The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Heidi Stemple
Have I got an amazing treat for you this week! I am joined by the funny, talented, and generous Heidi Stemple.
If for some reason, you know don't who Heidi Stemple is. Heidi has co-authored 28 or so books with her mother - who is none other than the amazing Jane Yolen. She has also written numerous short stories and poems (a complete list is on her website), a concept picture book - One If By Land: A Massachusetts Number Book (America by the Numbers) (2006), and part of a nonfiction series - Witch Haunts (Scary Places) (2016). But she is especially proud of her newest picture book, Counting Birds: The Idea That Helped Save Our Feathered Friends (Young Naturalist), which released October 2, 2018.
ME: Heidi thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your books and writing.
HEIDI: Thanks for having me! I’m always excited to talk about books, but especially about Counting Birds because it has been my passion project for a very long time. I tried to write in in a bunch of different ways, but it wasn’t until I quit trying to find a storyline and told it as a nonfiction, that it finally clicked.
I think lots of us have experienced that with one or more manuscripts. Why don't you tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
I didn’t want to be an author. In fact, I went to school for something totally different. I studied psychology and criminal justice and, after college, went to the corrections academy and became a probation/parole officer and then a private investigator. It wasn’t until I was pregnant (with my daughter who is now 23) and too sick to take a new job (at a battered women’s shelter as a counselor) that I began writing. Now that seems impossibly young, but, in my family, it’s pretty late to start in books. By then, both my younger brothers were already published (as a musician and a photographer).
As for my favorite types of books to write—I’m pretty equal-opportunity. I particularly love nonfiction and rhyming books. They, actually, have something in common—rules. (See the link with my law-and-order background?) Both rhyming and non-fiction come with a set of rules that you can use as structure. Of course, there is tons of wiggle room within the structure, but I love parameters! Super nerdy, right?
When you read Counting Birds, though, you will see that, though I stuck to those rules (in non-fiction, being research and stick with the facts), I chose a narrative arc instead of an expository way of storytelling. Counting Birds is nonfiction meant to be read aloud—with bouncy repeated lines and intentional alliteration and some pops of rhyme. THAT is how I love to write.
Well, I for one, am glad you succumbed to the dark side and became an author! How did your writing partnership with your mother, Jane Yolen, begin? What is it like to write with her?
Though Counting Birds is not written with her, many of my books are (including two other books this season — Monster
Academy (August) and Fly With Me (October) - a collaboration with my entire family).
My mom had been trying to get me to write for years. She was already publishing with my brothers. But, once we started, I learned something about myself—I love writing, and I am good at it. I really love the process. I love researching and mining the ideas I find everywhere I look. I love putting words on paper. And I even (grudgingly) like (notice I didn’t say ‘love’) revision. I have this in common with my mom and we work easily with each other.
I’d say that honesty is our best collaboration skill. We are both very honest with each other. And, because there is no fear of offending or hurting feelings (we are too used to each other for that) we work efficiently because of this honesty. If you were listening in, you might think we were being harsh with each other, but we, long ago learned that we don’t need to sugar coat anything with each other.
Counting Birds, of course, is my solo project. I didn’t even let my mom read it until I had a very strong draft. I think she gave me about 3 notes, which I attended to before submitting it to my agent and, from there, Quarto who found Clover Robin to illustrate and, voila! A book!!
Since writing can be such a solitary endeavor, this sounds like such an amazing gift to be able to collaborate with a kindred spirit. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
I think I may have already told you all my secrets. Here is something many people know about me, but it’s a really fun fact. I am the little girl in my mom’s Caldecott winning book Owl Moon which is a sort-of true story of my father and me calling owls.
I love that book, and knowing you're the little girl in the book, makes it that much more special for me. Would you say there is a common thread in your books?
Two things—nature and girl power. I am passionate about both and they certainly slip into just about everything I write. In fact, shhhhh…. I am working on a manuscript right now that combines the two.
How exciting! I look forward to the announcement. What was your inspiration for writing Counting Birds?
