Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!
Today we’re interviewing Lisa Bullard, author of We Need Sharks (The Animals Files). It’s a fascinating look into the mysterious life of sharks, the important role they play in Earth’s ecosystem and the conservation efforts underway to prevent their extinction.
Christine Taylor-Butler: Lisa, you are the prolific author of more than 100 books for children. In your bio, you suggest you found your calling when, as a 5th grade student, you sent a letter to the local newspaper about the plight of baby seals. What concerned you about the seals and how did it feel to see your name in print for the first time?
Lisa Bullard: Thanks so much for asking me to share my “origin story” as a published writer! The day that letter was published really was a life-changing day for me. Looking back, I don’t remember any of the details about why I wrote it—maybe it was a school assignment, or a suggestion from my mom, who was a huge animal lover? But what I do clearly remember is the huge feeling of pride that came with seeing my name in print and knowing that people all over town would read the words I’d written. I decided that day that I wanted to be an author when I grew up. I’d been writing since I could first sort the letters of the alphabet into actual words—I wrote stories, poems, songs, comic strips; I even attempted a mystery novel. But what changed for me with that 5th-grade publication was the understanding that writing isn’t just something we do to entertain ourselves. Writers also have readers! And writing as a career choice means we get to use words to persuade people to take action, or to learn something new, or to enjoy a good story.
As soon as I got home from school that day, I decided to practice being a “real” writer. In my 5th-grade brain, that translated to me deciding I needed a glorious signature full of swoops and swirls and curlicues. I was sure that when I became famous, I’d need a very distinct autograph. But as I now tell kids during my school visits, if your plan is to someday sign your name over and over, don’t make it complicated: instead, make it as simple as possible! It always takes me longer than it should to sign my books at events because my signature is way too fancy. Of course, as a grownup writer of very modest name recognition, I also find it funny that rather than practicing my story-writing to prepare for my writing career, my 5th-grade self instead decided to practice “being famous.”
CTB: You started your career as Marketing Director in publishing. Was it a tough transition to switch to the other side of the aisle and become a full-time author?
Lisa: A lot of what happens during the publishing process is mysterious to authors. I’ve also discovered that many writers are daunted by having to market their books. So I feel really fortunate to have an insider’s perspective on those things from my publishing career. There was an adjustment period, however. I was still working in publishing while my first couple of books were going through the publishing process (at a different publisher). Some authors are very demanding (just like there are demanding people in every profession, I’m sure). So when I first shared the news that I was going to have a book published, some of my coworkers looked a bit horrified, warning me not to become a “diva.” Hopefully I succeeded in avoiding that when I transitioned over to writing full-time.
CTB: So let’s talk sharks! My first introduction to them was in the movie, Jaws. After that I was scared to go back into the ocean. But your book, We Need Sharks, shows their importance to Earth’s ecosystem. What lead you to write about them?
Lisa: My books have come about in different ways. In some cases, I’ve dreamed up a concept, written a manuscript based on that, and been fortunate enough to sell it to a publisher. As an example, that’s how my mystery novel Turn Left at the Cow came about. But in the case of many of my nonfiction books, including We Need Sharks, the process has been different: they were work-for-hire projects assigned by educational publishers. That means that I have a working relationship as a freelance writer with publishers or packagers who focus on the kinds of books that are especially popular in school libraries. They identify a need in their marketplace, and then approach writers with a concept for a book or series based on that need. If I agree to take on the project, then my job is to write the book based on their guidelines, which specify details such as the key idea, reading level, word count, back matter, and kind of research expected. The process is different than when I come up with the concept myself, but I’ve discovered it can be really satisfying. It’s almost like putting a puzzle together, having to figure out how to meet all the guideline demands while still creating a book I hope kids will love to read.
The good news is that this process feeds my personally inspired book projects as well. I always learn so many fascinating things about the subjects I write about, and those facts often lead to new writing projects! In fact, a big inspiration for Turn Left at the Cow was an animal called the walking catfish. I stumbled across it while researching a nonfiction series. This strange creature manages to survive out of water, and it provided a fantastic metaphor for my fictional character, a kid who feels very much like a “fish out of water.”
CTB: Was there anything that surprised you while researching your book?
Lisa: Probably the biggest surprise for me in writing We Need Sharks was something I hadn’t thought about prior to writing this book, and that’s how tough it is for scientists to research ocean animals. They’re difficult to study for reasons that are now obvious to me. That’s why oceans remain a frontier of science.
CTB: You suggest that some shark species are “top predators” which means other animals don’t hunt them. The exception is human beings, is that right?
Lisa: Even great white sharks, the fearsome creature that epitomizes sharks for many people, are sometimes preyed upon by orcas. But generally, yes, sharks are much more likely to be the predator than the prey—with the notable exception of their interactions with humans, when sharks are much more often the prey.
CTB: Now the United Nations is working with countries to create shark sanctuaries to protect them from extinction. Are those measures working?
Lisa: Shark sanctuaries are just one of the measures people are taking to protect sharks. For example, there has also been important progress in educating people about and regulating against the practice of shark finning. But as I mentioned above, ocean animals are difficult to study in the wild, and that makes it hard for scientists to measure current shark populations—which means we don’t know the whole story about whether preservation measures are working.
CTB: Were you able to consult with experts when researching the book?
Lisa: Talking to subject experts has provided some of my most interesting research moments over the years. For example, I was able to talk with a crane operator when I was researching a book about construction cranes, and he gave me the best quote ever: he said that the crane operator is known to the rest of the construction workers as the “king of the sandbox.”
But as was the case with We Need Sharks, work-for-hire deadlines are often very tight, and there’s simply not enough time built into the process to track down interview subjects and conduct interviews. In those cases I make sure that the research materials I use are sources created by experts, such as museums, universities, and research institutions. Fortunately in some cases, editors have subject experts review my manuscripts to make sure that I’ve gotten the facts right. I’m always grateful when that’s the case, as it was for We Need Sharks.
CTB: I often tell students that our jobs as writers are very similar to their work on homework assignments. You open the book with such a powerful paragraph to pull the reader in. What would you like children/students to know about writing engaging nonfiction?
Lisa: Because the books I write are often for very young readers, many of them are also very short. That means that there just isn’t room for me to fit in all of the facts I learn through my research about the topic. So I’ve come up with two basic rules to determine what information to include. First, I figure out what I think a reader must know to gain a true basic understanding of the topic. Then I decide on a couple of “fun facts” to include—the kind of things that aren’t the most critical pieces of information, but that are real attention-grabbers. These high-interest facts move readers into “discovery mode,” where they’re excited to learn. I hope that combination helps readers absorb all the information I’m presenting and be motivated to learn even more. So for all the student authors out there, I believe our job as writers is to inspire readers to actively wonder about the world!
This also means that my friends and family are used to me testing random facts in the middle of dinner to see if those facts are, indeed, attention-grabbing; like “Did you know stock car drivers have to climb in through the window because there are no doors?” Or, “Did you know that scorpions glow a neon-aqua color under ultraviolet light?”
CTB: What’s up next for you? Any books on the horizon we should be looking out for?
Lisa: Thanks for asking! I know that in some cases my publishers have had to delay titles because of COVID-19, but I believe Saving Mountain Gorillas will come out within the next few months, and that’s for the same age group as We Need Sharks. I also have some books for beginning nonfiction readers slated to come out this summer: Crayola ® Desert Colors, Crayola ® Woodland Colors, and Crayola ® Tundra Colors.
CTB: Lisa, thanks for being such a great guest on STEM Tuesday and for providing pearls of wisdom for writers of all ages wanting to peek behind the curtain of our industry.
Thanks for talking with me, Christine, and thanks, everyone, for sharing today’s Writing Road Trip with me! I hope that you’ll be inspired to keep reading, keep writing, and keep wondering!
Win a FREE copy of We Need Sharks
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Lisa Bullard is the author of more than 100 books for children including nonfiction, fiction, and writing guides. Recent books include We Need Bees, Tides, and the Go Green series. Her book Turn Left at the Cow was nominated for a number of state reader awards and was chosen as a Junior Library Guild selection. To learn more visit Lisa at https://www.lisabullard.com and follow her on Facebook.
Your host is Christine Taylor-Butler, MIT nerd and author of Bathroom Science, Sacred Mountain: Everest, Genetics, and many other nonfiction books for kids. She is also the author of the STEM inspired middle grade sci-fi series The Lost Tribes. Follow @ChristineTB on Twitter and/or @ChristineTaylorButler on Instagram