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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Sue Heavenrich and Alisha Gabriel

Today I have the distinct pleasure to talk with the dynamic duo Sue Heavenrich and Alisha Gabriel who co-authored a stunning and super fun book on Mushrooms, Mold, and Lichens - called Funky Fungi.

Sue Heavenrich’s childhood was filled with outdoor family adventures, girl scouts, and books - She loves to read! So you might think that she’d study writing. Instead, Sue studied biology. After a month trading seeds with harvester ants, she decided insects are cool and headed to grad school to learn more about them. After teaching science at an alternative high school, Sue began writing about backyard science explorations for Home Education Magazine. She took over the science column for a parenting bimonthly and began reporting for community newspapers. She’s the author of 13 Ways to Eat a Fly, illustrated by David Clark (2021), Super Science Are Ants Like Plants?(2019), Super Science Sky Spies (2019), How Muscles Work (The Human Machine) (2019), and Food as Fuel (The Human Machine) (2019), and Diet for a Changing Climate: Food for Thought w/ co-author Christy Mihaly (2018).]

Alisha Gabriel was a military brat, moving from place to place throughout her childhood. She found the best way to make friends at a new school was to join the band. She continued studying music and received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Music Education. Now she’s an elementary music teacher and adjunct professor at Southwestern University. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher and has used her writing skills to win four grants to benefit her students. Fun fact: Alisha still enjoys performing and has played the flute and piccolo on more than a dozen video games and a national commercial spot.

Alisha is a children’s fiction and nonfiction author with a special interest in nature and the arts. She’s the author of Good Sports: Elliot Mack, Quarterback, illustrated by Karl West (2019), The Line Rhyme: A Story About Learning New Routines, illustrated by John Joseph (2018), Escaping an Animal Attack (2018), The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Triggers Reform (2018), and Silento: Breakout Rapper (2017).

Their newest middle grade book collaboration, Funky Fungi: 30 Activities for Exploring Molds, Mushrooms, Lichens, and More, releases tomorrow!

Welcome Sue and Alisha,

Tell us a little about how you got started writing? Where/when do you work? What is your favorite type of book to write?

SUE – I started writing lists in notebooks when I was a kid: animals and plants I saw, names of star constellations … and in high school I wrote a column about Girl Scout happenings for my city’s weekly paper. I write to learn more about stuff, and to share cool science discoveries with other folks. My favorite place to write is in bed, early in the morning, with a hot cup of tea and a spiral notebook. I also have a writing space, with a desk and computer and lots of book shelves. As a recovering journalist, I lean toward nonfiction – but one of these years I want to spin some tall tales.

ALISHA – When I was a child, I enjoyed writing short stories and cartoons. I still have a folder full of them! But then I got busy with life and turned my attention to other things. Fast forward to my early years teaching. I found myself teaching several classes of Spanish speaking students and felt unprepared to communicate effectively. During the day, I taught elementary music classes. In the evenings, I immersed myself in Spanish classes. One of the assignments was to write a story for an in-class presentation, so I decided to work on something that I could use in my music classes. Since my music students would be listening to a piece by the composer Antonio Vivaldi, writing about him was the perfect topic. Giving a presentation for my Spanish class also gave me a chance to practice before sharing it with my young students. After delivering my presentation in the Spanish class, several people suggested I publish it. I never pursued publication for that story, but it dawned on me that the assignment had been fun! Soon after I joined SCBWI and signed up for some writing classes. Over time, I discovered that nonfiction is my jam.

Last summer my husband and I converted our old chicken coop into an office space for me. At first I thought he was crazy for suggesting it, but it turned out great! It’s perfect when I need some peace and quiet, to minimize distractions, or to meet on Zoom.

What’s your favorite thing to do outside?

SUE – I love to walk around my neighborhood, and I carry my camera with me. I try to find beauty in the world each day. And also cool bugs, plants, turtles, snakes, birds. I also love spending time in my garden. It’s amazing the stuff that goes on out there!

ALISHA – Walking around the neighborhood with my husband in the evening is my favorite outdoor activity, but I also enjoy gardening and playing with my 18-year-old border collie, Lacie. She might not chase the tennis ball as far now, but it’s great to see her eyes light up and a bit of spunk in her step when I pick up the ball to play.

I can see why you are well matched collaborators. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?

SUE – So many books! I loved reading fairy tales, Jules Verne, any book from the How and Why series… but the one that sticks with me is My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George. I even made a fish hook the way she described and caught my first trout that summer.

ALISHA –A few books stand out in my memory. The Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the first Boxcar Children book by Gertrude Chandler Warner, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, and Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban.

What inspired each of you to write Funky Fungi: 30 Activities for Exploring Molds, Mushrooms, Lichens, and More? And how did this collaboration get started? [This dynamic duo even collaborated on a few of their answers!]

SUE & ALISHAWe met at a Highlights workshop about ten years ago and went on a hike. On the way, Alisha stopped to photograph a beautiful mushroom and we started talking about our mutual interests. We were there for a nonfiction writer’s workshop, but we were also both interested in writing about fungi. Neither of us ended up pursuing our initial ideas regarding fungi, but it stayed in the back of our minds.

We had both read several books published by Chicago Review Press, and one of our critique partners had written for their Young Naturalists series. It occurred to Alisha that the series really needed a book about fungi, so she reached out to me and proposed that we work on it together. We sent the editor a very brief pitch and asked if he’d like to see a proposal for the book. He replied ‘yes’ very quickly, so we set to work writing a proposal.

It's so cool that a walk during a Highlight's retreat sparked the impetus for co-creating this book. How long did it take Funky Fungi to go from idea to publication?

