Creating Children’s Science Books: A Lesson in Teamwork

photographer Ellen Harasimowicz (l) and author Loree Griffin Burns (r); photo by Lea Morgan
When the National Science Teacher’s Association (NSTA) and the Children’s Book Council began spreading the word about their annual Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K–12 list last November, I was thrilled to hear that my two 2014 titles with photographer Ellen Harasimowicz had made the cut. But when I clicked over to the OSTB website to view the list online, I was a little shocked. Handle with Care and Beetle Busters were both on the list, all right. My name was right beside them. But Ellen’s name was nowhere to be seen. As I scrolled through the other titles, it became clear this was not a simple clerical error; illustrator names were not included for any of the forty-four titles listed.

Beetle Busters CoverTo NSTA’s great credit, when I suggested (kindly, I hope) that they consider acknowledging the hard work and creativity of the artists and photographers who’d helped bring the books on their list to children, they didn’t hesitate. The list was updated within the week. (You can see it in all its author-illustrator-book title glory here.) And then they asked me to write this blog post to talk a little about how authors and illustrators collaborate to create great science books for kids.

As with any question that asks for a description of creative processes, my answer to the question “How do you two work together?” is not simple. The truth is that Ellen and I have worked quite differently on each of the four books we’ve made together. Every project comes with unique demands, and we’re constantly trying to adapt. At the same time, our working relationship is evolving from project to project and year to year. The one constant, however, is this: the final product is a team effort. Our books are filled with my words and her photographs, but these contributions are uniquely co-dependent. Alone, my words would be harder to understand and, probably more boring. Alone, Ellen’s photos would tell a story without context and, perhaps, less meaning than the one in the final merger. I think this is true for most of the forty-four books on the OSTB list.

Handle With Care coverFor the picture book Handle with Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey, Ellen and I traveled to Costa Rica and lived on a remote farm where we watched farmers raise not carrots or potatoes, but butterfly pupae. It was an incredible place, unlike any working farm we, or our readers, had ever seen. As best we could, we recorded its essence in words (for me, reams of notes and lots of recorded interviews) and in pictures (for Ellen, thousands of images and hours of video). We knew what our story was—the butterfly life cycle as told through an unusual journey from a Central American farm to a North American museum exhibit—but not how it would be told, in what format or even, believe it or not, with what publisher. As a result, we totally over-collected in terms of photos, ideas, and information. That was our main creative approach to this book, actually: collect images, collect information, and keep our eyes peeled for the structural element that would pull the whole thing together.

On our last day at the farm, as Ellen and I watched workers package the latest crop of pupae—wrapping them in cotton, packing them into cardboard boxes, and shipping them off to the airport—this loosey-goosey creative approach finally paid off. Ellen photographed a pupa we’d named Twiggy, a pupa she’d also photographed as a caterpillar during our week at the farm.

“Do you think we can photograph this one at home, too, as a butterfly?” I asked.

Ellen, who is game for pretty much anything, didn’t hesitate. “Of course,” she said.

And as we followed Twiggy back to Boston on a plane, we began to flesh out the possibilities of following a single butterfly’s life in the pages of a picture book. When the silver package containing Twiggy arrived at the Butterfly Garden at the Museum of Science, Ellen was there to meet it. Two weeks later, when Twiggy-the-pupa began to change color in a way that made it clear it would soon become Twiggy-the-butterfly, Ellen went back to the Museum, set up her equipment, and waited. For six hours.

Despite the wait, Ellen remembers the day fondly. “I shot over a thousand frames that day—before Twiggy emerged, as it emerged, as it was clinging to the shell of the chrysalis and pumping fluid through its wings, and finally as it was released into the butterfly exhibit.”

Where was I during all this? In my office, trying to fit Twiggy’s life story into one thousand words and thirty-two pages. But I got an email from Ellen around dinnertime; the subject line said “It’s a boy!”

If you’ve read Handle with Care, then you know that our last-minute whim of an idea—follow a single butterfly—became a big part of the book we eventually made. The idea and its execution was a team effort, which is why it’s important that both our names are on the cover, and that both our names are used whenever the book is recognized.

Of course, that was just one collaborative approach to one book. I’ve spent the past couple weeks searching for information about how other writer/illustrator teams work, and while the process of individual teams varies, it always involves a back-and-forth between the creators. Watch this space for a second installment on the creation of children’s science books, in which I’ll share interviews with other author/illustrator teams, and an in depth look at the collaboration of author Kate Messner and illustrator Christopher Silas Neal, the team behind the OSTB picture book Over and Under the Snow. Many thanks to NSTA for collaborating with me on this blog series, and for shining their spotlight on excellent science books, their authors AND their illustrators.

Loree Griffin BurnsLoree Griffin Burns is an award-winning writer whose books for young people have won many accolades, including the NSTA/CBC Outstanding Trade Book Award for Students K–12, ALA Notable designations, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book Award, an IRA Children’s Book Award, a Green Earth Book Award and two Science Books & Films (SB&F) Prizes. She holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and her books draw heavily on both her passion for science and nature and her experiences as a working scientist. Browse Loree’s website and follow her on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a series.

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