Two intrepid librarians

Two intrepid librarians review the best nonfiction books for children

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Thank You, Moon Interview with Author Melissa Stewart

Thank You, Moon: Celebrating Nature's Nightlight
by Melissa Stewart
illustrated by Jessica Lanan
Alfred A. Knopf, 2023
Grades PreK-5

Thank You, Moon hits shelves today. This science nonfiction picture book from Melissa Stewart and Jessica Lanan highlights the relationship between the moon and the behavior of nocturnal animals. Stewart employs a parallel structure as the lyrical, narrative shows readers how animals respond to the moon. Expository paragraphs provide scientific details about the animals and their habitats. Gorgeous watercolor and pencil illustrations depict plants and animals in the moon's light.

We had the opportunity to interview Melissa Stewart about Thank, You Moon and writing nonfiction for children.

Author Interview with Melissa Stewart

The Nonfiction Detectives: How do you find topics to write about?

Melissa Stewart: I write about science because I’m fascinated by the natural world. I’m constantly encountering things that make me ask questions. And to satisfy my curiosity, I want to know more, more, more. Learning more gets me so excited that I’m dying to share my new knowledge with other people. That’s what fuels my writing.

For me, ideas are everywhere. They come from books and articles I read, conversations with other people, places I visit, and experiences I have. The hard part isn’t getting ideas. It’s remembering them when it’s time to start working on a new book.

That’s why I have an Idea Board in my office, hanging right above my desk. Anytime I have an idea, I write it on a scrap of paper and tack it up there. Some of those ideas lead nowhere, but others turn into books.

Young writers can keep a list of their own on the last page of their writer’s notebook. I call this an Idea Incubator.

The Nonfiction Detectives: What led you to write Thank You, Moon and the topic of how animals depend on the Moon?

Melissa Stewart: My editor, Katherine Harrison, gets all the credit. In February 2020, she tagged me on Twitter, alerting me to a conversation about how animals respond to the Moon’s cycle, and asked “Is this something you’d potentially be interested in writing? I just can’t get enough of the moon these days, and I feel like you could bring something special to it.” She also included a beautiful, eerie, mysterious image of the Moon partially obscured by clouds. It was an irresistible invitation. 

Not only was it a fascinating topic that had never been written about in a children’s book before, I immediately knew how I’d end the book. I could draw inspiration from a special moment I’d shared with my nieces, Caroline and Claire, about 15 years ago.

As I discuss in this video, when Caroline was in kindergarten and Claire was in second grade, I did an author visit at their school in Maine. They wanted to ride to school with me rather than take the bus, and on the way, I spotted the Moon.

“Oh, look, there’s the Moon,” I said, pointing out the passenger-side window.

Claire, who was on that side of the car, could easily see it. “Oh yeah. Cool,” she replied.

But Caroline couldn’t see it. She squirmed wildly in her car seat. “Where? Where?” she yelled. As her frustration grew, she exclaimed, “I’ve never seen the Moon in the day in my whole long life!” 

So I pulled the car over, and we all got out to admire that lovely, surprising daytime Moon. I’ll never forget Caroline’s joy and astonishment in that moment. She was discovering something new and exciting about how nature works. 

Even as an adult, spotting the Moon in the day is still a special treat. It feels a tiny bit magical because you aren’t expecting it. I wanted to capture that emotion at the end of the book, and it felt simpatico with the image Katherine had sent me. 


The Nonfiction Detectives: 
How did you decide on which animals to highlight in Thank You, Moon?

Melissa Stewart: There are ten animals (and one plant) included in the book, but I had many more examples to choose from. Whenever I write a list book about an animal behavior, I keep diversity in mind. I’ve included creatures from many different animal groups (reptiles, insects, birds, mammals, zooplankton, corals) and many different habitats and geographical regions. 

I also looked for ways to pair the animals by survival strategies to create a compare and contrast text structure. Some animals depend on the Moon to find food. Others rely on it to stay safe or reproduce or travel from place to place. 

Initially, I tried to write the book with a sequence text structure that followed the phases of the Moon, but that didn’t work because most of the Moon-related activity occurs either when the Moon is full or nearly full or when there’s just a sliver of a Moon. There weren’t enough examples in between to create a satisfying arc. 

For me, finding just the right text structure is the most challenging part of writing expository nonfiction. Sometimes it takes years. But luckily, it came pretty easily this time.

The Nonfiction Detectives: What was your writing process for Thank You, Moon? Did you write the main text first and then add the more detailed secondary text?

Melissa Stewart: When I write expository literature, I begin by looking for a hook--a unique lens that will spark the reader’s curiosity and encourage them to think about the topic in a new way. 

When a book has a strong hook, it’s often built right into the title, so brainstorming titles is one way to discover the great hook. It can really help to toss around ideas with a friend, so one Saturday, I asked my husband to help me think of possible titles while we cleaned the house. The ideas could be good or bad, silly or serious, anything at all. Any unique way of thinking about “our closest companion in space.” I liked the sound of that phrase, so I wrote it down to get us started.

