The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Susan Edwards Richmond
Susan Edwards Richmond is a children’s author and poet. A passionate birder and naturalist, Susan teaches preschool on a farm and wildlife sanctuary in eastern Massachusetts. She earned her M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of California, Davis, and is an award-winning poet with five collections of nature-based poetry for adults, including Before We Were Birds (Adastra Press) and Birding in Winter (Finishing Line Press).
She is happiest exploring natural habitats with her husband and two daughters and learns the native birds wherever she travels.
Her debut picture book, Bird Count, releases tomorrow.
Happy Book Birthday, Susan!
Susan, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your debut picture book and writing.
Thank you so much for inviting me, Maria. I’m very excited that Bird Count is finally 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?)
During the school year, I teach Tuesday through Friday, so Mondays are usually my days for writing projects. In the summer, I’m more flexible so I am often researching or writing weekday mornings or evenings. I do much of my work in a home office, with a window that looks out eye level with a grove of trees. I can hear chickadees, chipping sparrows, and a nuthatch singing right now! But I also carry a notebook for jotting down inspiration on my travels.
I like stories that present science concepts in a narrative setting. As a teacher in a nature-based preschool, I get to see what grabs the attention of young children, and also to see gaps in the market—what topics would I like to share with my students that I can’t find on library shelves?
What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
Hmm, an interesting question! Maybe that I love cuisines from different countries and cultures and try to cook simple variations at home. I also buy locally grown food whenever I can and belong to a CSA at the farm and sanctuary where I work.
What was your inspiration for Bird Count?
Bird Count is based on the National Audubon Society’s annual winter census called the Christmas Bird Count (CBC). I’d participated in my town’s CBC for years when it occurred to me that it was a really cool citizen science project that I’d never seen in a children’s book. There are many books about bird identification and habitat, but what drew me to this topic was it brought together so many things I care about—birdwatching, habitat diversity, citizen engagement, and hands-on learning. Counting birds seemed like a wonderful way for children to learn science and math concepts while being physically active and having a great time!
You’ve published a couple of collections of adult poems, including Before We Were Birds and Birding in Winter, how different was it to write Bird Count? Do you like writing prose or poetry best?
I became attracted to picture book writing when I recognized its similarity to writing poetry. Both genres convey meaning through images and use spare, lyrical language, silences, and strong rhythms. When my own children were young, I was reading a lot of picture books, and I would marvel at how much emotion could be expressed in so few words. I still can’t get through Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney without choking up.
Right now, especially as an early childhood educator, my passion lies with writing for children in either genre! Many of my favorite picture books are poetry—books like Night in the Country by Cynthia Rylant or My Heart by Corinna Luyken just out this year. I also admire authors like Leslie Bulion, author of Superlative Birds, who write poems that are both lyrical and informative, and in a variety of forms.
Where did the idea of a running bird tally down the side of the page come from?
Vicky Holifield, my editor at Peachtree, was fascinated by the mechanics of the bird count. We considered a number of different sidebar options, but this one had the dual advantage of giving Ava’s count authenticity while also demonstrating how a math skill could be used for a real-world purpose. I sent Vicky photocopies of our actual tallies from the field, and the illustrator, Stephanie Fizer Coleman, used them to create an inviting addition to the spreads!
Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
Beatrix Potter was always a favorite—I loved the rich world she created where animals were animals but also very human, with all their foibles. Our girls each have a Beatrix Potter anthology of their own. I’ve also never forgotten the lush animal illustrations and whimsy of Elihu: The Musical Gnu by Hannah Simmons, illustrated by Molly Kingsley. Although I’ve lost track of my own well-loved copy. (Image - Just in case you also weren't familiar w/this book.)
Did you have any input into the illustrations for any of your books? Either at the beginning or in a later review stage? Do you have a favorite spread or image?
At the outset, Vicky invited suggestions about illustrators and illustration style. My one criterion was that the drawings be accurate—that anyone who knew birds would be able to look at the illustration and recognize the species. I wasn’t familiar with Stephanie’s work, but I was thrilled when I saw how she blended accuracy with a unique charm. I reviewed at the sketch stage and in full-color drawings.
