The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Laurence Pringle
Laurence Pringle is an award-winning author of books about nature, science, health, and environmental issues. He has also written a few fiction picture books for young children.
Laurence is a graduate of Cornell University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is a former science teacher and magazine editor. He is the 1999 recipient of the Washington Post/Children's Book Guild Nonfiction Award, which honors an author for significant contributions to informational books for children and the 2006 recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship for science writing. He lives with his wife in West Nyack, New York.
Laurence is the author of 124 books, including The Secret Life of the Sea Otter, illustrated by Kate Garchinsky (2022), The Secret Life of the Sloth, illustrated by Kate Garchinsky (2021), Elephants!: Strange and Wonderful, illustrated by Meryl Learnihan Henderson (2021), The Secret Life of the Skunk, illustrated by Kate Garchinsky (2019), Dolphins!: Strange and Wonderful, illustrated by Meryl Learnihan Henderson (2019), The Secret Life of the Little Brown Bat, illustrated by Kate Garchinsky (2018), The Secret Life of the Red Fox, illustrated by Kate Garchinsky (2017), Spiders!: Strange and Wonderful, illustrated by Meryl Learnihan Henderson (2017), Owls!: Strange and Wonderful, illustrated by Meryl Learnihan Henderson (2016), Octopuses!: Strange and Wonderful, illustrated by Meryl Learnihan Henderson (2015), The Secret Life of the Woolly Bear Caterpillar, illustrated by Joan Paley (2014), Scorpions!: Strange and Wonderful, illustrated by Meryl Learnihan Henderson (2013), Frogs!: Strange and Wonderful, illustrated by Meryl Learnihan Henderson (2012), and Ice! The Amazing History: The Amazing History of the Ice Business (2012).
Laurence’s newest picture book, Wolves!: Strange and Wonderful, releases tomorrow!
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write or illustrate? How long have you been writing or illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate? )
I wrote my first book more than 55 years ago, using a manual typewriter set up on a card table in the corner of a living room. Now I have a roomy office, loaded with books, art, animal bones, etc. and featuring an upstairs-window view of a small pond, bird feeder, and woods--inspiring and distracting. A book in the process of creation always produces piles of references (books, articles from scientific sources) and copies of sketches or nearly-finished art.
Though I did get a short piece about crow behavior published in a boys magazine when I was 17, that was not a breakthrough accomplishment. Later, in graduate school, I wrote some nonfiction articles that were published, but had no expectations that I would ever write a book. I am delighted to have the opportunity to write books of many kinds--mostly nonfiction but also fiction, and for a wide range of ages. The nonfiction books include history, environmental issues, the lives of scientists, and many kinds of animals. I'm especially fond of narrative nonfiction. My first book was An Extraordinary Life: The Story of a Monarch Butterfly (1997). In recent years, the "secret life" series, for younger readers, is solid nonfiction but each title about a wild animal has a story that tugs at reader feelings. I hope to write more narrative nonfiction.
Returning to the question of where I write, as I sometimes tell kids in schools, writing is a mental process and can go on as long as you are awake--in bed, on a school bus, in the shower. A writer can be far from a piece of paper or a keyboard, yet be thinking, trying to write. Here's an example: the author Pam Conrad was working on a fiction book (I believe it was Prairie Songs) and was having trouble figuring out the back story of a key character. One day she thought, again, about this problem, as she drove on a major highway called the Long Island Expressway. She had a great idea, managed to park on the side of that highway and scribble some words on a piece of paper so she would not forget this precious thought that strengthened the story in her book.
Your office sounds divine. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
Wow, what a question! Here's an odd one, known to only a few, that has nothing at all to do with writing or my career. When I was about 5 years old I went to a fence that enclosed our small chicken flock. I began to pee into the enclosure. I don't remember if I intended to actually pee on a hen, or just on the ground, but a rooster trotted over and pecked me exactly where the urine was coming from. It hurt, I cried. Nevertheless, in my childhood I have had many good encounters with chickens, and still love the vocabulary of hens. And I've learned that chickens--given a chance--can have a complex social life, multiple ways to communicate, and the ability to plan and also learn from others.
Another experience, better known, is that my brother and I attended a one room school, south of Rochester, NY. We walked to school, about 2 miles one way, in all kinds of weather. Gladys Shackelton was the teacher for about 18 kids, grades 1 to 8. The bathrooms were outdoors, an "outhouse" for boys and one for girls. Many more details are described, and shown by Barbara Garrison's art, in our 1998 book, One Room School. Not in the book: Most boys were from farms, carried a jack knife in a pants pocket, and with their knives played a game called "mumbley peg." A very different time!
Very different indeed. Definitely not common activities for most kids these days. What was your inspiration for Wolves!: Strange and Wonderful?
I wouldn't call it inspiration. It was simply inevitable that these creatures would be part of this series. (By the way, a long-ago editor picked that "strange and wonderful" subtitle, which was o.k. for the first subject, dinosaurs. However, I'd like to travel back in a time machine and make the subtitle "wild and wonderful"--much better for the animals that followed in the series.) One of my goals in the series was to give trustworthy information for certain animals that are feared and thought to be dangerous. So I made sure to write about bats, sharks, alligators and crocodiles, spiders, snakes, scorpions--and now wolves.
Inevitable or not, I'm very glad you added wolves to this series. What is the hardest or most challenging thing for you about writing children’s books in general? And in particular, what was the most challenging aspect of Wolves!: Strange and Wonderful? Why?
