Stephanie Roth Sisson is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book biography Spring After Spring: How Rachel Carson Inspired the Environmental Movement. She also has written and illustrated Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos, and has illustrated many other books. She lives in Florida and in Mauritius.
Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book biography of Rachel Carson?
A: Just after my previous book, Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos, was published, I began looking for another person to do a picture book biography on. Since science seemed to be less valued in the general public in the U.S. at the time, and especially environmental sciences, Rachel Carson seemed a nice fit.
She also has other attributes that seemed to speak to the times: she was an introvert with something to say (as opposed to someone just speaking loudly over everyone to make an impact), worked in what was considered a man’s field at the time, and used facts to convey her message in a poetic and easy to understand way, but was still able to change the way people all over the world looked at the environment.
Rachel Carson’s story has been told many times, but I wanted to tell it differently focusing on her childhood, making her more relatable to children. One thing that I loved about both her life story and Carl Sagan’s is that you can draw a clear line from the children they were to the adults they became.
Q: Did you work on the text and the illustrations simultaneously, or focus on one and then the other?
A: I am relatively new to writing. Before writing Star Stuff, I had illustrated well over 65 books, so my process is evolving. So far, I do a combination of moving back and forth from sketching and writing and then finally putting text and story together.
Picture books these days cannot be text-heavy (children have shorted attention spans than they used to have), so I go through and see what can be shown and what can be told and I try to have the pictures do most of the heavy lifting.
While parents or teachers are reading the book to kids, they are looking at the pictures and hopefully reading additional parts of the story in the pictures themselves. The pictures and the words should be doing different things and not repetitive.
For example, in Spring After Spring I begin with showing a day (using mostly the change of light and the types of sounds and animals associated with each time of day), then seasons, then years.
I repeat circles and cycles and connections on almost every page and try to show the same kinds of animals that are familiar to children. I zoom in and out of images to show the relationship between the microcosm and the bigger picture. These are all things that I show rather than tell.
Q: How much do you assume kids know about Rachel Carson before coming to the book?
A: Absolutely nothing. I try to writing books where kids can see the subject as a child and relate to that child and then see how that person’s affinities, passions and lives lead them to do whatever they are well known for. I want them to think about their own lives in that context.
Also, each book [looks at] another subject. In the case of Star Stuff, we’re learning about astronomy, speculative science and space exploration. In Spring After Spring, we are learning about the seasons and about how the sounds in nature are a reflection of the health of an ecosystem and about how ecosystems work.
Q: What do you hope kids take away from Rachel Carson’s story, and what do you see as her legacy today?
A: I want kids to see that if you care about something, you can make a difference using your talents and skills. Rachel did not want to write Silent Spring. She was quite happy to continue writing her gorgeous nature books and live in her cabin in Maine wandering the coast studying the creatures that lived there.
But when she saw what she loved was in danger, she used her skills and was very brave and wrote Silent Spring.
Silent Spring was the first time that and entire ecosystem was talked about as being impacted by the actions of humans, not just one species. What she wanted was for us to do careful research and understand how we affect nature (and ourselves) through our actions.
Also very important was to point out that Rachel Carson never said that there is no use for pesticides and herbicides. She is often accused of wanting to eliminate them.
Her point was that we were using massive amounts of them ubiquitously without regard to their effects. She was an advocate for their wise use. She is still quite relevant today, especially with the lifting of environmental protections and safeguards.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have another picture book biography in the works as well as a completely different kind of picture book, but I’m not ready to tell what the specific topics are yet!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: That picture books (and books in general) are incredibly important in shaping lives of kids. Ask adults about their favorite books as a kid and they will be able to tell you and remember in some detail what that book was and why it was important to them.
Several years ago, people in my industry thought that tablets and screens were going to take the place of books, but the younger generations are choosing real books over e-books.
Reading a book with a child creates a unique space to share and connect. The book as a physical object with its pages and smell, etc., and its ability to be shared and passed down make it special and timeless. Sharing books with children is important and life-changing.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb