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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Curtis Manley

I get the honor to do a second interview with a wonderful author and my friend, Curtis Manley. On his website, Curtis shared why he creates picture books:

"I write for young people of all ages and strive to create fun books

with facts about the world around us and truths about the worlds within."

Welcome back Curtis! It’s so exciting that your fourth book Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks Planet releases tomorrow!

Thanks for inviting me back, Maria!

For some basic information on Curtis, see our earlier interview in March 2017 (here).

ME: So let's jump right in. How does your newest picture book, Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks Planet, differ from your previous books The Summer Nick Taught His Cats to Read, The Crane Girl, and Shawn Loves Sharks?

CURTIS: Although I put factual information into all my books, Just Right is the first of my books that is really truly a nonfiction picture book! Also, it’s about real science, and that makes it extra special to me.

Especially since you're a scientist, a geologist in a former life! Where did the idea for Just Right come from?

The first book I sold to a publisher was Shawn Loves Sharks, in late 2013. When I talked on the phone with my editor for that book, she mentioned her interest in science, encouraged me to send her any space stories I might write, and said she’d love to have a book about the search for habitable planets around other stars. Right away I began working on two space manuscripts, but I knew that a manuscript about exoplanets would take more research, so I put it off for two years. Silly me! Nothing has yet come of those other manuscripts…

Oh, does that mean we have two more space books from you on the horizon? That is exciting. By the way, I love the book's title. Did you have the title at the start? How did you come up with it?

Thanks! I really like the title, too. I didn’t have a title right at the beginning, but after a month or so I had about five possible titles. The other ones were rather awkward, so they weren’t in the running for very long!

So, just like the text, the title requires marination and many revisions. What was the hardest part to figure out in the writing or structure of Just Right?

The topic of exoplanets touches on the history of the universe, the different types of stars, the formation of planets, the structure of our own solar system and how similar or different it is from other star systems, the various kinds of telescopic observations used to detect exoplanets, etc. Deciding which sub-topics had to be included, which could be noted in passing, and which could be completely omitted (or pushed to the backmatter) was difficult. Every one of those sub-topics interests me, so cutting some out was painful! It was also difficult to choose just the right words to explain the concepts to young readers, but that didn’t seem quite as hard—

I just hope I was successful!

I'd say you succeeded beautifully. Did you submit any of your manuscripts with illustrator notes? Did you have much input into the images?

I include illustrator notes only when necessary for the text of the story to make sense to the editor—or when I think I have a really good idea for what kind of image might go with this or that bit of text (editors can then decide whether to remove those notes before sending the manuscript to the illustrator). But every story is different! I didn’t include a single illustrator note in my manuscript of Just Right—so what you see in the illustrations are Jessica’s ideas. Once she was working on the art, I had a responsibility to make sure the illustrations matched up with the science—but Jessica had done her homework, so we needed to make only a few very minor adjustments in the text and the images!

Wow! Not a single note. Now I can't wait to talk to Jessica tomorrow! Having worked with four different illustrators, what surprised you the most when you saw the illustrations for Just Right? Was there much of a difference in the amount of contact you had with any of the illustrators?

What surprised me most (and by “surprised” I mean that I didn’t know what to expect, rather than that I expected something else) was the parallel narrative of the family that Jessica created to guide the illustrations and help make the subject matter clear to the reader. Deciding to base the images on what the young girl character sees and imagines was the perfect approach—and it was certainly not something that I’d envisioned.

There was absolutely no difference in the amount of contact I had with the illustrators while they were working on my books—because in each case I had no direct contact at all! Each editor kept me up to date on the illustrator’s progress, and when I had feedback I sent it to the editor. The editor then decided how much of my feedback to pass along to the illustrator. And everything worked out.

I'd say the editor created the perfect 50-50 partnership. What's something you want your readers to know about Just Right?

The scientific discoveries described in the book are happening right now, every day, in observatories and astronomers’ offices around the world, as new data is collected by telescopes on Earth and those in space (where a telescope can work 24/7 because it can turn its back on our Sun and look continuously out into the darkness).

One of the challenges in creating Just Right was needing to change final text—and finished illustrations—when astronomers discovered new exoplanets or when they realized that exoplanets they already knew about were different than they first thought.

An example is the exoplanet known as WASP-12b (which, like most exoplanets, is so far away that even powerful telescopes can’t actually image it): since it’s a gas giant similar in size to Jupiter, it made sense to assume it might resemble Jupiter. But then astronomers were able to measure the actual light reflecting off WASP-12b—and realized it was darker than asphalt! So Jessica needed to paint over the brighter colors she started with!

With a field that is constantly changing, it's amazing any book can be created that isn't obsolete on publication. Who or what is (was) your greatest source of inspiration (either as a child, now as a writer, or both)?

As a kid I was interested in science and nature, and even now those are the sources of many details and themes in what I end up writing. My education was in geology, and even when I was in the middle of nowhere mapping rock units, I was always also paying attention to all the non-rock things around me. Maybe someday some of that will end up in a book…

That would be fun, since there aren't a lot of picture books with a geology focus. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?

Spend more time outside really looking at things: the moon and stars, clouds, rocks, animals, plants, insects… Even if you are mostly interested in technology, the natural world has many lessons for you that can inspire you and help you understand how all kinds of things work. Yes, it’s messy, but look closely and you’ll find valuable patterns, details, and lessons.

But messy is what makes it fun! With four picture books published in the past three years, does it still feel like a dream?

One way or another, it does still feel like a dream—especially since each book is so different from the others. With this book, as I mentioned, I was able to add nonfiction PB to the fiction PB and retold-folktale PB genres of my other books.

Two other little dreams also came true with this book: One is that the endpapers are not just plain but have art and words (a scientific timeline). The other little dream? Well, that’s a secret… until you hold the book in your hands!

So who's dashing out right now to pre-order the book for delivery tomorrow? I can tell you it's worth it. Okay, back to the interview, are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I’ll just say this: when a crucial source of information is a 300-page book written in a language you don’t speak or read, a scanner, optical character recognition, and Google Translate (warts and all) are your friends!

I am totally enthralled & can't wait to hear the announcement for your next book. Thank you so much for coming by again, Curtis. As always, it was wonderful to chat with you.

Thank you, Maria! I enjoyed answering your questions.

Be sure to stop back by tomorrow for an interview with Jessica Lanan and on Friday for the #PPBF post on Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks Planet.

To find out more about Curtis Manley, or get in touch with him:

If you are in the area, join Curtis Manley for the book launch:

Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks Planet

Brick & Mortar Books 7430 164th Avenue Northeast Redmond, WA 98052


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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