The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Teresa Robeson
Boy are you in for a treat this week. Drum roll, please. The amazing Teresa Robeson is visiting with me today!
Teresa was lucky enough to view the first lunar landing and be raised on a healthy dose of Star Trek. This series of fortunate events turned her into a total nerd/geek-girl who loves to write and read science fiction, science, and modern fantasy. She also has a life-long love of children's lit, having never really grown up. Her stories and poems have appeared in publications for children and adults, such as Babybug, Ladybug and Outdoor Indiana magazines.
Teresa’s debut picture book, Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom (People Who Shaped Our World), releases TOMORROW.
Happy Book Birthday!
Welcome Teresa. Thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your debut picture book and writing.
If you missed it, I interviewed Teresa (along with her Notable '19 group) on June 5th (here).
ME: 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?)
TERESA: After immigrating to Canada when I was 8, I learned English and began to write poetry at the age of 9. I don’t remember why, honestly. My mother loved my work and encouraged me to continue writing. Unlike stereotype Chinese parents who want their kids to be doctors or lawyers, mine wanted me to do a degree in creative writing or fine art.
So, of course, I chose to pursue science instead because don’t all children rebel in their own way? But when I was stuck in a sucky job while my husband was completing his Ph.D., I turned once more to what gave me joy: writing (and some art). I took the beginners course from the Institute of Children’s Literature around 1991 and submitted a short story that grew out of an assignment to a couple of children’s magazines. It was immediately picked up by the wonderful Paula Morrow who was then editor of Ladybug Magazine. A few more sales followed and I was hooked.
But I never thought I could write an actual book back then, so I didn’t pursue that until after a hiatus from writing to raise and homeschool my kids. I began learning how to write picture books around 2011, and 8 years later, here I am. Guess I’m a slow bloomer.
Sounds like your parents were pretty sneaky (reverse psychology perhaps?). *Grin* What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
I once met Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, the TV series that raised me, at a promotional event for Star Trek: The Motion Picture in Vancouver! (I’m glad you asked because it’s the 40th anniversary the movie!) I am still kicking myself for not having the chutzpah to ask him a question during the Q&A though.
That would have been amazing! What a great memory for you to treasure. What was your inspiration for Queen of Physics?
I can’t remember if I read about Wu Chien Shiung in Physics Today or another magazine, but I was immediately captured by her story. I was also inspired to write about her because of my love of science and a desire to raise awareness about the accomplishments of people of color, especially women of color.
I am glad that her story captivated you. Because you've done a great job of introducing her story and motivations to the next generation of scientists. What was the hardest part of writing and/or researching Queen of Physics? The easiest?
Researching is a lot of fun and I enjoy that, but what was hard was to get the facts right: both about her life and also in the science. As my favorite physicist Sean Carroll and a guest lamented on his Mindscape podcast once, explaining physics in everyday terms to people who are not physicists is hard. Well, it’s even harder when you have to explain it to young kids who don’t yet have the background to grasp the more complicated details.
Simplifying without sounding condescending or missing key pieces is really tough. I think you succeeded admirably. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
There is a special place in my heart for Little Women because that was the first novel I read in 4th grade after learning English in 3rd grade. While I was learning English in 3rd grade, I read The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. To this day, I can’t see the cover or read it without being transported back to the cozy, magical feeling that captures my first Christmas in Vancouver where I saw snow for the first time.
Ferdinand by Munro Leaf is another favorite as it speaks to being true to your unique self and the power of quiet solitude; I was an introvert even as a kid. A final favorite is Small Pig by Arnold Lobel. I first read it in Chinese, oddly enough. The story epitomizes parental/familial love to me. In fact, my first ever published short story in Ladybug has a bit of a Small Pig feel.
(in case anyone else wasn't familiar with this book)
I love how this question often gives us such a great peek into a person. Did anything surprise you in Rebecca Huang’s illustrations?
While Jane Yolen was mentoring me, (Yes, you heard that right! Teresa won the mentorship at the NESCBWI 2016) she urged me to think about the illustrations for the story.
I had envisioned them being done in an organic Chinese ink and brush style, or even like the illustrations in textbooks I had had in Hong Kong. So, when Sterling presented me with the 5 or 6 illustrators they were considering, it was interesting to see that they all worked digitally. But, Rebecca has a lovely style with great kid appeal, so I am happy with the results.
Seems like it all fell into place with your mentorship and getting a great illustrator. Congrats. Is there something you want your readers to know about Queen of Physics?
I would love for people to come away with an appreciation of how difficult it was (and still is) for people of color and women to succeed in this country. And equally important, I want to inspire a love for science in kids and to encourage them to never give up on what they love to do.
I think Queen of Physics does just that. How long did it take from first draft to publication?
The earliest draft I could find was in August of 2013. So, if I went with that date, it would be 6 years. But I was pretty sure I started drafting it in 2012.
The biggest assets of a writer are patience and persistence. Can you tell me a little about the anthologies you are included in, which are sold by the Minnows Literary Group, with all income donated to Doctors Without Borders? Are the stories all science fiction? How did you get involved with this project?
Thank you for asking about this pet project, Maria! The members of the Minnows Literary Group are all alumni of the Gotham Writers Workshop Science Fiction I and II classes, taught by Michaela Roessner who is the most wonderful teacher.
After the classes ended, one of my fellow students, Russell James, contacted several of us whom he thought were among the strongest writers and asked if we wanted to form a group to continue critiquing each other’s work. We’ve been together since 2011! Russell is the stalwart leader of the group. It was his idea to put together anthologies to motivate us to aim higher in our level of writing and also to benefit a worthy charity. We have donated several thousand dollars to Doctors Without Borders and gained a number of fans with these projects. The stories are all speculative fictions, so some science fiction and some fantasy.
That sounds like a great experience and a worthwhile cause. What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer for you? Any advice for unpublished and/or un-agented authors?
The interminable waiting has to be one of the most frustrating aspects (along with the over-abundance of rejections) of being a writer of any genre. My main piece of advice to unpublished/un-agented writers is to not give up. It’s all about right-place-right-time in publishing so you never know when your work will catch that agent or editor’s eye. Also, never think that one “no” is a forever “no” from someone. When you keep working on improving your writing, eventually it could be good enough to get a “yes” from the agent/editor who had initially said “no.” (Of course, never send said agent/editor another manuscript immediately after the first no.)
As for my personal frustrating period, that would be the dark time between when my first agent left the business and when I signed with my second agent. But, that, girls and boys, is a story for another time.
"Right-place-right-time" indeed. Here's to many more of those happy alignments for you. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I recently finished final edits on my second picture book, so I’m now working on a nonfiction middle grade (a biography) and a middle grade novel (#ownvoices) in addition to a couple of picture books, one science-related and another is also #ownvoices. I wish I could share some art from my second book because I just love what Junyi Wu did!
We'll just have to keep our eyes open for the announcements and cover shares! 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?
Oh, that’s a good but tough question! By all accounts, the publishing world was a different place when I first started back in early 1990s. I wish I had known how quickly the industry was going to change, and that if I took a hiatus (which I did and now regret), it would be to something that was much tougher to break back into. For example, there were so many publishers that accepted things over the transom back then and you didn’t really need an agent to get through the doors, and that is drastically different now.
That's a big change. But as you've shown, not an insurmountable one. What is your favorite animal? Why?
I’m fascinated by most animals but especially birds. I have a manuscript on a highly endangered bird that I’ve been working on since around 2013, but there hadn’t been enough interest in things like that until recently, and even then, most people are more concerned about mammals or animals on their own continent. But, yeah, I am rather obsessed with this particular bird.
I hope you get it published. There are more books on bird published each year!
Thank you, so much Teresa for stopping by and sharing part of your journey with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.
Be sure to stop by on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom (People Who Shaped Our World).
To find out more about Teresa Robeson, or get in touch with her: