Thursday, March 23, 2023

Q&A with Lisa Westberg Peters


Photo by Antonio Rodriguez



Lisa Westberg Peters is the author of the new children's picture book Push-Pull Morning: Dog-Powered Poems About Matter and Energy. Her many other books include Our Family Tree. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.


Q: What inspired you to write Push-Pull Morning, and why did you decide to focus on dogs in the book?


A: I have a lifelong interest in science that was inspired by my father, a chemical engineer for 3M. But as a high school student, I was intimidated by physics and never studied it. It seemed like a boy thing and gender roles were more rigid and more accepted.


It wasn't until I had grown up and my kids were out of the house that I dipped my toes in and started reading. I didn't target my reading. I read anything, both children's books and books for adults. I focused on basic concepts -- staying away from math and formulas -- and gradually started taking notes about the areas that interested me. 


First drafts of this book did not feature a dog. I'm not even a dog person. I've always had cats! But I went to hear poet Billy Collins speak about his new book, Aimless Love, which featured a dog on the cover. In his droll way, Collins claimed that if you put a dog on the cover of a book, people will buy it. That sounded great. Plus, it suddenly seemed like a delightful way to pull kids into a book about physical science concepts.


Q: The Kirkus review of the book called it "Playfulness and pedagogy intertwined." What did you think was the right balance between the two as you were writing Push-Pull Morning?


A: Making a text engaging is always my first priority. I'm not sure I was actually trying to teach kids physics concepts. It would be more accurate to say I wanted to write engaging poetry about everyday actions that just happened to demonstrate physical science concepts.


Even with this casual approach, I had to learn quite a bit more than I was willing to include. Maybe someone has come up with a typical ratio, but for me, it's roughly this: understand 10 facts in order to include just one. 


My early drafts were rejected. Editors said the poems weren't accessible enough or tied closely enough to concepts that elementary-aged students might learn in school. So I studied elementary science curriculum in a more systematic way. That helped a lot. I had a much better idea what to include and what to leave out.


Still, I'm a writer and writers like to stretch and inspire readers. Sometimes we do that by breaking the rules or in this case, including a few poems that are definitely not in elementary science curriculum.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I chose the title. When I thought of it, it seemed perfect. It conveys a very basic physics concept that elementary school kids learn. And connecting "push-pull" to the word "morning" shows whimsy, which feels right for a book of poetry.


Titles are tough. They either feel right or they don't. If I can't find a title that sings to me, it often means that my manuscript is missing something or is somehow off. I have rarely relied on editors to help with titles, although they've often helped with subtitles.


My editor Rebecca Davis suggested a few subtitles that included the word physics, but that word felt daunting to me. I knew that physics is often defined as the science of matter and energy. Those two words seemed more everyday, but I still wanted to add a sense of fun and whimsy. The phrase "dog-powered" to modify the word poems just popped into my head. I can't really explain that process of idea popping!


Q: What do you think Serge Bloch's illustrations add to the book?


A: I love the sense of motion and delight he added. His adorable dog has pretty much turned me into a dog person! As a writer focused on science, I rely a lot on an artist to help make concepts accessible and engaging. The illustrator is very, very important. In this case, I was thrilled that he agreed to do the illustrations for Push-Pull.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Several things. One project is very much not for children. I hiked to the source of the Missouri River in Montana last summer. Not many people know its location near the continental divide in the northern Rockies. I knew I wanted to write about rivers in general and that experience specifically, so I've been working on that.


I also have two picture book poetry manuscripts under contract with Astra Publishing, so I'll go through the editing process with those. And I have another picture book science manuscript underway. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Please see my website for more information about all my books.


I'll be on a poetry panel in April at the Texas Library Association conference in Austin. See you there!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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