It’s not every day that I get to welcome to the blog one of my awesome grad school advisors. But here today is the one and only Mary Quattlebaum! She’s here to talk about the National Geographic Kids books she wrote, which were published by Penguin Random House, and include Brother, Sister, Me and You.
Author photo by Michelle Rivet
El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Mary: 1. I am the oldest of seven kids.
2. My favorite food is popcorn.
3. One of my favorite jobs was as an 18th century tavern wench for Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.
4. All the dogs I’ve lived with as an adult have been rescue dogs, in one way or the other. One dog, Charlie, even conveyed with the house we bought, because the owner was going to put him in a shelter.
Mary with her elderly border collie Shine. Photo by Christopher David.
El Space: You’ve written a ton of books for kids, including your rhyming Jo MacDonald series and other picture books like Mighty Mole and Super Soil, The Hungry Ghost of Rue Orleans, and Pirate vs. Pirate, as well as your Jackson Jones novel series. Today, let’s talk about the National Geographic Kids books you wrote in the last few years: Brother, Sister, Me and You; National Geographic Kids Chapters: Hero Dogs; and National Geographic Kids Chapters Together Forever: True Stories of Amazing Animal Friendships! Many of your stories feature animals and the environment. Please tell us why that was important to you.
Mary: I’ve always been curious about the natural world, probably because I grew up in the country. And now there’s the added concern about the effect of climate change and pollution on the environment. Humans are deeply connected to other species, historically and in the present moment; we’re all part of an ecosystem. With my books—whether fiction or nonfiction—I guess I try to bring that connection to the fore and celebrate it. Plus, animals and plants are pretty amazing! Did you know that beaver kits help to care for younger siblings? And that a female guppy gives birth to live fry—sometimes 200 within a few hours?
El Space: Wow! I did not know that! How did you come to write nonfiction? What is the research process like for each project?
Mary: First of all, congratulations on your forthcoming nonfiction books! I’m looking forward to reading them!
El Space: Thank you. 😊
Mary: Now to your question: I’ve always enjoyed research, and for years I’ve written freelance articles for The Washington Post and other publications. But I had a palm-to-the-forehead moment when I wrote my Jo MacDonald books and realized the pleasures and challenges of writing narrative nonfiction for kids. Now, I’m doing both narrative nonfiction and straight nonfiction books. The narrative nonfiction chapter books often involve interviews—similar to what I do as a freelance journalist—as well the usual deep research into primary and secondary sources for traditional nonfiction.
El Space: I always roll my eyes when someone comments that writing a book for young children “must be easy.” What were the challenges of writing these books?
Mary: Well, when writing nonfiction, one big challenge is to ensure the accuracy of each fact, while presenting it in a way that’s going to engage kids. So, writers are always thinking carefully about sound, rhythm, sentence structure, etc. For Brother, Sister, Me and You, for example, I wanted a range of animals—not just cute mammals—and I wanted strong verbs so that children could act out the movements of the featured animals. So, I watched a lot of animal videos to make sure those verbs were accurate as well as fun. I also went to a pet store and looked at a tank of guppies to make sure that those little fish did, indeed, “flash with finny flicks.”
El Space: You teach at Vermont College of Fine Arts and you review books for The Washington Post, Washington Parent, and probably others I’m forgetting. How do you fit everything in?
Mary: Writers with families seem to juggle so much—deadlines, family responsibilities, teaching! Now, that my daughter is in college, time pressures have eased a bit, which makes for more time to walk the dog and garden—or at least think about gardening 😊—and to watch Schitt’s Creek. And I have to say, it’s a pleasure to work with motivated writing students who want to learn and grow, whether in Washington, DC, where I live, or at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I had a great time working with you, L. Marie, and I’m thrilled for you with your forthcoming books.
El Space: You are making me blush, Mary! When I was a student, you told me to experiment with poetry based on the prompts in The Aspiring Poet’s Journal by Bernard Friot. I copied this quote from a handout you gave me: “The book gets one thinking not just about words on the page but about ‘seeing’ and experiencing the world in a creative, ever-present way.” Why is the exercise of writing poetry helpful for novelists or nonfiction writers?
Mary: So glad you’re still exploring poetry and wordplays! For me, anyway, there is nothing like the reading and writing of poetry to encourage a deep awareness of and appreciation for the possibilities of language. Every word and every mark of punctuation is important, sound and rhythm are paramount. And the writing of poetry seems to call for an attentiveness to the world, an alertness to the extraordinary in even ordinary moments. Dogs seem to be wonderful models for living in the present moment. I love seeing how our dog takes in his surroundings, with curiosity and gusto.
El Space: What will you work on next?
Mary: I’m now beavering away on an animal-related early-reader project.
Thank you, Mary, for being my guest!
Looking for Mary? Look no farther than her website! If you subscribe to The Washington Post or Washington Parent, look for her book reviews.
Looking for Brother, Sister, Me and You or any of Mary’s other books? Check your local bookstore, Amazon, Dawn Publications, Indiebound, or Barnes and Noble or your own doorstep, since one of you will be given a copy of this book or any of Mary’s books of your choosing simply because you commented below.
Since this week I will feature another wonderful author, I will announce the winners of both giveaways sometime next week!
The Squeezamals and Henry’s bear wonder when Mary will write a book about their friendship. They’re animals . . . sort of.
Book covers courtesy of Mary Quattlebaum, her website, or were found at Dawn Publications. Book spread courtesy of Mary Quattlebaum. See above for more photo attributions. Other photos by L. Marie. Squeezamals are a product of Beverly Hills Teddy Bear Company.