Over the last 20 years, Sneed Collard III, who’s worked as a biologist and computer scientist as well as an author, has turned out a wide variety of literary nonfiction titles, several fiction titles, and a personal memoir. Since his new book, Hopping Ahead of Climate Change: Snowshoe Hares, Science, and Survival comes out in November, BeTween caught up with this prolific, award-winning author in between a few of his globe-trotting research trips.
What were you like in middle school? What did you read?
Attending La Colina Junior High School in Santa Barbara, CA, I was a kid who probably appeared fairly normal. I did well in class and had a reputation as a smart-ass who could make kids laugh. What people couldn’t see was that, after a happy first few years of life, I’d had my entire world yanked out from under me by my parents’ divorce. As a result, I spent my junior high years negotiating an emotional minefield and often felt disconnected from the world around me. I was also young and small for my grade, which rendered me prone to occasionally getting bullied, though I was by no means unique in this regard. On the other hand, I made some great friends during junior high. They helped me weather the turbulence and keep my sense of humor during what I still consider the most difficult years of my life.
During these years, my summers in Florida with my dad offered a break. Hanging out in his biology lab at the University of West Florida, I felt at ease around his adult grad students and they seemed to accept me for who I was. My dad struggled with his own issues, but was an avid reader and fed me a steady supply of action and adventure novels that sucked me in. Many featured dark, apocalyptic worlds, and I loved them. Some of my favorites included Fail Safe; On the Beach; Alas, Babylon; and anything by Leon Uris. I’m not sure why these books appealed to me. The action and adventure, sure, but maybe it was a relief to see that things could get so much worse than what I was having to live through!
You talk in detail about your tween years in your 2015 memoir, Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son.
These years were my crucible. The challenges I faced then determined what kind of person I would become later. Would I emerge with strength and confidence, or be crushed by my parents’ divorce, failed romance, and peer pressure struggles? It was far from a foregone conclusion, and yet I know that many other young people go through these same kinds of struggles. I wanted to write about these years not only to share my experiences, but to tell young people, “As bad as it might seem now, it will get better. You’ll take some hits, but you have the tenacity, compassion, and intelligence to make it through—and even thrive.”
You write much more nonfiction than fiction, but you’ve also published Double Eagle (2009) and its sequel Cartwheel (2013), The Governor’s Dog is Missing (2011) and Dog 4491 (2012). What compels you to break away from your nonfiction writing?
Actually, I see my fiction not as breaking away, but as returning to my original vision. When I began writing after college, I fully intended to be a novelist. I had no idea I would create such a large body of nonfiction work. As I honed my nonfiction skills through articles for Highlights and my early books Sea Snakes (Boyds Mills Press, 1993) and Do They Scare You? Creepy Creatures (Charlesbridge, 1993), I was regularly taking breaks to write both adult and YA novels. These early novels were pretty awful, but they taught me the skills for the later successes of Dog Sense (Peachtree, 2005), The Governor’s Dog is Missing (Bucking Horse Books, 2011), and my other fiction projects. Currently, I’m very excited about nonfiction and haven’t written a novel in a couple of years, but I can feel that “fiction pressure” building back up inside me!
How do you choose your nonfiction topics?
My most important tool for writing nonfiction is an insatiable curiosity. Almost nothing pops up on PBS that doesn’t grab my attention: history, science, medical research, travel, baking shows—they all interest me. Still, when a nonfiction book possibility enters my brain, I don’t just dive into it. I live with the idea for months, sometimes years, looking at it from different angles, asking myself, “Hm…is this a book I have to write?”
I especially like topics that haven’t been explored in either adult or children’s literature. Even though I write for children, I want to give the world a first look at something. That’s why I love writing books such as Fire Birds—Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests and my newest, Hopping Ahead of Climate Change—Snowshoe Hares, Science, and Survival. These books offer both kids and adults groundbreaking, fascinating ways of looking at the world by exploring the original research of biologists. This research hasn’t made headlines—yet—but it could help change the ways in which we think about and manage the planet.
You’ve done a lot of research and traveled to some interesting places in order to get background information for your books. What was your favorite research trip?
Tough question. My research trips to Australia and Costa Rica both left me with enough ideas and information to last a lifetime. For sheer wonder, however, I have to say that nothing beat the opportunity to dive to the ocean floor in a deep sea submersible. That opportunity was generously provided by Dr. Edith Widder, a world’s expert on bioluminescence who now runs the nonprofit ORCA—Ocean Research and Conservation Association. With Dr. Widder, I was lucky enough to take two dives to 3000 feet deep off the Bahama Islands, dives that changed how I look at the world. These journeys made me realize that most of the habitable space on our planet is deep, dark, and cold. My backyard with its garden and flowers is the exception, not the rule—and that gives me a greater appreciation for what we all have. I also saw firsthand how poorly we’ve treated the oceans. On both of my dives, human junk littered the bottom. Every few feet, I saw a beer can, a plastic bag, an old tire, and that made me more committed to writing books that change how we think about and care for our planet.
Your books such as Fire Birds (2015) and the upcoming Hopping Ahead of Climate Change: Snowshoe Hares, Science, and Survival (Nov. 2016) are a perfect length for middle grade readers. How did you arrive at such a great balance of pictures and text?
Besides writing, I enjoy taking photographs. I also find that being able to take most of the photos for a book makes it much easier to envision a final layout. One of my beefs with middle grade science books is that the text is simply too small to invite young readers into the subject. I try to choose my middle grade science topics so that I can cover them in 4,000 to 6,000 words while leaving plenty of room for photographs, larger font sizes, sidebars, and white space. Sometimes, I find that I’ve bitten off too much and have to rethink my original concept. That happened with my book Global Warming: A Personal Guide to Causes and Solutions (Lifelong Learning, 2011). Originally, that book was going to cover five different environmental issues. Even the rough draft looked like Godzilla rising up to lay waste to my writing career. Focusing on just one issue, though, allowed me to take time with the topic—and led to a much more accessible, effective book.
Tell us a little about your publishing house, Bucking Horse Books.
Several forces led me to create Bucking Horse Books (BHB). The first was the start of the Great Recession, a time when virtually all publishers stopped acquiring new manuscripts—especially nonfiction manuscripts. Right about that time, I also happened upon an event out in eastern Montana called the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale. The event captured so many aspects of Western history—rodeo, ranching, railroads—that I knew I had to write about it. The problem? I also knew that no mainstream publisher was ever going to publish it! However, my father had recently passed away and left me a bit of cash, so I struck a deal with a local distributor and decided to leap into the publishing ring.
With BHB, my goal from the beginning was to focus on subjects that reflected unique, unexplored aspects of the American West. At first, I considered publishing other authors as well, but simple economics haven’t allowed that. Still, I had no idea that six years later I’d have eight titles on the list and a couple of other ideas in the queue. Fire Birds and Hopping Ahead of Climate Change are the first books that can be considered significant commercial successes, but money hasn’t been my only goal with the endeavor. The main goal has been to keep publishing high-quality, worthwhile books, especially in an age when many publishers, like Hollywood producers, are turning out the same tired series and subjects over and over again. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, especially in being able to cover stories and subjects that would never have come to light without an independent press.
That said, I continue to enjoy working with other publishers who are willing to tackle fresh, new subjects. In 2017, Charlesbridge will publish my book Insects—The Best Bug Book Ever and Tilbury House will publish Catching Air, a book about gliding animals. I am also excited to be co-authoring a textbook with Vicki Spandel on teaching nonfiction revision that will be released by Heinemann later next year. For that book, we’re lucky enough to be working with the amazing author and editor, Katie Wood Ray.
As an author and parent, what are your thoughts about today’s technology and how it impacts literacy in young people?
For the past twenty years, I’ve seen schools leap onto the technology bandwagon. Honestly, I don’t think it’s gotten us very far. I’ve seen school districts and PTAs pump tens of thousands of dollars into computer labs and portable iPad carts with the vague idea that this will somehow make kids educated. Guess what? It hasn’t worked. What does work? Educated, creative, highly trained, passionate teachers. Kids can—and do—learn to use an iPad by themselves, but from what I’ve observed more time spent in front of a screen usually equals less creativity, less power to observe, and less initiative.
How do I know this? Because as parents, my wife and I limit the amount of screen time our kids have. What happens when we kick them off of the computer? They magically start inventing their own games, writing their own stories, drawing pictures, calling friends, writing in their journals, playing basketball. Sure, teaching kids to program computers, write on word processors, take Khan Academy courses, and certain other educational activities can be useful, but that’s not what most screen time is about. For both kids and adults, most screen time is about distraction, pure and simple.
If we really want our kids to grow into literate, thinking adults, we need to reconsider the emphasis we’re placing on screens and return to basic principles of teaching. I have yet to see better teaching technologies than bound books, chalk boards, pencils, and paper. Recently, several top private schools have recognized this and actually banned laptops from the classroom. I think they’re moving in the right direction.
Often, middle grade readers want to read only nonfiction. What do you feel is the appeal of nonfiction?
Librarians have a better sense of this than I do, but in the kids I work with during school visits and workshops, I find that by middle school, kids have specific interests and they often read to find out more about their current passions. My eighth-grade son, for instance, is an avid birder, and he often reads to find out more about birds and birding. His friends read to learn more about World War II airplanes, fishing, and sports.
One thing that I think keeps them from reading more fiction is the overwhelming dominance of fantasy in publishing. My nine-year-old daughter loves fantasy, but I think that by middle school, this interest has run its course in a lot of readers. It’s been made worse by the fact that so much fantasy is composed of weak, derivative ideas.
On the other hand, we are living in the real heyday of nonfiction writing. Never have there been so many terrific writers out there writing for both young people and adults. I always hope that librarians let kids know how lucky they are to have so many great nonfiction books available.
On the other hand, some middle grade readers hate nonfiction. What are some ways teachers and librarians can pitch your books to those readers?
With nonfiction, it just seems to be true that an adult often has to personally introduce a topic to readers before they jump into it, especially if the subject is new. That’s a problem because many educators don’t read nonfiction themselves. So that’s the first step—encouraging teachers and librarians to explore the huge number of great nonfiction titles that are available. Pick up books by Laurence Pringle, Larry Dane Brimner, Pamela Turner, Sally Walker, Stephen Swineburne, Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Cheryl Harness…the list of great authors is extensive (for more ideas, look up I.N.K.: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids). When kids see that you are passionate about a topic, they get interested in it, too.
During my school visits, I take kids on adventures to the deep sea floor, a Costa Rican cloud forest, the Galapagos, and other places. Even if the kids have never even thought about these places, they become enthralled. Why? Because they see how excited I am about them. Many teachers share the fascination of science, history, and other nonfiction topics, but many do not. I’d like to see less testing and more incentives for teachers to really embrace nonfiction, not just check off requirements for Common Core standards.
Have you ever thought of writing a fictional story with nonfiction sidebars? I’m sure that science teachers would love that, especially if you aligned the topics with middle school science curricula.
This sounds like an idea with great potential and would be right up my alley—if I could convince a publisher to take a chance on it!
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