A few hours later, the dust bunnies were gone, the bathroom sparkled, and we’d filled a notebook page with ideas. The next day, I typed them into a computer file along with all the adjectives I could think of to describe the Moon photo Katherine had sent me. My goal was to create a manuscript that evoked that image.

It didn’t take long for the title Thank You, Moon and the lens of gratitude to rise to the top. After all, life on Earth—including us—couldn’t exist without the Moon to regulate Earth’s seasons. 

I also thought it would be possible to use the phrase repetitively to craft the kind of lyrical voice I wanted for the book. 

Once I had a hook and I knew the text structure, I could start to write. I wrote the lyrical main text and more detailed secondary text in tandem, moving those large chunks around until I had an order that flowed well and represented the diversity of creatures, habitats, and geographical regions that would appeal to a broad, global audience.

The Nonfiction Detectives: Some writers say they write a certain number of words every day. What is your writing routine? 

Melissa Stewart: I don’t have daily word goals, but I do try to set aside the first few hours of my workday for writing rough drafts or complex revisions. I’m a morning person, so that’s when my brain is  at its best.

I do most of my writing in a spare bedroom in my house. My husband leaves for work at 5:45 a.m., so that’s when I start to write.

When I get stuck, I stop to take a shower. Something about the steam and running water frees my mind, and I usually solve the problem. After lunch, I switch my focus to researching, planning school visits, and taking care of business tasks. I stop working at 4:30 p.m., so I can start making dinner.

The Nonfiction Detectives: What is your research process? Do you use your local library to find information?

Melissa Stewart: I get information in four ways—reading books, articles, and scientific papers; using the internet (carefully), firsthand observations in nature, and interviewing experts. I do use the library and interlibrary loan to get books. I also am a heavy user of the library’s databases, which I can access online. 

The Nonfiction Detectives: How do you keep track of all the information you collect as you do research?

Melissa Stewart: There are some fancy computer programs that many people use, but I find it’s simpler to just dump everything into a computer file, which is easy to search. I organize everything by source, so I know where to look if I need to clarify my notes or go back for additional information. It helps that I have a very good memory. I can often picture where I found specific information without having to look it up.

The Nonfiction Detectives: What are some of your favorite recent nonfiction books by other authors?

Melissa Stewart: Oh wow, there are so many great nonfiction books coming out. 2023 is a banner year! 

Here’s a list of 20 titles I’m particularly excited about. You’ll probably notice a science slant because that’s my personal area of interest:

Accountable: The True Story of a Racist Social Media Account and the Teenagers Whose Lives It Changed by Dashka Slater

The Book of Turtles Sy Montgomery and Matt Patterson

Butt or Face? A Hilarious Animal Guessing Game Book for Kids by Kari Lavelle 

The Deep!: Wild Life at the Ocean’s Darkest Depths by Lindsey Leigh

The Fire of Stars: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of by Kirsten Larson, illustrated by Katherine Roy

The Girl Who Heard the Music: How One Pianist and 85,000 Bottles and Cans Brought New Hope to an Island by Marni Fogelson, Mahani Teave, illustrated by Marta Álvarez Miguéns

Glitter Everywhere! Where It Came From, Where It’s Found, & Where It’s Going by Chris Barton, illustrated by Chaaya Prabhat

Great Carrier Reef by Jessica Stremer, illustrated by Gordy Wright

The Green Piano: How Little Me Found Music by Roberta Flack and Tonya Bolden,
illustrated by Hayden Goodman

How Do You Spell Unfair? MacNolia Cox and the National Spelling Bee by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Frank Morrison

Impossible Escape: A True Story of Survival and Heroism in Nazi Europe by
Steve Sheinkin

Jumper: A Day in the Life of a Backyard Jumping Spider by Jessica Lanan

Making More: How Life Begins by Katherine Roy

The Monkey Trial: John Scopes and the Battle Over Teaching Evolution by Anita Sanchez

Mysterious Glowing Mammals: An Unexpected Discovery Sparks a Scientific Investigation by Maria Parrott-Ryan

Nature Is a Sculptor: Weathering and Erosion by Heather Ferranti Kinser

Rise to the Sky: How the World’s Tallest Trees Grow Up by Rebecca E. Hirsch, illustrated by Mia Posada

Sisters in Science: Marie Curie, Bronia Dluska, and the Atomic Power of Sisterhood by Linda Elovitz Marshall, illustrated by Anna and Elena Balbusso

Superpod: Saving the Endangered Orcas of the Pacific Northwest by Nora Nickum

To Boldly Go: How Nichelle Nichols and Star Trek Helped Advance Civil Rights by Angela Dalton, illustrated by Lauren Semmer

One book that I’m dying to read is The Mona Lisa Vanishes: A Legendary Painter, a Shocking Heist, and the Birth of a Global Celebrity by Nicolas Day. I’ve heard so many good things about it.

It’s worth mentioning that I first heard about many of these books right here on the Nonfiction Detectives blog. Thank you for creating such a valuable resource for teachers, librarians, parents, and nonfiction creators like me.

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