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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Jennifer Swanson

Who hasn't dreamed of being an astronaut, exploring the vast solar system? What about exploring or probing the vast depths of our oceans? I have a surprise today. The amazing Nonfiction writer, Jennifer Swanson, has a book that compares these two scientific fields. Although Jennifer Swanson's newest nonfiction book, through National Geographic Kids (NGKids), is an amazing nonfiction look at the interconnection of space and the sea, aimed at eight to twelve-year-olds, the photos, illustrations, and experiments are stunning and will captivate kids of all ages. This one included.

Jennifer is the award-winning author of over 25 nonfiction and fiction books for children. Her books in the “How Things Work” series by The Child’s World were named to the 2012 Booklist’s Top 10 Books for Youth. Top reviews include a starred review in Booklist, and recommended reviews from School Librarians Workshop, Library Media Connection, and a Nerdy Book Club award. Jennifer's passion for science resonates in in all her books but especially, Brain Games (NGKids) which received a Eureka! Honor Award from the California Reading Association and Super Gear: Nanotechnology and Sports Team Up (Charlesbridge) which was named both a Best STEM book of 2017 and an Outstanding Trade Book 2017 by the National Science Teacher Association.

Jennifer, thanks so much for stopping by to chat with us about your books and your writing.

ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing?)

JENNIFER: I’ve been writing for about ten years. I first started writing fiction picture books, but I discovered they are much more difficult to write than you think. So, I found my way to nonfiction books which is definitely my sweet spot—especially ones about science. Writing them fuels my passion for getting fun and interesting information in the hands of young readers like me. I write in my office and work about 8 hours a day. Sometimes that is writing, sometimes it’s PR and marketing and other times its editing and reviewing other people’s writing.

How did you first get into writing for children? What was the path for your first book(s)? [Did you really publish 3 “How Things Work” books with Children’s World and 2 books with Capstone - Uninvited Guests and Body Bugs – in August of 2011?]

In my quest to write fiction books for kids, I attended an SCBWI conference where I was paired for a critique with Elaine Landau. A very fabulous and widely published Florida author. She saw something in my writing – my love for science and encouraged me to follow that. Elaine took time out of her day to sit down with me and tell me how to create a submission package for work-for-hire companies. I took copious notes, went home, created one and sent it out. Two months later I got a call from a Capstone editor offering me a two-book deal!

I kept sending out resume packages and a few months later I landed a 5- book deal with The Child’s World. Due to editor changes and scheduling issues with both contracts, I ended up working on seven different books at the same time. These were my very first writing contracts. Talk about trial by fire! But I managed to juggle them all and make every deadline. It was awesome! And I was off and running.

Oh, my word. Managing one or two books is a challenge. Starting with seven! You definitely were running. As a child, who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book?

I was a HUGE fan of the Nancy Drew books. I read every single one of them, probably twice. I also loved Harriet the Spy. If it was a mystery, I read it. I read a lot of nonfiction books, too. I have this huge urge to learn things!

I wonder if the authors of the Nancy Drew series realize how many children's authors they've inspired? Where do you get your inspiration for your books? What inspired you to write your most recent book Astronaut, Aquanaut: How Space Science and Sea Science Interact?

I read a lot of articles on technology, engineering, and science. I am endlessly full of questions and interesting things catch my eye. When I was a kid, I grew up watching Jacques Cousteau on television and I wanted more than anything to be an oceanographer. Then, when the space shuttle was created, I wanted to be an astronaut. I had a huge poster of it on my bedroom wall. Sally Ride was my hero! It only seemed natural to me to write a book about the two career paths that inspired me as a child.

Which makes it even more special that you not only got to write about these careers, but you met Cousteau's grandson and astronaut Dr. Kathryn Sullivan (among many others). What was the hardest part about writing and/or researching Astronaut, Aquanaut? The most fun part? Do you have a portion or section that you love the most?

The most challenging part was tracking down the astronauts and aquanauts that were my experts for this book. I felt very strongly that I wanted to ask these experts questions that I thought kids might want to know. It took me a couple of months to get them to respond, mostly because these experts are very busy people, but they were all thrilled to participate. I think adding in their comments adds a depth to this book because it helps the kids to connect directly with it.

I totally agree. I really enjoyed reading their individual comments. How does Astronaut, Aquanaut differ from your other books?

This book is more of a compare and contrast with the two different topics. It worked out well to construct the book this way since the two main ideas – training for space and the deep ocean have many similarities and differences.

I just love the cover and the whole idea of comparing these fields! There are an amazing number of similarities between these two. Do you have a favorite type of book to write? (Or book – we won’t tell the others) Any unique challenges or joys in working on a particular project?

