Author Interview: Greg Leitich Smith on Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo

Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo by Greg Leitich Smith (Little Brown, 2003)(Recorded Books, 2004). From the flap copy: Elias, Shohei, and Honoria have always been a trio united against That Which Is The Peshtigo School. But suddenly it seems that understanding and sticking up for a best friend isn’t as easy as it used to be. Elias, reluctant science fair participant, finds himself defying the authority of Mr. Ethan Eden, teacher king of chem lab. Shohei, all-around slacker, is approaching a showdown with his adoptive parents, who have decided that he needs to start “hearing” his ancestors. And Honoria, legal counsel extraordinaire, discovers that telling a best friend you like him, without actually telling him, is a lot harder than battling Goliath Reed or getting a piranha to become vegetarian. What three best friends find out about the Land of the Rising Sun, Pygocentrus nattereri, and Galileo’s choice, among other things, makes for a hilarious and intelligent read filled with wit, wisdom, and a little bit of science. Ages 10-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

NPG had more than one inspiration (There are three intertwining storylines, so bear with me):

The main story, with the science fair and the court, came about because I’ve always been interested in the interaction between science/technology and rest of our culture (CP Snow wrote a seminal volume in the 1950s called The Two Cultures, in which he opined that those who do math and science are incomprehensible to those who don’t and vice versa – I believe his recommendation was that science types should take more courses in the humanities and humanities types should take more math and science. Go figure.). Nowhere does that interaction come to a head more prominently than in the courts – a “fact” in law is not necessarily a “fact” in science (or any other kind of reality, for that matter).

Galileo is, of course, the most prominent case of this, so I thought it would be interesting to do a science fair story in which, somehow, the science came to be on trial. Since many schools have student courts, the broad outlines were there. I also decided it had to be a comedy, because the interaction between science and the law is often intrinsically comedic, but also because when you say “I’m writing a novel about science,” most peoples’ eyes tend to glaze over (see, The Two Cultures, supra). However, if you say, “I’m writing a comedy that has science themes,” they tend to say, “how interesting!” And that’s how the Peshtigo School came about – it had to be a place that was quirky enough to take science fair and student court really, really seriously.

Elias, Honoria, and Shohei and their storylines were inspired by different things. Elias and his family’s Bach obsession came about because I had a music teacher in grade school who was a Bach afficionado and so we learned, among other things, that Bach had some twenty children. In an era in which having more than two children is somewhat extraordinary, I thought that something could be done with a parent who was a Bach nut, with a large family, and give Elias a sort of sibling rivalry. By doing so, this also paved the way for how the science on trial of the main idea became executed. (Essentially, Elias was contradicting something his brother had already “proven”).

Shohei and his storyline came about because I wanted to explore and poke a little fun at some of the popular notions of race and what it means to be Asian American. Having him adopted by the Irish American O’Leary’s became just the vehicle.

Honoria came about because I needed a character who actually /wanted/ to participate in the science fair. (Part of Elias’s conflict was that he didn’t want to and I didn’t want Shohei to be an eager science type). Intrinsically, too, I wanted that character to be a girl because I think we need more women in science and engineering. Also, since much of the main storyline depends on what is “fact,” I wanted there to be a love triangle, in which I could further explore “fact,” in an environment of secrets and misunderstandings.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

In early 1999, I submitted two pages for an editor critique at an SCBWI conference. The editor liked the two pages and wanted to see the rest. She wasn’t as taken with the rest of the manuscript, but offered good suggestions. She ultimately passed on the manuscript, but recommended another editor. That editor and another also passed on the manuscript, but by then I had an agent, who sent it to Amy Hsu at Little Brown. In December 2001, I got a letter back saying that she was taking it to committee in January, and could I make a few changes? I made the changes, she took it to committee, they bought it, and said they wanted it back the way it was in the first place. We had one round of edits, and then it was published in October 2003.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

Originally, I had come up with two different ideas that I thought were for two different novels – the first, was the Galileo idea. The second was the Bach idea. It wasn’t until I started writing that I realized they were the same novel.

Also, originally, the novel was from a single point of view – Elias’s. Along the way, though, both Honoria and Shohei developed such strong personalities that I thought they deserved a PoV of their own.

The research was fairly involved – I had to research the piranha science project and the plant-music science project. I came up with the title of the piranha project first; it was “Can you teach a piranha to eat a banana?” I thought it was kind of charming and counter-intuitive and non-rhymy, but I had to figure out if it was feasible. So, I read everything I could about piranhas and then spoke with the public affairs person at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago (She in turn relayed some questions to their “piranha guy.”). For the plant project, I had to come up with some fast-growing so that it could be used in the time frame of a school science fair. A little Internet research revealed the Wisconsin Fast Plant project at the University of Wisconsin. They were gracious enough to speak with me and answer some questions, as well.

My Thoughts

Greg Leitich Smith is of course my very cute husband. I’d like to send out my love and thanks to him for graciously agreeing to be interviewed via my blog. Visit his site to learn more about Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003) as well as its upcoming companion book, Tofu And T.Rex (Little Brown, 2005).

Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo was a Junior Library Guild Selection, Parents’ Choice Gold Medal winner, and winner of the Writers’ League of Texas Teddy Award.

More interviews with Greg may be found at Downhome Books and the Web site of Debbi Michiko Florence. A “buzz” review and booktalk for Tofu And T.Rex are also online.

Cynsational Links

Amy Hsu, Editor, Little Brown & Company from Robin Friedman’s Interviews with Editors.

“Personal Submissions” by Nina Aviles from the Institute of Children’s Literature.

The Smart Writers Journal for April 2005 features an interview with Alex Flinn on Fade To Black (HarperCollins, 2005), which is recommended (especially for those interested in alternating point of view novels); Picture Book or Chapter Book? by Roxyanne Young; Promote Your Books With Writing Contests For Kids by Linda Joy Singleton; and more.

Writing For Children: Empowering Young Girls — Author Julia Devillers from by Sue Reichard. Julia is the author of How My Private, Personal Journal Became A Best Seller (Dutton, 2004) and GirlWise: How To Be Confident, Capable, Cool, and in Control (Three Rivers, 2002). Visit Julia’s Web site to learn more.