by Sue Heavenrich
Melissa Stewart has written more than 180 science books for children, and is one of those authors who supports and encourages emerging writers. I met her at a Falling Leaves nonfiction master class, and again at a 21st Century Children's Nonfiction Conference. So when her new book, Can an Aardvark Bark? came out this summer, I could not wait to read it. It's about the diversity of sounds animals make, from grunts and squeals to barks, whines, and roars. Like other books, this one has layers: a line of text that young children will have fun reading, and sidebars with more in-depth information that a reading buddy, parent, or older sibling can read. It's fun to read, and the illustrations are marvelous cut and torn paper by Steve Jenkins. (My review, and "beyond the book activities" is posted at Archimedes Notebook)
This book was born during a trip to the zoo. There was a plaque next to the tamarins that said they bark. "That night at dinner, my nephew asked if we could make a list of animals that bark," she remembers. From there the list grew into sounds different animals make. She knew there was a book there ... just didn't know what that book would look like. The journey from idea to finished book is always full of crumpled papers, edits, revisions, more revisions, and sometimes a total make-over. Contrary to popular belief, picture books take a long time to write. Years. In Aardvark's case, four. Years. Not counting research.
Over those years, Melissa tried different ways to structure the text of her book. First she tried "compare and contrast", but after a short time she decided that didn't capture what she wanted to say. She tried a couple of "description" styles, and a "question & answer" format. She went back and forth, tried combinations, and at times put the project on a shelf.
"It's important to spend time away from a project between draft and revision," she said. It might not be a long time - you could finish a draft before lunch and come back after recess (or running to town to do errands), but the important thing is to get that chance to look at your manuscript with "fresh eyes and a fresh mind".
Melissa generously shares her accumulated wisdom, trials, and drafts of her manuscript in a wonderful timeline. One of the things she was looking for, as she experimented with styles, was a hook. "Animal sounds are cool," she said. But she needed a way to get the kids engaged. "I wasn't sure what that hook would be, but I knew it had to be special." At the New York SCBWI conference an editor was talking about sharks, and the phrase, "can a shark bark?" popped into Melissa's mind. Then, half a year later at another SCBWI conference an editor mentioned an orange aardvark.
"By now I'm obsessed," said Melissa. "Can an aardvark bark? No! But could I come up with an order of animals and sounds that would allow some sort of backwards connecting thing?" In search of a solution, Melissa wrote animals and the sounds they made on post it notes - and then stuck them on a wall. Now she could move them around looking for a structure that connected them - she had 300 animals and 50 sounds!
"Writing a nonfiction concept book is not easy," Melissa said. "And writing a picture book is not simple!" That's why she created timelines for this book and an earlier one, to show the careful thought, planning, and years of writing/ stepping back / rewriting that go into a picture book.