My second thought? I wish I could write like that! Because even if I had come up with the idea first, it never would have turned out as good as it has in Claire’s capable hands.
Claire Eamer is the author of many non-fiction books for middle graders, including the award winning The World in Your Lunch Box: The Wacky History and Weird Science of Everyday Foods and Lizards in the Sky: Animals Where You Least Expect Them. She is an expert at presenting science to kids in a way that is creative and irresistible. I am grateful to her for taking time out of her busy schedule at the When Words Collide conference (three panels and a book launch!) to answer a few questions.
Most of your books are a collection of topics, bound by a common theme like Before the World Was Ready: Stories of Daring Genius in Science which covers lots of ground from the shape of the solar system to insecticides. Where do you get your ideas?
That particular idea came from the publisher. They’d done some research on candidates for the theme, then turned it over to me when I said the topic interested me. I did more research (with the help of my son, Patrick, who prowled the University of Victoria library on my behalf) and came up with the final list of candidates and the approach.
That’s a fairly common approach with publishers these days, but it accounts for only two of my books –Before the World Was Ready and Traitors’ Gate and Other Doorways to the Past. The others were my ideas. I never seem to have much trouble with non-fiction ideas, mainly because I really like to understand how things work and why. Super Crocs and Monster Wings grew out of my curiosity about the relationship between giant ground sloths and tree sloths, which – in turn – grew out of my fascination with a giant ground sloth skeleton in a local Whitehorse natural history museum, the Beringia Interpretive Centre. Lizards in the Sky – I read about flying snakes (really!!!) and got fascinated about extreme kinds of adaptation to habitat. The World in Your Lunch Box came about because I wanted to know exactly how yeast works and because I was amazed when I started reading about all the foods that were developed in the Americas and have spread around the world. I have a lot of questions. Writing books gives me an excuse to dig up the answers.
Before the World Was Ready includes a page of “further reading” and a three page “selected biography” That’s a lot of sources! How do you approach research?
I could happily lose myself in research. I love learning things and get bored with a job easily if I’m not constantly learning. Which is why I’ve been a freelance writer, of some sort or other, for most of my working life. For my kids’ books, I start with books and, often, televison documentaries to give me an overview, but I do a lot of online research using scientific and academic journals. Concordia University College in Edmonton has very kindly appointed me Adjunct Professor of Education. That allows me to use their online library resources, which is a huge benefit. I also can go up to Yukon College (it’s on top of a hill in the midst of Whitehorse, hence “up”) and use the library there, both physical and online. The journals can be a bit of a slog, but that’s where the up-to-date information is. When I write a book, I want it to reflect the latest research, not just regurgitate dated material from older existing books.
Once I’ve done all that research, I look at the questions or puzzles that remain and go in search of experts who can help me answer them. Usually it’s someone whose journal article I have read. I do most of that research by web search and email, although I always give the person I’m asking questions of the option of talking on the phone. Since I live in Whitehorse, an in-person interview only works for a few topics (including giant ground sloths and some other neat beasties that used to live here). Scientists and academics are amazingly helpful when you explain that you want to tell children about their favourite topic, the research they spend their lives on. I once had a three-day email exchange with a couple of scientists in England who were helping me explain — in kid terms and less than a page — the latest research into the relationships between extinct giant sea scorpions, living scorpions, and spiders. It’s complicated and only partly understood, but new techniques are changing the field so fast that I figured we’d better stop and get the book out before it was obsolete! (That’s in Spiked Scorpions and Walking Whales, if you’re interested.)
The Further Reading sections in the book are something Annick Press insists on (and I agree). If kids get interested in a topic, they usually want to know more, so some pointers toward more information are good. Usually the books cover different or related angles that haven’t really been featured in my book.
The bibliography (always “selected bibliography” because I do a LOT of research) serves several purposes. It gives the book credibility. We can’t footnote a kids’ book as one might an adult book, but we can show that the information is solid and provide enough information that it can be checked. Also, it implicitly shows kids how an author works by showing the scale of research behind a topic. Finally, the bibliography reassures teachers and librarians that they are putting good, well-researched information in kids’ hands. The books also always have a decent and useful index so kids can find the information they need (and learn how to use an index in the process). I think all of that is an important part of showing respect for your reader. My readers might be short, but they deserve solid, up-to-date information and a guarantee that they can check my facts and sources if they choose.
You have two degrees in English (which helps explain your excellent writing skills!) but no formal training in science. Is that an advantage or disadvantage? Do you get “experts” to review your work prior to publication?
I took English because I love reading and learning, and that seemed to be a good way to keep reading and learning. Also, I am very much a generalist by nature, so I didn’t want to restrict the subjects I was reading and learning about. I think I actually learned to write first by reading and later by working as a reporter in a variety of media. When you’re shifting between newspaper style, various magazine styles, spoken word (for radio), informational DVDs and websites, and the occasional bit of fiction, you become very aware of tailoring style to audience and medium – and you learn a lot about how to play with words in the process.
The science stuff has always been a fascination of mine. I actually have taken several university courses in biology and ecology, although not enough for a degree. But I’ve learned a lot from interviewing scientists, editing their work, hanging out with them, reading, going to scientific talks, watching documentaries by people like David Attenborough (my science-communications hero!), and asking lots of questions. The advantage of not being a scientist is that I have no investment in the jargon of any subject. My specialty is translating the jargon into language the rest of us can understand so that we can all enjoy the excitement of science.
And yes, I always get experts to fact-check my work. It’s a responsibility in my book contracts, but I would do it anyway. I really want my writing to be accurate. Really!
You also write about history and science fiction. How does the market for science non-fiction compare to the market for middle grade sci-fi?
I don’t actually know since I’ve written very little science fiction and not for that age group. However, I know that several publishers are currently looking for middle-grade science fiction – although I’m not sure exactly what they expect. Middle grade science non-fiction is in a bit of a transition stage, I think. Publishers want to publish it, but they are struggling with how to get it out to readers. If you look in the kids’ non-fiction department of any big bookstore, you’ll see why. It’s usualy jammed into a few shelves in a back corner, with nothing on display and very little sensible organization. My personal experience, from visiting schools and libraries, is that kids love knowing stuff – all kinds of stuff, not just science – but that’s often not the books that their grown-ups are buying for them.
The new education standards in the United States, which influence the supply and type of books available in Canada too, might make a difference, since they emphasize non-fiction reading very heavily. However, I don’t know if that impact is being felt here yet. Best ask a publisher, I think.
I’m not sure that it has much impact. When I started writing for kids, it was mainly a nuisance because I was trying to do the research from a place that had no easy access to a lot of the journals I need, but that has changed in the past few years. Now I can get at most of the information I need from here, via the Internet – which makes working from Whitehorse possible. We also have an excellent interlibrary loan system, by the way, and it has proved very helpful.
Where the location does affect me is in school and library presentations, which are a significant part of many kids’ writers’ incomes. Although Whitehorse isn’t terribly expensive to fly into and out of by northern standards, it still adds a significant extra cost to any book presentation tour that makes it hard to justify.
On the other hand, there are a lot of very knowledgeable, well-educated, and well-travelled people in the Yukon, including some excellent scientists, and many of them have been significant resources in researching my books. Because it’s a small community, it’s pretty easy to corner my local palaeontologist or biologist and get some answers to questions – often over a nice locally-roasted latte. The North is alarmingly civilized these days! This is a very good place to start building a network of contacts.
I would love to visit Whitehorse one day – what a beautiful part of the world. Thank you for your thoughtful responses to my questions. Is there anything else you like to add?
I guess the one thing to add is that my isolation can be overstated. Apart from the fact that there is a thriving arts and literary community in the Yukon, the Internet has changed what a community is or can be. My on-line communities include a Canada-wide network of kids’ writers and publishers, a BC-based kids’-writer network, a nation-wide network of science writers, another of science fiction and fantasy writers, and a few other bits and bobs of colleagues – all of them located anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of kilometres away, but right there in my in-box when I need them. It’s amazing, and I appreciate it enormously.
To find out more about Claire please visit her website. My review of Before the World was Ready is available here. And in case that is not enough, you can also join Claire and other Canadian kids’ science writers at their blog, Sci/Why.
Yolanda Ridge is the author of Trouble in the Trees (Orca Book Publishers, 2011) and Road Block (Orca Book Publishers, 2012). She also lives in a remote part of Canada with ski hills and bike trails right at her door step!