Sunday, September 20, 2015

Interview with Heather Montgomery author of "How Rude!"

Sheila: We have here with us today Heather Montgomery, author of numerous nonfiction books. But it took nine years to get "How Rude" published. That's encouraging to me, to not give up on something you're passionate about. Tell us how you went from idea to book.

Heather: I love bugs! When I started writing books for kids, I automatically turned to insects as a topic. 

One day I watched this crazy bug - an ant lion - slurp out the guts of an ant. Then the antlion tossed away the ant skeleton as if tossing litter out the car window. A "litter bug" - how funny and fascinating! This idea of bugs with improper eating habits struck me as hilarious and a way to hook kids. So, I began collecting information about "bad boys" - bugs who don't mind their manners. 

The problem was, I did not know how to write a nonfiction book for children. I loved books by April Pulley Sayre that use rhyme to introduce information to children, so I wrote it with rhythm and rhyme. It was awful. I loved Megan McDonald's Insects Are My Life, a fictional book that teaches about bugs so I tried that approach. Even I cringed when I read that version. I love the nonfiction poetry books by Joyce Sidman, so I tried that approach. Blaaagh! From 2006 to 2010, I tried and tried and tried but just could not find the right approach for this book. 

Meanwhile, I was attending conferences of the SCBWI (Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators), intensely studying books that I respected, and participating in multiple critique groups. I was learning tons and changing my ideas about the what made a "good" kids' book.  

One evening in 2010, I decided to just stop paying attention to how everyone else wrote books and be myself. That night, How Rude!  came to life. All of these "bad boy" bugs in my head were in a competition to see who was the rudest, crudest dude around. The book poured out. 

In an ideal world, I would have sold that manuscript to a publisher the next week and published immediately, but this manuscript was weird! It presented advanced scientific ideas in a quirky, humorous way. It pushed the boundaries in terms of anthropomorphism, tongue-in-cheek humor and expectations of the reader. Rejection letter after rejection letter told me the publishing world was not ready for such an off-beat approach. So, I put it away and worked hard publishing other books. 

But, with the release of the Common Core Standards and subsequent interest in nonfiction, trade nonfiction books began breaking out of the traditional mold. Publishers began looking for unique manuscripts. My bad boys were ready and waiting. The manuscript was submitted in 2013, sold in 2014 and published in 2015.

Sheila: Tell us about the research process and organizing sources.

Heather: Research is my life! I have cultivated a habit of inquiry so I don't see it as a separate process, but looking back, I can say that I spent years researching this book. At the time I did not have a great method for organizing sources. Basically, I stored all of my notes in one huge Excel file and stored academic papers separately.  Since then I have learned to use OneNote (a Microsoft product) and EasyBib (online bibliography) which works much better. 

Sheila: Did you do any interviewing? If yes, tell us how you found experts to interview.
Heather: I often do phone or email interviews of scientists. I track them down through reading their scientific paper on the subject and then contact them through their university department.

Sheila: I know you are passionate about your subjects. It shows in your writing and is contagious. Do you test drive your ideas among your students?

Heather: I'm fortunate enough to teach in an outdoor setting. I've taught thousands of students about insects so I have a pretty good sense of how they will react to wacky, weird or gross bug behaviors, but knowing how they will react to reading about them is a different thing. I am sorry to admit that I did subject some students to early drafts (the rhyming ones) of this manuscript. By watching their faces, I could tell very quickly that they preferred my teaching to my writing. Right then and there, I knew that I needed to make a change.

Sheila:  How did you find a publisher for this book. 
Heather: I found potential publishers through attending SCBWI conferences and workshops plus studying the trade market (reading publications such as Publishers Weekly).

Sheila: Any pitching or query tips you could share with us?
Heather: Know the hook for your book. What makes it stand out from all the other books out there.

Leave a comment to be eligible to win "How Writer's Work by Ralph Fletcher or "Eddie Red" by Marcia Wells


Evelyn said...

Heather, I loved hearing about your insect book and about your process in writing it and getting it published. Hooray that you didn't give up on your idea! It sounds like just the kind of thing kids would delight in. Sheila, thank you for hosting such an interesting interview.

Martha Bennett Stiles said...

I certainly wish Heather's book had been available when I was a young farm girl.
Martha Bennett Stiles

Martha Bennett Stiles said...

Anonymous Martha Bennett Stiles said...
I certainly wish Heather's book had been available when I was a young farm girl.
Martha Bennett Stiles

Stephanie Faris said...

It's funny--I just left the Midsouth SCBWI conference (for children's writers) and the coordinator was telling me they are planning to do a nonfiction theme next wasn't represented at all this year! Then I came home and read this post. Sounds like nonfiction children's books are definitely hot right now!

Heather L. Montgomery said...

It was such a treat to join you Ono the blog, Sheila! Stephanie, I'm super excited about next year's MidSouth SCBWI conference! I had to miss it this year to present at BugFest and missed seeing all my MidSouth buddies!

One thing I forgot to mention is that during this prolonged submission process I hung on to this: "A slow 'Yes' is better than a quick 'No!'" I'm not sure who shared that bit of advice with me, but it is so true! Thanks to all of the writers who helped along the way!

Nancy Kelly Allen said...

How nice that you didn't give up on your book. It's also nice that nonfiction books are gaining in popularity. Here's wishing you the best with your literary baby.

TBM said...

I've always been a fan of nonfiction and I think it's great they're becoming more popular among younger readers.

Jo S. Kittinger said...

Heather's book will be a treat for all those kids who love nature and BUGS!

C. R. Bailey said...

I love watching all the nature around us! I had no idea that antlions litter. This summer, I've been watching teenage mockingbirds hang around begging to be fed for what seems like way too long. Thanks for sharing your story. I need this book on my shelf!

Nell Branum said...

Heather, you have such a fun and unique way of hooking kids on both bugs and reading! No doubt you are already working on the next idea, can't wait to hear about it.

Cathy C. Hall said...

Everything about this book says kids will love it--and I can't wait to read it, too! Yay for Heather, hanging in there till she got the manuscript singing (or clicking or chirping or whatever bugs do when they're not being rude! ;-) )

Sheila Renfro said...

If you would like to order Heather's book you can order it here:
How Rude! Real Bugs Who Won't Mind Their Manners (Scholastic, 2015)

Unknown said...

Heather, I love your nonfiction books, and my grandsons love them, too. I look forward to reading "How Rude!" I hope to see you at Southern Breeze WIK in October.

Heather L. Montgomery said...

Chris, I am so curious about those couch potato mockingbirds now! I'm going to have to go spy on some in my yard!

I appreciate all of you Southern Breezers - SCBWI paved the way for this book. And thanks to Sheila for spreading the word to help this quirky book get in the hands of the right kids!