The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Cheryl Blackford and Review of The Fossil Hunter
Cheryl Blackford writes fiction and non-fiction books for kids of all ages. She was born in Yorkshire, England, but now lives in Minnesota where she has raised two children, four cats, and two rats (despite the cats). Having earned a BSc in Geology, and a Postgraduate Certificate in Education in the UK, Cheryl completed a Masters Degree in Scientific and Technical Communication at the University of Minnesota. She has worked in bakeries and child care centers, for huge companies and small companies, on highly technical written documentation and scripts for educational simulations. She has competed in triathlons and run a marathon (one was enough). Cheryl loves her family, world travel, hiking, and nature, but her favorite thing to do is to write children's books.
Cheryl is the author of Lizzie and the Lost Baby (2016), Hungry Coyote (2015), Powerful Muscle Cars (Dream Cars) (2015), and This Book is Top Secret: A Collection of Awesome Military Trivia (Super Trivia Collection) (2012).
Her newest nonfiction book, Fossil Hunter: How Mary Anning Changed The Science Of Prehistoric Life, released yesterday.
Welcome Cheryl, thanks so much for stopping by to chat with us about your books and your writing.
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing?)
I’ve been a writer pretty much since I could hold a pencil. I studied geology at university in England and then became an elementary school teacher but when I moved to the US I gave up teaching and turned to writing as a career. I’ve written boring technical manuals that teach you how to use hardware and software, I’ve written policies and procedures for big companies, I’ve managed web sites and I even once had the title of “knowledge engineer” at Target Corporation. I enjoyed that kind of writing but I didn’t love it — something was missing. Finally, 15 years ago, I figured out what I really wanted to do was write children’s books. I took some classes, read lots of children’s books, and wrote and wrote and wrote. Now I write almost every day in a small office in my home.
I love the title "knowledge engineer." What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
When I was small, my parents took me to York Minster, a huge 1300-year-old church in Yorkshire near where I was born. While everyone else was admiring the wonderful architecture and beautiful stained-glass windows I found a dead bat on the floor. I picked it up and was much more interested in studying the bat than the church. That natural curiosity is still with me — I love finding unexpected things, especially in nature, and learning about them.
I've recently been there; though I didn't see a bat. But I was more entranced with some intricate carvings. As a child, who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book?
This is a tough one. I adored all the Ballet Shoe books by Noel Streatfield, and E. Nesbit’s books (such as The Railway Children and Five Children and It). But I think my favorite author was Francis Hodgson Burnett. In homage to her, I made The Secret Garden, (one of her most famous books) Lizzie’s favorite book in my story Lizzie and The Lost Baby.
I adored The Secret Garden. How awesome that you could place it in your book. What was your inspiration for Fossil Hunter: How Mary Anning Changed The Science Of Prehistoric Life?
In 2014, I saw a Google doodle of a woman in a long dress examining a fossil ichthyosaur. It was a doodle of Mary Anning on what would have been her 215th birthday. Despite having a degree in geology, I’d never heard of Mary Anning and immediately wanted to know more about her. The more I read, the more I learned how remarkable she was. She carved out a successful science career for herself at a time in England when women weren’t allowed to formally study the sciences. She found some of England’s most important fossils and worked with the best geologists of the time and yet she’d never even been to school. Her life is an inspiration and I wanted others to know that.
I'm so glad you did. I've really enjoyed learning more about her. What was the hardest part about writing and/or researching Fossil Hunter? The most fun part?
I love doing research! I read books about Mary and her geologist friends as well as some of the papers they wrote in the early 1800s. I visited the museums and libraries where Mary’s papers and fossils are held, which wasn’t easy because they’re in England and I’m in the US. Fortunately, I was able to fit in short research trips on visits to my family, who live in England.
The hardest part of writing the book was figuring out how to focus the story and what to leave out. Fortunately, I have a wonderful editor who helped me see the bigger picture of how Mary’s fossils informed the science of the day and that became my focus. I’m still sad about all the things I had to leave out though!
The fun part? Fossil hunting with Paddy Howe (the Lyme Museum geologist) on the beach near Lyme Regis where Mary found some of her fossils. Unfortunately, in the summer there aren’t many storms to wash fossils out of the rocks and there are hundreds of other people searching, so fossils aren’t easy to find. I do have a nice little coprolite (fossil poop) and an ichthyosaur tail vertebra, but Paddy found those, not me!
Seems we always know twice as much as what ends up in the books. As your first nonfiction biography, how did the writing and/or revision of Fossil Hunter differ from your other books?
I did a lot of research on gypsies and World War II evacuees for my book Lizzie and The Lost Baby but wasn’t very methodical in how I organized that research. I soon learned that approach would not work for Fossil Hunter — I had too much material. So I used a software tool called Scrivener to organize the information by topic and to create an outline. I don’t create outlines for my fiction books — when I begin those I usually have the bones of a plot in my head and I flesh them out as I write. At first, I write to understand what my characters need and want and then I fill in plot holes through multiple revisions.
I really like that description. Is there something you want your readers to know about Mary Anning or Fossil Hunter?
Mary Anning was a challenge to bring to life because we don’t know much about her private life or about her hopes and dreams. Because she was poor and a woman, she wasn’t considered important enough for her personal papers and letters to be saved for posterity. That is our great loss. I think she must have been a practical, brave, intelligent, hard-working woman who was plain-spoken and dedicated to her work. We do know she had a sense of humor from a light-hearted poem she wrote about her friend, Sir Roderick Murchison.
How long did it take from first draft to publication for Fossil Hunter? What is the toughest part in general about writing for you? The most amazing?
I started writing about Mary in a fictional story in April 2017 but very quickly realized I wanted to write a non-fiction biography of her instead. I wrote an outline and then eight drafts before I sold the book to my editor in 2019. The book comes out in January 2022, almost five years after I began writing it!
The toughest part about writing for me is all the rejections. A writer puts her heart into every word of a story and to have it dismissed with the briefest of explanations by an editor or an agent is hard. But oh, how wonderful it is when you get that magical email that says an editor wants to buy one of your stories. The first time that happened to me (with my picture book Hungry Coyote), I was so overwhelmed I cried. And then to get a box of books with your name on them in the mail — well that’s magical. But best of all is when you see children reading your book — that makes everything worthwhile.
I hope you get to experience that magic many more times. As a “highly visual” middle grade biography, did you do the illustrations or does the book feature photographs? What is your favorite part of the book?
Text © Cheryl Blackford, 2022. Image © Mark Witton, 2022.
I wish I could illustrate my work but I am no artist! My editor, Ann Rider, and I always wanted Fossil Hunter to be visually gorgeous and we decided that there is so much wonderful paleoart available we should use some of it in the book. I found existing work and commissioned one special piece – the dying ichthyosaur at the beginning of the book — from the very talented Mark Witton. We also used photographs and some of the lovely old lithographs that once illustrated scientific papers. Stephanie Son created a beautiful cover and Ellen Duda made the lovely line art throughout the book. I think we’ve been successful in creating a stunning book. My favorite illustrations are the three by Mark Witton (the dying ichthyosaur, a huge plesiosaur and a hunting pteranodon) — he is so good at bringing fossils to life.
I was struck by this initial image as well and the way you start with the ichthyosaur's story. Are there any new projects you are working on that you can share a tidbit with us?
I write in multiple genres, so I’m currently working on two nature-themed picture books as well as a fantasy novel for middle-grade readers. The novel has pirates, mermaids, a talking cat with magical eyes, a verbose parrot, a sad dragon who loves music, and several characters who are not what they seem. I also have another fascinating female scientist I’d like to write about when I’m able to do the research.
That novel sounds really fun! I'll have to keep an eye out for it. During these crazy times, how are you staying creative? What have you been doing to “prime the well”?
I walk outside every morning and that’s a time for me to reflect and work through the issues in whatever story I’m writing. There’s something about being outside that inspires me and feeds my creativity. But during the first year of the pandemic I struggled to write anything new. (Isn’t it crazy that we’ll be starting year three of the pandemic soon?) I read though — books by authors I admire and authors that were new to me — and gradually I returned to writing again. I have a very supportive writing group and we “met” regularly over Zoom for that first year. Since then, we’ve been able to meet in person outside when the weather’s been kind. We encourage each other and offer constructive critiques of each other's work — I would struggle mightily without their support.
I think a lot of us writers and illustrators would have had a harder time without our critique partners. What is your favorite animal? Or one that you are enamored with. Why?
I’m fascinated by coyotes. For years, I lived in a house surrounded by woods and often heard the eerie howling/yipping/barking sounds of coyotes in my yard. One winter, I saw a lone coyote crossing a frozen lake near my home and wondered how he’d adapted so successfully to living in a city in the winter. What did he eat? Where did he sleep? I did some research to answer my questions and discovered that coyotes are so adaptable they thrive in cities like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. That lone coyote was the inspiration for my book, Hungry Coyote.
Thank you so much Cheryl for participating in this chat!
To learn more about Cheryl Blackford, or contact her:
Review of Fossil Hunter: How Mary Anning Changed
The Science Of Prehistoric Life
Just look at this cover - I couldn't resist sharing this gripping and exciting middle grade nonfiction biography with you.
Fossil Hunter: How Mary Anning Changed The Science Of Prehistoric Life
Author: Cheryl Blackford
Publisher: Harper Collins (2022)
Paleontology, female scientist, STEM, and scientific advancements.
A fascinating, highly visual biography of Mary Anning, the Victorian fossil hunter who changed scientific thinking about prehistoric life and would become one of the most celebrated paleontologists of all time. Perfect for children learning about woman scientists like Ada Lovelace, Jane Goodall, and Katherine Johnson.
Mary Anning grew up on the south coast of England in a region rich in fossils. As teenagers, she and her brother Joseph discovered England’s first complete ichthyosaur. Poor and uneducated, Anning would become one of the most celebrated paleontologists ever, though in her time she supported herself selling by fossils and received little formal recognition. Her findings helped shape scientific thinking about extinction and prehistoric life long before Darwin published his famous work on evolution.
With engaging text, photographs, and stunning paleoart, Fossil Hunter introduces this self-taught scientist, now recognized as one of the greatest fossilists the world has ever known.
Thirteen year old Mary Anning had been hunting for an elusive treasure for months.
Day after day, in good weather and bad, she had trudged along the beach near her home,
looking for any sign of fossil bones.
What I LOVED about this book:
I love the way Cheryl Blackford begins with an introduction, of an old ichthyosaur "settling into the ooze of the rippled seabed" and waiting for almost two hundred million years - until "one day a girl - a curious, determined girl - saw ... a great staring eye! That girl was Mary Anning." What a great way to set the stage and get us right to the important moment that would frame Mary's life.
Cheryl then introduces Mary and her important discovery of the ichthyosaur. When Mary's brother discovered an enormous fossil skull, thirteen-year-old Mary knew it wasn't a crocodile (as many hypothesized) and she determinedly searched the sandstone cliffs for months, until a winter storm revealed a vertebrae. Knowing that a fully revealed skeleton would be more valuable, than one peeking out a chunk of rock, Mary slowly & carefully worked for hours to reveal the fossil. Seven years later, having turned science on its head, Mary's fossil ended up at the British Museum, where it remains.
In addition to photographs (like the one above), paleoart, portraits, and many of Mary's own detailed drawings, the book has beautiful line art at the top of each of the ten chapters. And just wait until you see the illustrations of the ammonite, live ichthyosaur, plesiosaurs, and dimorphodon macronyx; they are not only gorgeous but surrounded by wonderful detail as well.
© Cheryl Blackford, 2022.
With beautiful lyrical language and an easy, companionable voice Cheryl crafts a quick moving, enthralling, and well-researched biography of Mary Anning and her numerous fossil discoveries. A woman physically and emotionally strong who survived a lightning strike as a baby, poverty, and discrimination by following her heart. A woman who changed science and our knowledge of the earth. Despite having little formal education, her brilliance, drive, and determination to answer her own questions about the fossils she found and their locations in the rocks, and her never ending curiosity resulted in numerous discoveries that remain in museums today.
This gripping biography is a wonderful tribute to this remarkable woman and an honest look at the scientific community that almost waited too long to acknowledge one of the world's greatest paleontologists and her remarkable contributions. The timeline, author's note, glossary, current list for locations of Mary's fossils, source notes, and bibliography round out this great nonfiction #STEM middle grade book. One sure to inspire and encourage many readers.
- try some of the National Park Services fossil and paleontology activities (https://www.nps.gov/subjects/fossils/educational-activities.htm) - including fossil print casts and making paper fossils.
- want to dig for bones yourself? Check out these locations (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/want-to-dig-dinosaur-bones-join-pros-these-spots-180973138/).
- check out another wonderful book on Mary Anning - Dinosaur Lady: The Daring Discoveries of Mary Anning, the First Paleontologist by Linda Skeers, illustrated by Marta Álvarez Miguéns (2020).
- read Secrets Of The Sea: The Story of Jeanne Power, Revolutionary Marine Scientist by Evan Griffith, illustrated by Joanie Stone, about another woman who also changed science.
Virtual Book Launch w/Red Balloon Bookshop
Event date: Saturday, January 29, 2022 - 11:00am
Required Free Pre-registration by 9 am CDT is at - https://www.redballoonbookshop.com/event/cheryl-blackford-fossil-hunter-how-mary-anning-changed-science-prehistoric-life
Calling all dinosaur and fossil lovers! Join Cheryl Blackford and your friends at Red Balloon Bookshop as we celebrate the release of Cheryl's illustrated biographical novel for young readers, Fossil Hunter: How Mary Anning Changed the Science of Prehistoric Life! Cheryl will dig into the life of Mary Anning, one of the most influential paleontologists of all time, and share a little about her own scientific adventures.