Monday, April 15, 2019

Nonfiction in Verse: An Interview with Susannah Buhrman-Deever

I'm celebrating Poetry Month with Susannah Buhrman-Deever and her debut book, Predator and Prey, A Conversation in Verse. Beautifully illustrated by Bert Kitchen, this nonfiction picture book captures the dangerous dance of survival, and the way animals communicate in that moment.

Recently, Susannah was gracious enough to answer my many questions. Here's what she had to say about her work and her process:

1. Were you always a poet? What kinds of things did you write as a child?

I don't know that I can call myself a poet, but I do enjoy writing it. I like fiddling around with words, so writing a poem is a very fun (though at times frustrating(!)) challenge. Poetry has always been one of my favorite things to read. Shel Silverstein was an early favorite, and The Ox-Cart Man, which will forever and always be my favorite book, is really a book-length poem. I did write some (terrible) poems growing up, but mostly, I read poems and soaked them in.

2. How did the idea of a “conversation in verse” come about?

The idea of exploring how predators and prey interact had been bubbling around in my head for a while. Specifically, I was thinking about how sometimes prey actually talk to their predators, even though at first glance that might seem to be a strange thing to do. The "conversation in verse" format came to me while on a walk in the woods. A beginning line for a poem in the voice of a chickadee popped in my head, and what a hawk would "say" in reply. I had recently read Paul Fleischman's Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, and the idea of a poetry conversation between two animals seemed like an interesting way to explore predator-prey dynamics.

3. As a trained biologist, how did it feel transforming scientific knowledge into a poetic form? And how important was it to include the prose sidebars?

One of the things I really wanted to be conscious of when writing the poems was to maintain accuracy, even when taking on the "voice" of different animals. It was important that any imagery I used was based in fact. Including both the poems and the prose sidebars was a way for me tell the same story in different ways, hopefully helping my readers better understand what was going on.

4. How did you choose the combatants? And what was it like trying to capture each animal’s “voice.”

Because of my background studying animal behavior, I already knew of a few cases where prey told predators the truth, or predators tricked their prey. Where I could, I wanted to find a examples of predators and prey using the same strategy (for example: a predator "listening in" on its prey to help it hunt, and a prey "listening in" on its predator to avoid being attacked). So I dug into the scientific literature to find more examples I could use.

Capturing each animal's "voice" was the fun part. I played around a lot with using different words and rhythms to get different effects for each "character." It took a lot of exploration and revision before I felt I got a good "voice" for each poem.

5. Did some poems take longer than others, and why?

I worked on the poems on and off for about two years. Some came quickly; others took much longer. Even though it's the shortest poem in the book, it took me over a year to get "PSST-HIDE!" into its final form. Previous versions were way too long, especially because the chickadee call the poem is describing is so short. Sometimes I have to let things sit for a while before the right idea strikes.

6. Which authors did you study while you were working on this project? And what did you learn?

Joyce Sidman's natural history poetry collections (such as Song of the Water Boatman and Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold) completely floored me when I first found them. I am in awe of her talent. Seeing her work opened up the possibility to me of using poetry and sidebars to explore nonfiction topics.

7. Is your next project also in verse? And can you tell us what it is?

My next project is a nonfiction picture book (If You Take Away the Otter, illustrated by Matthew Trueman) and is due out next year from Candlewick. That book actually started out as a poem, but eventually became prose. In the meantime, I'm working on researching and drafting some more nature based poetry ideas, because, well, it's something I love to do.

Happy Poetry Month!!

Friday, March 22, 2019

Rosenstock Hits a Homer with YOGI The Life, Loves, and Language of Baseball Legend Yogi Berra

I bet many folks are like me. I don’t follow baseball, but I’m a big fan of Yogi Berra. This hall-of-famer captured the heart of America with his ball playing and his banter. Now, there will be a new generation of Yogi fans thanks to Barb Rosenstock’s newest picture book biography Yogi: The Life, Loves, and Language of Baseball Legend Yogi Berra.

Who wouldn’t love the friendly Bassett-hound face on the cover charmingly illustrated by Terry Widener (who also illustrated The Streak: How Joe DiMaggio Became America’s Hero, Girl Wonder: A Baseball Story in Nine Innings, and Lou Gehrig, The Luckiest Man). Each page is a tribute to America’s favorite pastime, and Yogi, outlined in white like a halo, is the star.

Barb let’s Yogi speak for himself right from the beginning, and I know there will be thousands of kids across the country waiting for someone to ask them, “How do you like school?” just so they can answer, “Closed!” Readers’ brains will churn trying to figure out some of Yogi’s best lines.

Kids will also relate to a character that didn’t fit the mold. Yogi didn’t let other people’s opinions stop him from doing what he loved, and Barb uses this struggle expertly as the through-line to give the story momentum.

Like Yogi, this book is “simple, honest, funny and wise.” It has heart. A hit for baseball fans, those who just want to read a great story, and for writers interested in studying a well-crafted picture book biography.

Follow the rest of the Blog Tour --

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

You CAN Handle the Truth!


This week, my post - You CAN Handle The Truth - is at Nonfiction Ninjas.  At night I am a total couch potato, but by day I am one of 11 kick-ass Nonfiction Ninjas finding facts and writing true stories.

