Cathy and I thought it would be fun to take a break from reviewing nonfiction to interviewing author's whose books we regularly review. Our first interview is with Maria Gianferrari. We love her ability to compose engaging informational books that explore our natural world. Maria's books are perfect to share in story time or in the classroom setting. The language is lively, engaging, and just fun to read. A bonus is that the lively language is always coupled with wonderful illustrations. We hope you like Maria's books as much as we do.
Why do you write the kinds of books you do?
I write about the things that I love, so for nonfiction, that would be about the natural world and its inhabitants. I grew up in New Hampshire near a farmhouse, and nature was my playground—I’m still a nature girl. You can tell I love animals—all of my books currently published, or under contract, feature an animal main character J.
Where do you get the information or ideas for your books?
My ideas come from all kinds of places—observations of things I see on my daily dog walks, or places that I travel, from books or articles or films I’ve seen, or things that I’m curious about. My book Coyote Moon, was inspired by a close encounter with an eastern coyote when I lived in the greater Boston area. Terrific Tongues actually began with my then toddler’s obsession with tongues. We were living in Berlin, Germany at the time, and she was speaking more German than English. Every time she’d see a tongue of any kind, one in a book, the tongue of a dog passing on the street, she’d excitedly scream, “Zunge,” (the German word for tongue). I became curious, and started researching tongues and found so much cool information, and Terrific Tongueswas born.
How did you become a writer? What was the first book you got published?
Writing was something that I had always wanted to do, but I did not fully commit to it until after my daughter was born. Reading wonderful works of kidlit re-ignited my dream of being a writer, and I decided to go for it. My first book is Penny and Jelly The School Show, illustrated by Thyra Heder (HMH, 2015). It’s about a girl named Penny and her canine best friend, Jelly, based on my daughter’s relationship with our dog, Becca.
How do you pack so much information and emotions while using a limited word count?
I think that poetry is key to writing picture books, whether fiction or nonfiction, because it is spare, economic and can distill both ideas and emotions. Science and poetry really go hand-in-hand. Scientific language can be poetic too in its specificity. For example, in my book, Hawk Rising, I use the verb “kiting” to describe how a hawk floats in the wind by folding its wings. It’s a beautiful and descriptive verb, so apt AND it’s scientifically accurate too.
How do you select your subjects for your books?
The topics are usually something that I’m very passionate about, like urban ecology—
the wild neighbors who live among us, who may be common, yet they are extraordinary in their own ways. It was important to me to have Coyote Moon set in the suburbs—to show coyotes living among us, and how we can co-exist with them. The same with Hawk Rising: the birder-girl watches from her home, where the hawk family has nested nearby.
I also like to write about things that I’m curious and want to learn more about, or things that inspire me. As a bird nerd, I have another bird book releasing in March 2020: Whoo-Ku Haiku, a story about a great horned owl family written in a series of haiku poems (again, science and poetry), coming from Putnam. I also really believe in the power of importance of play, so I have a book called Play Like an Animal, releasing from Millbrook Press next April.
Do you get a say in who illustrates your books?
I am very fortunate to have worked with editors who have shared their prospective illustrator lists with me since they want to make sure that our vision for the books align. My expectations have always been exceeded. I feel so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with many extremely talented artists for both my fiction and nonfiction books. Lucky me!
What do you like best about writing for children?
It’s fun and it’s challenging—I get to feel like a kid again—full of curiosity and wonder. And kids are the best audience: they’re energetic and inquisitive, and when they’re engaged, that is the best feeling!
Do you belong to a writer’s group?
I LOVE my online critique group, CP (Crumpled Paper)! They are my trusted friends, and we challenge and buoy and champion each other professionally and personally. Their thoughtful and incisive feedback has made me a better writer. I wouldn’t be a published writer today without them! Thanks, Lisa, Andrea, Lois, Abby and Sheri!
Your books really grab the attention of children. Were you ever a teacher?
I taught composition to college students during my graduate studies for a Ph.D., and one summer I participated in a STEM program for middle school students, and that was a blast! They were full of energy and great ideas. I’ve never taught at the elementary school level though. I feel like we’re teachers as writers of nonfiction—we want to share the cool things we’ve discovered with kids in a fun, engaging, non-didactic way.
Thank you, Maria! We are looking forward to your new titles coming out in 2020!