Welcome to my book blog, Blissfully Bookish. For this Q & A, I’m SUPER excited to welcome one of my mentors and pioneer of nonfiction, Melissa Stewart. Check out her new book Fourteen Monkeys: A Rain Forest Rhyme, illustrated by Steve Jenkins and published by Beach Lane Books. See her journey below…
What inspired you to write Fourteen Monkeys: A Rain Forest Rhyme?
This book was inspired by a single paragraph in The Life of Mammals by David Attenborough. It explained how a half dozen species of guenon monkeys can all live together in the forests of Africa because they have different lifestyles and habits. As I was reading this passage, I immediately thought of the fun poem “10 Little Monkeys” and wondered if I could create a nonfiction version with facts about this group of monkeys.
Please describe the book’s journey to publication.
My initial idea didn’t work out, but researching those guenons rekindled the fascination I first felt for monkeys in 2005 when I visited Tortuguero National Park, a rain forest in Coast Rica. I became obsessed with monkeys and talked about them every chance I got.
In 2017, I had the good fortune to meet children’s book illustrator Katy Tanis, who is on a quest to see every monkey species in the world in its natural environment. She suggested that I read High Moon over the Amazon: My Quest to Understand the Monkeys of the Night by Patricia Wright. That book led me to the very special community of monkeys that inhabit Manú National Park in Peru. The more I learned about them, the more convinced I became that they were the perfect fit for the book I wanted to write.
Because I knew curious kids would want to know more about the monkeys than I could possibly incorporate into the poetic main text, I added secondary text full of additional details as well as rich backmatter bursting with even more information.
I was lucky that my editor, Andrea Welch, loves monkeys as much as I do. Her feedback really helped me revise the book to make it more of what I wanted it to be.
When Steve Jenkins agreed to illustrate the book, I was elated. I loved the art he created for our first book together, Can an Aardvark Bark? and was excited to work with him again. His monkeys are amazing (One reviewer said their “fur appears palpably plush”)! I’m especially happy with the little infographic trees he created to show the rain forest layer where each monkey lives, and the backmatter design packed with infographics is fantastic.
What is your writing process, and does it vary depending on the project?
Yes, it does vary. For Fourteen Monkeys, I was initially having trouble keeping the fourteen monkey species in the book straight. I kept having to doublecheck their characteristics:
Which one was it that eats tree sap?
Which species sleeps with their tails twisted together?
Which one is nocturnal?
To solve this problem, I decided to make monkey flashcards. I printed out photos of each monkey, cut them out, and glued them to index cards. Then I wrote out a quick list of the monkey’s notable characteristics on each card.
These mini cheat sheets worked great, but then I realize I could also place them on a large table and move them around to experiment with different ways of organizing the text. Trust me, it’s SO much more fun than cutting and pasting text in a computer file.
Because Fourteen Monkeys has four key categories of information—diet, body size, height in the rain forest, and characteristic behaviors, it was easy to bogged down in all the details I was trying to include. Luckily, the index cards helped me stay focused by providing physical representations of the book’s big-picture components. And the act of sorting them helped me with pacing and text structure.
I may never end up using this index-card strategy again, but it’s a good tool to have at my disposal.
Please paste a short and compelling excerpt from your book.
Here’s a spread that I just love.
I appreciate how candid you are in regards to the amount of time it takes to research and write a book (some take many years). Can you comment on what it is about nonfiction that takes time to sort out?
Well, first I’ll say, that I think most books whether they’re fiction or nonfiction take much longer to write and revise and perfect than most readers imagine. Every book has its own challenges.
Most of my picture books are expository literature centered around a particular science concept. Because there’s no built-in storyline, the biggest challenge is finding a text structure that allows me to share the information in a way that delights as well as informs. For each book, I spend a lot of time experimenting with text structure as well as the order of examples. To capture reader’s imagination, the book needs to be full of patterns. Even if the reader never consciously identifies those patterns, subconsciously, they make the book more satisfying.
Do you have other WIPs or projects in the pipeline you would like to mention?
Yes, I have a book called Tree Hole Homes coming out in 2022 with the uber-talented illustrator Amy Hevron. This image from Amy’s website provides a sneak peek of what you can expect visually.
Please share your favorite books that have inspired you and served as mentor texts.
Oh my goodness, this is such a hard question. There are so many wonderful books. One of my favorite recent expository literature titles is Crossings by Katy Duffield. As I was working on the rhyming main text in Fourteen Monkeys, I studied a wide variety of books by April Pulley Sayre and Jennifer Ward.
What is the best (one) piece of advice you would give to other writers?
It’s pretty simple: Keep on writing!
Being a writer is full of challenges and frustrations. There are so many things we can’t control. But we can control how much time and energy we devote to honing our craft.
And a bonus question just for kicks! If you could be any animal, what would you be and why?
I’d be a chipmunk. I love the way they zip around during the summer, and I’d love to be able to hibernate all winter long.
Melissa Stewart has written more than 180 science-themed nonfiction books for children, including the ALA Notable Feathers: Not Just for Flying, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen; the SCBWI Golden Kite Honor title Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs, illustrated by Stephanie Laberis; and Can an Aardvark Bark?, illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Steve Jenkins. Melissa also co-wrote 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books and edited the anthology Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing. She maintains the award-winning blog Celebrate Science and serves on the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators board of advisors. Her highly-regarded website features a rich array of nonfiction writing resources.
Fourteen Monkeys: A Rain Forest Rhyme is available wherever books are sold. You can order an autographed copy from the Silver Unicorn Bookstore and have it shipped to your home or school.
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