I promise not to gush, but Melissa Stewart is one of my curious kids’ favorite authors. Her science books are filled with quirky facts and zippy language proving that children’s nonfiction is anything but boring. When I started my journey into writing nonfiction picture books, Melissa was one of my big inspirations. I go back to her books time and time again to see how a master uses narrative structure and language.
This year Melissa will publish her 150th book. She has 21 new titles coming out in 2012 alone. Each book reflects her passion for science and the natural world.
She knows her stuff. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Union College in Schenectady, NY, and a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University. She worked as a children’s book editor for nine years before becoming a fulltime writer in 2000. She serves on the Board of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Keene State College Children’s Literature Festival.
Now, on to Melissa and her words of wisdom for new writers.
Where do your books ideas come from? What inspires you?
Melissa: Most of my book ideas come from things I read, things people tell me, or experiences I have. I’m a voracious reader and sometimes an article in a magazine or the newspaper will start a whole journey of exploration.
For example, my book It’s Spit-acular: The Secrets of Saliva was inspired by an article I read in Natural History magazine. The article focused on how pigs attract one another with pheromones in their spit. Apparently, perfume companies have isolated the chemical and added it to their products. But the chemical in question didn’t seem to work on humans. LOL! After reading that article, I became very interested in spit and started doing research. Saliva is way more interesting that you might think. Interesting enough for a 48 page book.
Do nonfiction authors typically use agents or are they more likely to query a publisher directly?
Melissa: Hmm. I’m not sure what is “typical” for nonfiction authors. I can only say that I don’t use an agent. Over the years, I’ve developed great relationships with quite a few editors, so I just submit directly to them.
What is the querying process like for nonfiction? Do you send a completed manuscript, as with fiction picture books, or is a query completely different?
Melissa: Most of my trade books are picture books. And whether they are fiction or nonfiction, editors need to see the whole manuscript. For longer books, editors generally want a solid understanding of what the book will be—target audience, word count, art ideas, a statement about why the book will be unique in the marketplace. I generally send samples that are long enough to give editors a good idea of the writing style I have in mind. That can range from a few pages to a few chapters depending on the book.
What are the best markets for nonfiction children’s writers, for example mass market vs. trade or educational?
Melissa: To build a career, I think the best idea is to write for all the different markets. Sometimes one market is feeling economic pressure. When they cut their lists, they don’t have to acquire new projects for a while. But I always have to pay my mortgage and electric bill. For example, when the trade and school and library markets are slow, I try to focus more on magazine articles and mass market. In my experience, diversity is the best guarantee of a constant revenue flow. And that’s fine with me because I like doing lots of different kinds of writing.
What does your research process look like, especially when the topic is completely new and/or challenging?
Melissa: My research process is different for every book. Because I’ve been doing this for 20 years and focus on science, I have a solid background in most areas of science. Recently, I wrote a book about the technological and scientific aspects of locating and studying the Titanic wreck. This meant doing a lot of historical research, which I discovered is quite different from researching a science topic.
For most of my books, I can find a scientist to tell me exactly what I need to know. With history, there are some things we’ll never know. And because different people often give different accounts of the same event, it’s hard to know what’s “true.” I’m glad I had this experience because it gives me a whole new appreciation of the challenges some of my colleagues face and overcome with every book. I’m sure they might say the same about the kind of research I do. It’s a strikingly different way of gathering and analyzing the information.
How do you take nonfiction from “just the facts” to a finished product that whisks children through the pages?
Melissa: Ah, that’s the most challenging part of my job. And the part I enjoy the most. It’s the most creative part of what I do, and it’s so rewarding when I know I’ve hit upon just the right approach.
Sometimes a book’s format and hook comes to me right away, and sometimes it takes years. One of the books I’m working on right now has been a ten-year process. I’ve written hundreds of drafts and tried four completely different approaches. Hitting the delete button on a manuscript you’ve worked on for a year can be devastating, but it’s also exhilarating. It opens up so many new possibilities.
The final product of my decade-long struggle, No Monkeys, No Chocolate, is slated for publication in 2013. I’m really curious to see how people will respond. The format is very innovative, but absolutely right for telling the story of how rainforest creatures depend on one another. And it doesn’t hurt that the book focuses on one of our favorite treats—chocolate.
In nonfiction, how does the partnership with illustrators work? Do publishing houses select the artwork or do you have more input?
Melissa: Again, I can only describe what I have experienced. The process may be different for other authors. I generally am involved in the process. Editors send me samples and ask for my input. We usually chose the illustrator collaboratively. I review sketches because scientific accuracy is so important for my books and illustrators may not have a strong science background. I’m very lucky to work with some great illustrators, including Higgins Bond and Constance Bergum. The chocolate book will be illustrated by Nicole Wong and another upcoming book is being illustrated by my long-time friend Sarah Brannen.
Do publishing houses require an expert to review nonfiction manuscripts? What are some good ways to find these experts if you haven’t relied upon interviews?
Melissa: Some publishers will find an independent expert to vet the manuscript, but usually it’s up to me. I have a big file of scientists I’ve developed relationships with over the years. And I routinely contact them as I’m researching and writing. It’s the only way to get the most up-to-date information.
If I need to find someone new, I usually use the Internet. University websites describe the work of their faculty and include links to their scientific papers. So it’s very easy for me to identify people who are experts in a given field.
Melissa, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to provide advice to beginning writers.
Melissa: Thanks so much for interviewing me, Kirsten. There’s nothing I enjoy more than writing for curious kids, so your blog is a perfect fit for the kind of work I do.
Visit Melissa at her Science Clubhouse or check out her Celebrate Science blog, which is always full of fun science facts. Also, please see my previous review of her fascinating book, Inside Volcanoes.