Survivors: Melissa Stewart on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s Author

Learn more about Melissa Stewart.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.



Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success? 

A piece of paper on the idea board above my desk says:

“Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself.” 

Those six simple words are a constant reminder of a lesson I learned the hard way at the beginning of my writing career.

My first book, Life Without Light: A Journey to Earth’s Dark Ecosystems (Franklin Watts), was published in 1998—twenty years ago.

At the time, I was working as a science editor for Franklin Watts and Children’s Press, two nonfiction imprints that had been independent children’s publishing companies for decades, but had recently merged with encyclopedia giant Grolier Publishing Company.

(Today, Watts, CP, and Grolier are all owned by Scholastic.)

Book #1 

I continued to work at that job until 2000. By then, I had published two more nonfiction books, and I had six additional titles under contract with companies that published for the school and library market.

I was confident that I could support myself as a writer.

But (you knew it was coming, right?) two things I never could have predicted happened in 2001.

There was an economic recession, and Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act. These events along with the rise of the internet, which made straightforward, kid-friendly information widely available for free, spelled disaster for the school and library publishing market.

Some publishers went bankrupt.

Others adjusted their publication schedules, pushing books that were supposed to come out in 2001 to 2002, 2003, even 2004.

They stopped acquiring new titles for several years. There was no work. Period.

I was single and had bills to pay, so there was only one option: I had to reinvent myself.

I joined the SCBWI, found a critique group, and began learning about other areas of the children’s publishing market, especially the trade market. I wrote magazine articles for adults.

I taught writing at a local community college. I worked as a substitute teacher.

Most of all, I realized how foolish I’d been to put all my eggs into one publishing basket.

Book #186, Sept. 2018

I needed to diversify by writing for as many different markets as possible, and, going forward, I needed to pay close attention to how nonfiction writing for children changed over time. I needed to be flexible and adaptable.

I needed to always be on the lookout for new opportunities.

Since that time, nonfiction for children has continued to shift and change, and, luckily, I’ve been able to evolve along with it.

Sometimes I spotted opportunities and actively pursued them. And to be honest, sometimes opportunities fell into my lap, and all I had to do was say, “Yes.”

Some of the projects I’ve been involved with failed miserably. Early sales didn’t live up to publishers’ expectations, and books-in-progress were cancelled midstream. But enough of them worked out that my 186th book, Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs, illustrated by Stephanie Laberis (Peachtree, 2018), entered the world in September.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

Like all writers, I’ve faced my share of obstacles and setbacks, but it’s hard to have regrets when you get to spend your life doing something you love.

Maybe I should have worried less, but even with twenty years of experience, I still worry.

Maybe I’ll never get a great book idea again.

If I do get a great idea, maybe I won’t be able to find the information I need to write it.

February, 2018

If I do find the information, maybe I won’t be able to write a manuscript that lives up to my vision.

If I do write a manuscript I’m happy with, maybe no one will acquire it.

If an editor does acquire it, maybe it will get terrible reviews and it won’t find its audience.

I’m constantly reminding myself that I need to relax and enjoy the ride, to savor the time I spend digging up fascinating facts and presenting them in a way that will delight as well as inform my young readers.

The creative process is what really matters, and time spent “in the flow” is a gift to be treasured.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world of children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

When I began working as an editor in early 1990s, there was just one kind of nonfiction—what we now call traditional nonfiction. But since then, nonfiction has transformed in dramatic and exciting ways.

Today, there are five distinct categories of nonfiction, which I described in this recent article, Understanding and Teaching the Five Kids of Nonfiction (School Library Journal, April 2018).

The following visuals summarize the characteristics and publication opportunities for each category:

Not every nonfiction book fits snugly into one of these five categories. For example, some titles are a blend of narrative nonfiction and expository literature. Others are a mixture of traditional nonfiction and browsable books. But understanding these five basic categories can help book creators, educators, and young readers begin to understand the wide world of nonfiction.

Thanks to that piece of paper tacked to the idea board above my desk—you know, the one that says: “Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself.”—I’ve written books in all five categories, and that diversification has allowed me to continue doing a job I love for twenty years.

Thanks to Common Core, nonfiction is finally having its moment in the sun.

Right now, today, is the golden age of nonfiction. And even though Common Core is on its way out, the state educational standards replacing are still emphasizing nonfiction reading and writing.

That’s good news for nonfiction creators.

