The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Chana Stiefel
You probably know this author from her recent picture book Daddy Depot (Feiwel & Friends, 2017). But did you know Chana has written 23 non-fiction books for kids and over 95 magazine articles? She’s also been an editor for Scholastic’s Science World magazine and taught a year-long Writing Workshop to classes of energetic and creative kids at a local high school.
Hope you enjoy this interview with my amazing critique partner, Chana Stiefel whose newest book, Animal Zombies, released Aug. 28, from National Geographic Kids.
ME: Chana, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about writing and your newest picture book.
CHANA: My pleasure, Maria. Great to be here!
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember (my first gig was founding editor of the Sixth Grade Sentinel at my elementary school). After college, I earned a Master’s in Science, Health & Environmental Reporting at NYU School of Journalism. Lucky for me, Scholastic was down the block and I interned there at a children’s science magazine called SuperScience. I soon discovered how much I loved writing science for kids. Scholastic hired me as an editor for their middle grade magazine called Science World. After many years, I started freelancing and then writing books for kids.
For about 15 years I wrote non-fiction, but when the story for Daddy Depot popped into my head while putting my daughter to bed one night, I began the long and winding road toward writing fiction as well.
Lately I’ve been super busy with my day job as Director of Public Relations at an all-girls private school. I manage to write anywhere and everywhere—at my home office, in line at the supermarket, even in the pool. I’m mainly writing picture books, but I’ve completed a middle grade novel that is waiting for a major overhaul.
What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
OK, don’t freak out, but when I was a kid I used to have a jar at home called "Pickled Pets"! (Hey, what did you expect from the author of Animal Zombies!?) Basically, we had a pet snake and an iguana that croaked. My father, who was a surgeon, came home with a jar of formaldehyde and we turned them into science projects. It was a fun, but creepy childhood.
Ha! What a great childhood. That explains so much about your love and attraction to science. Can you clarify the difference between educational and trade publishers? Your first trade book was Daddy Depot (May 16, 2017). What category is Animal Zombies?
My first books were for the educational market, which sell mainly to schools and libraries. For some of these books, my contracts were "work for hire," meaning I was paid one lump sum—no advance or royalties. Editors reached out to me with book ideas (I know, right?!) and I wrote according to their guidelines. Some titles I’ve written for the educational market include the Ye Yucky Middle Ages series (e.g., Sweaty Suits of Armor: Could You Survive Being a Knight?) for Enslow Publishers and The Weather Channel: Forces of Nature for Scholastic.
A turning point came when I signed with my agent John Cusick at Folio Literary. John has helped me break into the trade market with Daddy Depot (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan) and with my newest fiction picture book, My Name is Wakawakaloch!, coming out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in August 2019.
Animal Zombies is the first non-fiction book that I pitched on my own to an educational publisher, National Geographic. John helped me negotiate the contract.
Exciting news! I also have a new non-fiction picture book coming out in 2021 from Scholastic called Let Liberty Rise! It’s the true story of how school children helped build the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.
I'm looking forward to your upcoming books. Was any book harder than the others for you to write? Why?
Every book has its challenges. Animal Zombies took four years from pitch to publication. I originally pitched the idea to an editor from National Geographic Kids at a children’s non-fiction conference in 2014. The editor called it a “slam dunk” (woohoo!), but I still had to revise the outline and go through a long acquisitions and contractual process. In the meantime, I collected a HUGE clip file with every creepy critter I could find. I spent a lot of time doing research, interviewing scientists, writing and revising. I love fact-finding missions, but it was a long and arduous process. Still, the payoff is a monstrous new book with that bright yellow National Geographic border on my bookshelf.
Congratulations! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
Ah! Tough question! That’s like asking who’s my favorite child. One of my all-time favorites is Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey. I loved sitting on my mother’s lap and listening to her read it me over and over again. I also adore Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman and of course Where the Wild Things Are. For middle grade, it’s From the Mixes-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg. There is no doubt that reading—and loving—these books made me want to write for kids.