I will write pretty much anything, but my favorite age range is 3rd-5th grade. I am fascinated by ideas that are out-of-the box, surprising, and unique. Something that makes you go, “Hmmmm… I didn’t know that.” Or “Wow! That’s so cool!” That is what keeps me writing. As I said before, I have an overwhelming curiosity about the world and I strive to have all of my questions answered.

Your child-like joy and curiosity have definitely created some amazing books. So, for a craft question - are you an outliner or a panster?

I am required to do an outline for all of my books, since they are nonfiction. But since I research as I write, I rarely stick exactly to the outline. As for my writing process, I am a total “pantser.” I find that I work much better writing like mad, hair-on-fire to meet a deadline. And I do. I have rarely missed a deadline and only for very good reasons. But I’m always sure to let the editors know well in advance if I think that is going to happen.

What is the most important thing for authors wanting to write about science?

Have passion for the subject! It doesn’t matter if you have a science background or not, if you love the topic and enjoy sharing unique bits of knowledge with kids, writing science is for you.

That's encouraging. You have written for a vast span of ages – K to 12th grade (or 80 yrs. old) – is any one age group harder or easier than the others?

For me, personally, I have a harder time writing for the K-2 crowd. I just need more words. There is a saying in the writer’s world that you write the age you are inside your head. My voice is about 9 or 10, so that makes me great at writing for grades 3 and up.

The majority of your books are science based. And you’ve said your goal is to show kids that “science is all around us.” How different was it to write the histories and the Native American tale? What inspired you to write these books?

It was tons of fun. I love history as well. Those books were work-for-hire assignments and were primarily narrative nonfiction. This gave me a chance to flex my writing muscles and do narrative instead of expository.

How long does it take you to research and write one of these science books? Any one of them take a really long (or short) time? Did it take longer to write the historical fictions?

Each book that I write has a deadline, of course. Some of them are long (3-4 months) some of them are short (2 weeks). I adjust my writing schedule accordingly. Since I research as I write, those short deadlines can get really interesting… 😊

I'll bet. Brain Games and Super Gear got a lot of media attention including several television interviews ( You’ve even been interviewed at the Jacksonville Auto Show. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about them? Or something you wish you had been asked?

I’ve been thrilled to be interviewed for many of my books. It is exciting, but also a bit scary. The best thing to do is to be yourself. Working with the interviewers was fun. They are all very generous, kind people.

I hope you all take a moment to watch an interview or two, they are really enlightening and fun. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I was a cheerleader in middle school and high school and I studied tumbling and ballet for twelve years.

Combine that with the Naval Academy and you are as fascinating as your topics. How have writing these books changed your life, outlook on science, or ideas on teaching science?

I am so very lucky to have this career. I feel like I have finally found my place in the world. I get great joy from seeing kids get so excited when they read books about science and history. And I greatly cherish the sense of community and friendships that I have found in kidlit world.

What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child, now as a writer, or both.)

My mom. She had a fierce love of reading, especially nonfiction. She always supported everything I do and I was never told that there was anything I couldn’t do. My other inspiration is my husband. He was the one who really encouraged me to write and follow my dreams. If it weren’t for either of these two, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

What is the best, funniest, or saddest thing you’ve experience during your school visits? Any hints or suggestions for newer authors preparing for their first couple of visits?

School visits are amazing! Interacting with the fabulous kids and teachers can give an author quite a rush. They are also exhausting, so pace yourself. My goal is to make my presentation come alive. If you love what you do, it will shine forth.

Any new project(s) you are working on that you can share a tidbit with us?

I have two books coming out in 2019 that I am very excited about. The first one is called Save the Crash-Test Dummies and it releases from Peachtree Publishers next summer. It is a history of car safety and has a very chummy, slightly snarky crash-test dummy as the narrator. I’m so proud of this book because it is about engineering and will be published by a trade publisher.

The second book is called Top Secret Ops: Sneaky Tricks and Daring Deeds of WWII and it will be released by Bloomsbury in fall 2019. I love the voice that I was able to use in this book and also that it is filled with little-known tidbits of military operations from WWII – something not a lot of kids know about.

Ooh, those sound so interesting. Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or perhaps something you are glad you didn’t know at the beginning?

Writing is harder than it looks, but SO worthwhile. All I can say is don’t give up. I, like every other author, have also met my share of disappointment and rejection. I still do. But I try not to take it personally. When I get a rejection, I wait for a few days to digest, then (as the song goes) “I dust myself off, pick myself up and start all over again…”

What is your favorite animal? Why?

I have always loved koala bears because they seem so soft and furry. And they are from Australia, one place that is definitely on my to-visit list!!

Thank you so much Jen for participating in this chat!

Thanks for having me, Maria.

Be sure to stop back by on Friday for the #PPBF post on Astronaut Aquanaut: How Space science and Sea Science Interact.

To learn more about Jennifer Swanson, or get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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