chicks.  She also works as a copyeditor. Today she’s here to talk about her latest title, The Biggest Pumpkin.

Sandra generously donated a signed copy of her book, The Biggest Pumpkin, which will go to some lucky visitor. To be entered to win, please leave a comment at the end of this blog post.

Welcome, Sandra!

Thanks, Linda! It's a pleasure to speak with you!

The Giant Hug features a pig who sends his grandmother a hug through the mail. Chicks is about raising chickens, and The Biggest Pumpkin is about growing a giant pumpkin for the town fair. There seems to be an agricultural thread running through all your books. Did you grow up on a farm or in a rural area? Do you raise animals or grow vegetables now?

I didn't grow up on a farm, but I lived near a farming region, and my grandfather lived in the country. In fact, I grew up in a rowhome in a suburb of Reading, Pa.  Even though we had a very tiny yard, my parents always kept a small vegetable garden. Back then the suburb still had a lot of undeveloped space around it. Across the street there was an open field with a stream and small wooded area bordering it. A block behind my house there was a mountain. I spent many of my early years playing in those spaces, which have since been developed. There is definitely an agricultural thread running through my published work, although I should say that I do write stories without that theme, but they tend not to be the ones that publishers accept. I'm sure it's not a coincidence, and the agricultural themes/hooks are what helped my books find a home.

I live in the woods of CT now. We have so much shade that I really can't grow vegetables. Despite the shade, I usually plant a few anyway. This year I have some lettuce and a handful of tiny green cherry tomatoes. The plants I put in were a decent size to start. That helps a great deal. I had a pumpkin plant last year, but the pumpkin never got bigger than a fist. My family joins a local CSA to get fresh vegetables each week. I love visiting the farm for pick-up. I have better luck with raising animals. I raise chickens and ducks for eggs. Right now I have 6 chickens and 3 ducks. They are pets, too, and all have names.

What sparked the idea for The Biggest Pumpkin?

The initial idea came to me during a school visit for my first picture book. The school had a greenhouse and it sparked the idea of writing a garden story. I picked a pumpkin plant because when my 2 boys were younger, we regularly drove by a nearby garden with a pumpkin plant in it. By the end of summer and into fall, the pumpkin was easily visible from the road. I'd slow the car down and we would see how big the pumpkin was that day. The rest of the inspiration for the story came from all the agricultural fairs in our region. My family and I have always loved seeing the largest vegetables at the local fairs.

Writing a picture book seems deceptively simple, yet I know what a struggle it can be. What was your biggest challenge in writing The Biggest Pumpkin?  Do you have any advice for someone interested in writing a picture book?

The biggest challenge was writing an entertaining story that follows the actual growth of a pumpkin without it being too didactic. It's hard to keep the text succinct, yet still get in the factual information. In real life, growing a prize-winning pumpkin would have a few more steps. For example, once the pumpkin gets very large, it needs to be kept off the ground so that the bottom doesn't rot. I didn't include that part because I had to take the growth process and pare it back to the most basic steps. I did my best to follow the real growth process while keeping it easy to understand for young readers. It took many revisions to get just right! My advice is to keep revising. Picture books seems quite simple, but the best ones have been through many, many revisions!

How do you approach your research for a book like The Biggest Pumpkin?  Did you have any interesting experiences during your writing or research for this book?

I usually start with research at the library or on the internet. There are quite a few websites devoted to growing big pumpkins.  I've also attended many harvest festivals since I've lived in CT, and many of them have a pumpkin contest. Growers are always happy to discuss the process.  Last year, farmers at the BIG E (the biggest agricultural fair in New England) were selling seeds from the previous year's winner. I bought a packet and my parents (who now have a very big garden in a new house) planted the seeds in their garden this spring. We'll see how big their pumpkin gets! While I was writing the story, writers in my critique group frequently cut out newspaper photos and articles about prize-winning pumpkins. One of my friends even took a photo of a huge pumpkin being transported on the highway.

You’ve written both picture books and easy readers. Do you approach these projects in a similar way? What do you see as their differences?

Yes, I approach them in a similar way in that when I have an idea, I usually start writing first. Since I choose topics I already have an interest in, I'll write the first draft with the knowledge I have. Then I stop and do research, and correct and add details in my revisions. Sometimes I write a picture book and realize it might work better as an early reader or vice versa. The main difference between picture books and early readers is that there is much less freedom of word choice with an easy reader. A certain number of words in the text need to repeat. For level one readers, contractions can't be used and most of the words should be one syllable. In addition, concepts need to be simple enough that a young reader can easily follow the story. The text of beginning readers needs to closely match the art in order for children to see the visual cues to the words they are learning to read. Picture books can sometimes skip words and let the art tell some of the story. The author and illustrator both have more room to play in a picture book.
What have you learned from editing other people’s work that is useful in your own writing?

Most of the work I edit is for academic statistical journals. Academic writing is quite different than writing for children, but it is similar in that it is written for a particular audience. Remembering your audience, whether it is beginning readers or academics, is the key to keeping your reader engaged!

You recently won a James Marshall Fellowship. Congratulations! Can you tell us about why you applied and how you plan to use your research?

I was awarded the Marshall Fellowship for 2014 and did most of my research in the spring of that year. As I had recently been working on beginning readers, I applied in order to study James Marshall's beginning readers, particularly his Fox stories, but I ended up looking at everything he wrote. James Marshall was an incredibly talented man. Studying his work helped me to review my own creative process, especially when revising. Marshall was a perfectionist and had many drafts of his stories. I learned a lot from following his process, and seeing how his initial ideas developed into the wonderful characters of Fox and his friends, George and Martha, the Stupids, and more.  I've since worked on several different early readers and often ask myself, “What would James Marshall think? Is this the best it can be?” The fellowship required me to blog about my research. If you are interested, the posts are available here.

Are you working on any other new projects?

I'm working on two early readers and a picture book right now. One of the early readers is a nonfiction project about bizarre birds and the other is a fiction project with a girl detective. The detective bit has been thoroughly enjoyable!

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

I've written a contemporary middle grade novel. Your questions made me realize that even though it is a departure from my picture books and early readers, it still has a nature theme running through it. I guess nature finds its way into most of my work.  Answering interview questions always helps me to learn something about myself!  Thank you!

Thank you so much for being my guest today! You can find out more about Sandra Horning and her books at her website 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

M.P. Barker talks about MENDING HORSES

Michele Barker had one of my dream jobs, working as a costumed interpreter at Old Sturbridge Village. There she found her inspiration for her historical novels while mucking out stalls and milking cows.

Her first novel, A Difficult Boy, was set in nineteenth century New England and won awards from PEN New England and the International Reading Association.

Today she’s here to talk about her second book, Mending Horses, which Kirkus praises for its nuanced characters, fluid writing, and true sense of history. Mending Horses was a 2014 Kirkus Prize nominee and was listed by Booklist as one of the 10 Best Historical Novels for Youth for 2015.
Thank you so much for being my guest today, Michele!

Thanks, Linda! I’m delighted to be here!

Mending Horses is the second book in a series, though each title could easily stand alone. The first book, A Difficult Boy, starred Ethan, a young apprentice who is roughly used by his master. Mending Horses focuses on Daniel, Ethan’s fellow apprentice and an Irish immigrant. Michele, what made you want to explore Daniel’s story?

At the end of A Difficult Boy, Daniel is out on his own for the first time in his life, after having spent half a dozen years as an indentured servant. He’s always been told what to do and has never had a chance to make his own decisions. So I felt he’d be at kind of a loss about where to go with his life and would have a lot of learning and growing up to do. I was curious about how he’d manage in the world, so I decided to follow him and see what would happen. Besides, I really missed Daniel after I finished A Difficult Boy!

Your first book maintained a single point of view, but Mending Horses takes multiple viewpoints, opening with a look at Daniel through the eyes of one of the book’s villains. Why did you choose to tell your story this way?

Part of the reason for the multiple voices was necessity. The book has three plot lines that eventually intersect—or, rather, collide. To deal with the separate plot lines, I needed to use different points of view. Mending Horses is also a more complicated story, with multiple relationships that needed to be developed, so it felt natural to look at those relationships from a variety of viewpoints. It was fun to experiment with different voices and try to make each one distinctive and recognizable.

Daniel is only one of your book’s main characters. The other is Billy, another Irish immigrant who is running from an abusive father. Why did you bring Billy into Daniel’s story (or is it Daniel into Billy’s story?) What is the dynamic between the two characters?

Billy is a natural troublemaker, so introducing this character seemed like a good way to add some conflict and tension to the story. I also thought Billy would be a good foil to make Daniel take a look at his own shortcomings and biases. In dealing with Billy, I wanted Daniel to confront his own prejudices and question his strongly held beliefs about people’s roles in society. By overcoming his differences with Billy, Daniel learns a lot about himself and makes some major changes in his outlook on the world.

Your description of Daniel’s wild dance with his horse Ivy was breath-taking. Have you ever seen someone interact with a horse this way? What is Ivy’s role in Daniel’s story?

Thank you! I based Daniel’s manner of playing with Ivy on a girl I’d observed at a riding stable where I took lessons many years ago. She had a very special relationship with one of the horses, and she would take him out in the paddock and “dance” with him (not quite as wildly as Daniel and Ivy, though). Their joy and playfulness was delightful to watch. As I was researching the book, I also watched a lot of online videos of horse trainers, including Klaus Hempfling (http://www.hempfling.com/), who works with difficult horses and has an incredible ability to bond with them. He, too, “dances” with the horses he trains. His videos were another source of inspiration for the scenes with Daniel and Ivy.

When Daniel was an indentured servant, most of the humans in the household either mistreated or ignored him. For many years Ivy, the horse he was assigned to take care of, was the only creature who seemed to care about him, and the only creature he loved. Ivy was also the only creature with whom he could be playful. When he managed to sneak away to play with her or ride her, he could briefly escape the drudgery and abuse of his daily life. She was the one bright spot in a dark and dismal life. For Daniel, she represents freedom, love, and friendship. She’s also his teacher. The things he learns about equine behavior from watching and working with Ivy help him become a horse whisperer.

Daniel and Billy come under the protection of the peddler, Mr. Stocking, and the three of them join a circus. Circuses are so fascinating! Was this element always a part of the story as you envisioned it? How is Daniel and Billy’s circus different from a modern circus?

I knew Daniel would get involved in some job involving horses because they are so important to him. At first I thought he might join the military, but that didn’t seem right for his personality. The more I thought about it, the more a circus seemed the perfect fit; it would give him an opportunity to work with horses and also to develop his own talents. And a circus gave me lots of opportunities for unusual characters and humor. Besides, the research was so much fun!

In the 1830s, the modern circus was just starting to evolve, so circuses included a lot of things we don’t normally associate with them today, like opera singers and theatrical performances. At first, American circuses were primarily focused on equestrian acts. In the 1820s, they began to include acrobats, menageries, and other performers that we now associate with circuses, but they were still a long way from the circus we know today. They were often considered disreputable forms of entertainment, and in New England were often outlawed or discouraged through expensive licensing fees. But they managed to get around the laws and perform anyway.

Many people romanticize the agrarian culture of the 1830’s, but Mending Horses doesn’t paint a pretty picture of this era. What are your thoughts on this period in history? Why did you choose to write a story set in this time and place?

Like any time period, the 1830s had positive and negative elements. But people tend to forget the negative—that there was a lot of bigotry, that women’s roles were confining and stifling, that work was often physically hard and dangerous, and that for some—particularly immigrants and African-Americans--living conditions could be brutal. It was also a very exciting time—railroads were just beginning to crisscross the country, Americans were exploring the West, New England was becoming an industrial powerhouse.

I chose the time period and setting because of my background at Old Sturbridge Village, which depicts New England in the 1830s, so it was a familiar locale and era for me. Choosing a time period I already knew well definitely made the research easier!

You obviously have an intimate understanding of the 1830’s. Can you tell us about your background as a historian and how your research process informs your story?

I was a history and English major in college and did a master’s degree in Historic Preservation. Besides working at Old Sturbridge Village, I also worked as an archivist dealing with a local history collection in Springfield, Mass. My background definitely came in handy when doing the research for the story. Working at OSV, I learned a lot about the physical environment of the time period and about people’s daily lives, their attitudes and concerns.

There’s a lot of back-and-forth between the research process and the storytelling. Sometimes, the story idea comes first, and I’m doing research to answer a specific question, like what sorts of stunts performers might do in a 19th-century circus. But sometimes it’ll go the other way, and I’ll stumble across something in my research that will give me an idea for a scene or character. For example, I learned that there was a huge celebration for the opening of the railroad in Springfield, Mass., right in the middle of the time period I’d chosen for my story. That event was too wonderful not to use! So I created a scene around that event in which one of my characters decides to go to work on the railroad.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

If they’d like to find out more about the stories, they can check out my website

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a story about a sea captain’s wife and daughter and how they survive after he’s lost at sea. It’s set in Salem, Massachusetts during the 1840s and 1850s. The research for this one is very challenging, involving 19th-century horticulture, botanical illustration, seafaring, the China trade, and more. It seems each story I write is more difficult than the previous one! You’d think they would get easier as I go along, but the opposite is true.

It sounds delicious! I can’t wait to read it.  Thank you so much for joining us today. To find out more about M.P. Barker, you can also follow her on facebook or on Twitter.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Suzy Becker talks about new series, KATE THE GREAT

Suzy Becker is one of those rare authors who writes for children and for adults. Her debut adult title, All I Need to Know I Learned from My Cat was an international best seller. She went on to publish many other illustrated memoirs such as One Good Egg, about her decision to become a mother, and I Had Brain Surgery, What’s Your Excuse.

She’s also an award-winning advertising copywriter and an entrepreneur who established the greeting card company, The Widget Factory, and founded the HIV/AIDS bike-a-thon, Ride FAR.

But today she’s here to talk about her work as a children’s author, and the first book in her new Kate the Great series, Kate the Great, Except When She’s Not. Welcome Suzy!

Often compared to the Big Nate and Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, your books are a happy combination of text and pictures, with much of the humor embedded in the illustrations. What is your process? Do you write first, and then add the illustrations, or vice-versa?  

It’s really a cartoonist’s process, the combination of text and art you see on the page is how I picture it in my head. The most efficient process—given the amount of editing that goes on, is to make notes for sketches in the early drafts—it saves me from doing a lot of drawings that end up on the cutting room floor.

Kate Geller is a marvelous character, funny, a sharp observer, yet someone whose basic impulse is to be kind. How did she introduce herself to you?

Thank you! I’ve been writing and illustrating books for, er, 25 years now— ideas and characters rarely strike me like lightning bolts. I sit down at my desk every morning and invite them in, troll around my head for them, review notes about ideas and snippets of dialog I’ve overheard. Kate was just another voice in my head—I have a ten year old daughter with lots of ten year old friends, and truthfully, a good part of me is still that age.

I loved the BOB, the big old bowl of conversation starters, on the Geller family kitchen table. How did you come up with that?

A couple years ago, Frank Bruni (the New York Times columnist) wrote about a friend of his who’d withdrawn himself and his family from the church and was concerned about his kids’ spiritual education. His solution was this idea of a bowl of spiritual and philosophical questions. I loved it. My daughter? Not so much. In Kate’s family, they’re equal parts conversation starters and stoppers, 110% well-intentioned and a helpful narrative device at least 50% of the time.

Nora, Kate’s nemesis, is anything but a typical antagonist. Where did she come from? How does she play off Kate’s character? Will she be appearing in future Kate the Great books?

How widely read is your blog? Let’s just say Nora is a hybrid of a couple of puzzling characters from my childhood. Kate is charged (by her mom) with befriending Nora because Nora’s dad has to work overseas for several months. Nora is atypical, as you suggest-- she doesn’t have any friends but (and?) she seems to like it that way—which is initially incomprehensible to Kate. Nora’s eccentricities cause Kate to examine and sometimes expand her worldview. On a plot level, it introduces relatable tween issues—triangulation, standing up for your beliefs, your friends, etc. Nora’s definitely in the next couple of books.

Kate often quotes Eleanor Roosevelt, “We must do the thing we think we cannot,” sometimes angrily, sometimes with pride. Has this quote been particularly important to you in your life?

I feel like I first read Eleanor Roosevelt on a neighbor’s whiskey glass when I was a kid: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I liked the idea of it, although I’m still not sure I agree. Then, I came upon, “Do one thing that scares you every day,” in my early teens. And THAT scared me. (That’s when I first started imagining Rooseveltzilla, tearing up the streets of New York in her black Oxfords.) Kate’s quote is the one I try to live by.

How is plotting a series different than plotting an individual title? Have you envisioned a dramatic arc for the whole Kate the Great series?

I should have, shouldn’t I?! I just heard the creators of The Good Wife on Fresh Air yesterday, and they’ve known all along how the series will end. KTG: Except When She’s Not was my first novel—plotting one novel had a pretty sizable learning curve. As for the series, I tend to think more in terms of character and relationship (family, friendship) arcs, hoping that there will be a fourth, fifth, and fifteenth book some day.

You’ve had such a varied career. What led you to writing for children? How is writing an illustrated memoir for adults the same/different from writing a book for kids?

I’ve wanted to write and illustrate children’s picture books for as long as I can remember. When I was eight, I wrote in my first journal, that “I want to write children’s books and live on a farm.” The thing was, I never met any authors growing up, so by the time I was in 8th grade, I figured it was something I would have to do in my retirement. (Wish I’d kept up the retirement planning.) I ended up studying international relations and economics, and then in my senior year of college, a friend decided to publish a story I’d written and illustrated (for fun) as the center spread of a literary magazine on campus. I got to see people reading and laughing at my work—so I did a career-planning 180ยบ. After a short stint in advertising copy writing (my first real job), I had my own greeting card company and a couple years into that, I published the cat book with Workman, which paved the way for my other titles.

I have ten books out, in six genres, I think—excellent for happy, interesting life-building, not so much for the brand-building. First, I’ll get an idea for a book, then the idea usually dictates the audience. When I work on any book, I imagine I am writing (and drawing) for one person. The creative process is the same, that person (someone I don’t know well, but has a friendly face) changes—either the middle-aged parent of a former student, or a ten year old friend of a friend of my daughters, for example.

Would you care to tell us more about some of your other titles?

I’ll tell you about one, then you should really go outside and play. The KIDS MAKE IT BETTER book is an anthology of kids’ solutions to world problems, with room for its owner to write and draw in her own answers. The book also includes profiles of kids under the age of ten who’ve made a difference, a resource guide and an action plan, so you can do something real about one or more of the problems. There are elementary schools who have adopted it school-wide and I hear from kids on a regular basis who have been inspired to do unpredictably wonderful things. One of my favorites was a junior girl scout troop’s smoking cessation campaign—the girls each asked a smoker they knew to show them how to light up. The results were powerful.

I love the premise for KIDS MAKE IT BETTER. I’ll definitely be checking that out.  What project/s are you working on now? 

I’m finishing up the final art for KATE THE GREAT: WINNER TAKES ALL, and starting KATE THE GREAT: BREAK A LEG. I’m also starting to do some work on a follow up to my first whiteboard animation HOW YOUTH LEARN .

Wow! That’s an impressive slate of projects. Thanks so much for being my blog guest today! You can find out more about Suzy Becker on her website  and you can follow her on facebook and twitter https://twitter.com/thesuzybecker.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Loree Griffin Burns, Author of Award-Winning Nonfiction

Loree Griffin Burns is the author of Beetle Busters: A Rogue Insect and the People Who Track It and four other award-winning nonfiction books for children, including Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Movement which won a coveted Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor. Loree has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and her books grow out of her passion for science and nature.

In Beetle Busters, Loree follows the Asian long horned beetle’s invasion of North America and she introduces the scientists and dedicated volunteers who track down and eradicate beetle infestations in an effort to save millions of acres of hardwood forests. 

Thanks to Loree for stopping by today to answer my questions!

It’s a pleasure to be here, Linda. Thanks for inviting me!

Loree, you were trained as a scientist. What led you to writing for children? Could you tell us a little about your career path?

When my first children—a set of twin boys who are now 16—were born, I knew that I wanted to take a short break from my career as an academic researcher. I’d just earned a PhD in biochemistry and the next obvious step was a post-doctoral research position. But for me, this type of work would be very hard to do while also learning how to be a mother. My thinking at the time was that I would stay home with my boys until they were old enough to go to school, and then I’d go back to the lab.

Like all the best laid plans, mine hit snags I’d never anticipated. First, we added another child to our family, a daughter. And then, when all three kids were very small, I stumbled across an article in my local newspaper that really piqued my interest. It described an accident in the Pacific Ocean in which 39,000 plastic bathtub toys (yellow ducks, blue turtles, red beavers and green frogs) were dumped into the sea. Eleven years later, scientists were predicting the toys would begin washing ashore where I lived, in New England.  How did the scientists know the duckies were coming this particular summer? Was someone following them? Who was that person? For heaven’s sake, HOW DID HE FOLLOW THEM?

I did a little poking around and learned that there was, indeed, a grown man whose job was to track those toys around the world ocean. What’s more, this guy, oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer, was using the information he collected from the tub toys to learn about surface currents in the ocean. I was in awe. I began researching his story and eventually decided to turn all my research into a book for young readers.

Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion was published in 2007. By then I’d begun to research another story that intrigued me: the world’s honey bee populations seemed to be in trouble. I convinced my publisher, Houghton Mifflin, to let me write about that story, too. My career as a creator of children’s books was officially underway. And to be honest, I was so intrigued by this work that when my kids were all in school and there was, finally, time to consider going back to the lab bench, I didn’t. Writing about science both engaged and fulfilled me … AND gave me the flexibility I wanted for my family. I still think it’s the perfect work for me.

You’ve come up with some pretty unusual topics. What sparked the idea for Beetle Busters? What convinced you it was a book-worthy topic? Was it difficult to convince an editor to buy into this project?

In 2008, I attended a community meeting at my public library. I’d heard that an invasive beetle had been found in our town and that in order to stop its movement, officials were going to start cutting down trees. Lots of them. I love trees, and the very thought of losing some of my favorites made me angry. I went to the meeting to learn more. I learned so many incredible things: the beetle was accidentally imported from China, it spends almost its entire life inside hardwood trees, it is hard to get rid of. I learned, in fact, that in order to save the hardwood forest of the eastern United States, my town and the towns around me were going to have to start cutting down our hardwood forests. It was an impossible dilemma. And I decided to write about it.

My editor was a little concerned that the story would not interest kid readers, and that it was too local. I was convinced that the book would grab kids, though, and I knew that the battle with invasive beetles was relevant everywhere. (Look up the emerald ash borer, for example. Or the gypsy moth caterpillar. Or even the bark beetle, a native that is becoming an issue as climate changes in the southwestern US.)

How do you approach the research for a topic like this?

I approached my research in two phases: 1) background research and reading and 2) experiential research. I started reading everything I could about the Asian longhorned beetle: its natural history, its life cycle, its invasions into North America. And I reached out to the scientists I’d met at the community meetings, setting up interviews and following them into the field to see how they tracked and studied the beetle. Over the course of the next two years, I conducted 35 of these field interviews!  

You had a lot of information to coordinate in writing Beetle Busters. How did you organize it? Was there any information you were forced to leave out?

I’m pretty low tech, actually. I take hand-written notes in the field and I record interviews where I can. I type all these notes up daily. These notes are organized by date, but also compiled into one huge document for easy searching. I’m intimately familiar with this document by the time I am done drafting my manuscript!

You don’t back away from controversy in Beetle Busters, in fact, you say that you have some reservations about razing woodlands to prevent the spread of the Asian long horned Beetle. Can you tell us a little more about that?

This was the hardest book I’ve written, and in hindsight, I know it’s because this is a story I am intimately, inextricably involved in. The trees that have to be cut down are on my town common, in my friend’s backyard, in MY backyard. I’ve sat in the shade of these trees, my kids have climbed them, they add to the beauty of the place I live. Even though I understand what is at stake—namely, YOUR trees—it is hard not to be angry when the time comes to fell these trees. At last count, Worcester County has cut more than 34 thousand trees. We’ve replanted about a third of that. Our landscape, however, will not look the way it did before ALB arrived for decades. I may not live to see it.  This is a very hard thing to contemplate, especially because there is no guarantee that the eradication program underway here will work. Even if it does, there is no way to know how many other ALB infestations are out there, or at what point we as a society will decide we can no longer afford—financially—to conduct these eradication programs. What then? Will what we have done here in Worcester be for naught? (Do you know the story of our gypsy moth caterpillar invasion? It is hard not to see it as a cautionary tale.)

You just had another book come out, Handle With Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey, about
butterfly farming. I once wrote an article about this topic, and it was fascinating to learn how this conservation effort is helping butterflies, rain forests, and people in third world countries. Tell use more!

I’d love to read your article! This book grew out of a trip my kids and I took to the Butterfly Garden at the Museum of Science in Boston. (I blogged about the trip .) 

The idea that the butterflies landing on our heads in Boston, Massachusetts that day had been caterpillars in Costa Rica two weeks before captured my imagination and wouldn’t let go. I asked the curator of the garden, Lea Morgan, if she’d answer some questions for me and by the time our interview was over, I was planning to join Lea’s next trip to El Bosque Nuevo, one of her pupae suppliers in Costa Rica. 

Photographer Ellen Harasimowicz and I joined Lea at El Bosque Nuevo twice, actually, and we’re both thrilled to have the book out in the world mesmerizing kids. (You can read more about our adventures in Costa Rica .)

Beetle Busters is part of Houghton’s wonderful Scientists in the Field series, as are two of your other books, The Hive Detectives and Tracking Trash. What makes this series so special?

I was a fan of the series long before I had the nerve to pitch a book for it. As someone with a background in science, I appreciated the depth of content: readers get a look inside the daily life of a working scientist, including the ups (finally spotting that long-sought after tree kangaroo!)  and downs (leeches!) of field research, as well as the ups and downs of scientific discovery. Add to that incredible photography and gorgeous design and you have a series that readers of all ages simply respond to. There are more than forty titles in the series now, and I’m immensely proud to have made three of them. Many of the SITF authors share additional information on their books and research adventures on the series blog.

Have you had the opportunity to go out in the field for your research? What was your most exciting research trip?

Yes! This is one of my favorite parts of the work I do. In fact, I am currently making plans for my next field trip: a week on the island of Surtsey in Iceland. I will be joining a team of ten scientists on their annual visit to this sixty-years-young volcanic island, collecting the details I’ll need for my next Scientists in the Field book.

Would you like to tell us about any future projects in the works?

I’m also hard at work on a book for older readers that shares the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA. It’s called The DNA Affair: A Story of Science and Skullduggery, and its due out in 2017.

Thank you so much for visiting Lupine Seeds, Loree!

It was my pleasure, Linda. Thank you for having me!

If you’d like to find out more about Loree Griffin Burns and her work, you can visit her website or her blog

Photo credits for Loree's portrait shot go to Ellen Harasimowicz  who was also the photographer for Beetle Busters and Handle with Care