Welcome to my book blog. For my first Q & A, please welcome the talented author Melissa Stewart, whose engaging nonfiction books serve as mentor texts for me (and countless others). Check out what she has to say about her new book Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs:
Can you describe the journey to publication for this book? Did you have an agent and how did that come about?
No, I didn’t have an agent when Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs was acquired in 2015. I’ve been working with Peachtree Publishing Company since 2001, and I’m grateful that my editor saw the potential in the Pipsqueaks manuscript. I’m now working with Tricia Lawrence of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. I was referred to EMLA by author and friend Cynthia Levinson.
Where did you first draw inspiration for the “animal underdog” theme?
I’ve been fascinated by animal superlatives for as long as I can remember. After all, who doesn’t admire the world’s biggest, fastest, strongest creatures? But in early 2013, I began thinking about anti-superlatives—the smallest, slowest, weakest animals. Maybe I could write a book about them.
One morning, I woke up with the beginning of the book in my head:
“Everyone loves elephants. They’re so big and strong.
Everyone respects cheetahs. They’re so fast and fierce.
But this book isn’t about animals we admire. It’s about the unsung underdogs of the animal world. Don’t you think it’s time someone paid attention to them?”
It was a gift—but it came with a price. I realized that this wasn’t going to be just an anti-superlative book. It was going to be an anti-bullying book, too. And to write it, I’d have to revisit the bullying that I endured as a child.
I wasn’t ready for that, so I shut the file, and I didn’t come back to it for months and months. But eventually, I felt prepared to face my past. I was a clumsy, uncoordinated, unathletic kid, so the western fence lizard in the book represents me.
In the end, Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs is a book about animal adaptations and celebrating the traits that make us different and unique. I think pretty much every child has felt like an underdog at some point, so I hope the book will resonate with readers.
How do you go about researching your books?
No two books are the same, but I generally begin by drawing information from the nature journals I’ve been keeping since 1989. Additional information comes from books and articles and conversations with scientists and naturalists. I often use the internet to track down the experts I interview.
When did you first realize you were drawn to the world of nonfiction, and what is the appeal for you?
Many writers gravitate toward fiction because they love to invent characters and create made up worlds, but for me, the real world is so amazing, so fascinating that I just want to learn as much as I can about it and share it with other people. That’s why I write nonfiction.
Do you have other WIPs or projects in the pipeline you would like to mention?
In 2014, uber-talented illustrator Sarah S. Brannen and I published a book called Feathers: Not Just for Flying. The minute I saw the sketches for the last page of that book, I envisioned another similar book about seashells and dove into the research. We are so pleased that Seashells: More than a Home will be published on April 2.
Please share your favorite kidlit books that have inspired you and served as mentor texts.
Oh my, there are too many to name. Some of my favorite authors include Steve Jenkins, April Pulley Sayre, Jess Keating, Cynthia Jensen-Elliott, Diana Hutts Aston, Lita Judge, Nicola Davies, Owen Dewey, Joyce Sidman, Jennifer Ward, Heather Montgomery, Candace Fleming, Deborah Heiligman, Elizabeth Partridge, Gail Jarrow, Patricia Newman, Sandra Markle, Loree Griffin Burns, Sarah Albee, and Barb Rosenstock.
This is really a golden age for nonfiction. Authors are experimenting in all kinds of ways and stretching in new directions. It’s so exciting! I can’t wait to see what my colleagues come up with next.
What is the best 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 and so many things we can’t control. But we can control how much time and energy we devote to honing our craft.
Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than 180 nonfiction books for children, including Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs, Can an Aardvark Bark?, and No Monkeys, No Chocolate. She is the co-author, with Nancy Chesley, of Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science. Melissa’s highly-regarded website features a rich array of educational resources for teaching nonfiction reading and writing.