Sep 20, 2013

Countdown to Lifetime with Author Lola Schaefer

Author Lola M. Schaefer

I’m delighted to have this opportunity to interview Lola Schaefer about her very-soon-to-be-released picture book, LIFETIME: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives. I’ll admit I loved the concept as soon as I heard it described. Having a copy to read and examine cemented that feeling and I can’t wait to post my review of it on launch day, September 24.

Chronicle Books, 2013
I’m a fan of Lola’s books on many levels- as a reader, teacher, gift-giver, mentor, blogger, and workshop leader. Her titles offer something for everyone, ranging from picture books with stories that reflect many ages, to I Can Read titles, to titles that explore non-fiction topics for all ages, in partnership with some of the most incredible illustrators in the publishing world. When I featured AN ISLAND GROWS in a recent post we began some email conversations and she graciously agreed to answer a few questions about this latest release.

So, without further ado, welcome, Lola, and thank you for being here, virtually. (Lola's comments below are in blue.)

I always read every word of picture books, including author notes (which this one has) and every bit of the back matter. In the back matter for this title you mentioned that you were curious about animals’ lives and wanted answers not directly available, so you found a way to get your answers with math. How/when did these particular “wonderings” about animals first occur to you?

That’s a difficult question to answer, Sandy. I’ve always been fascinated with the natural world, so I assume that some of these questions have been simmering in the back of my brain for many years. The entire concept of LIFETIME came from my editor. It was her mindstorm, not mine. As soon as she told me about her idea and asked if I would like to write it, I began listing animals and behaviors that intrigued me. And like all research, one question about one animal leads to another and another and another.
Interior spread, LIFETIME, Chronicle Books, 2013
 I admire the language patterns and word choices you used for each double spread display. Each page begins with “In one lifetime…then states the fact simply. Yet the small additions of comments and animal sounds emphasize how distinct each species is. Was the writing as challenging as the research?

Oh, for this book the research was definitely more challenging. It nearly took eighteen months to find animals with features/behaviors that might work. The writing of the actual text was fun. Most of the comments either add a detail or a little humor. It’s playful writing, and I hope the reader enjoys it.

This reader certainly did!
Interior spread, LIFETIME, Chronicle Books, 2013
 The back matter makes it clear that your research included many more animals than those in the final publication. How did you go about choosing these specific animals, and then which to include and which to leave out?

The editor and I knew from the beginning that we wanted a series of spreads that would showcase features or behaviors ranging from 1 to 1,000. Initially, most of the creatures that I explored had numbers that were all too low or astronomically high. It definitely was a treasure hunt. The added challenge came from the fact that many of the statistics found online are inaccurate. So, I needed to get a general idea from those kinds of sources, but continually contact experts in the field to verify. Sometimes I would be excited about an animal and my editor would point out that the behavior would be too difficult for an illustrator to show. Other times we would agree that a chosen animal would be too blah, or boring for the book. In the end, after months of work, I chose fifteen animals. Of those, we agreed on the ten that are in the book. I have to admit that I was quite giddy when I found out that the female reticulated giraffe is 200 inches tall and has 200 spots. That double whammy really tickled me.

I’ll admit that the giraffe information was my favorite, and I especially admired the illustrations on that spread, which I’ll describe further in the upcoming review. I love that this book will appeal to every age and can be integrated in conceptual activities from the youngest to advanced readers. Was the additional back matter (further examples, demonstrations of your calculations, and a few simple word problems with data from other species) your idea, or your editor’s?

Many of the literary or narrative nonfiction titles that are published for children today include back matter. Both the editor and I knew that we wanted to offer more details than could be effectively used in the main text. We also knew that the different levels of information could reach a varied audience.

So far I've shared the book with a few student audiences - giving lots of behind-the-scenes explanation, of course - and they have been enthralled. The text has sparked lots of thoughtful questions. That's what I love – a book that stimulates critical thinking.
Interior spread, LIFETIME, Chronicle Books, 2013
Your illustrator, Christopher Silas Neal, also illustrated Kate Messner’s UNDER AND OVER THE SNOW. Both books have subdued tones on matte paper, both show simple figures with surprisingly accurate details, maintaining very natural images. Did you have any voice in the selection of your illustrator or the design of the book?

Each publisher works with authors a tad bit differently when it comes to signing an illustrator. What I like about Chronicle Books is that my editor will usually share a few names with samples of their work and ask me what I think. It’s not that my comments make or break the selection of an illustrator, but my opinion is taken into consideration. It’s a courtesy that I appreciate.
Your published books include both fiction and non-fiction. Can you tell us something about how you choose your projects and decide which to work on at a given time?

I typically have 3-4 picture book scripts underway at any given time. Each of those projects is at a different place. When one of them screams at me, I listen and devote the next few weeks to bringing it closer to a marketable manuscript. It’s always surprising and pretty stimulating to let my subconscious drive the process. Course, there are other times when an editor is requesting a second or third book, or asking for revisions. But even that is inspiring and motivational.

I can’t resist asking for a sneak preview of books you have in the works, what we can look forward to finding on the shelves in the next few years?

In 2014 I have three more books coming out. One is entitled SWAMP CHOMP and is a playful narrative of the food chain in the wetlands. Holiday House is the publisher. Disney/Hyperion will publish a second book about Spencer, the protagonist in ONE SPECIAL DAY. In this next book his younger sister Mia is trying desperately to get Spencer’s attention, but he is just too busy. That title is ONE BUSY DAY. And . . . I’m working on a completely different kind of fictional story with Blue Apple Books about a young girl named Maple who is delightfully naïve, honest, and resourceful. 

You’ve done lots of these interviews, but are there any questions you’ve wanted to be asked or something you’d like to add?

I’d like to say how much I enjoy speaking with my readers. When I am invited to a school as a visiting author or an author in residence, I come away with an even higher respect for their intellect and thoughtfulness. Kids ask the best questions. They are constantly reading between the lines, predicting, inferring, and making connections. There is no doubt that we have conscientious teachers to thank for this. Years ago, only some children were critical readers. But today with the use of reading workshop in so many classrooms, young readers are studying text in much deeper ways. It’s thrilling to watch their minds at work and to have conversations with them on intent, meaning, and the process of writing. For me, it’s the best part of my career!

Thank you, Lola, for sharing your time and thoughts with us here. I have no doubt this book will be a success. I’m excited about posting a review of it on launch day, September 24. As a library user I’ll urge everyone to use the few days until then to become acquainted with your other titles. Some personal favorites include  JUST ONE BITE, AN ISLAND GROWS, and WHAT’S UP, WHAT’S DOWN? Then snatch up LIFETIME as soon as it is available. This is a great choice to add to personal and classroom libraries as well, so keep it in mind for holiday gifting.

Thank you, Sandy, for reaching out to me and for showcasing LIFETIME in this interview. On a larger note, thank you for researching children’s literature and keeping your readers updated on what’s new. It’s a big job!

I’m very appreciative to Lara Starr at Chronicle Books for providing an advance copy to make this a timely interview and post. 

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