My father was a bird watcher. In his retirement (from his job in academia), he became a bird recordist. I grew up watching birds, and, once a year, counting them for the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. My dad was a bit of a legend in our local bird count—he always had great numbers. I would wake at midnight with him and we would set out calling down owls. On our best night, we called a record 34. After he died, I assembled a group of friends who we dubbed the OMG (which stands for Owl Moon Gang) and we count owls and honor his memory. The first years were a bit rough, but then, in 2013 (I think that’s right) we called down 67 owls!
So, you see, this book is about a very special event in my life—one I participate in every year. Once I started learning more about the count, I knew I HAD to write this book.
Since I also participate in the bird count each year, learning about the originator of the bird count drew me to your book. How does your experience with Counting Birds differ from any of your previous books or experiences? What was the hardest part of creating this book? Did you get to work with Clover Robin?
I didn’t even know Clover Robin existed before my editor at Quarto told me she was illustrating the book. I was blown away. I am so in love with her work. She has an Etsy shop and I intend to do some buying… That is actually pretty normal in the picture book making process. The authors don’t usually have a say (or very little say) in the illustrating. I know that sounds rough, but, really, the illustrator is not looking over my shoulder when I write, so why would I look over her shoulder when she illustrates? The editor is in charge of the book itself and the vision of the completed project falls, generally, to her/them (thanks to the amazing Josalyn Moran and Regina Griffin!!) This is, of course, not the same if the author is also the illustrator, but since I cannot draw…
As for the process being different from other books, I would have to say, I was so close to this project, it was, for years, difficult to focus on it. I tried writing it as a fiction book. I tried writing it from multiple points of view. I tried writing it in rhyme. They all failed completely. It wasn’t until I had all the research in front of me in a secluded writing retreat (hello Highlights!) that I realized the book needed to be told the same way that I had been presenting about it to kids for years… “Frank Chapman loved birds…”
And, then the story just opened up for me. It was, truly, an aha moment..
Highlights is amazing for bringing clarity and calm. I finally got to check it off my bucket list this year! I've often heard that the hardest part of a manuscript can be finding the way IN. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
If I don’t say Jane Yolen, I get kicked out of the family! But, there are many answers to this. I loved Tasha Tudor and Dahlov Ipcar. I have always been obsessed with Trina Schartt Hyman’s illustration. I am lucky to have grown up in the kidlit community and have known these wonderful illustrators since I was a child. To this day, I surround myself with illustrator friends and my home is filled with children’s book illustration.
My favorite children’s books as a young kid were Pumpkin Moonshine, Corgiville Fair, and Cindy's Snowdrops. Growing older, I reread Charlotte's Web over and over and over. And, The Outsiders changed the course of my life—moving me to become obsessed with kids in street gangs and then criminal justice. I still read, almost exclusively, middle grade (and some YA) novels. I have given up on adult literature because I prefer the younger genres. I’m in the middle of The Kidney Hypothetical by Lisa Yee, having just finished Boy Meets Boy by David Levethan. But, my passion is in picture books. I read every one I can get my hands on. I believe that every one is a master class in the craft of writing/illustrating. I enjoy and learn in equal measure.
With such a talented community of writers, we'll never run out of things to learn. Do you have a favorite book? (Either your own or a joint one with your mother.) Perhaps one that was the most gratifying to write? One that means the most you or your family? (We promise not to tell the others.)
Well, Counting Birds is the book of my heart. The one I think I was meant to write. I am so excited about it. But, also we have a book called Fly with Me coming out this fall as well (what an amazing pairing—run out and buy them both!!) which is a National Geographic compilation of nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and science, mixed with fun nerdy-bird facts. It is 200 pages of awesomeness!
Also, You Nest Here with Me (with Jane Yolen and illustrated by the incomparable Melissa Sweet), a lullaby for the bird loving child, was a book that took almost a dozen years to bring to fruition. It was worth the wait. There is no book I have ever written that I like reading aloud more than this book. Can you find the common thread? Yup. Birds.
But, the additional answer to this question is—the book I am working on right now. I can’t tell you what it is, but I am hip-deep in the research and revision. So, I am living with these characters (it happens to be nonfiction, so real characters) presently. I love it so so much. (Perhaps, if/when it becomes a books, we will talk about that next!)
I would be delighted to discuss that treasure with you. Was it serendipity or planning for Monster Academy (August), Counting Birds (October 2nd), Fly With Me (October 16th) to release this Fall? What are the positives and negatives of books coming out this close together?