I am humbled and blessed to be part of this group.  Here they are...unmasked!

Check them out:

Michelle Medlock Adams
Lisa Amstutz
Stephanie Bearce
Nancy Churnin
Susan Kralovansky

 And while you are at it, sign up for ONE SWEET GIVEAWAY. Sign up on our blog, and get a chance to win ELEVEN!!!! children's books, one from each Ninja. And come back here next week for a new post.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Journey of "George Washington Carver For Kids"

 Available now
Many people don't realize how long it takes to birth a book. Gestation is longer than that of an elephant!

My newest book, George Washington Carver for Kids and all of its  30,000 or so words, 72 photographs, and 21 activities was one of the faster projects I have worked on.  It wasn't as fast as some work-for-hire projects that give you a few weeks to crank out a manuscript, but for me this was writing in the fast lane.

Here is the time line:

October 2016 - I first queried Chicago Review Press (CRP). Thanks to  amazing advice from Nancy I. Sanders, a veteran CRP author, I knew to offer a few topics. The editor responded quickly saying he'd be interested in George W. Carver.

It took me two weeks to crank out a chapter by chapter proposal which included a list of 21 activities, a sample chapter, and marketing connections.  Then I waited.

March 2017 - The editor responded asking for a revision to the sample chapter, which I quickly sent in.

April 2017 - I got an offer. While waiting for the contract to come, I made travel plans. I not only needed to see where Carver lived to inform my research, but I needed to start acquiring 72 photographs. The more I took, the fewer I would have to purchase. Hopefully, many would be free.

May 2017 - I had an Ag in the Classroom speaking engagement in Salina, Kansas, so I extended the trip to rent a car and drive to the George Washington Carver National Monument in Diamond, Missouri. The Park Ranger, Curtis Gregory, is a passionate Carver fan, and proudly showed us their collection of documents.  Fran and I wandered the property, visited  grave sites, and took photos of the creek he must have splashed in, the wild flowers he would have gathered, and more.  The next day we drove to Neosho where Carver went to school. I like to get a sense of the landscape that surrounded a person. Did he walk through woods or fields to get to school? How close was the nearest neighbor?  To get a sense of the town we visited the Historical Society and learned about that time period. Then I went home and wrote.

August 2017 Trip to Tuskegee, Al.  I had an appointment at the Tuskegee University Archives. Again, we found more people passionate about Carver. Dana Chandler, the Director of the Archives told us stories, gave us a tour, and fed us everyday. We spent hours reviewing period photos, and wandering around campus taking pictures.

October 2017 - I submitted the manuscript and all the photographs.

November 2017 - The marketing department sent me the lengthy author questionnaire to fill out.  Bookstores, media outlets, anyone who could help promote the book.

December 2017 - a sneak peek at the cover art. Do I like it? YES!!

March 2018 - Edits arrived. Since October I had been working on another project, which I had to toss aside to address comments from the editor. The manuscript didn't look too bad. Sometimes a manuscript comes back bloodied with the editor's red ink. You're sure the book won't survive.  Revisions continued off and on for a couple of months.

July 2018 -- Revisions in galleys. Now the story looks like a book. Each page has the art work in place, but still there are things that need to be addressed. Sometimes a line has to be taken out to make everything fit on the page, or I have to catch typos. Each time, I try to make sure dates and other content is still accurate.

January 8, 2019 -- Happy Book Birthday! George Washington Carver For Kids is officially available for purchase.

Two years, three months. I think I'll call my new wrinkles "stretch marks" from birthing a book.
Well worth it!!

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Sneak a Peek: Full of Beans

Wonder what my Fall 2019 book - Full of Beans - is about?
The history of dried beans?
Find out today at iNK's Nonfiction Minute.

I am so proud to write for the Nonfiction Minute. It is an amazing resource for teachers and students to get a daily dose of fun, eye-opening, well-written true stories. And today kids can learn about ... Nope. I'll let you find out for yourself.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

"Write now--Write well"

In this week's Time, author Jennifer Egan addressed the importance of literature in a world where most people get their us-vs-them news from social media. "Literature, like democracy, is built of a plurality of ideas," she says. "By writing and reading, we remind ourselves of the value of empathy, subtlety and contradiction."

As writers for the youngest readers, we should be keenly aware of  how our books mold the social consciousness of the future. All writers have a bias, and I've always felt that children's writers lean toward hope, acceptance, tolerance, peace, and love. In light of that fact, I can't imagine how I would write a book with our current president as the protagonist. He offers no hope. He does not accept facts,.He is intolerant of differing views. He stirs up discord and hate, and seems to love only himself and money.

Egan ends with this call to arms: "We need to write now, write well--tell the truth in all its messy complexity. It's our best shot at helping to preserve a democracy in which facts still exist and all of us can speak freely."

Or as the sign on my office door says:


Tuesday, November 20, 2018

12 Days of Children's Books Gala Giveaway Results

To find out if you are a winner, go to: 12 Days of Children's Books Gala Giveaway Winners

Congratulations to everyone who won a book, and a heartfelt thanks to everyone who took the time to enter.

After I get over my sinus infection which is preventing my brain from working, I will share with you why we did this book giveaway and who my fellow authors are and why we became the NONFICTION NINJAS! Till then, HAPPY THANKSGIVING!