The Backstory: FOURTEEN MONKEYS: A RAIN FOREST RHYME
I am honored to welcome Melissa Stewart to the blog to share all about how her latest book, Fourteen Monkeys: A Rain Forest Rhyme, came to be. With over 190 published books, Melissa is a master of nonfiction and I am delighted to have her joining us today.
Melissa's books have served as mentor texts at the heart of my second-grade nonfiction writing unit for years and I am so excited to get a glimpse into what goes into creating one of her books.
Read on to learn all about what inspires her and get a chance at winning a 30-minute video call with Melissa.
Welcome to The Backstory and thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind Fourteen Monkeys: A Rain Forest Rhyme.
First off, please tell us a little bit about your book. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Welcome to Manú National Park in Peru, where an astonishing fourteen different species of monkeys live together. That’s more than in any other rain forest on Earth!
How can so many species survive together in place? Find out in this playful, rhyming picture book that explores each monkey’s habits, diet, and home territory, illustrating how this pristine ecosystem and its creatures live in harmony. From howler monkeys to spider monkeys to night monkeys, young readers will love getting to know these incredible primates and discovering the amazing ways they share their forest home. This sounds fascinating and like the perfect addition to a classroom for so many reasons. The unique structure and use of text features are ideal for writing and reading lessons while the range of scientific concepts, from animal needs to adaptations are begging to be investigated during science. Going deeper, the concept of these fourteen species of monkeys peacefully cohabitating, each with different needs and roles to play, lends itself to community building and lessons on class culture.
What’s the backstory? What was your inspiration? Where did the idea come from?
This book was inspired by a single paragraph in The Life of Mammals by David Attenborough. It explained how a half dozen species of guenon monkeys can all live together in the forests of Africa because they have different lifestyles and habits. As I was reading this passage, I immediately thought of the fun poem “10 Little Monkeys” and wondered if I could create a nonfiction version with facts about this group of monkeys. It is amazing to get a glimpse at the trail of thought that occurred from a paragraph, to a poem, to what eventually became Fourteen Monkeys.
How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now Fourteen Monkeys: A Rain Forest Rhyme?
My initial idea didn’t work out, but researching those guenons rekindled the fascination I first fell for monkeys in 2005 when I visited Tortuguero National Park, a rain forest in Costa Rica. In this photo, you can see me (left) exploring a rain forest area with my intrepid mother-in-law. We’re watching a deadly fer-de-lance snake that our guide just pointed out.
After that trip, I became obsessed with monkeys and wrote a general introduction to the monkeys of Central and South America, which was published in 2008. And in 2013, I published No Monkeys, No Chocolate, which looks at the interdependence of living things and the variety of creatures, including monkeys, that make our favorite dessert possible.
In 2017, I had the good fortune to meet children’s book illustrator Katy Tanis, who is on a quest to see every monkey species in the world in its natural environment. She suggested that I read High Moon over the Amazon: My Quest to Understand the Monkeys of the Night by Patricia Wright. That book led me to the very special community of monkeys that inhabit Manú National Park in Peru. The more I learned about them, the more convinced I became that they were the perfect fit for the book I wanted to write.
Because I knew curious kids would want to know more about the monkeys than I could possibly incorporate into the poetic main text, I added secondary text full of additional details as well as rich backmatter bursting with even more information.
I was lucky that my editor, Andrea Welch, loves monkeys as much as I do. Her feedback really helped me revise the book to make it more of what I wanted it to be.
When Steve Jenkins agreed to illustrate the book, I was elated. I loved the art he created for our first book together, Can an Aardvark Bark? and was excited to work with him again. His monkeys are amazing (One reviewer said their “fur appears palpably plush”)! I’m especially happy with the little infographic trees he created to show the rain forest layer where each monkey lives, and the backmatter design packed with infographics is fantastic.
What a journey to go from that initial idea to your finished product! The dual layers of text are the perfect way to keep your playful rhymes while offering increased depth for those readers wanting more. This combined with the incredible use of nonfiction features and Steve Jenkins' illustrations maximizes the accessibility of the book for all levels of learners. I cannot wait to get this book into the hands of my students and to use it for science instruction as well as for a mentor text for reading and writing. I can just imagine the little infographics the students will be inspired to create.
Where do you tend to find your inspiration or your sparks for ideas?
For me, ideas are everywhere. They come from books and articles I read, conversations with other people, places I visit, and experiences I have. The hard part isn’t getting ideas. It’s remembering them when it’s time to start working on a new book.
That’s why I have an Idea Board in my office. Anytime I have an idea, I write it on a scrap of paper and tack it up there. Some of those ideas lead nowhere, but others turn into books.
An Idea Board is a great idea! I love the visual nature of it. Journals and files are other useful ways of tracking ideas, but there is the out of sight, out of mind factor that can come into play that this bulletin board would eliminate.
What books have been the most inspirational/impactful on your writing?
Oh my goodness, this is such a hard question. There are so many wonderful books. One of my favorite recent expository literature titles is Crossings by Katy Duffield. As I was working on the rhyming main text in Fourteen Monkeys, I studied a wide variety of books by April Pulley Sayre and Jennifer Ward.
What are the must haves for your workspace? Tools? Inspiration? Reference materials?
Besides my desk, my office includes three big bookshelves packed with books, and two file cabinets. The bigger one has research materials in the top drawer and business related paperwork in the bottom drawer. The middle drawer is what I call my “manuscript graveyard.”
Even though I’ve published 194 books, I’ve written about 30 more that are still sitting in that drawer. Why haven’t those manuscripts made it into print? There are a variety of reasons.
—I abandoned them because I couldn’t find the information I needed.
—Despite my best efforts, the ideas just didn’t gel.
—Someone else published a book that’s too similar.
—Editors just weren’t interested.
Will I ever publish any of those manuscripts? Maybe. Maybe not. But even if I don’t, working on them wasn’t a waste of time. Each and every one taught me something that made me a better writer. And that’s what the writing process is all about.
Thank you for giving us this peek inside your writing space. Your "manuscript graveyard" as well as your reasons for why those stories have landed there are so important for writers to hear about. So much time, effort, and heart go into each manuscript and it can feel crushing when the project seems to hit a roadblock or needs to be shelved. You provide us with the perfect reminder that each of those pieces served a purpose and helped us grow.
Any inspirational words of advice for aspiring authors?
Keep on writing!
Being a writer is full of challenges and frustrations. There are so many things we can’t control. But we can control how much time and energy we devote to honing our craft.
Perfect advice! It is a much more beneficial use of time to focus on the parts we can control.
Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?
Yes, I have a book called Tree Hole Homes coming out in 2022 with the uber-talented illustrator Amy Hevron. This image from Amy’s website provides a sneak peek of what you can expect visually.
Gorgeous illustrations! Congrats to you both on this forthcoming book.
Where can people connect more with you? Website: https://www.melissa-stewart.com/
Readers be sure to connect with Melissa on social media and don't forget to pick up a copy of her latest, Fourteen Monkeys: A Rain Forest Rhyme (Beach Lane Books, 2021) with illustrations by the incredible Steve Jenkins.
And teachers, if you haven't checked out Melissa's website you are missing out. It is packed with resources for educators. You and your students will not be disappointed. And if you are looking to expand or improve your nonfiction instruction look no further. Melissa has four different professional books, perfect for you. Check them out, here.
Melissa, I can't thank you enough for joining us. It was a pleasure learning all about Fourteen Monkeys: A Rain Forest Rhyme and the process it took to go from idea to published book.
Melissa is generously offering a 30-minute video call with one lucky winner.
Ways to enter:
1. Retweet my tweet about this blog post. Additional entry for tagging friends!
2. Leave a comment on this post.
3. Like our FB page and comment on this week's post.
4. Post about this interview on FB/Instagram and tell me in the comments that you did.
Each method earns an extra entry!
ABOUT MELISSA STEWART
Melissa Stewart has written more than 190 science-themed nonfiction books for children, including the ALA Notable Feathers: Not Just for Flying, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen; the SCBWI Golden Kite Honor title Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs, illustrated by Stephanie Laberis; and Can an Aardvark Bark?, illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Steve Jenkins. Melissa also co-wrote 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books and edited the anthology Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing. She maintains the award-winning blog Info-licious Inspiration and serves on the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators board of advisors. Her highly-regarded website features a rich array of nonfiction writing resources.
ABOUT ANDREW HACKET
Andrew’s background of being surrounded by children, both at work and at home, has been a treasure trove of inspiration.
A nature lover, Andrew can be found exploring the woods of Massachusetts with his wife and three kids.
While often witty and imaginative, Andrew’s stories can also delve into the more serious and emotional topics that children can experience.
Andrew is represented by Dan Cramer of Flannery Literary.