Monday, March 23, 2009

Author Interview: Fiona Bayrock

I'm happy to be kicking off the Bubble Homes and Fish Farts blog tour with an interview with author Fiona Bayrock.

Fiona is the author of children's quirky science books, including Bubble Homes and Fish Farts, a book about how animals use bubbles. I reviewed this book a couple of weeks ago, and it's become a fast favorite in my home.

Fiona took time out of her super-busy writing schedule to answer a few questions about the book, her writing, and reading with kids.

In the past, a lot of nonfiction was boring and dry, but now there are tons of nonfiction books like yours that engage and entertain children. Even today, some teachers and parents do not regard nonfiction as "real reading." It makes me shudder when I continue to read about teachers "banning" nonfiction in their classrooms. Why do you think nonfiction is important?

Fiona Bayrock (FB): Nonfiction is important to me, personally, because it brings the wonder and awe of the world to me. I love finding new connections, feeling the patterns and rhythms, figuring things out, and having the light bulb click. There are kids who feel that way, too.
Some kids are passionate about reading biography or science in the same way that others are passionate about mystery or fantasy. Some kids go through a phase where they're obsessed with a certain subject and if given the choice would read exclusively nonfiction books and articles about it for months. I think effective teachers know this, and understand what a powerful motivator passion can be for new readers, and the role it can play in the learning process. By offering their students a full range of reading choices—fiction and nonfiction—these teachers are creating classroom environments that help kids learn faster and easier because they're allowed to read what they love.

Having said all that, I do think nonfiction still intimidates a lot of adults. Perhaps they're remembering the yawn-inducing nonfiction of their youth. To them, I say, "Things have changed! Get thee to a children's bookstore and immerse yourself in the amazing children's nonfiction that's available today. There's a lot to get excited about."

Where did you come up with the title of the book? Were there any other titles you considered?

FB: The title came early, before most of the book was written. I wanted something that would get readers itching to open the covers, so I chose what I thought were the coolest, most interesting examples of animal bubbles: the spider that lives in a bubble trapped under its underwater web (a "bubble home"), and the "fish farts", which makes everyone giggle, but is actually a terrific science story.

Once I had typed "Bubble Homes and Fish Farts" at the top of the manuscript, it didn't change. At one point my editor and I considered making the first two words alliterative to match Fish Farts, but nothing seemed to fit, so "Bubble Homes and Fish Farts" it stayed.

I think the title begs kids to pull it off the shelf and read it! Of all of the animals and insects in your book, do you have a particular favorite?

FB: I tried really hard to have a favourite so I could answer this question, but I just couldn't choose! Each animal in the book has a quirky wonderfulness to which I am endeared. Perhaps using bubbles as the connecting thread had something to do with that—the unusual nature of bubbles, the interesting ways bubbles and water interact, and the relationship of water and air to life, all playing a role—but for each animal in the book, there was something that made me shake my head and say, "That is SO cool. This animal *has* to be in the book." In fact, Bubble Homes and Fish Farts began as a 32-page picture book, but we couldn't squeeze everything in. Rather than cut any animals—we tried, we tried!—the publisher increased the book to 48 pages to make room for them all.

I'm glad your publisher did that because I can't imagine having to choose which animals to cut out. How long did it take you to write the book?

FB: From start to finish it was over eighteen months, but that includes a lot of stopping and starting while I worked on other projects or waited for scientists to come in from the field. The research was the time-consuming part. Each of the animals is so different, it was like researching 16 different books. I ended up with one whopper of a bibliography!

What did you think when you first saw Carolyn Conahan's illustrations?

FB: I was so excited I could hardly contain myself. I loved Carolyn's art the first time I set eyes on her rough pencil sketches, and then when those gorgeous watercolours came in as the final art, well, I was over the moon, to say the least. She achieved the perfect balance of science and whimsy, and captured the heart of my words better than anything I had ever imagined. The text and art are a beautiful match. A happier author you will not find.

As a picture book author, it's really hard to let go of your baby. You have to trust that the illustrator, art director and the rest of the creative team will put their hearts into their part of the book in the same way you did yours. You hope they get what it is you're trying to accomplish. When that happens, a book like Bubble Homes and Fish Farts is the result.

What is your favorite part of the writing process? (research, editing, writing, etc.)

FB: Getting the first draft down is probably the hardest part of the process for me, but honestly, I thoroughly enjoy every step of the way—having a new idea sprout in my head; sniffing out information and going clue to clue like a detective; putting it all together like a big puzzle; experiencing the epiphanies and creative surges that come only when you're fingers-to-keyboard, playing with words during the revision process, and finding creative solutions during editing. Being a writer is a great fit for me.

Parents often ask how they can turn their reluctant readers into lifelong readers. Do you have any tips?

FB: One of my kids was a late reader and then a reluctant reader for many years before his love of reading blossomed. Some of the things I credit with helping him along the way are:
  • Showing him we valued and enjoyed reading by doing it ourselves
  • Teaching him phonics rules—tools to decode the words
  • Reading aloud to him, lots and often. We immersed ourselves as a family in the joy of well-crafted stories, memorable characters, and rich language. We always had a readaloud book on the go. Reading out loud together unanimously beat out television in our house for several years.
  • Finding reading material he was interested in and then he and I taking turns reading it out loud, a little each day. In our case, that meant alternating pages in the Magic Treehouse Books. His turn gave him practice; my turn kept the story from bogging down and rewarded his hard work with a break and a leap in the story. It was an activity we enjoyed together. For many months, he stopped mid-sentence wherever his page ended, and then one day, he was so engrossed in the story, he turned the page and kept going. A mother's heart went pit-a-pat.
What were some of your favorite books and/or authors growing up?
FB: Oh so many! Let's see... May I Bring a Friend, Amelia Bedelia, Cat in the Hat, Where the Wild Things Are, Charlotte's Web, The Wizard of Oz, Anne of Green Gables, Nancy Drew, and a luscious volume of Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verse, to name a few. I was a voracious reader.

What are your children's favorite books?
FB: When they were little: A Million Chameleons, Where the Wild Things Are, Alexander and the Terrible No good Very Bad Day, Winnie the Witch, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Effie the Ant, Cricket in Times Square, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, all of the Oz books, and the list goes on. As teens now, they're into graphic novels and books by authors such as M.T. Anderson, Garth Nix, and Orson Scott Card.

What can we expect to see from you next?
FB: More cool science books about animals. I have several projects in the works.
Thanks for hosting this stop on my blog tour, Jill!

It was my pleasure, Fiona! Thank you for the opportunity and best of luck with all of your other projects.

Check out the other stops on the blog tour this week!

March 24: Abby (the) Librarian
March 25: A Year of Reading
March 26: Celebrate Story
March 27: Becky's Book Reviews


  1. I love these interviews and learning new stuff! How cool that it was supposed to be a 32-page book but just couldn't be. I love the full spread for each animal and am glad it didn't get crowded or cut down!

  2. Wonderful interview. Love how you came up with the title and stuck with it. Also the fact that you increased the pages so everything could be included.

    Illustrations look gorgeous.


  3. Great interview! I really enjoyed it. :)

  4. Thanks for stopping in!

    I love hearing the behind the story stories of books, so I tried to include some of that in my answers, too.

    Thanks for hosting the first stop on my tour, Jill!