SUE – We started by writing a book proposal. That contained a query, a synopsis, a detailed outline of the chapters, twenty activities, plus an Introduction and Chapter one.

ALISHA –Then we emailed a query to the editor at Chicago Review Press on June 1, 2020, and he replied the next day. On July 2, we sent in our proposal and it took him a few weeks to read it. He shared it with others at the company, then made an offer. Long story short, Funky Fungi comes out on June 21, 2022, about two years after we reached out to the editor. But the journey was much longer and took many twists along the way.

So, how did your collaboration work? Did you each draft certain sections? Or work on it all together? How did revisions work?

SUE & Alisha We each took primary responsibility for specific chapters, or sections within a chapter. We shared sources, sent periodic updates, and shared drafts of each chapter as we went. After receiving a chapter, the other person would go through and add comments or questions, make some revision suggestions, and then send it back. Revisions were a back-and-forth thing – and I feel like things went a bit easier with two sets of eyes (and two writer-brains) focused on the manuscript.

Sometimes the document would go back and forth a few times, but then we’d set up a time to talk, usually on the weekend, and read through the whole chapter over the phone. One person would type out the line edits as we talked and then read them back.

We felt it was important to keep the voice consistent throughout the manuscript. We didn’t want readers to feel like they were flip-flopping between authors from section to section or chapter to chapter.

I think you did a great job creating a unified voice. Is there something you both want your readers to know about, or take away from Funky Fungi?

SUE – There is so much we are still discovering about the planet we live on. Fungi make up an entire kingdom of organisms, and most people have only met mushrooms in their stir fry or topping their pizza. (Ha! 😊)

ALISHA –I hope that readers will be as intrigued by fungi as I am, but I also hope they’ll get involved in their communities, feed their curiosity about the natural world, and make the world a better place.

The fun activities and awesome pictures are definitely going to spark interest in readers. What is the hardest or most challenging thing for you about writing children’s books? How about writing Funky Fungi in particular?

SUE – One of the challenges in writing nonfiction is keeping track of sources – where the facts come from. I probably drove Alisha crazy with my footnoted drafts! But it helps when an editor says, “hey where did you get that fact?” The other challenge for me is keeping the writing engaging and fun. I relied on Alisha’s sense of humor during our brainstorming sessions, especially when I was stumped. And for keeping us on course and on schedule.

ALISHA –I enjoy research and uncovering interesting facts and tidbits to share with readers, but as I get the words down on the page, the first few drafts tend to be dry and factual. It’s only through revision that I’m able to hone it into something that a young person might want to read. Finding the right voice and tone for a project takes time and persistence! Working on Funky Fungi with Sue was an interesting and rewarding experience. Sue is an amazing writer, and she’s very good at writing humorous lines! It was an invaluable opportunity.

You do indeed appear to be well matched. It'll be interesting to see if you do another collaboration. Did anything surprise or amaze each of you about the acquisition or use of the photographs in the book? What is your favorite spread?

Text © Sue Heavenrich & Alisha Gabriel, 2022.

Image © Magellan/Wikimedia Commons & Dr. Suzanne Simard, 2022.

SUE – We had to source all of the photos, and at first that seemed like an impossible task. But we reached out to friends and some scientists who were happy to share their photos. And we also tried to get outside and take plenty of our own fungus photos. As for favorite? I have to agree with Alisha – they are all beautiful and the layout person did a wonderful job.

Text © Sue Heavenrich & Alisha Gabriel, 2022. Image © Steve Hall, 2022.

ALISHA –I’m not sure which spread is my favorite. They’re all so beautiful and put together so nicely!

The photo research took a lot of time, but I was surprised by how many photos were available with a creative commons license. In a few instances, we found a photo we wanted to use that didn’t have this license, but when we reached out to the photographer, we were granted permission to use it. In fact, most people replied quickly and were delighted that their photo might end up in a book.

That sounds like a much easier task than it has been for some other books. How are you, or have you been, staying creative these days?

SUE – To be honest, my creativity took a hit during the pandemic. Having Funky Fungi to work on really helped. Now, outside weather and gardening and nature photos help inspire me and feed my brain. There are still days when writing is hard, so I scribble in my journal, and take my camera for a walk. Getting outside in nature really helps refill my creative well. So does chocolate…

ALISHA –Since I teach full time, it can be challenging to find enough time to pursue all of the projects that interest me. However, I had fun doing a small sewing project today and I’m designing a prop for an upcoming event to celebrate Funky Fungi.

Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

SUE – I’ve got a new STEM-based picture book coming out next fall (2023) called The Pie That Molly Grew. Chamisa Kellogg is illustrating it and this past month I got to see some sketches. I am pretty excited about that project! And I always have an idea or two I’m working on.

ALISHA –Although I can’t share many details, there’s a nonfiction picture book manuscript that I’m working on right now that I’m excited about. My agent and I have been discussing a strong series potential with this one, so that’s something I’d like to explore and develop more fully this summer.

Well I am excited to see what you both create next. Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

SUE – It’s been a few years since I’ve visited southern Utah. I love the red-rock country, Arches, Dead Horse Point, Escalante (where there are more kinds of native bees than anywhere else in the continental US), Bears Ears, Bryce, and Zions. If I had a month to explore, that would not be enough time.

ALISHA –My husband and I are planning a trip to Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska, so it’s at the top of my list!

Thank you, Sue and Alisha for stopping by and sharing with us. It was delightful to chat with you both.

Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Funky Fungi: 30 Activities for Exploring Molds, Mushrooms, Lichens, and More.

To find out more about Sue Heavenrich, or contact her:

To find out more about Alisha Gabriel, or contact her:


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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