Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Be a "Rule Breaker" with Jessica Fries-Gaither and Nature’s Rule Breakers: Animals that Don’t Fit In by Kathy Halsey

What fun to be interviewing an Ohio author and SCBWI friend, Jessica Fries-Gaither this week for the GROG! We both love NF picture books and are educators. I’ve always admired the gorgeous books that come from Millbrook Press and editor Carol Hinz! Let’s take a look at Nature’s Rule Breakers: Animals that Don’t Fit In

Book Review

There’s still such a market for engaging science nonfiction, and Nature’s Rule Breakers: Animals that Don’t Fit In fits perfectly onto a school library shelf, a teacher’s bookshelf, or in the hands of curious kids who love unusual creatures. As Kirkus says this is “not your ordinary display of interesting and appealing animals, this offering has an important message for young readers and the adults who care for them."

Author-science teacher Fries-Gaither has crafted a lyrical, engaging book with questions that hook the reader and an SEL theme that can also be a point of discussion in a classroom/library setting. That theme applies to the animal kingdom as well as with humans– no one fits the parameters of rules perfectly. That quality makes us unique. As Jessica states in her newest picture book, “Some rules are meant to be broken, even those in the animal kingdom”! 

As a proud rule breaker, an “inbetweener” who has felt that I don't belong, this is an affirming book for more than the target audience of 5 - 9 years, K - 3.  Go find out more about garden snails, tardigrades, and Sacoglossan sea slugs and other inbetweeners. This is an engaging, informative read with useful backmatter that will delight educators! 

Craft Chat wit Jessica Fries-Gaither 

Kathy: I’m always curious about the “process” of how text changes over time to become a publishable piece. In your first drafts of Rule Breakers did you write straight exposition and add all the lyrical elements later? Was it ever written in rhyme? 

Lines like “This feathered flier is crepuscular, swooping silently through sky at dusk or dawn” are so poetic, full of consonance and assonance. How did you arrive at this lyrical version and prose like it throughout the book? 

Jessica: My initial drafts were almost entirely straight exposition. I’m a science teacher by day, and so my “voice,” both in the classroom and on the page tends to be clear and matter of fact when I’m trying to explain a concept. Thankfully critique partners and editor Carol Hinz pushed me to jazz up the language to make it more engaging! 

Lyrical nonfiction is my absolute favorite, and it’s something I’m continually working on in my own writing practice.

As for rhyme…no. I’ve previously published two rhyming picture books with NSTA Kids, and it will take a special topic for me to want to go through that again. 

Kathy: The use of questions on spreads is another active aspect of your diction in Rule Breakers. How do questions help a reader connect with nonfiction?

Jessica: Again, I think this flows naturally from my life as a teacher. I spend my days asking kids questions to help them figure out and understand science concepts. I find that kids can rush through things, whether it be thinking through an idea or reading a book. Posing questions encourages them to pause, reflect, and engage more deeply with the content. 

Kathy: Ah, I love that “pause, reflect, engage deeply”. That is what scientists do! On another note, I’m curious if there has been any pushback with your inclusion of living things moving between female and male behaviors, such as the garden snail or even terminology such as “hermaphrodite.” The facts are true, but some adults are hypersensitive to word connotations in our “politicalized” world. As a writer, did these issues come up as you wrote?

Jessica: Including sex as a category was a very conscious choice on my part, and I chose to place those examples later in the book to allow readers to get comfortable with the rule-breaking concept before tackling it. The only note I’ve received on this to date was from a colleague who read an early draft and mentioned that the use of “hermaphrodite” with regard to intersex humans is stigmatizing and offensive. We talked about the differences between the use of the word to describe an animal like a snail versus a human and I ultimately felt okay about leaving it in (and apparently, so did my editor). Sadly, though, given today’s climate, I can’t say I will be surprised if some pushback arises. Disappointed and perhaps angry? Absolutely. But not surprised. 

Kathy: I am glad you took a stand and left the spread with “hermaphrodites” in. BRAVO. I’ve never thought about species that don’t fit in. Where’d you get this original idea? How did you decide which animals to include? Were there others that you didn’t include? Was there a process of elimination by you, your agent, or editor?  The photos are quite compelling, too. Did the “coolness” or “strangeness” of the creature make it a contender for the book?

Jessica: Believe it or not, my inspiration came from a tweet that simply read “Biology isn’t binary.” (Had I known where that tweet would lead me, I would have taken a screenshot of it back in 2021!) I kept thinking about it long after I liked and retweeted it, especially in the context of the way we teach kids about living things. It seemed like there was an opportunity for me to show them a new way to think.

I started brainstorming examples with a friend and science colleague and we came up with so many examples. Not just animals, but plants and human biology as well. It’s interesting to go back and look at my early drafts because there wasn’t a clear focus yet. Rounds of feedback from critique partners helped me start to narrow my focus. I worked on this manuscript with author Sara C. Levine in a virtual revision workshop through SCBWI Ohio North, and her expertise and feedback helped me continue to narrow. Some examples were more compelling than others, and the nuances of some categories proved to be too difficult to explain in the concise picture book format. 

I don’t know if I consciously considered “coolness” or “strangeness” of an animal besides my own interest in it. My editor and I had some discussion about whether or not to include the sea slug, but I pushed to keep it in because I’m fascinated and a little obsessed with them. Google “leaf sheep sea slug” to see why! I do know, though, that while I love mammals and birds as much as the next person, I challenge my students to learn about other types of animals as well. I’m sure that perspective influenced some of my selection process, whether conscious or not. 

Kathy: Have you begun author visits yet? I bet kids will love the “coolness” and "strangeness” of these rule breakers. So, how do the kids react to the creatures? What are their favorites? Any tips to pass on to GROG readers via school visits?

Jessica: I’m doing a “visit” with my own students this week—gotta take advantage of a built-in audience—and have a virtual visit scheduled with a school in California next month. So I don’t have visits to draw on yet, but I think they’ll be fascinated. And ironically, even though I’ve been in the audience for many an author visit, I’m feeling very much a newbie when it comes to being on the other side of the microphone! 

Kathy: What are you working on now? Please share any virtual presentations or in-person events that are on your fall-winter calendar.

Jessica: My writing always slows down in the late summer and fall with the return to teaching and coaching middle school volleyball. I’ve been working on a proposal for a middle grade science nonfiction book that I’m excited about getting back to. I’ve learned that November-March is a typically productive time for me as a writer, and I am excited to see what comes from it this year.

I will be at the NCTE conference (here in Columbus) November 16-18. I’m part of a panel discussion, All Hands-On Deck: Creating an Active, Climate-Literate School Community with authors Keila Dawson, Jeanette Bradley, Laura Gehl, Lindsay Metcalf, and fellow educator Alex Edelmann, although my involvement is around the books I’ve published with NSTA on science notebooks. I will have a book signing foNature’s Rule Breakers at the Lerner Booth (Booth 307) from 1:30-2:00 p.m. on Saturday, November 18. 

I have other presentations and conferences focused on my writing for science teachers, but not much for Nature’s Rule Breakers, yet . . .

Check out Jessica's professional books for educators, too!

Jessica is an experienced science educator and an award-winning author of books for students and teachers. Her titles include Nature's Rule Breakers: Creatures That Don't Fit In, Notable Notebooks: Scientists and Their Writings, Exemplary Evidence: Scientists and Their Drawings, and Science Notebooks in Student-Centered Classrooms.

Find Jessica here!



Instagram: @JessicaFGWrites

X (for now): @JessicaFGWrites

Blue Sky:


  1. Thank you, Kathy and Jessica, for this informative interview. I have some exploring to do. Congratulations Jessica! I look forward to reading your book.

    1. Charlotte, knowing your love of creepy-crawlies (worms, etc.) this is your kind of book!

  2. Great interview! Now I want to read about all the rule breakers! (I can identify with not fitting in.)

    1. Ty for reading and responding. I identify, too, with these rule breakers!

  3. Great interview and insight of what went on to create this book. Kids will want to grab this one. ...the animals on the cover and of course the suggestion of "rule breakers"! And you're right, Kathy, teachers will love the back matter. But I bet kids will want to know more too. Looks like a wonderful book. Thanks Kathy and Jessica.

    1. Not's me, Mona Pease!