Frequently Asked Questions
I have visited a lot of schools to talk about ecology, the environment and about making books and the editing process.
As you can imagine, all these kids have had lots of great questions. Here are some of the most commonly asked ones. I will add some new ones from time to time.
Please feel free to email me if you have a question that doesn’t appear below at email@example.com.
What made you want to become an author?
That is a good question. If you want the really long answer, read my Author Biography. But the short answer is that I grew up loving books, writing, and painting most of all. I wrote my first book as an independent project for my 9th grade English class. I was studying tropical rainforests in biology and became concerned about the destruction of rainforests worldwide, and the loss of biodiversity. I hoped that by making this alphabet book for my mom’s kindergarten class, I would help at least a few children learn to appreciate these amazing ecosystems. I never intended to publish A Walk in the Rainforest, but with encouragement from my parents and my teachers, I found a way to bring this project to a wider audience.
Do you have any pets?
Yes, I sure do! I have always had a place in my life for animals. I have a dog named Kuma, and a black cat named Stella. Kuma loves going for walks in Tower Grove Park, just down the block from our house.
What did you use to make the pictures in your books?
I am comfortable working with all sorts of media, but in the beginning, when I was making A Walk in the Rainforest in 1991, I worked in markers, because that’s what I knew how to use at the time. You might be able to tell that I put a little colored pencil shading on top, to soften the edges. By the time I was making A Swim through the Sea, I had learned how to paint with watercolors, so that’s what I used to create the undersea paintings. I thought it made sense, painting a book about water with watercolors. A Fly in the Sky was created using all kinds of media, including crayons, watercolors, markers, acrylics and oil pastels. I was after a bright, opaque look for these paintings. When I shifted from alphabet books to nature journal books, I went back to watercolors.
Most recently, I have been working a lot with acrylics, though. I am enjoying the versatility of a medium that can act translucent like watercolors and opaque like oils, but still washes off my hands pretty easily. I used acrylics to illustrate Shepherd Show Me.
How long does it take to make a book?
It takes me about a year. Each book starts with lots of research, which takes a couple of months. Then I have to work up a draft for the story, which takes a little more than a month, depending how many school visits I have scheduled. What takes the longest is the editing process. I rewrite each manuscript about 10 times before my editor says it’s ready for the presses. The idea is to have the story finished before beginning the illustrations, but it never works out that way. I usually start working on the draft drawings when I am on the 7th or 8th draft with the story. I can do one or two paintings a week, so it takes me two or three months to finish the artwork. When all the parts are finished, I send the text (by email) and the artwork (by snail mail) to my publisher, Dawn Publications in California. Then it takes the printer 6 months to make all those copies of the new book. Whew, that was a long answer! But I wouldn’t trade this job for anything.
Do you go visit a place before you write about it?
Well, I do now. I had a tougher time doing that while I was in school. You can’t just hop down to the rainforest in 9th grade. I did get a chance to visit the Children’s Eternal Rainforest in Costa Rica in 1996, 4 years after A Walk in the Rainforest was published. In order to write realistic journal entries for Salamander Rain: A Lake & Pond Journal and Saguaro Moon: A Desert Journal, I really had to cultivate a sense of place. I had to know what the air smelled like, what the ground felt like, and what the birds sounded like. My grandma lived on Spider Lake, the one featured in Salamander Rain. Those entries were easy to write, because I grew up in Michigan. I know what it’s like to sit by the lake early in the morning and listen to the loons. But Saguaro Moon took a little work, since I didn’t grow up in a desert. Before I wrote that book, I spent a week hiking and sketching and taking pictures in the Sonoran Desert.
Are your books fiction or non-fiction?
That’s another good question. I would say they are a little of both. All the environmental science in my books is real, of course. The characters and their adventures are made up, although some of the things that happen to the characters actually happened to me. Bookstores and libraries generally put my books in the non-fiction environmental science section.
How do authors and illustrators get paid?
Authors and illustrators don’t get salaries like “regular business people”. We are paid royalties, which is a percentage of the publisher’s profits. So authors and illustrators are compensated based on how many books are sold, not how long it took to make the book in the first place. An author could work for a year or 10 years on a book, but it all comes down to how well it sells, which is yet another argument for doing your best work.
Where did you get the name “Xyz the ant”?
Xyz is the main character in my first book, A Walk in the Rainforest. His name comes from an alphabet quilt that my Great Grandma Ide made for me when I was little. It was blue, with white squares. In each square was a big capital letter, and a picture of something that started with that letter. A for apple, Q for queen, and so on. This quilt hung on the wall next to my bed when I was little. In the lower right corner, in the last square, were the three letters, xyz, with no pictures. When I was writing my first alphabet book, I thought of that quilt, and named my ant Xyz. That way it makes sense to end the book with “Xyz it’s plain to see, the rainforest is full of biodiversity.” The added bonus was that I didn’t have to find animals or plants to go on the x, y, and z pages. Xyz appears on every page in A Walk in the Rainforest, and in all of my other books (not on every page, though) except A Fly in the Sky. Hence the name of this website.
Are you married and do you have any kids?
I am divorced, and no, I don’t have any kids. I do have a nephew named Pierson who is totally adorable, though.
What will your next book be about?
If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise, now would it?
What do you do when you’re not making books?
Here are some of the things I like to do:
• take my dog for walks
• read books written by other authors
• teach college art classes
• visit the St. Louis Art Museum with my best friend Sara
• write or draw in my journal
• ride my motorcycle
• go to the gym
• work in my vegetable garden
Who inspired you when you were a kid and now as an adult?
- My Family
- Mister Rogers
- Jacques Cousteau, founder of the Cousteau Society and inventor of SCUBA diving
- Ted Munnecke, my high school science teacher
- Beatrix Potter, author of the Peter Rabbit books
- Nick Bantock, author and illustrator of the Griffin and Sabine series
- Mardy Murie, conservationist and author
What kind of computer do you have?
I currently have a cool 13″ MacBook Pro that I love very much. Way before that, I had a neato 1999 first generation Tangerine Apple iBook. I still do most of my art by hand, though.
Who made your awesome website?
My wasband, Gabriel Serafini, is a freelance web designer, and he made this site. But I know a little html, so I filled in most of the text. Gabriel also built the Klint Print font for Salamander Rain and the Megan Mots font for Saguaro Moon. His design website is at www.serafinistudios.com.
How old are you now?
My birthday is March 21, 1976. I’ll leave it to you to do the math.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
Actually, I seem to have the opposite problem. I can’t seem to make books fast enough to keep up with all the ideas. As John Steinbeck says: “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”
Does your hand ever get tired from signing all those books?
Ha ha. Lots of people ask me that. I am happy to sign as many books as people want to buy. I do all my painting and writing with the same hand, so it’s in pretty good shape.
Can I order books online?
Yes, you can now finally order books directly from me over the Internet! I sign and date every copy that I send out and will also include a free personalized inscription for you. You can browse the books I have for sale on my Books page.
Do you visit schools?
I love to visit schools and tell kids all about how I became a published author. I also like to share the story of how I was able to make a difference by publishing my first book, A Walk in the Rainforest, when I was only 14 years old. You can find out more by visiting my School Visit Information page.