Monday, April 15, 2024

Q&A with Stephen R. Swinburne




Stephen R. Swinburne is the author of the new children's picture book Giraffe Math. His many other books include Lots and Lots of Zebra Stripes. Also a naturalist, he lives in Vermont.


Q: Did you need to do much research to write Giraffe Math, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: You could say I’ve been researching giraffes since my wife, Heather, and I went on our honeymoon to Africa in 1984. Of all the animals I observed on that first trip, it was giraffes that took my breath away.


I rekindled my love affair with giraffes in 2018 when I returned to Africa to visit schools in Kenya for three weeks. After the school visit, we went on safari with a Kenyan guide who knew a ton about giraffes and its environment.


I came back to Vermont with a notebook full of “in-the-field” expert giraffe information. This is what conducting primary research is all about. I love it! I’ve done it for so many books I’ve written – sea turtles, manatees, owls, wolves, black bears, sharks – learning from scientists out in the field.


While research in the field with experts is a major part of my information-gathering strategy, I also take a deep dive into reading books and conducting Q&As with scientists.


The Giraffe Conservation Foundation in Namibia not only provided an invaluable review of Giraffe Math, they were also very helpful fact-checking the many drafts of the book. 


I’m always surprised by my animal research. For instance, I was blown away that not only are the spots on giraffes unique – no other giraffe has the exact pattern of spots as another – but the spots act as mini air-conditioners releasing body heat when needed.


And how’s this for a cool fact? Giraffe hearts are the biggest heart of any land mammal and capable of pumping 16 gallons of blood through a giraffe’s body every minute?


I also really love how scientists recently discovered that giraffes hum at night. Are you kidding me! That is beyond cool! Researchers believe humming could be a way for giraffes to communicate and stay in touch with one another in the dark, when vision is limited.


Q: What do you think Geraldo Valério's illustrations add to the story?


A: Picture books are a true collaboration, real teamwork. It’s 50 percent words and 50 percent illustration.


I LOVE everything about what Geraldo did with the artwork for Giraffe Math. He added layer after layer of coolness and information and page-turning quality to the whole project. And, above all else, he made Giraffe Math super kid-friendly and fun.


For example, check out the scales in the section Guess my Weight. And every reader that views the incredible double-spread closeup of a giraffe with its long tongue extended on the Tongue Talk section will never forget about the length of a giraffe tongue.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?


A: I hope readers not only learn a ton about the animal kingdom’s most beloved gentle giants, but I hope that once they learn and become aware of these magnificent creatures, students will work to protect them.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m writing on a new series of fun nonfiction books I call How to Build. The first title is How to Build a Blue Whale. The follow-up is How to Build a Hummingbird.


This is a series of expository picture books showing what it takes to make the Earth’s most remarkable creatures from scratch. How to Build are fully-illustrated guides to building such animals as whales, hummingbirds, cheetahs, sharks, sloths, elephants – from the insides out.


The text will have a conversational, kid-friendly tone inviting the reader to imagine what it might take to create the perfect shark or sloth. Each title begins building the creature from the inside out. I start with the heart and build out.


The reader learns how the internal composition and layout of each creature – muscles, bones, organs, skin, ears, eyes, claws – contributes to its survival and success.


For instance, compare how the blue whale’s heart and the hummingbird’s heart contribute to its survival. The blue whale’s large muscular heart keeps the blood flowing when the pressure increases in the deep waters. Whereas the tiny heart of the hummingbird can go into a state of torpor allowing the bird to conserve energy and lower their metabolic rate.


Learning about the anatomy of the planet’s most fascinating animals enables young readers to better understand, appreciate, and protect them.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Here are my Six Rules for Bringing Nonfiction to Life!


Find the Passion

In order to make nonfiction writing come alive, it helps if you’re passionate or curious about the subject. I’m passionate about the natural world, so I love researching and writing about nature. Find something that you are really, really interested in and then you’ll have an easier time researching and writing about your topic.


Do “Octopus Research”

Like an octopus searching everywhere for food, I have fun and search everywhere for information. Try to dig up really cool facts. Read books and magazines. Check out web sites. Interview experts on the phone. Take field trips. Join an organization. Visit a zoo or museum or historical society. Ask your librarian. Become a mini-expert. Do primary research. Act like a sponge and soak up information and then sit down and write.


Write a Great Beginning Sentence

In the first sentence you want to hook the reader. Here are some ways to grab the reader’s interest; Begin with a question (Do you know that Emperor penguins live where it’s 80 degrees below zero?) Begin with dialogue. (“I feel like a large caterpillar this morning,” said George as he tumbled out of bed.) Begin with an interesting fact. (Sloths don’t poop in trees!) Begin with an unusual image or picture. (The wind blew so hard it lifted the butterfly high above the ocean waves.) Begin with action. (The pack of wild dogs woke, stretched and set off at a trot to hunt.) Begin in first person. (On an early autumn evening, I sit on a hillside listening for coyotes.)


Show, Don’t Tell and Write with Details and Verbs

Try to write with specific honest information that shows, rather than tells, the reader what is happening. For example, “The wolf looks angry” is a sentence that tells. “The wolf’s lips curled revealing its sharp teeth” is a sentence that shows a reader what is happening and shows how angry the wolf is. Put a clearer picture in the reader’s mind by using concrete information and replacing general words with specific words. Instead of writing, “Steve likes candy,” try “Steve likes M & M peanuts.” OR, better yet, go for a stronger verb: “Steve adores M&M peanuts.” Instead of writing, “I heard a noise,” you might write, “I heard a scream or a squeak or a rattle or a creak or a moan or a phone.” Make interesting details and strong verbs your friend!


Tell Your Story in Different Ways

There are lots of ways to write your nonfiction story. Try writing a poem. How about a photo essay? You might write an interview, a funny story, a first-person account, a day-in-the-life-of story, a how-to, an historical review. If you’re stuck, read something by one of your favorite writers to get your own writing juices going. Have fun. Be creative. Let your imagination go.


Let Your Writing Cool

When you’ve finished writing, wait a day, and then come back to your story and reread for spelling mistakes, awkward sentences, too many adjectives or adverbs, etc. Ask yourself - how can I make it better? Plan ahead and give yourself time to write just the right story!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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