All of the spreads are wonderful, but I think my favorite is the party at the end—perhaps because it surprised me. I had pictured the scene indoors, and I loved that Stephanie set it outside with the bonfire and so many delightful touches—the diversity of participants, Ava toasting multiple marshmallows, and the owl watching wisely over all.
Is there something you want your readers to know about Bird Count?
I hope that children will connect with Ava and realize that they can have similar adventures in their own neighborhoods. Bird Count is grounded in a deep knowledge of my environment, but every environment is worthy of exploration, and can have secret places of beauty and discovery. You’re never too young to take an active role in preserving the places you care about!
What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer for you? Any advice for unpublished authors?
When I first started sending out manuscripts, I got many rejections that felt like near misses. Editors and agents praised my writing, but there was always something that wasn’t quite working. These rejections sometimes frustrated me more than the form letters, because I felt I had been SO close. For a few years, I even took a break from children’s writing to concentrate on poetry where I was having more success.
When I came back, though, I was more determined than ever. But I was also more ready to listen. So, my first advice to unpublished authors is to listen, really listen. Sometimes editors or agents don’t articulate exactly what isn’t working—they just know something isn’t. But if someone takes the time to write a paragraph or two, or even a sentence, that specifically addresses your book, it means they believe in you. They’re way too busy to take time to write if they don’t see potential.
Bird Count’s publication with Peachtree began with a rejection letter—a long one. So my critique group cheered! Keep going, they said. And so, with their support (and, boy did I need it!), I completed three or four complete rewrites over the course of a year, before Vicky finally said, I think it’s ready, and offered me a contract. Second piece of advice—find a critique group!
Is there anything you’ve learned from your critique buddies?
My SCBWI critique group is an amazing, generous group of writers and illustrators, and it’s been such a pleasure sharing their journeys. I’m so grateful they’re part of mine. Perhaps, the most important lesson I’ve learned from them is community. Writing often feels like a solitary enterprise, but there is so much you gain from a community of authors—their experience, wisdom, advice, support, friendship. When you lift each other up, everyone wins. I feel the same way about my wonderful debut group, On the Scene in 2019, and the Twitter kidlit community.
Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I’m very excited that my agent, the fabulous Stephen Fraser at Jennifer de Chiara Literary Agency, just sold my second picture book. It’s also about birds, but that’s all I can say right now. I’ve also begun researching a book about another citizen science topic.
Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or something you’re glad you didn’t know about in advance?
I’m glad I didn’t know how long it would take! I first joined my SCBWI critique group more than 20 years ago, and Bird Count is my debut. But everything I did along the way made me a stronger writer and led me to where I am today. Everyone’s journey is different, and it’s important to embrace your own.
What is your favorite animal? Why?
You’d think with all my writing about birds that they would be my favorite animal—and I do love birds! But ever since I read Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell in elementary school, I’ve had a special affinity for otters, especially river otters. Early on, I thought they were super cute and, for a while, wanted one as a pet. Terrible idea! But when I got older, I came to think of them as my totem, or spirit animal, with their close family bonds among mothers and pups, and their inventiveness and playful approach to life.
Thank you, Susan for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.
Thank you so much, Maria, for offering me this opportunity. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you, and I appreciate all you do for authors and illustrators in this community!
Be Sure to Stop by on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book post on Bird Count.
To find out more about Susan Edwards Richmond, or get in touch with her:
If you're in the area:
Bird Count Launch Party at Silver Unicorn Books 12 Spruce Street in West Acton, Massachusetts
Saturday, October 5, 2019 11:00 AM 12:00 PM Come join the flock as Susan Edwards Richmond launches her debut children’s picture book, Bird Count! Silver Unicorn Books hosts the event, which will feature a reading, snacks, and fun activities about birds. Through Ava’s adventures, learn how you too can be a citizen scientist and learn to spot interesting birds in your own backyard.