Carol Gordon Ekster: Ruth Spiro is one of those wonderful #kidlit folks that I connected with through our shared experience of being alumni of Jane Yolen’s fantastic boot camp. She is the author of the clever board book series, “Baby Loves Science.”
Ruth, tell us how you came to writing and about your path to publication.
Ruth Spiro: My first career was in advertising, and while working as a broadcast producer at an agency I went back to school at night for an MBA. (It was either business or film school, until I realized I couldn’t afford a move to New York!) I never imagined I’d eventually be writing children’s books.
Like many others who write for children, my interest began when my two daughters were born and I found myself reading lots and lots and lots of books. One day I happened to be flipping through a catalog from a local community college and noticed a class in writing for children. On a whim I decided to try it out. My instructor turned out to be Carolyn Crimi – lucky me! She not only inspired me to continue writing, she connected me with my amazing critique group.
Two years later I sold my first picture book, Lester Fizz, Bubble-Gum Artist, to Dutton following a manuscript critique at the SCBWI Annual Conference.
It was the first manuscript I ever submitted, and was acquired by the first editor who read it. But my good luck ended there. It ended up taking five years until it was finally published in 2008 and although the manuscript and finished book won some awards, it never became the runaway bestseller we all dream of. Nevertheless, I persisted. (Couldn’t resist that one!) I kept writing, and in the past three years I’ve signed contracts for 11 books.
CGE: What inspired you to write for toddlers about difficult topics like physics and thermodynamics?
RS: Back in 2010, The New York Times ran the article “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children”. It attributed a drop in overall picture book sales to the misguided choice some parents were making to bypass picture books for their very young children in favor of more “sophisticated” reading material. I was discussing the article with friends and wondered aloud, “What do these parents want, quantum physics for babies?” The more I thought about it, I realized this was an idea with potential.
But while it seemed like a good idea, I knew that my books would need to be accurate and age-appropriate if they were going to have value. I decided that the best way to make the concepts less abstract would be to relate each topic to a familiar real-world experience or observation. I spent several months researching the science, in search of the best “story” for each book. Then, once I had a thick folder full of research and notes I began researching child development to learn more about my intended audience. I’d previously written picture books, but I envisioned these as board books for babies and toddlers. So, I read scholarly articles about the acquisition of language and early literacy, as well as piles and piles of board books.
My goal with these books isn’t to “teach” babies about complex concepts. We know that through simple activities such as watching a bird fly or dropping crackers just to watch them fall, babies are gathering information about the way the world works. By creating a connection between these familiar experiences and the science behind them, I hope to help parents and caregivers turn everyday moments into fun learning opportunities for their little ones.
I should also mention that at several stages of the process, Dr. Fred Bortz , a physicist, reviews both the text and Irene Chan’s illustrations for accuracy. The staff at Charlesbridge Publishing, and especially my editor, Alyssa Pusey, have shared my vision to create books that are beautiful, informative, and fun to read. The Baby Loves Science books may be small, but a tremendous amount of research and effort is packed into each one!
CGE: What is your writing schedule like?
RS: Until this past year, I tried to carve out time for my children’s writing whenever I could between part-time work as a freelance magazine writer and being the mother of two daughters with very busy travel sports schedules. But now both girls are in college (sigh…) and I’m thankful to have my writing fill that gap – otherwise, I’d be a very sad empty-nester!
I usually start my day by taking my dog for a walk and then get to work, though “work” can mean different things on different days. Some days I focus on research or actual writing, while on others I may be working on activity guides, or planning events for bookstores, libraries or schools. It’s interesting how the job description can change depending on where I am in the publication process. But I focus better when I separate my work time into “writing” or “business,” rather than trying to multitask.
CGE: What kinds of activities do you do to keep your writing fresh and to work on your craft?
RS: One of my author friends, Patricia J. Murphy , is very good about reminding me of the value of regular “artist dates.” (If you’re not familiar with this term, read Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way.) I enjoy visiting museums, walking at the botanic garden, and attending as many cultural programs as possible.
I also allow myself to spend time each day reading articles online or listening to podcasts, with an emphasis on subjects not related to writing or children’s literature. I think it’s important for writers to keep their eyes and ears open, because the next big idea can come from the most unexpected source.
CGE: Tell us some of the highs and lows of your life as a children’s author.
RS: As I mentioned above, my first picture book sale was initially exciting, but it also opened my eyes to the reality of the publishing business. There are so many factors that can affect how well a book does or does not do, from editors changing houses to the state of the nation’s economy. The one thing I learned from this experience is that the best way to build your career is to always be working on your next book, no matter what happens. While it may appear I’m experiencing a “high” in my career, it’s important to note that this comes after a very, very long “low” period!
Since Baby Loves Quarks! and Baby Loves Aerospace Engineering! came out, they’ve received some nice recognition, including:
- LA Times “Hottest Books” Holiday Gift Guide
- All the Wonders “Best Picture Books of 2016”
- Betsy Bird’s “2016 Great Board Books”
- Here Wee Read “55 Best Diverse Picture Books”
- The Planetary Society “Recommended Space Books for Kids”
- Amazon’s “20 Best Children’s Books of the Year for Baby-Age 2”
- Barnes & Noble “7 Beautiful Designer-Approved Board Books”
It was also a thrill to have Baby Loves Quarks! chosen as an IllinoisREADS 2017 pick, and to be invited to appear on the children’s stage at The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books!
What does the future hold for Ruth Spiro?
Now that the next two Baby Loves Science books are out, I have a busy schedule this fall and winter. I’m including that schedule at the end of this interview, and if you’re in Chicago, Atlanta or Los Angeles I hope you’ll stop by one of the events and say hello. I’m especially excited about the two Atlanta-area events because I will be joined by our illustrator, Irene Chan. It’s a rare opportunity to have books signed by both of us, and I’m looking forward to meeting her in person for the first time!
The Baby Loves Science family will be growing in 2018 with the addition of FOUR new books, two in the spring and two in the fall. We think it’s more fun to keep an element of surprise around the topics, but I’m very excited about them and I know readers will be too.
I’m also happy to share that I have another picture book series, Made by Maxine, coming out with Dial in 2018. Inspired by her trusty companion and muse, a pet goldfish, Maxine is determined to make the world a better place, one crazy contraption at a time. It’s a 3-book series that sold at auction, illustrated by Holly Hatam.
So, between these two series, the theme for my foreseeable future is STEM!
Charlesbridge is generously offering signed copies of Ruth’s newest Baby Loves Science books, one to each of two lucky winners. One will win Quantum Physics! and one will win Thermo-Dynamics! Enter the Rafflecopter drawing at this link.
And you can connect with Ruth here:
Friday, October 13 – 11:00am
The Book Cellar
Saturday, October 14 – 10:30am
Magic Tree Bookstore
Oak Park, IL
Thursday, October 19 – 10:30am
Friday, October 20 – 11:00am
FoxTale Book Shoppe
Saturday, October 21 – 11:00am
Spellbound Children’s Bookshop
Thursday, February 1 – 6:00pm
Once Upon a Storybook
Saturday, February 3 – 10:30am
So fun to read about Ruth’s process and inspiration!
Sharing more of Ruth’s writing advice! https://literallylynnemarie.blogspot.com/2011/02/writing-adviceopening-doors-with-ruth.html So good to see these books from you, Ruth!
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Thanks for sharing, Lynne! We can’t get enough writing advice.
A huge THANK YOU to Carol for interviewing me on Writer’s Rumpus! I appreciate the chance to share my journey and process. Please feel free to post any questions here, I’ll be checking in over the next few days!
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I love the idea of these little science books. So wonderful. Ruth’s overall story is very inspirational.
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Thanks, David! Happy to hear you’re inspired by my story.