Nature Meets Environmental Activism: A Footprints Interview with Jennifer Swanson
Okay, let’s switch our focus to nonfiction now, folks. Specifically, that of the science and nature variety. And I don’t usually do this but I want to begin by showing you something really neat. Feast your eyeballs on this cover, front AND back:
Ist not gorgeous? So this book, Footprints Across the Planet by Jennifer Swanson marks a fascinating intersection between your average animal footprints title and books for kids with a wider environmental focus. The shockingly brief description from the publisher reads:
“Every footprint—from the physical to the digital and the permanent to the fleeting—leaves a mark on Earth telling a story of the past, the present, or the future.”
Now I don’t know about you but that just frustrated me and made me want to know more. Particularly since there’s clearly photography involved here, and you know my penchant for photos in children’s books. So I had to go directly to the source. And that meant talking to author Jennifer Swanson herself. What follows is a fascinating discussion of how an author can make a difference with even the smallest of picture book titles.
BB: Jennifer! Thank you so much for joining me today! Now you are no stranger to nonfiction. In fact FOOTPRINTS, your latest book, comes after 45 or so other books. You’ve done science. You’ve done history. What is it about informational books that keeps you coming back? What is it about a particular subject that tends to draw you in? And where did the book originate for you?
JS: This book has evolved many different times. The one you see now is nothing like the story I first wrote.
The thing is, I really loved the title, and I knew that I had to come up with an amazing story that lived up to it. I was inspired to write this version by a combination of events–the first March for Science and the Women’s March in 2017, watching young Greta Thunberg make a difference, and also being able to listen to the amazing Ruth Bader Ginsberg speak at the National Book Festival. I thought- WOW- look at all of these people making a huge impact on the world just by showing their support for something they are passionate about. I thought, that is what this book is about. Then, of course, being a science-y person, I thought about how every little bit of science makes an impact on the Earth, from animals, to erosion, to technology, and of course, people do the same throughout history. This story needed to be about inviting young readers to think about what their impact on the world might be one day.
BB: You’re doing something interesting in this book, mixing science with history and contemporary activism. How would you categorize it? If a library cataloger asked you what subject heading it fell under, what would you tell them?
JS: I see this book equally as an activism book and a STEM book. The activism part is self-evident, but perhaps the STEM part is not so much. To me, STEM by its very definition implies involvement, through curiosity, awareness, and yes, even supporting and standing up for what is right. When I talk to kids about STEM, I want them to think not only about how it is all around them all the time, but I invite them to participate in it. This can be through observation, experimentation, or whatever way they feel comfortable interacting with it. STEM is about doing things, not just learning them. It is my hope that this book will gets kids of all ages thinking about that.
BB: FOOTPRINTS is also younger than a lot of your other fare. What are some of the distinct advantages and disadvantages of writing for a younger age bracket?
JS: Yes, I do have to say that I was a bit surprised that this book came out with so few words. As you said, I normally write for middle grade readers and up, so I’m much more comfortable with say 10k works or more. But this book just wrote itself, actually while I was on a bike ride one day. In fact, I had to stop to text myself the ideas so I wouldn’t forget them before I got home. I found it freeing in a way to be able to communicate my thoughts with images and very little words, but I will admit it was a bit daunting for me. I really had no idea how to edit this manuscript. I mean, there are only about 150 words or so, how do you know which words to cut and which to keep? Thankfully, I had an amazing critique group who was well-schooled in picture books to help.
BB: One of the aspects of the book that really lets it stand out is the copious use of photography. I take it that you had to pick and choose between a lot of stock photos. How did you make your choices?
JS: I was not the one to choose the pictures. I did give suggestions in the manuscript when I sent it, but the art director at Reycraft Books was the one who picked them out. I think they are stunning! As an author, it is always a truly wonderful day when you first see the layouts of your book. This art director superseded all of my expectations. When I first saw this book, I was speechless and actually teared up a little. I can’t imagine my words coming alive in any other way than through these awesome photographs.
BB: Finally, what are you working on next?
JS: The ones I can talk about are that I’m co-authoring an upper middle grade book with the awesome Cynthia Levinson called WHO OWNS THE MOON? It’s a fascinating exploration of questions about space technology, and the laws,ethics, and ownership of it all. Look for it from Peachtree Publishing in 2024. I am also working on edits for my book, PROTECTING THE AMAZON, a middle grade nonfiction book adapted from one of the most popular exhibits in the Field Museum in Chicago, which takes the reader on a wild trek to save the Amazon Rainforest, led by a fearless, female led team of scientists. I’m thrilled to say that this is done in conjunction with the Field Museum and will be published by Charlesbridge Publishing in 2023. I have a few other books in the works that I hope to be able to talk about soon!
Thanks so much for having me on your blog, Betsy.
And thanks to you too, Jennifer, for taking the time to talk to us. FOOTPRINTS is on shelves everywhere June 22nd. Be sure to seek it out when it’s available.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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