Author Feature: April Pulley Sayre

April Pulley Sayre is the author of more than 50 books for publishers such as Greenwillow, Holt, Candlewick, and Charlesbridge. She is best known for her non-fiction writing and is hands-down one of the most engaging author-speakers in all of children’s literature.

Could you tell us a bit about your path to publication, and how you’ve built your career? What were the highs and lows?

I have always loved science and writing. I studied biology, particularly primatology, at Duke University. I didn’t take many English courses, but I did write for, and eventually become the editor of Vertices, a campus popularized science magazine.

After Duke I had a job offer as a medical writer but I took an internship writing for the National Wildlife Federation‘s activist newsletter. Then I interned at National Geographic Society and later took a staff position producing teacher education materials at National Wildlife Federation.

My first book arose when I answered an ad in the Washington Post for people to write children’s biographies of scientists. My husband and I had just returned from studying with a primatologist in Madagascar so I wrote about her.

A year later, after I’d written the book and it had been accepted and edited, the publisher was acquired by Holt and they canceled my book. Talk about lows! My first book, all done, was cancelled. At the time they called I was having an asthma attack and that news didn’t help at all.

Spunkiness has helped in my career. I wrote to the new publisher and told them that I had done my part and deserved the second half of the advance and by the way here are my qualifications. They paid me that advance and asked me to write six more books so I forgave them! That press, Twenty-First Century Books, was bought and sold many times over the years but I wrote twenty-eight books for them. Those were my bread-and-butter, school library books. I learned a lot while writing them.

My first picture books were acquired by publishers out of the slush pile by blind submission. (Once, even after I had published many books, a publisher acquired my manuscript from a slush pile. The editor I knew and had contacted had left to become an actress so the manuscript had been dumped back into the slush!)

Tenacity has been the key to my career. My first editor, Virginia Koeth, with whom I have done 25 books, is an angel and has kept me sane in this business. I have worked with many other good editors who have left the business or switched houses. That has been hard. Publishing is a tough business. I really admire editors; they have to be champions for our books, and have to really bond with the books to usher them through the many stages of production and marketing.

You earned an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College program. How would you describe this experience? What did you gain from it?

I went into the MFA program at Vermont College after I had already established my career writing middle grade nonfiction and creative nonfiction picture books. I just had a feeling that it would benefit me in some incalculable way.

The program met and exceeded my expectations. It deepened my knowledge of the literature and made me a more confident critiquer. I learned about writing novels, early readers, and other genres previously out of my realm. The faculty at Vermont is top rate and incredibly generous.

Most importantly, for me, I went from being an isolated writer to a person with a broad community of support nationally and internationally. I keep in contact with my Vermont colleagues and have traveled and met more terrific writers and educators because of my experience at Vermont. Now I can participate in the literature in general by helping my colleagues in their work. That kind of connection sustains me in this work, which is so solitary by nature.

You’re a noted author of children’s non-fiction–picture books and older reader titles. You’ve also written non-fiction for adults. What about this area appeals to you? What advice do you have for other writers interested in following in your footsteps?

Nonfiction writing is about sharing what you care about with the world. What could be more delightful than that? Nonfiction also gives me an excuse to go out and research. I love to learn.

Everyone should try writing nonfiction. They should dip in and read some of the awesome nonfiction writing being done today. Children’s nonfiction is a locus for what adult writers are calling “creative nonfiction.” Take a look at what Byrd Baylor (bio; bio with photo) was doing decades ago. Creativity has been the hallmark of nonfiction in the children’s realm for a long time.

I was particularly taken by Stars Beneath Your Bed: The Surprising Story of Dust, illustrated by Ann Jonas (Greenwillow, 2005). What was the initial inspiration for this book? What was the timeline from spark to publication? What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

This is probably my favorite text I have ever written. I thought it would never get published. It was rejected 53 times over 7 years. When I first wrote it, about ten years ago, it was a straightforword expository text with scanning electrong micrograph illustrations from a scientist. The text was almost bought by a publisher but that publisher held it for two years, saying they just wanted to think about illustrations. Fortunately, I gave up on them. I rewrote it a few times and submitted it many times.

Then, one morning at Vermont College, I was looking at the sunrise and had an epiphany. I realized that I should recast the entire book as a nonfiction picture book about how we and all these other elements of the universe help create the colors of the sunrise and sunset. I called it “We Make Sunsets” but it became Stars Beneath Your Bed. Some of my previous book text became the endmatter in the new book. Even in its current form, the manuscript was rejected by many editors who loved it but couldn’t convince marketing that a book about dust would sell. Finally Greenwilow was brave enough to publish it.

One of the peak moments of my career was accepting the AAAS/Subaru/SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books for this book. I cried with joy when I received the letter telling me about the award.

I also love the playful language in Ant, Ant, Ant: An Insect Chant, illustrated by Trip Park (NorthWord Books/T&N Publishing, 2005) and Trout, Trout, Trout: A Fish Chant, also illustrated by Trip Park (NorthWord Books, 2004). How did you go about writing these books? Tell us about your love of language.

Okay, I confess, I am a word nut and those who know me laugh a lot in my presence. I believe this is because of the funny things that I say but perhaps my fashion needs help, too. The trout book began when I was in my office writing a lovely, lyrical book about fish in the sea. Then this scientist in rubber pants walked down the stream behind my house and he seemed to be having more fun. So I put on my waders and helped him survey fish and I discovered that fish names are just plain goofy.

Soon I was reading fish guides and pestering my family by telling them about hilarious fish names. The names began to bounce and clump in my mind. They became poetry, or perhaps you might say, a rap. Thanksgiving weekend my mom sat in my office and I read out little stanzas I had made out of fish names. She’d give a thumbs up, thumbs down, and then I kept on making more stanzas. Ant, Ant, Ant: An Insect Chant followed. I have other chants in the pipeline. Rhythm and rhyme is practically a disease with me. I can’t stop creating it once I start.

I’m interested in your fiction picture book, Noodle Man: The Pasta Superhero, illustrated by Stephen Constanza (Orchard, 2002). What inspired this story? Can we expect more fiction from you in the future?

Noodle Man: the Pasta Superhero began after a pasta dinner one night. I asked what I should write next. Someone, and we’re not sure who, said, “Why don’t you write about a guy named Al Dente?”

I got out my notebook and started scribbling. Who is he? What are his problems? Would he use pieces of fettucine to ski? Would he lasso things with spaghetti? I kept bothering everyone to talk about Al Dente. Later I wrote the story. Rebecca Davis, then at Orchard, did a great job of editing it. I actually have written quite a bit of fiction including a some novels. But at the moment I am more involved in polishing what I feel is an important part of my life’s work: a book for adults who want to expand their creativity. That book is my passion.

You host the Children’s Media Professionals’ Forum on your website. Could you fill us in on how it came to be? Its mission?

The Children’s Media Professionals’ Forum is an online community where librarians, media specialists, authors, educational consultants, publishing industry professionals and television producers can have targeted, professional, friendly discussions of ideas, problems, and solutions. Your readers are welcome to come to my and click the forum link to see what it is about. They are welcome to join.

The CMP Forum came out of my concern for quality. The publishing industry and the education field are going through a lot of changes right now. New media are emerging and old business models are changing. I heard authors talking to authors, educators talking to educators, and booksellers talking to booksellers about the challenges they were facing. Yet I didn’t hear enough dialogue between these groups. All of these professionals are involved in getting quality content to children. There is no point producing a great book or video if there aren’t the marketers, booksellers, librarians, and educators that put that material into the hands of the child. I wanted place where educators could chat with authors, and vice versa.

My hope is that the CMP forum will energize people and help address the challenges they face in this journey to bring quality material to kids. I also hope that ultimately CMP forum will help people in emerging media—in video, podcasting, music, movies, interactive software and games—mingle with and learn from some of the professionals who have experience in creating and delivering quality material through books and magazines. I am very involved in new media but not all my colleagues in publishing are—yet. I want the advocates of quality in this field to stay strong and have the power to promote great material for the kids of the future.

Is there any breaking news you’d like to share?

Stars Beneath Your Bed: the Surprising Story of Dust received an ALA Notable (2006 Notable Children’s Books). As I mentioned, it received the AAAS/Subaru/SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books. This is exciting because AAAS/Subaru/SB&F awarded this prize in three categories. Mine was in the picture book category. Last year they inaugurated the award by giving lifetime achievement awards to some of the biggies in science writing. This year they began the new program of recognizing individual books. These awards should help recognize quality in the field of science writing for children. More than ever, we need terrific science education for children and great science literature helps.

What can your fans look forward to next?

This year I have paperbacks being released of One is a Snail: Ten Is A Crab; The Bumblebee Queen, and Secrets of Sound: Studying the Calls of Whales, Elephants and Birds.

Next year I have several terrific picture books coming out. One is with a Caldecott honor winning illustrator who does terrific nonfiction books and I’ll just leave you with that little mystery of who that is! Most of all, I’ll be doing lots of talks at conferences on literacy, writing, and teaching science. We have an exciting year ahead.