The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Evan Griffith
Evan Griffith is the author of the picture book biography Secrets of the Sea: The Story of Jeanne Power, Revolutionary Marine Scientist (releasing March 9th, 2021, from Clarion) and Manatee Summer, a forthcoming middle-grade novel (Harper, 2022).
Evan studied creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and received his MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He worked for five years as an editor at Workman Publishing in New York City, where he specialized in non-fiction for children and adults, and he continues to edit books on a freelance basis. Through his role as the youth programming specialist at The Writing Barn, a creative writing education center, he also teaches online writing classes for kids. He lives in Austin, Texas with a mischievous tuxedo cat and several overflowing bookshelves.
Welcome Evan, tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? How did you get started? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
I’ve been writing stories since early childhood, so it’s always been a part of my life. I started taking writing more seriously in college and the years that followed. It was during this time that I realized I wanted to focus on children’s books, in part because the books I read and loved as a kid were hugely influential for me and have stayed with me throughout my life. I attended the Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, which was incredibly helpful, both in terms of learning the craft of writing for children and also plugging into an awesome and supportive community of writers.
I write for a variety of age ranges and formats—fiction and nonfiction picture books, as well as middle-grade and young adult novels. It’s hard to pick a favorite type of book to write; I love them all for different reasons. For nonfiction, I love the research process, which makes me feel a bit like an investigative journalist. But I also really enjoy building a story from the ground up with fiction. I’m typically working on several different kinds of projects at once, which keeps me busy and entertained.
I don’t have a certain time of day or location for writing; I move between various spots in my apartment, and in non-pandemic times, I work from libraries or coffee shops. Sometimes I prefer to write first thing in the morning, when my mind is sharpest; other times, I like writing just before bed, when I’m in a looser, more imaginative headspace.
It sounds like flexibility is the keystone to your writing. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
I don’t know how to ride a bike. I’d like to learn, though! It’s funny, because the main character in the novel I’m currently working on rides his bike a lot. I guess this is an example of NOT writing what you know!
Ha! Well you might need to do some field research. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
I devoured fantasy books when I was a kid—Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper. The Hobbit and the Narnia series were my favorites. I loved the feeling of being transported to another world. I hope to write a fantasy novel for kids someday, though the worldbuilding element is daunting!
I was also big fan of mysteries. Still am, actually—I love a suspicious and zany cast of characters, and I find it really fun to keep track of clues and red herrings.
I love anything animal-centric, as well, which probably comes as no surprise—almost all of my work features animals.
Wish you luck when you give it a try. Wonder if it'll be a fantasy-mystery novel? What was your inspiration for Secrets of the Sea: The Story of Jeanne Power, Revolutionary Marine Scientist?
During my time in the Writing for Children program at Vermont College, I decided I wanted to try my hand at writing nonfiction. I went in search of a fascinating story that had not been told in a children’s book yet and stumbled upon an article about Jeanne Power online. Jeanne was a 19th century seamstress-turned-marine-scientist who devoted much of her life to uncovering the secrets of the sea. Along the way, she pioneered the use of aquariums for scientific study, which allowed her to make groundbreaking observations of octopuses and other sea creatures.
I instantly related to Jeanne’s fascination with marine life—I grew up on the east coast of Florida, a short drive from the ocean, and have always felt the pull of the sea. I was also hooked by a particular part of Jeanne’s story: Much of her research about the ocean ending up being lost to the sea in a shipwreck. The dramatic irony of that twist compelled me to write her story.
Environmental conservation is also important to me, and I was intrigued to learn about strategies Jeanne developed during her lifetime to prevent overfishing and protect marine habitats. That gave me an opportunity to address environmental concerns in the book’s backmatter.
Let me just say, that is an awesome cover! Your connection with, and admiration of, Jeanne radiates through the book. Is there something you want your readers to know about Secrets of the Sea?
With any historical story, I think it’s important—and fun—to explore how this piece of history shaped the world we live in today. For Secrets of the Sea, I want readers to know that the aquariums they see in museums, as well as the fish tanks they might have in their homes, are part of Jeanne Power’s legacy. Her aquarium designs paved the way for our ability to study and interact with sea creatures. She brought humans and the sea closer together than ever before.
That is so cool! When you first got to see Joanie Stone’s illustrations, was there anything that surprised you? And what is your favorite spread?
Text © Evan Griffith, 2021. Image © Joanie Stone, 2021.
I was blown away when I first saw the sketches. I was already such a fan of Joanie’s work on other books, but I was still deeply moved by the beauty of her work on this project. She brought Jeanne’s world to life so thoughtfully, with such care to the details of 19th century fashion, the setting of Sicily, and the creatures that Jeanne studied. It’s hard to pick a favorite spread, but it’s probably the one where we see the shipwreck and Jeanne reacting to it. It’s the moment of most intense drama, I think, and that’s captured in the art.
It is indeed a really powerful illustration. What was the toughest part of researching Secrets of the Sea?
Because Jeanne Power is a relatively obscure historical figure, there wasn’t a wealth of information about her life, and some of the sources I found contradicted each other. While this was certainly a challenge, digging for sources and resolving contradictions was also really satisfying. I had the pleasure of corresponding with scientists and historians from around the world who are familiar with Jeanne’s life and work; as someone with a strong interest in science, this was very exciting for me. By writing nonfiction, we have the opportunity to dip our toes into other academic fields. I love that.
That's a great way to describe writing nonfiction. How has working with children through The Writing Barn helped your own writing?
The kids I work with have boundless creativity and they write for the joy of it, without wasting time doubting their work or tearing it down. As a huge self-critic, I find it helpful to reconnect with the pure joy of creativity that kids embody. I also gain insights by talking to kids about why they love certain books and what kinds of stories they want to see more of. Sometimes, in writing for kids, there’s a danger of letting our audience become an abstraction, especially when we’re dealing with adult agents, editors, and other gatekeepers and publishing folks on a day-to-day basis. So I think the more we can connect with who we’re actually writing for, the better.
Great advice! What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child or now as a writer.)
Some of the children’s book writers working today who most inspire me are Jason Reynolds, Kate DiCamillo, Jacqueline Woodson, Rebecca Stead, Erin Entrada Kelly, and Neil Gaiman.
I’m also inspired by all of my friends and fellow writers in the Vermont College community; writing can be a lonely endeavor, so I’m grateful to be able to share the journey with others, celebrating their stories and successes along the way.
I find a lot of inspiration in music, as well. I often make playlists to go along with the stories I’m writing, and sometimes a really evocative song will inspire a new story idea.
I'd never heard of creating a playlist to go along with a story. What a fun idea. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
Yes! My debut middle-grade novel, tentatively titled Manatee Summer, releases summer 2022 from Quill Tree Books at Harper. Set in the blistering heat of central Florida (where I grew up), it takes place across one summer in the life of an 11-year-old boy named Peter. During this summer, he helps take care of his grandfather, who has dementia; at the same time, he forms a special bond with a manatee he meets in a canal, and gets involved with manatee activism and environmentalism in Florida. It’s very much a coming-of-age story—Peter is on the cusp of middle school, caught between two different eras of youth and learning to navigate the many changes that he’s suddenly facing. I can’t wait to share it with readers.
I love manatees and this sounds fascinating. I'll keep my eyes out for its release. How are you staying creative these days? What are you doing to “prime the well”?
Reading broadly (including lots of nonfiction and adult literature—I recently read The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, which was fantastic); going for walks and runs in nature; talking to writer friends about new ideas and new challenges. I formed a small critique group with a few friends, and that’s been a super encouraging, supportive space. And when all else fails, I brew a cup of tea and play with my cat and wait for a story idea to bonk me on the head.
Now I can follow that type of creativity generation. My cat would love it, too. What is your favorite animal? Why?
Oh, this is so hard! My answer changes by the day, but for now, I’m going to cheat and call it a tie between cats and octopuses (which aren’t entirely dissimilar!)—cats for their grace, their sense of mischief, the way they live in the moment; octopuses for their intimidating intelligence and their ability to maintain a degree of mystery no matter how much we study them (again, not unlike cats!). I recently watched the documentary My Octopus Teacher—highly recommended! And it pairs well with Secrets of the Sea, if I do say so myself.
Not cheating at all. That was the perfect answer! Thank you so much, Evan for coming by to talk with me. It was a pleasure getting to know you.
Be sure to come back Friday for a SNEAK PEEK #PPBF post on Secrets of the Sea!
To find out more about Evan Griffith, or get in touch with him: