René Bartos: I am so excited to be able to chat with author Leslie Bulion today! Welcome to Writers’ Rumpus Leslie! Can you tell me a little about what inspired you to write for children and your journey into the kidlit world?
Leslie Bulion: Thanks for inviting me to Writers’ Rumpus, René! I entertained zero thoughts of writing professionally until a longtime editor friend surprised me with an invitation to write for Parent and Child magazine on the basis of a letter I’d sent to her. A couple of years into writing for magazines, I told that same friend about an experience my young daughter had, and she said, “That would make a good children’s story.” I didn’t know how to write a picture book, but I knew I should listen to my friend’s good ideas! Though that first story never sold, I was smitten with learning the art and craft of writing for children.
RB: Your latest book Serengeti: Plains of Grass published by Peachtree Publishing Company was released on March 1st, 2022. I absolutely love books that inspire children to learn about nature and the environment. Could you share with us what sparked the idea for the book? Were there other children’s books that inspired you to write this or that you used as mentor texts?
LB: Years ago, my family had a unique opportunity to visit East Africa for a month. While there we enjoyed a week on safari in and near the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. The two days in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park made a deep impression on me—the expanse, the animals I could see, and those I imagined tucked within its ocean of grass. I held the Serengeti in my heart for many years while writing middle grade novels and my first science poetry books. After those writing experiences, I felt ready to return and explore the Serengeti ecosystem as a poet.
I read about herbivore ecosystems, the Serengeti in particular, then individual members of the food web. I learned about the traditional Swahili utendi stanza, and hoped to adapt it to tell my story of the Serengeti. Fast forward ten more years, and the book is here!
RB: Serengeti is a lovely lyrical exploration of Tanzania’s Serengeti Plain. You have such a gift for making science fun and accessible for kids. I read a review of Serengeti on Amazon from School Library Connection: “This nonfiction picture book is a veritable feast for a curious child’s hungry mind.” What a great tribute to your writing! This is something all aspiring children’s book authors hope to achieve. Do you have any advice or resources for us about writing children’s nonfiction and developing kid-friendly structure, text, and backmatter?
LB: Thank you, René. I think one of the most important entry points for children’s nonfiction is to recognize the many ways to go about it: biography, narrative, expository, browsable, science poetry, and more. Check out prolific author and educator Melissa Stewart’s celebration and organization of informational books entitled “The Five Kinds of Nonfiction”. I think we each do our best work when we’re writing books we’d want to read ourselves.
I’m pulled by the art and challenge of honing what I call a “juicy science story” into an elegant, nuanced nugget of a poem. I read widely and specifically, seek hands-on learning experiences, and check my work with experts in the field.
Backmatter is an important part of current nonfiction. Young readers are so curious and engaged with the world! I like to include backmatter that provides context for the book and helps connect the book to issues and ideas beyond the scope of its main text. Good backmatter can also provide a springboard for further exploration for readers as well as for educators seeking multidisciplinary enrichment ideas. I always add a glossary, though I define many terms within the body of the book using contextual clues.
RB: The illustrations in Serengeti are stunning! Did you have a chance to work with the illustrator in the making of the book, and do you have a favorite spread?
LB: Becca Stadtlander’s art IS gorgeous, isn’t it? She has captured the heart-filling panoramic splendor of Tanzania’s Serengeti Plain. Becca and I follow the typical process of working through our art director and editor; we do not communicate directly about any of the art/text. If I see something in a sketch that might need a tweak in the service of scientific accuracy, I let my editor know. Similarly, a sketch may show me that my words were unclear and then I do the tweaking. I’m not going to choose—every spread is my favorite!
RB: You are an author of many other books for children, including several that fall into the category of science poetry. I love your fact-filled yet fun approach to writing and you are an amazing poet! Could you tell us about some of these books and do you have any advice for folks interested in writing science poetry?
LB: I write about topics I’m wondering about—topics I want to spend time thinking and learning about. Approaching poetry with that sense of wonder is how writers can meet young readers where they are in the world.
My seven previous science poetry collections use lots of humor and a variety of poetic forms to explore a “big idea” such as the bug-eat-bug world of insect adaptations (Hey There, Stink Bug! Charlesbridge 2006), the traits that define “birdness” (Superlative Birds, Peachtree 2019), or the carnivorous world of spiders (Spi-Ku: A Clutter of Short Verse on Eight Legs, Peachtree 2021). Leaf Litter Critters (Peachtree 2018)is a funny dive into the brown food web of decomposers. Random Body Parts: Gross Anatomy in Verse (Peachtree 2015) is a human organ recital with a bonus: each poem has a reference to Shakespeare.
RB: You have also written some children’s fiction books. Could you tell us a little about these as well?
LB: I refer to my three realistic, funny middle grade novels as “science-infused.” In Uncharted Waters (Peachtree 2006), Jonah keeps secrets that get him into big trouble on and in the Rhode Island coastal salt ponds which draws on my years as an oceanography grad student. In The Trouble with Rules (Peachtree 2008), fourth-grade students Nadie, Nick, and Summer grapple with what friendship means. A lifelong learner, I attended a hands-on entomology field course for fun while I was working on the novel, so these fourth graders study bugs. Incidentally, that course also inspired Hey There Stink Bug, which began my infatuation with science poetry. In The Universe of Fair (Peachtree 2012), Miller hopes he’ll be allowed to go to the annual town fair without grownup supervision by showing he can be responsible and careful, but events conspire against him. I filled in a bit of my nonexistent physics education by trying to understand almost as much about string theory as my eleven-year-old protagonist puts into his fair entry.
RB: Do you have any helpful writing tips or good writing habits to share with us?
LB: 1. Add more hours to the day. 2. Refill your well with experiences that bring you joy, whether its mountain-climbing, building little free libraries, or baking the world’s best chocolate cake. 3. If your well-filling choice is the cake option, please come to my house so I can taste test your contenders.
RB: Do you have any advice for those new to the kidlit writing business?
LB: I’ll share my own path in the hope that it might be helpful: READ READ READ the books being published today. Join SCBWI, your regional chapter, and your local critique group. Use the critique group meeting as your deadline—show up with something to share every time. Listen and learn how to give helpful critique to others. Bring a buddy from your critique group and attend your regional SCBWI conference. Take every opportunity to learn and keep reading as you go. Take every tiny encouragement as inspiration to keep going! It can take a long time to break into the business end of things, but the journey—learning, listening, critiquing, reading, and writing always helps us grow as writers.
RB: Could you share with us how you find support in writing? Do you have a community of writers or critique groups who help to inspire your work?
LB: In addition to the larger community of children’s writers whom I find continuously generous and supportive, I had the unimaginable great fortune to board a small ship of brilliant, encouraging, creative, and very dear writer friends over twenty years ago. They have sailed with me, buoying me onward ever since.
RB: Do you have any other children’s books in the works? We would love to see more!
LB: Thanks for asking! I am thrilled to share that my next science poetry book, an exploration of the land-and-sea ecosystem of the Galápagos Islands, is currently being illustrated by Becca Stadtlander for publication with Peachtree Publishers in 2023.
RB: Thank you so much Leslie! We look forward to enjoying more of your work in the future.
Leslie Bulion has been reading and writing poetry since the fourth grade. She loves the musical sounds of words in poems—words that make her heart and mind soar, words with rhythm, and words that rhyme.
Leslie creates award-winning science poetry steeped in hands-on learning experiences, research, humor, and imagery in a variety of poetic forms. Her eight illustrated poetry collections invite readers on multi-layered science adventures exploring all kinds of critters, entire ecosystems, and human anatomy. Leslie’s graduate background in oceanography and years as a school social worker inform both her poetry and her science-infused novels for young readers.
When she’s not writing, you’ll find Leslie exploring nature with her camera, binoculars, hand lens, head lamp, or SCUBA gear! She also loves to be at home in Connecticut with family and friends, and to cozy up to a good book.
Credit for photo of Leslie: Jen Schulten
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