Melissa’s Critique Group:
Top, l to r: Deborah Kops, Mary LaPointe-Malchik,  Steve Anderson, Betsy Uhrig, Joannie Duris, Heather Lang, Sam Kane;
Middle, l to r: Sharon Abra Hanen, Jeanne Bracken;
Bottom,  l to r: Melissa Stewart, Sarah Brannen.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Stop and celebrate! It’s not easy to publish a book, so don’t take your accomplishment for granted. Savor every moment of the journey and all the small successes along the way.

Celebrate the acquisition. Celebrate when the book heads off to the printer. Celebrate every review that doesn’t suck. And, of course, celebrate the launch.

But don’t stop there. If the book receives an honor or an award, celebrate some more. And if you’re lucky enough to get fan mail, celebrate that, too.

It means kids are connecting with your work, and that’s the best reason of all to celebrate.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

Research in Hawaii.

Right now, educational leaders like Donalyn Miller, Lucy Calkins, Pernille Ripp, Teri Lesesne, John Schumacker, Colby Sharp, Jillian Heise, Susannah Richards, Alyson Beecher, and Frankie Sibberson are emphasizing the importance of using finely-crafted fiction and nonfiction children’s books in the classroom.

As read alouds. As mentor texts for writing instruction. As part of text sets for teaching science and social studies.

They’re also encouraging student choice in reading materials and recommending that educators develop large, robust classroom and school libraries with a range of titles that can meet all students’ needs.

My hope is that their voices will be heard, and schools will allocate the funds necessary to purchase plenty of high-quality books for their students. The kids will benefit, but so will book creators.

Publishers will be more willing to take risks, which means creators can be more innovative.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

I hope that I can continue to stretch and grow as a writer and evolve with the market. And I hope that my writing continues to delight as well as inform young readers.

Cynsational Notes 

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

Author Interview: Cynthia Levinson on Fault Lines in the Constitution

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Many of the political issues we struggle with today have their roots in the US Constitution.

Husband-and-wife team Cynthia and Sanford Levinson take readers back to the creation of this historic document and discuss how contemporary problems were first introduced—then they offer possible solutions. 


Think Electoral College, gerrymandering, even the Senate. 

Many of us take these features in our system for granted. But they came about through haggling in an overheated room in 1787, and we’re still experiencing the ramifications.

Each chapter in this timely and thoughtful exploration of the Constitution’s creation begins with a story—all but one of them true—that connects directly back to a section of the document that forms the basis of our society and government. 

Most middle grade nonfiction is either biography or focuses on a particular event. Here you’re examining the structure of our government and highlights of United States history since 1787. What inspired you to take on this monumental task?

The short answer to your question is that my editor, Kathy Landwehr, at Peachtree Publishers “inspired” us to write it by asking my husband, Sandy, a legal scholar, and me if we would. She had given her father a copy of one of Sandy’s previous books that critiques the Constitution—he writes for law students and faculty as well as adult readers in general—which he had found interesting. In talking about it, Kathy realized that there is no book like it for kids.

In a bigger sense, this question is really interesting because, even though I’ve published five nonfiction books (and written many more!), I’ve never thought about this distinction between biography, on the one hand, and event, on the other, as a way to organize nonfiction. It generally works, though it leaves out some science books. 

Melissa on Building Nonfiction Manuscripts

Melissa Stewart, an amazing author, researcher, and presenter on science topics, proposes another way to categorize the genre: narrative and expository. 

Your question has made me realize that Fault Lines in the Constitution contains some of all of these—biographies, events, narrative stories, and exposition of facts.

In that way, it does sound monumental! But, actually, because of the way the book is organized, it didn’t seem monumental while writing it (well, for the most part it didn’t). And we hope it doesn’t come across that way to readers.

You’re right that the scope might appear huge because we drop in on events in American history from the Revolution through this past summer. There probably aren’t many books that mention both the Continental Congress convening in a tavern in New Jersey and the fate of undocumented aliens under President Trump. 

Yet, Fault Lines is not a textbook. We don’t march through either American history or the Constitution. Every story and every event is closely tied to and illustrates a problem—or, fault line—in the Constitution.

You co-authored Fault Lines In The Constitution with your husband. Tell us about the collaboration process and how the book came together.

Fault Lines was very much a collaborative process. It is definitely ours, not his or hers. 

We had already joined forces in writing an article together for Cobblestone Magazine titled “Calling the Constitution’s Bluff,” in which we had ticked off three of the fault lines.

