I "met" Nancy Day online after she posted a comment on my last blog post. She mentioned she would be happy to be interviewed, and when I found out she wrote nonfiction in rhyme--two of my favorites--I jumped on board. Let's get started.
Tell us a little bit about your writing journey and your background.
From the age of 12, I knew I wanted to write books for children some day, but started by writing for adults. For years, I wrote nonfiction magazine articles, often as historical and health-related subjects. Once I had my own kids, I got back to my first love--picture books.
My children's book, The Lion's Whiskers: An Ethiopian Folktale, was a New York Times notable book of 1995. All of my eight picture books since then, whether classified as fiction or nonfiction, have involved some research. But Way Down Below Deep (Pelican, 2014), a rhyming book about deep ocean creatures, demanded the most painstaking research.
How did you come up with your subject?
I have always loved the ocean. I remember avidly watching Jacques Cousteau on TV as a child. I've always tried to live near an ocean and get on it or in it as much as possible!
When my first editor encouraged me to write a book for a well-known science series and asked if I had a topic in mind, I suggested deep ocean exploration on the spot. It's like earth's final frontier, and now that cameras can go where humans cannot, we are learning about the alien-looking life there at a rapid pace.
How did you research that topic?
I read several fascinating and beautiful books about deep ocean creatures, but much of my research was online on wonderful websites like Monterey Bay Aquarium's. New discoveries are being made all the time, so what we know about these creatures is constantly being changed and updated.
How did you decide which sea creatures to use? Did your choice at all depend on how you could find rhymes to fit?
I tended to go for the ones that had the most unusual features (such as the world's largest eyes) or the most outstanding adaptations to deal with the dark, cold, extreme pressure, and lack of oxygen found in the deep. I tried to pick creatures that were different from one another as well. I stuck with the ones I chose and eventually found rhymes to fit.
Have you always written in rhyme, or did you decide to try it in your book?
Once I had researched deep ocean creatures and chosen my cast of characters, I sat down to write. And it started coming to me in rhyme---not what I was supposed to do. But, it was more fun and challenging to me, and I thought it would be more fun--and memorable--for young readers as well. So I decided to see where it took me--and whether I could sell it to a different publisher.
Of my nine published picture books, five are in rhyme, including the four most recent ones.
From start to finish, about how long did it take before publication? How did the process shape up?
I started researching in 2009, so I guess five years. I finished writing it and started sending it to publishers in 2010. Once Pelican bought it in 2013, the process went quickly. David Sheldon did an amazing job on the illustrations--amazingly quickly. Even with all the picky research questions the Pelican editors asked David and me to make sure text and art were as factually accurate as possible, the book, Way Down Below Deep, was out by Fall of 2014.
How difficult was it to find rhymes for the subject matter?
Some subjects were harder than others; explaining how tube worms make food by chemosynthesis instead of photosynthesis where there is no sunlight was probably hardest. Here's what I came up with:
Even harder in spots was fitting some long creature names into the poetry's rhythm. That's why I couldn't fit the glowing sucker octopus's name into the verse itself; the journal note came in handy for that.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to also do nonfiction in rhyme?
It's hard to fit the facts you want to get across in rhyme form. So first, I'd advise the writer to think hard about whether rhyme is the best way to go for the subject matter. If you're determined to write nonfiction in rhyme, decide what you want to get across up front. In the stanza of verse for each creature, I had to pick the most sensational and/or humorous aspect to feature.
Then, look for ways to include additional information that doesn't fit into the rhyme scheme. I came up with the marine biologist's daughter's journal as a kid-friendly way to present additional facts. For interested (and probably older) readers, a page at the back provides more information on each creature.
Can you name some other books in rhyme that would be good to study?
In nonfiction, Marianne Berkes' Over In The Ocean: In a Coral Reef comes to mind. Also, In The Trees, Honeybees! by Lori Mortensen. And anything by April Pulley Sayres. My favorite fiction poets are Mary Ann Hoberman, Julia Donaldson, and Linda Ashman--all worth studying. And I must add my own What In The World? Numbers in Nature, coming from Beach Lane Books September 1.
Thanks, Nancy. You've shown us it can be done, and done well.