We have no choice about release dates. Having the two bird books arrive in the same season is, actually quite fun. I give a bird program and I will just expand it to include both these books. More books are always better!
We will be doing a different fun reading/talk for Monster Academy (I am making props in my garage right now…) It certainly makes for a busy fall! But, this means we will be all over the place—please try to come find us or invite us to your town!
Oh, to live on the East Coast! I would love to come to a program with either or both of you. Is there something you want your readers to know about Counting Birds?
I want everyone to know that, though it was my idea, it takes a team to make a book. Having editors that believe in your idea is more important than someone who doesn’t work in book-making can understand. And, the illustrations are so delicious, it’s like my birthday every time I look at a new piece. I just hope everyone loves it as much as I do. And, I hope new people take up bird watching, or conservation, or even join the Count because of it!
[picture of Heidi counting birds]
I hope that lots of people check out the link above and join in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count this year. It's such a great way to get kids and families involved in citizen science. What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer or illustrator for you? Any advice for unpublished authors or illustrators?
HA! Everything about working in this creative field is frustrating. There are long waits, and everything is subjective. You can be working on a book for years and just as you get it ready to send out, a super famous author publishes a book on the same topic. There are bad reviews or no reviews. And rejections. Rejections are hard every single time—I just got two while answering these questions! [Yikes-Sorry!]
But-- and this is key--if you love what you do, you keep at it. Because the years it took to write, then sell, then revise this book—all worth it when I get to hold the first copy in my hand and then read it aloud to kids. It’s magic.
Wow! No one's immune. Thank you for both your honesty and encouragement. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
So many! A girl who loves bugs, a moose with no friends, a girl scientist in the times that girls weren’t taken seriously… I have so many ideas that I am working on. I should quit talking to you and go write!
These are all tantalizing ideas! 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 have kind of a unique view of this world since I grew up in it. My advice to people who want to write or illustrate picture books is to read picture books. All of them. Join SCBWI (that’s the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and find yourself a critique group that is supportive and honest (if your critiquers are only one or the other, it’s not worth your time). Do not let rejection break your spirit and enthusiasm. Know the difference between editors and critics. Editors tell you something needs work and give you practical solutions or the space to make your work better. Critics just say your work isn’t good enough. Always keep learning. Even my mother, after a career spanning more than 50 years and 365 (yes, you read that correctly) is still learning. And, me—at 25 years and 26 books, I’m still (at least in my family) a piker. A newbie. Keep learning.
If you're doing it right, you never stop learning. Hope you dodge those critics whenever possible! What is your favorite animal? Why?
Right now—a moose because I am writing about one. But, in general, definitely an owl. In particular, an Eastern Screech Owl. If you want to hear me call them, find me at a reading!
DEAL! Maybe at the next NESCBWI. Thank you, Heidi for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.
Please be sure to stop by Friday for a Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF post on Counting Birds: The Idea That Helped Save Our Feathered Friends (Young Naturalist).
To find out more about Heidi Stemple, or get in touch with her:
If you are in the vacinity - here are Heidi's signings/events you might want to investigate -
20: Rutgers Children’s Literature Conference (Keynote)
26-28: MN (TBA)
3: Rochester Book Festival, Rochester NY
4: Northshire Bookstore, Saratoga Springs NY
11-16: Highlights, PA (teaching) 17 or 18: PA (TBA) 27 through December 18: (Tuesdays, 6-8 pm) Picturebook 101: A Beginner's Series on How to Write a Picturebook, Storyteller's Cottage, Simsbury, CT (Must register through the Storyteller's Cottage who will give more information including cost) Thanksgiving week: SC (TBA)
1: The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, Acton, MA (Birds, 11am) 2: Whately Library, Whately, MA (Counting Birds, 10am) 8: Hitchock Center, Amherst MA (Birds—young children, 10am) 8: Carle Museum, Amherst, MA (Birds, 2pm) 11: Hitchcock Center, Amherst MA (Birds, older kids) 16: Bird Count (I will begin at midnight and count owls then stop by to see the kids at the Hitchcock Center)
January 18 -20: FL SCBWI
March 30: Meltdown, Northampton MA
May 3 – 5: New England SCBWI: May 3-5