My answer is simple: writing has always been hard work for me. Some parts of the process have become easier, but at times I still struggle. When I finished my very first children's book manuscript and it (after several rejections) was headed for publication as Dinosaurs and Their World, I told people that I might not try to write another book. One such ordeal was enough! Writing it had been a long struggle, partly because I had a full time job and was a father of three young children.
I changed my mind and wrote another, and another, until I reached my 124th title on wolves. The most challenging part was trying to say a lot about the subject without having the book too text-heavy. Appealing illustrations are vital in this series. Many of the earlier titles have less text, but a book about wolves can't be just about their physical characteristics and behavior. The book needed information about wolf legends and myths, and changing human attitudes about them. That includes human efforts to wipe them out, and more recent efforts to protect wolves and even restore them to wild places where they had once been vital predators. Artist Meryl Henderson rose to the occasion and created appealing art for every 2-page spread.
I love your Strange and Wonderful and The Secret Life of series, so I am very glad you didn't quit! How many revisions did Wolves!: Strange and Wonderful take from first draft to publication? Was this longer or similar to your other picture books?
I don't keep a tally of revisions, but go over my words many times. Comments from an editor or expert reader can also lead to changes. As I mentioned above, the book about wolves probably has more text of any other "strange and wonderful" title (for example, more than the subjects of crows, bats, and cicadas).
Did you always hope or intend to make the Strange and Wonderful and The Secret Life of into NF series? Why did you choose “Strange and Wonderful” instead of “The Secret Life” for Wolves!?
I wrote Dinosaurs! Strange and Wonderful as a stand-alone title, but it sold very well so the publishing company suddenly wanted a series. The "secret life" books were conceived as a series from the very beginning. Those books are aimed at younger readers, so there must be less text per page. The creatures--woolly bear caterpillar, red fox, little brown bat, sloth, sea otter, and flying squirrel--don't carry the cultural and political "baggage" of wolves, so they fit well in the more simple books.
Wolves do tend to elicit strong emotions. Except for Joan Paley (The Secret Life of the Woolly Bear Caterpillar), Meryl Learnihan Henderson and Kate Garchinsky have collaborated with you on books in these series. Since you’ve created so many books with them now, do you tend to collaborate more?
I would love to continue with both Meryl and Kate, but Meryl announced that Wolves! would be her final book. She is taking her artistic talent in another direction. More important, and sadly, the publisher (after buying the original publisher where both series started) announced the end of both series. I'm investigating whether another publisher will welcome more "secret life" books. Kate and I have ideas of certain creatures that would fit well in this highly praised series.
Oh sad! I wish you and Kate lots of luck in finding another publisher. These are amazing books. What's something you want your readers to know about Wolves!: Strange and Wonderful?
Perhaps the third paragraph, on page 3, states it best. It refers to legends, myths, scary stories about wolves that may spark feelings of fear. But scientists have studied the lives of real wolves, not imaginary creatures, and this book is about the real ones. Also, some readers will learn for the first time that the ancestry of every single breed of dog today, from Great Danes to Chihuahuas, can be traced back to wolves. The qualities that many people treasure in their pet dogs are basic wolf social behavior.
I love your efforts to debunk & demystify wolves, giving readers a glimpse into their intricate family relationships and truths. I hope your book continues to change our ideas and feelings about wolves. When you first saw Meryl Learnihan Henderson’s illustrations in Wolves!: Strange and Wonderful, did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?
Text © Laurence Pringle, 2022. Image © Meryl Learnihan Henderson, 2022.
When one of my books is illustrated with art, there are seldom surprises because the artist gets a plan from me, suggesting what should be shown to support or illuminate the text on a page or 2-page spread. (I'm not a tyrant; sometimes the artist has choices about what might be shown.) In this book, I can't pick a favorite. One I like is pp. 14-15 about the body language of wolves, partly because anyone familiar with dogs can recognize the same language. And I love the three spreads that show wolf packs in action: howling, chasing a moose, and feasting on a dead moose (while ravens stay close, waiting for their turn).
Text © Laurence Pringle, 2022. Image © Meryl Learnihan Henderson, 2022.
And the full wrap-around jacket, with glorious wolves running in the snow, is a delight.
I was (and still am) so enthralled by that jacket! Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I have ideas, plans, outlines for several books but, alas, no contracts from publishers at this time. I'm tempted to give "tidbits" but that would be premature.
No worries. I wish you luck and success in finding a new publisher(s). Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
Although I've been lucky enough to be in many U.S. national parks (including wolf country and grizzly bear country) and in wild places of New Zealand and Costa Rica, my favorite wild place on Earth is the Adirondack Mountains of New York. I first set foot (on snowshoes) there while following tracks of fishers, while I was an undergrad wildlife ecology student. As a summer counselor of a "conservation camp" I began to explore an area of the central Adirondacks. I have since camped there and explored further, usually accompanied by family, friends, children of friends, etc. over a span of more than 60 years--including twice in 2022. Among many things, I love the music of nature there: barred owls at night, loons both day and night. My cell phone call signal is the call of the common loon--a sweet reminder of the Adirondacks.
I love that the Loon is your ringtone! How cool is that? Thank you Laurence for sharing with us a bit about yourselves and your newest picture book.
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Wolves! Strange and Wonderful.
To find out more about Laurence Pringle, or to contact him: