Children’s books are the cornerstone of many of Center the Collaborative Classroom’s (CCC) programs; in a way, the authors are our behind-the-scenes collaborators. We want teachers, administrators, students, and parents to be able to learn more about these wonderful writers. We are happy to present the fifth in a series of author interviews, with Seymour Simon. Many of his books are used in our Making Meaning, Being a Writer, and Words In Action programs: Big Cats, Earthquakes, Sharks, Whales, Wildfires, and Wolves, among others.
CCC: You tell a story about the satisfaction of writing and drawing the pictures for your very first book (Space Monsters), and then reading it aloud to your second-grade classmates. Many children make books but most don’t grow up to have the kind of influence you’ve had on readers and their understanding of the world. What has made the difference for you?
Seymour Simon: Your first question is really about how I grew up. I was very fortunate because I lived in a place that had just the right kind of museum for me-the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and, attached to it, the Hayden Planetarium. There was a club for junior high and high school kids at the Hayden Planetarium called the Junior Astronomy Club. I joined and became, variously, editor of the magazine, vice president, and then president of the club. I loved the Junior Astronomy Club because it was full of nerds just like myself. I felt like I was in with my own crowd. The club gave me a chance to grind my own telescope and take a look at the stars at observation meetings on Friday nights in Central Park. We’d go in a large group-always protected by a policeman, I might add. I also had a pass to get into the Museum of Natural History after hours.
CCC: Like the movie Night at the Museum.
Seymour Simon: Yes! I walked to our club offices in the basement of the planetarium. I’d have to go through the museum to get there and I was so frightened of the things I saw the enormous skeletons of animals and the dioramas and so on, and yet I loved it. I was very, very happy in this world.To this day I maintain that childlike enthusiasm. So the difference for me has been that I’m still excited when I see something that I am impressed by, I think “Oh, wow,” and I just can’t wait to talk to somebody about it or write about it for them. It happened yesterday. There was a steady drumming in my office up in the country. It turned out to be a woodpecker pecking on the house right outside the window. I was thrilled by that. So I tweeted it. In addition, we’ve had 60-70 degree weather every day since a surprise snowstorm hit the northeast. Two feet of snow, which was wet and heavy, bowed down trees and broke off their branches. When the snow melted, the trees were absolutely fooled into thinking that it was spring. I saw a forsythia bush that flowered and I said to myself, “That bush thinks it’s spring and is in for a rude awakening.” Things like that make me love what I’m doing and sustain my interest in observing, reading, and writing about the natural world. I think maintaining that enthusiasm all of my life helps me convey it to children-particularly in my writing for them.
CCC: Like the best prose, yours appears effortless, though we know it takes a lot of work to write so well. I could cite hundreds of examples, but this one, from Bones, really struck me:
Your hands are very powerful and very flexible. They are strong enough to carry a heavy book, yet delicate enough to turn one page at a time-which, presumably, the reader has just done. You gently bring the focus right down to the child’s own hands. Perhaps your unique way with nonfiction stems from the time you spent teaching both creative writing and science. Could you talk about that experience?
Seymour Simon: You talk about the effortless prose, which, of course, takes a lot of effort. As I said before, being in touch with my inner child helps but also being in touch with the way I used to teach gives me insight into who I am writing for. Early in my career someone told me a story that goes something like this: A professor is teaching his class and he can see by the expressions on his students’ faces that they don’t understand what he’s telling them, so he teaches it again and he can see by the expressions on their faces that they still don’t understand what he’s teaching. So he teaches it a third time. And finally, he understands what he’s teaching. That’s a perfect example of the way I used to teach.
CCC: Do you miss it?
Seymour Simon: I am still teaching. I have always loved teaching and I think it’s what I’m best suited to do. If I weren’t still teaching, I would miss it terribly. Last semester I spoke in about 60 schools all over the country. I just adore it. I have kind of an immodest story, but I taught at an all-eighth-grade school in Austin, Texas. I was speaking to three groups of students throughout the day. The last one assembled in the afternoon and I walked into the auditorium to thunderous applause. I glanced around to see who was coming in behind me and it turns out that the kids had heard so much from their friends during lunch that they were welcoming me. To get something like that from eighth-graders is really special. Back to the writing that I do. I still read my work out loud after I’ve written it. If I have any question about whether it really explains what I’m talking about, the answer is: no it does not. Once what I’ve written sounds right to me, it’s as clear as a bell, and I say, “Oh, yeah, of course, that’s what I meant.”
CCC: One persistent question for writers of all kinds-fiction or nonfiction-is what to leave in and what to cut out. How do you boil down your complex subjects, be it bones, or wolves, or galaxies, and then convey what remains in such clear, tangible, and beautiful descriptions?
Seymour Simon: It’s very, very tough to decide what to leave in and what to edit out. You really have to cut a lot of what you think is interesting and, finally, the decision is sort of made for you by the kind of book that you’re writing. It depends on whom you’re writing it for. It depends upon what the book title is and what you’re trying to do. I use many different writing techniques (that apply to both nonfiction and fiction). Some examples-along with quotations from my books-include using comparisons to help explain unfamiliar ideas:
If Earth were the size of a basketball, the sun would be as big as a basketball court. (from Our Solar System); using sensory details to set the scene:
Imagine snow falling silently in the great woodlands of North America. The only sounds are from the trees creaking and tossing in the wind. Suddenly the quiet is broken by the eerie howling of a wolf. And all the frightening stories and legends that you’ve heard about the treacherous and sly wolf and the evil werewolf begin to race through your mind. (from Wolves); and using descriptive detail:
As leaves change color in autumn, monarch butterflies begin an incredibly long journey to places they have never seen before. On tissue-paper-thin wings, the butterflies ride the wind as far as 3,000 miles to their winter homes. (from Butterflies)Actually, my strategies are similar to the ones used in the CCC lessons in which my books are used. They are lessons that I would be very comfortable giving, by the way. You can use nonfiction to teach many of the same things that you use fiction to teach, and sometimes using nonfiction appeals to the kids who might be turned off if you use a fiction book in which they are not interested.
CCC: That is why your books read so well, because you feel like you’re sitting down to hear a story about something that happens to be true, happens to be about science.
Seymour Simon: Some teachers say, “Why don’t you use page numbers and an index?” Sometimes I do, but most times I don’t because I really don’t want my books to be read the way you would read a textbook. I want them to be read from beginning to end, to be read as if they were reading a storybook. That’s really one of the main reasons that I didn’t want to break up the illustrations. Leaving out page numbers and an index was really a design decision on my part because these books were special photo essays. My publishers used to use page numbers on all of my books that were not photo essays; page numbers and an index did make sense in that case, because the books were longer and you might want to look up something. But in my photo essays, the books are so beautiful, the story of each book flows if you read them through, and that’s really what I want. I want to take kids on a journey with words and pictures.
CCC: In a comment about good science writing, you said what is important is
making sure what you write is stimulating and opens up the world instead of just answering questions and closing down any further investigation. This calls to mind a familiar quote:
Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire. Who or what lit a fire for you as a child or young student? What inspires your continued curiosity?
Seymour Simon: You’ve given me a wonderful quote. Thank you very much, I love that! In a way, I started to answer this question when I talked about taking kids on a journey; I’m much more interested in opening up the world to a child rather than just answering his or her questions. Books and reading lit the fires in my mind when I was young. All I’m doing is passing on the torch for future generations.
CCC: With nonfiction, readers expect a high level of accuracy. Yet we discover more about science all of the time. How do you keep up? (And, as a CCC developer once asked,
How does Seymour Simon know so much stuff?!!)
Seymour Simon: My literary agent’s husband is really a very smart, intellectual guy who edits erudite books on a great variety of subjects. He keeps asking me questions about science, I keep saying, “Wait, wait, wait, why are you asking me?” and he answers, “You explain it much better than if I looked it up!” The answer to “How do I keep up?” is just that I never lost the curiosity-especially for my childhood passions of astronomy and space and animal behavior. I read about those subjects constantly simply because I enjoy them so much.
CCC: You said that when you read The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson you realized you could be a writer. Why?
Seymour Simon: I fall in love with words. When you told me that quote, I just loved the beautiful words used to convey an idea. When I read Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, I loved having natural science explained by someone who was not just interested in the hard science but interested in the lyricism, the emotion in science. It’s the kind of lyrical science writing that I attempt to do as much as I can. You probably don’t know the book, because it never sold as well as my straight science books, but I actually compiled a book of poetry about space called Star Walk. It was published by Morrow 20 years ago. It’s long out of print although you could probably get a copy in a used bookstore. I set each poem right next to an incredible photograph of space. When I speak to an audience of adults, I frequently begin and end with one of the poems. One of my lyrical books is part of a series of journeys, illustrated not by photographs, but by wonderful lyrical drawings: Ride the Wind: Airborne Journeys of Animals and Plants. The other books in that series are They Swim the Seas and They Walk the Earth. All three of these titles are now available as digital books.
CCC: Will they be available through multiple vendors? How do you handle that?
Seymour Simon: You have to arrange to get it into the form that your device will accept. They’re currently available for Barnes and Noble’s color Nook, soon for the Amazon’s color tablet called the Fire, and later as an iBook for the iPad as well. More than that, there will be a Seymour Simon Science Bookstore on the Web. If you buy a book there, you’ll be able to stream it to any device you have, including a desktop computer. We’re looking into a way that a school can get a subscription to stream any of my books and make them available to all of the devices used in the school. I have about 30 books available on tablets now and I hope to have closer to 100 available by the end of 2012.
CCC: A lot of people are kind of ambivalent about eBooks and their impact on print.
Seymour Simon: The people who are ambivalent are actually overlooking something which even writers are not thinking about: I have so many wonderful books that have been out of print, yet eBooks give me an opportunity to make them available again and do any updating that I need. I love the idea that kids are reading. The fact that they’re reading books on an iPad or a Kindle or in hardcover or softcover makes a lot less difference to me than the fact that they’re reading. Of course, I love hard copy print. I mean, I’ve had 260 books published in hard copy and I have a library of thousands of volumes. On the other hand, I bought the first iPad on the day that it was released. I love reading on it. I read both digital books and print books all the time and, for different kinds of books, I may buy and read them in different ways. I don’t want digital to push out print but I’m supportive of digital as another way of reading books.
CCC: As long as the economics keep working, I think that’s how we all have to look at it. It’s one more way to read and share information. Some books work beautifully digitally and others just don’t. It’s nice to get your positive approach to it out here in the interview.
Seymour Simon: I’m sort of the odd person out as far as writers are concerned. For many years, I’ve belonged to a writing group of fairly well-known children’s book authors. When computers first came out, I was the first person to use a computer for my writing and the rest of the group said, “Ah, how can you ever use a computer to write on? It destroys everything-the personal relationship of a typewriter.” And I would laugh to myself, “Really? A typewriter is a lot more personal than a goose quill pen?” And of course, now every single one of them not only uses a computer but can’t imagine writing on a typewriter or anything else. Many still print out their manuscripts, but that’s fine. I always tell them that writing on a computer is the next closest thing to thinking for me.
CCC: Because you can fly over the keyboard?
Seymour Simon: Not only that but you don’t have to worry about putting it down and then having to retype it, which I hated. I mean, you know, retyping a page because I saw three or four things I wanted to change. I wondered whether or not to do it; was it worth it? To change three words and have to retype an entire page?
CCC: Sometimes kids, and adults think, “I could never write a book, climb a mountain, design a building, make a movie, etc.” What advice would you give to young students just opening up to the world and discovering their interests?
Seymour Simon: I think there are two things. First: do not be ashamed or embarrassed about what you’re interested in. Embrace it. If you’re interested in, let’s say, what puppies do, and you suddenly find that you’re in third grade, and the kids around you say, “Oh, you’re still interested in puppies?” You maintain that interest and just let it grow because, whatever it is you’re interested in, it can open up new worlds, lead you to different aspects of the subject, and the passion can last a lifetime. The other piece of advice, which is kind of the corollary, is that you have to remain open. I think one of the terrible periods that kids go through when they reach adolescence is that time when it’s not cool to be interested in things. When I speak to adolescents, I just open up a world that I’m fascinated with and I’m shamelessly enthusiastic about it. By the end of that 40-minute or 50-minute period, they are as shamelessly enthusiastic as I am. Having an adult be excited gives them permission to be excited as well.
CCC: How do you choose your topics? Have those topics ever influenced your personal interests-by, for example, inspiring you to travel somewhere or pick up a new hobby?
Seymour Simon: It’s a two-way street. Sometimes you travel someplace and that gives you the idea for a book. I was speaking in Vancouver and had some time off, so I went to Stanley Park. They have a sea aquarium there with a killer whale. I had never seen a killer whale in person. In fact, I barely even had heard of a killer whale. After the show, I walked back to the holding tank where the killer whale lived, and there was a porthole. Because the water in the tank was the temperature of the ocean, and it was kind of a hot, humid day, the window was completely misted over so when I used my hand to take off some of the moisture it squeaked on the window. The killer whale wheeled around in the tank and swam over to the porthole. I thought it was looking at me through the window while I looked back at it and I was so enthralled by what I imagined was some communication with the whale that, when I got back, I called up one of my publishers at that time. I said, “I want to do a book about killer whales.” She said, “What do you know about killer whales?” I said, “Absolutely nothing, but I love them, and I’ll find out everything there is to know.”When I decided to write my first two photo essays on something other than animals or space, I chose to do one called Icebergs & Glaciers along with a second one called Volcanoes, because I loved Robert Frost and I loved his poem “Fire and Ice.” I made some inquiries and got an invitation to go up to Alaska where I said I would do some research and take some photographs of icebergs and glaciers. I also made plans to take a trip to Hawaii because, after all, someone has to go to do the research! So, yes, traveling somewhere has interested me in a new subject for a book, and a book that I’ve decided to write interests me in traveling somewhere to research.
CCC: Many of your books explain away myths (about wolves or wildfires or sharks, for example) and offer instead the truth about these subjects. Do you find that misunderstandings and fears about the physical world have remained the same or evolved?
Seymour Simon: Kids are still afraid of lightning, some kids are afraid to touch snakes. I think the one thing that is quite different now is that everybody hears about a natural disaster. So when we had the earthquake in Japan and that terrible tsunami, everybody was interested in it. When I was growing up, daily news was limited and not widely available. Now, when something big like an earthquake happens, I often write a blog entry about it. I get a lot more comments on that blog entry because all of the kids have seen or heard about the news.
CCC: Do you receive more and more questions about climate change? Have you noticed that?
Seymour Simon: Yeah, I do. I’ve written a book called Global Warming and, of course, it’s become mired in political controversy, which is really ridiculous. You can be a skeptic but being a denier is”|it’s a political statement really much more than a scientific statement. You mentioned my article in USA Today, and I think that was a very balanced piece. I gave a fair appraisal of the position that scientists have and why they do. USA Today has a wider readership than any one of my books so I really wanted to write something which would-if read fairly by any individual-make them think that it was worth following the arguments to see whether they agreed with them or not.
CCC: How do you think science instruction has changed over the past several decades, and what do you think of current science texts? What do you think about the use of basal readers and/or authentic children’s literature in classrooms?
Seymour Simon: The basal readers that I’ve seen nowadays are readers that have excerpts-sometimes the entire book from well-known writers, which is great. That said, any attempt to help teachers use authentic children’s literature to teach should be encouraged enormously. You have not only better writing but also a greater variety of books on the subject. You can use the techniques that you use in the Collaborative Classroom lessons, which is you have kids in the same class reading different books as well as the same book. I think that’s wonderful. It opens up a discussion where you can bring in both your own opinion and listen to the opinions of other people as well.
CCC: And science instruction-do you think it’s changed?
Seymour Simon: I know that science instruction has changed to include a more hands-on approach. Teachers are also using good science books to teach reading as well as science. I just spoke last year at the National Science Teachers’ Association because one of my books won a best book award (in fact, it was the book on global warming). So I’m keeping up with many of the changes. I think everyone knows that it’s not so much the technique, but that good science education mostly depends upon the quality of the teacher. A good teacher can teach in almost any way imaginable. A good teacher makes learning come alive, and I think that when learning comes alive, you really can teach. Of course, in science, any kind of hands-on exploration is an advantage. When I was teaching something that could be taught on an expedition to a nearby field, we’d go out to the field. I used to teach a ninth-grade science course on how an automobile worked, and I’d take my class out to my car. You know, it’s a lot more interesting if I can point out something about automotives in a car rather than in a classroom. Obviously, science has the advantage of experimentation and demonstration, which is just a lot more difficult to do in some of the other subjects. But again, so much depends upon the teacher.
CCC: Did your parents read aloud to you? If so, what were your favorites?
Seymour Simon: My twin sisters taught me how to read by reading to me every night before I went to sleep-either one or the other or both. We didn’t have a lot of children’s books, but we had a couple. And I remember The Tale of Peter Rabbit being read to me every single night. I learned how to read simply by listening, by looking at the page of a book, and by hearing those same words read night after night.
Actually, I read when I was four years old-not because I was super smart, and not because I was being forced to read, but simply because there was an absolutely warm feeling of having a family member sit with you and read to you before you go to sleep. I did it for my own kids, and for my grandkids too now, their parents do it, and everybody that I know who’s raising a kid does the same thing with their children. I expect that tradition will be carried on in the future with digital as well as print books.
CCC: What are you reading right now?
Seymour Simon: I read both for what I’m writing and for what I’m going to write. I love the names of groups of animals so I’m going to be writing a book about them and maybe call it A Murder of Crows because that’s what you call a group of crows. This summer it was very hot and humid for many days and we had gnats swarming in these clouds, which were just incredible. So I looked up what a cloud of gnats is called and it’s a ghost of gnats. Wow. That’s a perfect description because it looks like a swirling cloud that forms and re-forms. It is kind of ghostly. I read a lot of both fiction and nonfiction-I still read science fantasy. I was watching the HBO production of Game of Thrones, which led me to start reading the Game of Thrones book series this summer. Recently I went to the New York Public Library where they have lectures by authors. Umberto Eco spoke about his latest book, The Prague Cemetery. Before I read that I’m going to finish an earlier book of his, because I haven’t read him for a while, called Foucault’s Pendulum. I’m in the middle of that right now, as well as reading about crows and gnats.
CCC: Do you write every day?
Seymour Simon: No. I write almost every day. I tend still to be ruled by the school year. I work from Monday through Friday and take off Saturday and Sunday. It doesn’t always happen, but on Monday morning it would be unusual if I weren’t down in the office writing, and on Sunday morning it would be very unusual if I were writing.
CCC: Anything else you would like to say?
Seymour Simon: It’s very enjoyable talking about these things because this is what I do-and our conversation not only arouses in my own mind stories that I’d intended to tell you but lots of stories which I had forgotten until you asked another question and it triggered off my memory. So thank you for interviewing me.