May have been hard to start, but you definitely remembered some amazing stories and story times. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer.)
My parents instilled in me a deep love of nature and a sense of wonder. I grew up in South Florida. We used to go on “swamp tromps” in the Everglades collecting fossils in some squishy muck that forms wetlands. After huge rainstorms, we had puddles in front of my house that lasted for weeks. We would wade in them, collecting tadpoles in jars and watching them metamorphose into frogs. My parents bought a canoe, and we used to paddle down the canal next to our house looking for exotic birds and even manatees.
My parents always encouraged creativity. My father once brought me up to the roof of our house to pour paint onto a canvass. He gets very excited about my books and I still send him my manuscripts to review.
Besides Daddy Depot and your upcoming book My Name Is Wakawakaloch! (Spring 2019), the majority of your books involve science or history. Was Animal Zombies easier to write than the fiction picture books?
I wouldn’t say easier. I think I use both sides of my brain for writing. I love writing non-fiction because I get to unearth interesting facts and mind-blowing true stories and share them with kids.
But there is something liberating about writing fiction—that you can go anywhere your brain takes you. For me, the challenges of writing fiction come from inventing new, interesting and unique characters, developing an arc that keeps the pages turning, and choosing just the right words to tell a story. Other than that, piece of cake!
Piece of Cake, indeed. What is the hardest thing about publishing? The most amazing?
Hardest Thing #1: waiting. Publishing tends to ooze. Days turn into months and years. The picture book that I sold in 2017 won’t be out until 2021! That’s why it’s important to just keep writing!
Hardest Thing #2 : rejection. I try not to let rejection get me down. I know it’s part of the biz, but who likes rejection? Let’s just say I keep Ben & Jerry’s in business.
Most Amazing Thing #1: Hearing the good news that an editor said yes!
Most Amazing Thing #2: Holding a new book in my hands!
Most Amazing Thing #3: Sharing that book with kids! Every time I do an author visit, I walk out feeling like I have the best job in the world.
Even so, the list of amazing things outweighs the list of frustrations. Is there something you want your readers to know about Animal Zombies?
Warning: It is VERY creepy and gross. There are wormlike amphibians that eat their mom. There are mucus-covered hagfish. There are mites that live in your eyelashes. Each chapter also includes the mythology of a different monster (vampires, zombies, and aliens, oh my!) and an interview with a “mad scientist” who studies real-life monsters in nature. If you love thrills and chills, this is the book for you!
I know a couple of kids (and adults) who will love the grossness of this book! Which animal did you find the most fascinating? The most disgusting?
Hmmm. Again, too hard to choose. I just opened to a random page: I’m looking at a female anglerfish whose glow attracts mates. Multiple males clamp their jaws on the female and they become permanently attached. The males hang around for life and fertilize the female’s eggs. How’s that for fascinating and disgusting at the same time?
I liked the killer cone snail, definitely going to make me more cautious about the shells I pick up on the beach. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I am working on a picture book biography called the Tower of Life, about a woman who rebuilt her village in photographs and stories after the Holocaust. I’ve never written anything this challenging, but I feel a responsibility to tell her story.
This story sounds interesting. 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 didn’t know about in advance?
I wish I had known that publishing is a marathon, not a sprint. I still expect things to happen quickly and they never do. But my friend Sunni, who is a tri-athlete, says, “Envision your finish line.” No matter how hard things get or how tough the rejections are, just keep writing and you’ll get there!
Great quote, thanks. What is your favorite animal? Why?
We have a pet fighter fish named Robert S. Mueller IV. He’s my favorite critter right now.
Thank you, Chana for stopping by. It was wonderful to chat with you.
Thanks for having me!
Be sure to stop back by this Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Animal Zombies!
To find out more about Chana Stiefel, or get in touch with her: