Sat 31 Oct 2009
How did you get the idea for this book?
I wanted to write a story about a minority hero because minorities have done so many great things in our history that have been forgotten or never written about. In researching Civil War heroes, I came upon a few lines about Robert Smalls and kept on digging. When I found out how he had stolen a Confederate gunboat and ran it past several forts in Charleston Harbor, I knew that this was a great adventure story that kids would love. And at the same time, they would learn about an important African American hero who spent his entire life working to make the world a better place for everyone.
Did you always know it was going to be a picture book?
Yes, I wanted to write a picture book biography. And I wanted it to read like a story. That’s why I chose to focus mostly on the escape of Robert, the crew, and their families.
What kind of research did you do? How long did it take to get all the facts you needed?
I read everything I could find about Robert Smalls both in print and online, and scoured the bibliographies of everything I read for other leads. I tried to find as many primary sources as I could: speeches, interviews, newspaper stories of the time, etc. A great resource was http://www.robertsmalls.org and its creator Kitt Alexander, who is an expert on Robert Smalls. Robert Smalls Middle School also provided me with hard-to-find articles from Robert’s time. Also, I found out that all of the correspondence of both the Union and Confederate military forces during the Civil War has been compiled in books, which are online and searchable. So I could read about the escape in the words of Admiral Du Pont, the guards, etc. My primary sources are listed at the back of the book, which I hope is useful to teachers and students.
Writing the book was a long process. First it took me several months to research and write. Then I sent it out to a few publishers and Lee & Low Books expressed interest, but asked for a huge rewrite before they would commit to it. They especially wanted the story to show more of Robert’s character, especially his feelings and motivation, and more tension. This rewrite took several more months and more research. Then once Lee & Low bought the story, the back-and-forth revision process took more than a year.
What did you learn while writing this book?
I learned that there are countless stories of great achievements by minorities that have been lost to history. I hope to be able to bring additional ones to light in the future.
What advice would you give aspiring nonfiction picture book writers?
I think to be a good nonfiction writer you have to love to do research. And you have to keep digging until you find the details to make your story come alive.
Sometimes writing opportunities come about in strange ways. For example, several years ago I found the nonfiction nature books published by Soundprints at my local library and fell in love with them. So I spent months writing the very best manuscript I could about an animal not yet in their line. Soundprints didn’t buy that manuscript, but months later when the company needed a manuscript fast on the brown pelican, the editor called me to write it. Now, I’ve written ten books for Soundprints — eight already published, plus one coming out in December and another next fall.
What books/authors do you read for inspiration?
I like the nature writers Jean Craighead George, Robert McClung, and April Pulley Sayre. I’m also inspired by the writings of Carter G. Woodson and William Still. I also love reading children’s picture books. I often stop by my local library and read all the new picture books on the shelf. I’ve learned a lot about writing from attending conferences and workshops of our Wisconsin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and by reading books on writing, such as Word Magic for Writers by Cindy Rogers and Picture Writing by Anastasia Suen.
How did you go from aspiring writer to published author?
It’s been a long, winding path. When I was in my late 20s, I had some success selling articles to magazines like Ranger Rick and Jack and Jill. But I wanted to make a living writing, so I returned to college for a second degree in journalism. That led to jobs as a daily newspaper reporter, a magazine editor, and finally as a creator of color and activity books for Golden Books, once based in Racine, Wis. When Golden Books moved all of its operations to New York City thirteen years ago and I lost my job, I returned to my original dream of being a freelance children’s writer.
Before I decided to strike out on my own, I went on some interviews, and one of the companies I visited gave me my first freelance assignment—four nonfiction books on bugs. And a children’s author was born.
You’ve written a lot of books, tell us about some of your favorites.
Seven Miles to Freedom is definitely one of my favorites. I feel so honored that I had the opportunity to share with others the story of this amazing man. I recently learned that the first printing of 5,000 books has sold out and the book is being reprinted, which makes me ecstatic.
Little Skink’s Tail is very close to my heart because it was my first published fiction book, which had always been my dream. It also was my first book to win several major awards. And I am proud that teachers find the book helpful in teaching character education. Although I didn’t set out to include a message in the book, I’m happy that the story evolved on its own to encourage children to be comfortable with themselves as they are.
Plant Tricksters is another of my favorites. It describes the clever tricks plants use to deter nibblers or to attract animal pollinators—such as the orchid that looks like a female bee to attract a male bee to spread the flower’s pollen. I grew up on a farm, so researching this book was more fun than work.
Of the many nature stories I have written for Soundprints, which publishes its books in association with the Smithsonian Institution, one of my favorites is coming out in December: Little Black Ant on Park Street. It features the adventures of the typical picnic ant, and I think kids will really bond with this character. My daughter, after reading the manuscript, vowed never to step on an ant again!
What is your favorite part of writing?
In the case of Seven Miles to Freedom, the most enjoyable part was making Robert Smalls and his story come alive for the reader, by using telling details, strong action verbs, and colorful language. It also was very fascinating to learn all the details of his life and that period in history, especially for African Americans.
In writing fiction, one of the most enjoyable parts is the surprises I encounter as I write the story. Often I don’t know what the characters will do or what obstacles they’ll encounter until I’m in the process of telling the story.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I feel so honored and privileged to be a children’s author. I feel like writing is what I was born to do. Nothing makes me happier than having a child enjoy one of my books! And thanks so much for interviewing me!
Thanks for visiting Read, Write, Repeat, Janet!
Children aren’t the only ones who enjoy Janet’s books. Her work has been honored by teachers and librarians, as well. Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story has won several awards, including:
Best Children’s Books of the Year: Bank Street College of Education
Honor Book: Society of School Librarians International
Starred Review: Kirkus Reviews
Editor’s Favorites: The Bloomsbury Review
Land of Enchantment Masterlist: New Mexico Library Association
Beehive Book Awards Nominee: Children’s Literature Association of Utah
Reading Circle Program: Missouri State Teachers Association
Honor Book: 2009 Paterson Prize for Books for Young People
Want to learn more? You can:
Visit Janet’s Web site.
Visit Duane Smith’s Web site. He illustrated this book.
Visit Lee and Low Books. That site has some great tips for writers.
And make sure to watch for three books Janet has coming out next — Good Night, Little Sea Otter (Star Bright Books, Spring 2010); Fur and Feathers (Sylvan Dell Publishing, Fall 2010); and Star of the Sea (Henry Holt, Spring 2011).