Hello, Deborah! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to chat about your work! Before we get to your books, please introduce yourself to our readers.
I am thrilled to share with readers of the MG Book Village blog about my books and writing process.
I am an insatiable reader. I was born in Philadelphia and spent countless hours in the Free Library of Philadelphia growing up. One summer I set out to read every book in the children’s section. I remember that whenever I was deeply immersed in a book, which was nearly always, I did not hear anything around me even when my family kept telling me it was time for dinner!
I started writing in college at Cornell University. I had once wanted to be a United Nations translator, but after college I discovered that I was good at, and loved, writing about science topics for nonscientists. My work as a science writer and children’s author, including in my award-winning books Beauty and the Beak and Scientists Get Dressed, is like being a translator. My job is to translate complex concepts for the public, especially kids. One of the best things about what I do is that I am always learning, and each book opens up new worlds of discovery for me—which I can then share with readers anywhere.
This year marks 30 years since my first children’s book, The People Who Hugged the Trees: An Environmental Folktale, was published. I wrote it for my then infant daughter, to tell her a story of a brave girl who grew up to protect the environment. To this day it is read around the world. Just in the last two years, it has been included in school reading collections in South Africa and France.
And 2020 marks the 20th anniversary of my book Into the A, B, Sea: An Ocean Alphabet which has sold a quarter million copies. I wrote it for my son when he was learning to write alphabet letters in the sand, on a beach by the Pacific Ocean. I am crazy about ocean animals and to me, the ocean and the alphabet each offers vast combinations of life and language.
Kids always want to know what my favorite children’s book is. Ever since I was in the middle grades, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web has been my favorite, and still is! I remember to this day how the school librarian first showed us the book and started reading it to us. The book let me travel in my imagination to a world so different than my own growing up. The book also has many factual pieces of the natural world woven into its fictional story about the power of friendship and the power of words.
I didn’t realize then—and kids, teachers and librarians are often surprised when I tell them now—that the character of Charlotte the spider is a writer. She works a lot like I do. She thinks a long time before she writes, she writes when everyone else is asleep, she gets help from her friends, she checks her spelling, and she shows her words in the best light possible. Most importantly, she uses her words for good, to save the life of a friend. Her story reminds me again and again that words are powerful. They can teach, inspire, comfort, entertain, and change someone’s life.
You write both fiction and nonfiction. Is your process very different for the two? What are the similarities?
When I write fiction, like The Spelling Bee Before Recess, I can be silly and play with the facts, but in writing nonfiction I’m more serious. A similarity is that ideas for both fiction and nonfiction often come to me when I least expect them. Then I have to run to get a pen or get to the computer and put down the words pouring into my mind. I do a huge amount of research for both kinds of books. The more I know, the more I can weave into the story. My factual research helps me launch and build a story, whether nonfiction or fiction.
How do you typically choose a topic—and once you land on one, how do you decide whether to approach it via fiction or nonfiction?
Mostly it seems like topics choose me! I have had book ideas unexpectedly triggered by a single photo, or a sound, or a sentence in an article. The idea for Scientists Get Dressed came when my 9-year-old great-niece showed me a family photo of her mother Dr. Lucy Rose. In the photo her mother, a freshwater chemist, was wearing chest waders and standing in an icy stream to check her pollution testing equipment. “This is what Mommy does?” I asked in astonishment.
I began thinking about many other scientists I knew and had worked with, and what they wear. I had been fascinated that Janie Veltkamp, my raptor biologist coauthor of Beauty and the Beak, wears puncture-proof gloves for her work with sick and injured wild birds of prey. I discovered through further research that all scientists get dressed for the specific work they do and the places they do it. Scientists Get Dressed is about so many different, real scientists—and facts are so critical to their work—that the book had to be nonfiction.
Beauty and the Beak: How Science, Technology, and a 3D-Printed Beak Rescued a Bald Eagle is a true story, but to recreate Beauty the bald eagle’s life before any humans came into contact with her, I had to borrow facts about bald eagles in the wild and use them to recreate Beauty’s experiences. One reason I wrote Beauty and the Beak is because it’s not just about a single rescued bald eagle, but also about how bald eagles were an endangered species, brought back from near extinction on the U.S. mainland by environmental conservationists and scientists. Because of their heroic efforts, kids across the country can see bald eagles soaring in the wild or even nesting in kids’ own neighborhoods!
You are here, primarily, to discuss a pair of your recent nonfiction books—Scientists Get Dressed and Beauty and the Beak—so let’s chat more generally about nonfiction. What does your process look like for creating a nonfiction book?
To create nonfiction I talk to lots of people about my topic. That’s one of my favorite parts of doing a book. For Beauty and the Beak, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to coauthor the book with Janie Veltkamp, who led the team that engineered Beauty the bald eagle’s pioneering, 3D-printed prosthetic beak. Janie has encyclopedic knowledge about eagles, and Beauty’s story was Janie’s own scientist story too.
To create fiction I draw a lot on memories, things I see, my senses, words of all kinds, and my imagination. I don’t talk to a lot of other people about fiction I’m writing until I’m almost finished. I have a lot of fun working through fiction ideas inside my own head. I take it as a very good sign if I laugh out loud while I’m writing fiction!
How do you conduct your research? Does it change from book to book?
One thing that doesn’t change is that I gather way more research than I can use for each book. But it’s amazing how all that research may contain one fact that my editor suddenly wants me to include, or facts that an illustrator can use for visual storytelling to go with what I write.
I do my research by reading, watching videos, looking at many, many photos, and listening to interviews, in addition to talking to experts. For Scientists Get Dressed I was in contact with scientists and photographers around the world. They could tell me about their firsthand experiences, from collecting frozen snow samples on a glacier to gathering burning lava samples on a volcano. Their excitement and insight helps me make reading my nonfiction books a richer and deeper experience for both kids and adults.
Do you have any general tips for young, aspiring nonfiction writers?
Photographs are a fantastic source of ideas and research. Nonfiction is so huge, you can write about almost anything that grabs your interest and imagination. Making sure your facts are correct can be challenging. You can’t just trust all the information you see on the Internet. Always try to use more than one source for your research, and compare your sources to see what they say that is the same or different.
Whenever I talk to kids at schools, I tell them they don’t have to write the beginning of a book first! If an idea comes to me that might be best in the middle or the end of a book, that’s OK. I do not start writing all my books at the beginning of the story.
Advice that kids and teachers really like: If you get writer’s block, change what you’re doing. If you’re sitting, stand up. If you’re staring at a computer screen, go take a walk instead. Make a drawing of your ideas first and then try to turn them into words. If you can’t think of a word, look through the dictionary or a thesaurus. Try writing with a writing partner. Hug a tree, bake cookies, listen to birds singing, read a book…All these can help you write. I know, because I have done ALL of them!
And my best advice for the writing itself— USE STRONG VERBS.
Now, let’s get to the books. Can you tell us briefly about Scientists Get Dressed and Beauty and the Beak?
Scientist Get Dressed looks through the unique lens of scientists’ clothing to spotlight how scientists—including some who are also engineers—suit up, gown up, gear up, and even dress up in costume to make new discoveries, save lives, and save the planet.
Beauty and the Beak is a true story capturing the STEM innovation and human compassion that gave Beauty the bald eagle a new, 3D-printed, prosthetic beak after her real beak was shattered by a poacher’s bullet.
Both of these books combine multiple STEM disciplines in unique ways—scientific concepts and scientists as people in the one, and engineering, 3D printing technology and wildlife rehabilitation in the other. Was this a conscious choice? Or is this a reflection of how the real world works?
Both books are reflections of how the real world works, and both look at the world of real scientists doing extremely challenging jobs. Scientists Get Dressed is built on the foundation that science as a whole is not just random facts, but connected knowledge discovered through human endeavor. Beauty and the Beak grows from the real life of an extraordinary animal rescued by an extraordinary scientist harnessing state-of-the-art technology.
Was there anything that didn’t end up being included in either of these books that you want to share with readers here?
Scientists Get Dressed was published just a few months before the first all-woman spacewalk in 2019. I would have loved to include photos of those two astronauts together, getting dressed for their historic work in space. Luckily, my very next book WILL include them! The book is titled Astronauts Zoom! and it will be published in early fall 2020, in plenty of time for the 20th anniversary, on November 2, of astronauts living continuously on the International Space Station.
What do you hope your readers—especially the young ones—take away from your books, particularly Scientists Get Dressed and Beauty and the Beak?
Kids often learn a lot about STEM without ever meeting a scientist or engineer, or seeing images of how and where STEM professionals do their amazing work. I want young readers to see in Scientists Get Dressed, Beauty and the Beak and Astronauts Zoom! that real people make the discoveries and progress that are changing our lives. And I want young readers to imagine themselves someday doing important and rewarding work.
Many of our site’s readers are teachers and librarians. Is there anything you’d like to say to them—in particular those who may consider adding your books to their classrooms and libraries?
A lot of my books have been in print quite a while, so I know they have a long shelf life! In light of this, I work especially hard to write my books so they are relevant and empowering not just today but in the future. I craft my writing so children can listen to, read from, learn from and be inspired by my books for multiple years as they are growing up. I also know that adults read children’s books, with kids and on their own. I read so many children’s books to my own kids—I want the books I write to engage adult readers as well.
Where can readers learn more about you and your work?
My author website www.deborahleerose.com includes free educational guides, interviews, a contact form and much more.