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Find more Instilling Wonder
Picture-book veteran April Pulley Sayre has a Geisel Honor Award (Vulture View, 2007) and over 60 titles under her belt, many of which showcase her particular area of expertise, writing about science—and frequently illustrating with her own photographs—for very young readers. How does she do it? Let’s find out.
SMITH: Tell me a little about how you got started writing for children.
SAYRE: My life goal is to share wonder—especially about nature and science. But writing for kids, versus adults, was not my original plan. I studied biology and anthropology at Duke and went to Madagascar’s rain forest to become a scientist. But soon I found that writing about the lemurs and scientists chasing them was more my cup of tea.
It turns out that younger audiences love what I love: little critters and astounding scientific facts and lyrical language and goofiness. A frog’s face or a field of wildflowers or a cloud that looks like a snail can make my day.
SMITH: You’ve really mastered communicating scientific concepts for very young readers in an engaging way. Is this hard to do?
SAYRE: Ah, you must know the secret: if a text seems ridiculously simple and quick to write, 90 percent of the time it was not! I tend to dive into topics and excavate layers of connections and then bubble with a hundred facts. Peeling away all layers to get to the true things—the heart and wonder that will fit a picture book and a read-aloud for wiggly preschoolers—takes many drafts.
My expertise, as a writer, is in playing with voice and creating pleasing patterns. I try to choose phrases and words that are as juicy as possible. I encourage schoolkids to collect delicious words—yummy words that make their mouths happy when they say them.
SMITH: Why science?
SAYRE: Science delves into the guts and glory of rocks and centipedes and pumpkins and weasels and whale sharks. How can you not love that? I like the tactile, interconnected world of nature and the way science and its partner, math, delve into understanding it.
As a photographer, I paint with light and whatever nature offers, be that raindrops (Raindrops Roll, 2015) or autumn colors (Full of Fall, 2017). These days, my books arise primarily from observations made while out doing photography. Warbler Wave (2018) came from decades of bird-watching, of traveling to migratory hot spots where birds stop to rest and eat. Warblers are nature’s Olympic athletes, tiny birds flying thousands of miles in the night, across mountains, rivers, and national borders.
SMITH: When did you get into photography?
SAYRE: When I was age 10, my mom let me use her SLR camera. I dreamed of working for National Geographic but somehow thought that only men were professional photographers. So I have been an avid photographer all these years, photographing everywhere from the Galapagos to my own backyard. But the writing career came first.
SMITH: How did your photos and writing first collide?
SAYRE: What I learned by photographing creatures often fed into works such as Trout Are Made of Trees (2008). But writing paid my bills. I tried many times to get editors interested in my photo illustrating, even laying out a picture book back in 2000. But Allyn Johnston and Andrea Welch at Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster were the first ones to believe in me and encourage me to develop my technical abilities and craft. Rah, Rah, Radishes!: A Vegetable Chant was my first photo book for them in 2011. Eight more have followed.
SMITH: Can you describe your process when creating photo-illustrated books like Best in Snow, Full of Fall, and Bloom Boom!? How does this differ from when you work with another illustrator?
SAYRE: Writing a picture-book text is like ice dancing. You want to leave room for your partner—the illustrator—to be inspired to find their own shapes and flourishes that echo and enhance the text.
Being the full book creator, in consultation with the editor, art director, and book designer, comes with extra power: the ability to cut photos or text in order to serve the feeling. As we adjust layouts, we have lots of options because I shoot thousands of photos on the topic and can pull up just the right alternates.
The process is intuitive, mysterious, and at times painful because I have to give up words or photos I love. As my editor Andrea Welch says, “Something happens when the photos live together on the page that makes you see them differently.” Sometimes it’s not my showiest photographs—those ones I’d share with another pro photographer—that do the job best in a certain spot. At times it’s a vaguer process photo, one that seemed like a throwaway at the time, that becomes an emotional pulse, a bridge to the next words or spread.
Yet our team knows when we have it right. We strive for more than sharing our viewpoint or experience; we want our readers to have their own experience when reading. We want them to feel the freshness of rain or the sloshiness of melting snow or the intoxicating joy of fall forest diversity.
SMITH: Being Frog takes a unique and playful approach to its subject. Would you please explain the angle you’ve taken in this frog study?
SAYRE: Funny that you should mention angles. Photographing that book involved some hilariously awkward angles: me crouching among rocks, or chin on the ground, legs out, so that I could have an intimate view of frog life and world. The book is about observing and appreciating wild creatures as individuals. It is a loving tribute to the joy of close nature observation.
Surprisingly, teachers are also finding it a safe and playful dive into empathy. A frog is perhaps a good start for thinking beyond oneself.
SMITH: Is it fair to say that you aim for your books to go beyond simply teaching science to engendering a love of this field in children?
SAYRE: Yes, that is fair. My books are about sharing wonder, about refreshing our connection with life—with the natural world. It just so happens that in most schools, science is the natural discipline for that connection.
That said, in the right educator’s hands, other disciplines may also be infused with life joy and inquiry. Math, poetry, building trades, architecture, history, cooking—whatever is full of seeking facts and connection, I embrace.
SMITH: What is a favorite moment you’ve had during a school or library visit?
SAYRE: My favorite part of school visits is the wild questions. “If you fell down in an army ant swarm, what would you do?” I celebrated that in my book Did You Burp? How to Ask Questions (Or Not!) (2019). But also, many a girl gushed to me about her passion for lizards or marine biology; often I was the first female person that a girl had met who loved science.
Any school that brings in nonfiction authors such as Heather Montgomery, Melissa Stewart, Karen Romano Young, Carole Boston Weatherford, or Lola Schaefer will surely help their young thinkers bloom. We sometimes forget that in our vast country there are brilliant kids, full of promise, who just need a glimmer of the possibilities that lie beyond their community. Share wonder—it’s what we all want to do.
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