So, when we started on the book, I naively thought that I could re-read Sandy’s previous works—especially, Framed: America’s 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance (Oxford University Press, 2012) and Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It) (Oxford University Press, 2006)—mine them for ideas, issues, and stories, and then summarize them. Done! Ha!

Though they’re persuasive in laying out his concerns about the Constitution, these books don’t tell the kinds of stories that draw in young readers. 

Also, Sandy’s writing style is, um, fluid and, because he’s so knowledgeable, digressive. Consistent structure and short blocks of text broken up by sidebars and illustrations are not his forte. (Nor, given his usual audience, do they need to be.) 
Furthermore, even though I had often heard him urge people to “follow the dots” from problems in the Constitution to political dilemmas today, I felt that the dots in his books needed clearer highlighting. Suddenly, I could see why our daughters, both of whom had written journal articles with him, asked me if I was really sure I wanted to take on this job!

For our middle-grade audience, I realized we had to start from scratch, and I laid out ground rules for the sections he would draft:

• No sentences longer than three lines or with more than one dependent clause.
• No extraneous words or vague phrases, like “indeed” or “in the grand scheme of things.”
• No adverbs.
• No parentheticals.

None of these ground rules was met! Here’s one brief example from an early draft of Chapter 4, which is about the filibuster:

Fortunately, as Sandy says, he has no pride of authorship. He does not mind being edited. You can see us working together in the photo. Note that I’m the one holding the red pen!

As a result, we managed to write the book in one voice. There is one exception, though: In writing the last chapter, we disagree and openly debate each other.

I’m also curious about the timeline – how long did it take to write, what was the editorial process was like?


I never know how to answer the question about how long it took me to write a book, partly because I work on several things at different stages simultaneously and partly because there are the inevitable lulls. 
In this case, the lull lasted a full year. We started sometime in 2013, and Fault Lines was supposed to come out in September 2016. But I had to postpone it when I was asked me to write a biography, Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can (Simon & Schuster, 2016), which had an obvious deadline. That delay turned out to be fortuitous, as the book evolved after the election of President Trump.

Kathy Landwehr, my editor at Peachtree Publishers for We’ve Got a Job (2012) and Watch Out for Flying Kids (2015) did her usual exemplary, thoughtful, and indefatigable job. 

She did not hesitate to take out her red pen, too! In fact, we wrote three entire stories for the book, including a moving one about a fugitive slave named Anthony Burns, all of which got axed for various necessary reasons. We recycled the story about Burns into a blog post.

One of the aspects I found most fascinating is that each chapter opens with a contemporary anecdote – the college student who successfully changed the Michigan constitution regarding public university admission seems particularly relevant to students. How did you find those stories? And, how did you decide which ones to use in the book?

Sandy knew about many of the events, including the opening one about the lynching of a black man named Richard Puckett in South Carolina in 1913. This tragic act leads to a discussion of the first fault line, bicameralism—the need for both houses of Congress to pass a bill before it can become a law. 

Through my experience writing for kids, I was able to turn historical artifacts into gripping stories. And, with additional research, I added moving details, including the fact that Puckett’s niece attended the ceremony in 2005 when 80 (but not all 100) senators apologized for the Senate’s inability to pass anti-lynching legislation.

Other stories popped up in the news. The situation you mention is a recent legal case related to direct democracy, which some state constitutions—but not the U.S. Constitution—allow. Another uses the jailing of a nurse who had treated Ebola patients in West Africa in 2014 to show that our Constitution is out of date. 

Cynthia and Gayleen at TLA conference

The ARC I received at the Texas Library Association conference in the spring had a sticker on the cover noting the date the text was approved, “but this is a book inherently influenced by current events.” 


Less than a week later, the Senate voted to change the filibuster rules. You and your publisher have a blog dedicated to posting updates to the book. 


Is the United States government changing faster now than it has in the past?

I doubt that the government is changing faster now than in the past. Conservatives who want a smaller role for government and lower taxes would argue that it changed vastly during President Franklin Roosevelt’s first hundred days in office when he pushed 15 major bills through Congress.

That perspective is a large part of the opposition to the Affordable Care Act, passed under President Obama. It is true, though, that the Trump administration is undoing this so-called “deep state” very rapidly.

Publishers Weekly called Fault Lines “exceptionally topical.” To keep up with the times and to show how much the Constitution influences current events, we blog every two weeks.

So far, as you can see in the picture, we’ve written about gerrymandering, Texas Boys State (which voted to secede!), the shooting of Republican Congressmen and problems with continuity in government, and the under-funding of the 2020 Census, among other topics.

We invite readers to join the conversation!

Given current events, I’m guessing this book has a lot of crossover appeal for adults. Have you noticed that with the events you’ve had so far?

Everyone tells us that! We’ve been invited to almost two-dozen radio interviews and talk-shows, and grown-ups are as engaged in our presentations as kids. School Library Connection even said, “While written for students, the book is a worthwhile read for adults as well.”

Cynsations Notes


Cynthia Levinson
photo by Sam Bond Photography

A discussion guide for Fault Lines in the Constitution is available from the publisher. The book has earned four starred reviews, from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews.

Cynthia Levinson holds degrees from Wellesley College and Harvard University and also attended the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

A former teacher and educational policy consultant and researcher, she is the author of the award-winning and critically-acclaimed We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree, 2012), along with Watch Out for Flying Kids (Peachtree, 2015), Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can (Simon & Schuster, 2016) and The Youngest Marcher, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Simon & Schuster, 2017).

She has also published articles in Appleseeds, Calliope, Cobblestone, Dig, Faces, and Odyssey

Guest Post: Melissa Stewart on Concept Picture Books

By Melissa Stewart
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Most people in the children’s literature community are familiar with picture book biographies, but did you know that there’s a second major category of nonfiction picture books?

It’s time to shine some light on concept picture books.

A concept picture book explores an abstract idea or process, and in many cases, offers a unique perspective or new way of seeing things.

This approach works well for authors interested in focusing on patterns and cycles in the natural world, animal behavior and adaptations, and math concepts.

Picture book biographies have a narrative writing style and a chronological sequence structure.

In contrast, concept books usually employ an expository writing style. And they can feature any of the six major text structures now being taught in most schools (description, sequence, compare & contrast, question & answer, cause & effect, problem & solution).

Sometimes they make clever use of a unique text structure that perfectly matches the book’s topic.

Here are some examples:

In most cases, a picture book biography has a third-person point of view, and the voice is either lively or lyrical, depending on the subject’s personality. Once again, concept picture books offer greater diversity.

The voice can fall anywhere along the lively-to-lyrical continuum.

The point of view can vary, too. Plenty of concept books have a second-person point of view, and a few recent titles boldly employ a first-person point of view. One of my favorites is The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea by Brenda Z. Guiberson, illustrated by Gennady Spirin (Henry Holt, 2015).

With so many choices, how do writers narrow their options? It isn’t easy.

What it comes down to for me is finding the best possible way to delight as well as inform young readers. Once I stumble upon the special bit of magic that allows me to accomplish this goal, I take out my writer’s toolbox and start tinkering.

I consider various text structures and writing styles. I think about voice and point of view and the best way to use language devices. Then I plunge into the writing and see where the ideas swirling in my head take me.

For Feathers: Not Just for Flying (illustrated by Sarah Brannen) (Charlesbridge, 2014), I crafted a lyrical voice that I hoped would awaken the young reader’s sense of wonder.

The strong compare-and-contrast text structure assists children in making connections among the sixteen different examples in the book.

For Can an Aardvark Bark?, illustrated by Steve Jenkins (Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster, June 13, 2017), I took a different approach.

The book features an intriguing title, fabulous illustrations by the uber-talented Steve Jenkins, and an interactive question-and-answer text structure that makes it perfect for read alouds.

Secondary text supports and expands on the book’s main ideas, allowing readers to thoroughly explore how and why animals use sounds to communicate their thoughts and feelings.

If you’re interested in gaining a deeper understanding of concept picture books, I encourage you to read and analyze a broad range of the books listed above, considering (1) what makes them special and (2) what tools the authors employed as they crafted the texts.

Cynsational Notes


Kirkus Reviews gave Can an Aardvark Bark? a starred review. Peek: “Prolific science writer Stewart always chooses appealing facts, but what makes this collection work so well is the skillful presentation by both author and illustrator.”

A curriculum guide, storytime guide and activities are available from the author. A book trailer is available on Vimeo.


Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than 180 science books for children, including Can an Aardvark Bark?; No Monkeys, No Chocolate; and Feathers: Not Just for Flying.

She is the co-author, with Nancy Chesley, of Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, K-2 (Stenhouse Publishers, 2014) and Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, 3-5 (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016).

Melissa maintains the blog Celebrate Science and serves on the board of advisors for the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators.