The first interview of this new year is with an author. Suzanne Slade, who is a mechanical engineering expert witness on occasion, and a mechanical engineer by trade. She is also a former rocket scientist and lunch room lady (not on a rocket ship). Suzanne has authored over 100 children’s books, her latest being An Inventor’s Secret, What Thomas Edison Told Henry Ford, with illustrations by Jennifer Black Reinhardt (reviewed here – tomorrow).
Please welcome prolific children’s author Suzanne Slade.
.**Just In! The Inventor’s Secret won the NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book for 2016!
Hi, Suzanne. How long have you been writing children’s books?
“I began writing books for children about 20 years ago. Knowing I had a great deal to learn, I took a “Writing Books for Children” class at a local college when I first started out. In that class I discovered I had a LOT to learn, so I joined SCBWI and have attended many of their conferences through the years.
“During my first eight years of writing I received nothing but rejection letters, but now I have over 100 children’s books. Just another example that Edison’s secret, “Keep at it!” is great advice!”
Your latest book, The Inventor’s Secret, is about two great inventors: Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. What inspired you to write The Inventor’s Secret?
“I’m an engineer by degree and have been intrigued by Edison’s inventions for as long as I can remember. Years ago I started researching Edison with the idea of writing a book about him. Then one day I stumbled across a fascinating, little-known fact: when Edison first met Ford he shared a secret that helped Ford (who was very frustrated at this point) create his famous Model-T car. That secret inspired this book!”
Interestingly, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford lead very similar lives. What did you find most interesting about these two inventors?
“Edison and Ford share several similarities, yet the two were quite different too. What I found most interesting about these two inventors was their childhood experiences. Each one began tinkering at a very young age and many of their “experiments” went awry.
“Young Edison was enamored with chemistry, but one of his concoctions exploded in the basement, while another started a fire inside a train.
“Young Ford like to tinker with mechanical gadgets. One of his contraptions caused a flood and another set the school fence on fire.”
Suzanne, you’ve written mainly historical and science related books. What keeps you writing these books?
“History is very compelling because it’s true, and science has been a passion of mine since I was young. I don’t set out to write a “history” or “science” story, but when I stumble across a relatively unknown fact that is so captivating I have to find out more, I’ve usually found my next story. Or perhaps my next story has found me! “
What is the most difficult aspect of writing a biography for children?
“I’ve been working on a new children’s biography all this week, so this particular topic is fresh on my mind. I love the research involved in studying a new subject for a biography, although sometimes it can get tedious, frustrating, and confusing (especially when different sources contain conflicting information.)
“The most difficult part of creating a biography picture book for me is deciding what aspect/event/accomplishment of this person’s life I’m going to center the story around. Usually there are many notable events, accomplishments, and struggles I’d like to share about the subject, but if I include them all the story will not be as sharp or meaningful. After months of research it’s excruciating to have to leave out interesting facts in order to create a children’s story with one thousand words or less, but those difficult decisions are what leads to an engaging, focused picture book.”
Many readers may be surprised to know publishers sent you 80 rejection slips before finally accepting one of your stories. What was the title of your first book, who published it, and, lastly, how did you feel when you saw the finished book?
“My first picture book, Animals are Sleeping, is a rhyming bedtime story for young children which shares the various ways animals sleep. It’s only 80 words long, but it took months to write (and rewrite.) I didn’t give the word count much thought when I wrote it, but interestingly parents say it’s their “go to” book when their children ask for one more book before bed because it’s a pretty quick read.
“How did I feel when it was published? Thrilled beyond words! (The illustrations are lovely!)”
Another interesting thing readers may not know is that your education is in engineering, not writing or journalism. You worked on rockets. That must have been very exciting to be a “rocket scientist.” What compelled you to leave rockets behind and write about them instead?
“Strange, but true. I have a Mechanical Engineering degree and back in the groovy ‘80s I worked on Delta IV rockets that launched NASA satellites. Later, I worked on car braking systems. I enjoyed engineering very much, but when we adopted our first baby I knew I couldn’t leave my daughter and go back to work. A year later I gave birth to our son. As I read stacks of picture books to my children, I remembered how much I loved children’s books when I was young and decided to try writing them.”
Did your engineering background influence your writing of The Inventor’s Secret?
“I think my engineering experience (particularly my work designing car brake boosters) had a definite influence on this book. For example, one part of the story describes how Henry Ford built a model of a fancy engine with a four-stroke cylinder to find out how it worked. I thought children would be curious about how a car engine turns gasoline into motion, so my text included a simple explanation of what happens during each stroke in a cylinder. “
Later, the editor and I decided it would work better to convey that information in the illustration, so I created a basic diagram of the cylinder’s four stages and sent it to the illustrator, Jennifer Black Reinhardt. She incorporated that information into her clever illustration, so readers could actually see how a car works! Without my engineering background, I doubt I would have included that information.
“As an engineer, I was also fascinated to discover the details of how Edison’s early inventions operated (such as his electric pen, phonograph, and lightbulb.) So I included simple descriptions of how each one works, along with photos, in the back of the book. Looking back, it seems my personal nerdishness led to “extra” science content in several places.”
On the lighter side, you have pets. Tell us about them.
“We have two parakeets (Rio and Jester), one hamster (Cheerio), and the cutest dog in the world, Corduroy. Years ago, I decided to share a photo of Corduroy in my school author visit presentations. Well, he was such a huge hit that he has assumed a larger role in my presentations over the years. Recently I added a short video of Corduroy in which he helps me explain how scientists solve problems (AKA “the Scientific Method.”) Corduroy has developed quite a fan club, and I think he’s secretly plotting to go solo and take his show on the road soon!”
Does your research require a lot of traveling? Where have you traveled?
“Yes, traveling is a big part of my research as there are many facts that can only be uncovered by visiting certain historic sites. Some of the favorite places I’ve visited include the White House (research for The House That George Built), The Lincoln Memorial (Climbing Lincoln’s Steps), The Edison & Ford Winter Estates Museum (The Inventor’s Secret), and the Hull House Museum (Dangerous Jane Gets a New Name.)
“In addition to research trips, I also work with experts such as museum curators, specialists with PhD’s, and other smart, helpful people. One of my most memorable research moments was when I had the opportunity to chat with Alan Bean, the fourth man on the moon. He was very kind, smart, funny, and interesting. We ended up talking on the phone twice one week, and after that I couldn’t resist a little “name-dropping” to my family (which often went like this, “My friend, Alan Bean, and I …”)”
What is on your horizon, book wise?
“My next picture book, The Music in George’s Head: George Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue (illustrated by Stacy Innerst) releases in 2016 from Calkins Creek. I had a great time doing the research for this title (listening to old music recordings and learning about George’s colorful life) and was greatly inspired by his unusually creative mind.
“In 2017, Dangerous Jane Gets a New Name, releases from Peachtree Publishers (illustrated by Alice Ratterree.) It’s a unique picture book about an amazing, one-of-a-kind woman. I’m really excited about how this title is coming together!”
Anything else you would like to say, maybe about The Inventor’s Secret?
“Well, The Inventor’s Secret has only been out a few months, but it’s been interesting to watch its journey so far. Several schools shared it’s a great read to kick off their Genius Hour programs, while others said the book has inspired young inventors in their Makerspaces. That’s exciting news for this science geek! Also fun to hear the NSTA included it on their “Recommended List.”
“And here are a few more resources for the book:”
Book Trailer – Fun preview of book
Teacher’s Guide – Student activities, games, and crafts which address CCSS and NGSS
Inventor Project – Reading and writing about inventions/inventors
Blog Post– “Insider” details about my research for The Inventor’s Secret
Blog Post – Fascinating look at the illuwstration process
Jennifer Black Reinhardt, The Inventor’s Secret illustrator
“Thanks for inviting me to share a bit about The Inventor’s Secret!”
Thank you Suzanne. If you would like to get to know Suzanne Slade, find her books, maybe schedule a school visit, you can follow this link to her website: www.suzanneslade.com.
Not enough? Okay, try these:
Twitter: https://twitter.com/AuthorSSlade @AuthorSSlade
SCBWI Page: http://www.scbwi.org/members-public/suzanne-slade