I love nonfiction picture books. Especially ones about people that are relatively (or totally) unknown. Joan Procter, the curator of the reptile house at the London Zoo in 1923, is just such a person. Today, I have the privilege of talking with Patricia Valdez, whose debut picture book is a biography of Joan Procter.
Patricia Valdez is a scientist and author with a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California, Berkeley. She currently works at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She and her family are big fans of the National Zoo's Komodo dragon, Murphy.
Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor is her first picture book.
Patricia, Thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your debut book and writing.
ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? Have you always wanted to be a children’s writer?)
When I was a young girl, I used to write and illustrate stories in small spiral notebooks. (My daughter does the same thing now, which I love!) In high school, I gravitated toward the sciences, but English class was still one of my favorites. I surprised myself (and everyone else probably) by winning third place in the essay portion at the State Academic Decathlon competition. Instead of following my urge to write stories, I became a scientist – an Immunologist, to be exact. I started writing science-themed stories for my kids about four years ago. Finding time to write with young children in the house and a full-time job is challenging, to say the least. I am not a morning person, so I do most of my writing at night. Though, I secretly envy those writers to can wake up at the crack of dawn to write. Not me, I love my bed!
What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
In my early days, I used to infect tobacco plants with viruses and pick worms off plates for genetic screens. I eventually moved on to vertebrates!
Your debut picture book Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor is due out tomorrow (March 13th). Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
I’m always on the lookout for interesting stories about women scientists. Joan Procter came to me by way of the National Zoo’s Komodo dragon. My family and I love to visit him, and I was curious to learn more about these large lizards. One article I read included a sentence near the end about Joan Procter being the first person to describe Komodo dragons in captivity in the 1920’s. I was immediately intrigued. Very few women scientists worked at that time, and to find one that worked with Komodo dragons was amazing to me. It turns out, she was quite famous in her time, yet I had never read anything about her before that Komodo dragon article. I feel honored to be able to share her story with readers, both children and adults.
What was the most rewarding part of the publishing process for Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor?
With help from my amazing agent, Alyssa Eisner Henkin at Trident Media Group, my manuscript sold in a five-house auction. I was gratified to know that publishers are interested in these types of stories.
Wow! For a debut book that is amazing. Congratulations. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume were my favorite authors as a child. I was also a big fan of Bernard Waber’s Lyle, Lyle Crocodile and Gene Zion's Harry the Dirty Dog. As an older child, I was obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe’s work. Had I known about Edward Gorey back then, I’m sure I would have been obsessed with his work as well!
What was the hardest part of this book, the researching or the writing (revising)? Were there any unusual place(s) that you had to go to complete your research?
I am an obsessive researcher. I try to turn over every nook and cranny that I can find. The fear of missing out on that hidden nugget is what drives me. My research for Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor involved reading old newspaper articles and searching for archived material. I found old books on eBay. Luckily, Girton College at Cambridge University had many letters, drawings, and photos of Joan Procter. I could have continued researching to the ends of the Earth, so I had to stop and force myself to start writing. So, to answer your question, writing and revising was the hardest part for me. Researching - I could do that forever.
That I totally understand. It is so fun to find new information on a topic and so hard to stop looking. Is there something you want your readers to know about Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor?
I am so grateful that my wonderful team at Knopf BFYR paired my manuscript with the uber-talented Felicita Sala. Her illustrations brought just the right amount of whimsy to the story that I had in mind when I wrote the manuscript.
What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer for you?
Finding the time to write has been the most difficult aspect for me. I work best in silence, and with kids running around the house, it’s hard to find the perfect time.
Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I’m working on a picture book biography about a Latina scientist. I hope I can share more soon!
I look forward to the reveal. Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or anything you’re glad you hadn’t known about in advance?
If I could go back in time, I would apologize to the agents that received my first queries. Oh gosh, those stories were not ready and I jumped right in, not having done my research on agents or query letters. I have a hard time with patience, which is so important in the writing world. I eventually realized that publishing is a long haul, and it can’t be hurried, no matter how hard you try.
Is there anything you really wanted to say about the book, the process, or the struggle?
Writing a picture book biography means you will spend months and maybe even years with the subject, so it helps to like the person you're writing about. This book was truly a joy for me to write because Joan Procter's letters, interviews, and writing revealed a kind, funny, sharp, and no-nonsense woman. Just the kind of woman I love to write about!
What is your favorite animal? Why?
Komodo dragons, of course! They are incredibly intelligent animals. They can even be taught to count! And their eyes are amazing – if you catch their gaze, it feels like they are staring deep into your soul, which can be exciting and intimidating at the same time!
Thank you, Patricia for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.
If you want to read a wonderful #PPBF review, see Beth Anderson's post HERE.
If you are in the DC area, Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor’s launch is TOMORROW:
Tuesday, March 13, 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
Politics and Prose
5015 Connecticut Ave NW Washington DC 20008
This event is free to attend with no reservation required. Seating is available on a first come, first served basis.
CLICK HERE for more information and to pre-order a signed book.
To find out more about Patricia Valdez, or get in touch with her: