The Backstory: GREAT CARRIER REEF
I am so excited to welcome my kidlit pal and nonfiction writer extraordinaire, Jessica Stremer to the blog today! Jessica is with us to discuss her debut, GREAT CARRIER REEF (Holiday House, 2023) with illustrations by Gordy Wright. Keep reading to learn all about this amazing book and for your chance to win a query and NF manuscript critique or 30-minute AMA with Jessica.
AH: Welcome to The Backstory and thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind THE GREAT CARRIER REEF.
First off, please tell us a little bit about your story.
JS: What happens when something designed to be unsinkable gets bombed to the bottom of the ocean floor? With careful preparation, new life can take root! GREAT CARRIER REEF brings young readers along on the journey of the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany—nicknamed the Mighty O—as it gets stripped down to a steel shell for a new life below the waves as the world’s largest artificial reef.
The central theme of this book is transformation. For the Mighty O it’s about starting over with a new purpose and a new mission; to become a home for marine life. Then once the ship is sunk, readers see the ocean floor also transform from nearly void to teaming with activity.
GREAT CARRIER REEF has so many additional layers that I hope will appeal to kids. From coral reefs and ocean health, to engineering, critical thinking, and problem solving, to ships and military history, there’s a little bit of something for everyone. But ultimately when readers finish this book, I hope they walk away with a sense of optimism. That they see this success story and feel inspired to continue to invent creative solutions to other environmental struggles our planet faces.
AH: You and Gordy have given us a beautiful and informative story and on top of that all of these additional layers. You are right when you say there is something for everyone. I personally know GREAT CARRIER REEF will be nestling snuggly into my grade 2 habitat unit to discuss habitat loss with a strong focus on engineering and creative problem-solving. I can't wait to get this book into the hands of my students.
AH: What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration? Where did the idea come from?
JS: I first discovered the Mighty-O’s story in early March of 2021, when my youngest daughter turned on a documentary about reefing ships. The USS Oriskany was one of the ships featured, and as I discovered in my research, the largest ship intentionally reefed to date.
The USS Oriskany, nicknamed “the Mighty-O”, is a Navy aircraft carrier. As a military spouse whose husband has deployed multiple times on aircraft carriers, I was instantly intrigued by the fact that a military vessel designed to be unsinkable was deliberately sent to the bottom of the ocean. I also love all things nature/science so the topic appealed to me even more.
AH: It feels like you were meant to be the author of this book. Between your connection to the military and your love of nature, it sounds like it was the perfect topic for you.
AH: How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now THE GREAT CARRIER REEF? Was it something undeniable you had to write immediately or did you need to sit with this idea and let it grow for a while before it found its way to the page?
JS: I discovered the Oriskany’s story right before my husband deployed. For those who aren’t familiar with military deployments, the few weeks before the service member leaves can be quite awkward as both parties mentally prepare to spend months apart. I dove into research as a way to distract myself from his upcoming departure. I knew the story was one I had to tell. I also knew it was unique and only one person would have the opportunity to tell it first. I wanted to be that person!
AH: I am so glad you were able to dive in and bring this story to the surface for us. In the fiction world I don't often think about the time crunch a NF author might feel in regards to a novel topic. While I am sure that provided great motivation to keep you progressing on this project, I bet it also came with a certain amount of stress and pressure.
AH: Did THE GREAT CARRIER REEF undergo any major changes/revisions from the original version? If so, what led you to make these changes?
JS: I had a critique with an editor through a SCBWI event in May of 2021. The critique was really positive, and even though that editor wasn’t interested in pursuing it further, her comment that the manuscript was ready for submission boosted my confidence. About the same time, the editor who would end up acquiring the manuscript tweeted a #mswl request. My agent saw the tweet and even though I was out on submission with a different nf manuscript, she agreed to submit GREAT CARRIER REEF right away (patience is not my thing).
Before the offer my editor asked for a revise and resubmit. She wanted to see less about the military influence and more about coral reefs and ocean health. My editor commented with ideas and suggestions directly in the manuscript, so I had a good idea of what I needed to work on. I shared my changes with a few trusted critique partners to ensure I was interpreting the feedback correctly, then sent it back. Luckily, she loved it and by mid-July of 2021, I had an accepted offer!
AH: That is such a quick turnaround from draft to sale! Knowing your talent, I am not surprised at all. I love that your editor had a vision for the manuscript and was able to point you in the right direction to have a successful R&R.
AH: Are there any books/authors that you feel influenced your work on THE GREAT CARRIER REEF?
JS: Candace Flemming’s GIANT SQUID and HONEYBEE books showed me what creative, narrative nonfiction could look like. Jane Yolen and Melissa Stewart are two other authors I really admire. And of course, I wouldn’t be here without my awesome critique partners.
AH: What great influences! When I used to think about nonfiction for kids my mind would go straight to those very factual, straightforward books filled with photographs or illustrated diagrams. It wasn't until reading the authors you mentioned that I learned of this beautiful genre of narrative nonfiction.
AH: As writers, there are so many amazing resources available from books to webinars to organizations. What kidlit resources have been the most beneficial to you?
JS: I really leaned into SCBWI when I first started writing picture books. In the past I also utilized 12x12 and Rate Your Story. Reading (a lot) of mentor texts helps me stay in touch with what’s being published. I’ve found mentor texts help me learn from various successful writing styles, and encourage me to hone in on my voice and the types of stories I want to tell.
AH: Great resources! I love mentor texts, too! They are a wonderful, free way for writers to expand their craft and stay current with the market. Reading really amazing books is a great way for writers to up their skill and to encourage them to push themselves creatively.
AH: Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?
JS: My next picture book, LIGHTS OUT: A Movement to Help Migrating Birds (Paula Wiseman Books) publishes spring of ’24. This book is based on the real-life Lights Out movement and shows kids how even the smallest of actions can make a big difference in helping birds and other wildlife, especially during migration.
I’m also working on my first nonfiction middle grade book, FIRE ESCAPE: How Animals and Plants Survive Wildfires (Holiday House), publishing in summer of ’24. I noticed there were a lot of picture books being published about wildfires, but nothing in the middle grade realm that covered both the benefits and downfalls of wildfire, or what happens to animals and plants when fire rips through their home. With more and more people being affected by wildfires, I feel it’s a very timely and important topic that I can’t wait to share with young readers.
AH: Congrats on both books! It is going to be a busy 2024 for you. And lucky us to have more titles to look forward to from you.
AH: Where can people connect more with you?
JS: I’m primarily on Twitter @Jstremer. Links to all of my books plus teaching resources and more can be found at www.jessicastremer.com.
AH: Readers, please give Jessica a follow on Twitter to stay updated on her writing journey. And while you are at it, please consider supporting Jessica, Gordy, and GREAT CARRIER REEF (Holiday House, 2023) in whatever way you can.
This could include:
- ordering from your favorite indie
- marking as want to read on Goodreads
-leaving a review
- making a library request
Jessica, thank you for joining us and giving us the inside scoop on GREAT CARRIER REEF. I am so thrilled to see your work out in the world and I can't wait for there to be even more books with your name on them filling shelves in books and libraries.
Jessica is generously offering one winner their choice of a query and nonfiction manuscript critique (under 1200 words) OR a 30-minute AMA Zoom session.
Ways to enter:
1. Retweet my tweet about this blog post. Additional entry for tagging friends!
2. Leave a comment on this post.
3. Post about this interview on FB/Instagram and tell me in the comments that you did.
Each method earns an extra entry!
ABOUT JESSICA STREMER
Jessica Stremer is a children’s book author, mom, and former military spouse. Her titles include the nonfiction picture books GREAT CARRIER REEF (Holiday House, 2023) and LIGHTS OUT: A Movement to Help Migrating Birds (S&S/Paula Wiseman Books, 2024), and a middle grade nonfiction book FIRE ESCAPE: How Animals and Plants Survive Wildfires (Holiday House, 2024). Jessica obtained a B.S. in Biology, with an emphasis in Ecology, from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. She enjoys combining her love of science and writing to create books that inspire kids to explore the world around them and beyond. Jessica received honorable mention for the SCBWI 2021 Ann Whitford Paul award, took first place for her nonfiction entry in the 2021 Rate Your Story writing competition, and received honorable mention for her entries in the 2021, 2022, and 2023 50 Precious Words writing competition. When not writing, Jessica loves spending time with her family traveling, hiking, and camping. Jessica currently resides in Wisconsin.
ABOUT ANDREW HACKET
Andrew Hacket is a teacher by day, parent by night, and writer in the nooks and crannies of life. When it comes to his books, Andrew aims to create stories that tickle the funny bone and hug the heart of readers both young and old.
Andrew is the author of the early reader, CURLILOCKS AND THE THREE HARES (The Little Press, 2024) and the picture book, OLLIE, THE ACORN, AND THE MIGHTY IDEA (Page Street Kids, 2024). Additionally, his short story, THE TUNNEL, has been chosen for inclusion in the SCBWI anthology, The Haunted States of America.
Andrew lives in Massachusetts with his wife, three young children, and puppy, Gus.
Andrew is represented by Dan Cramer of Page Turner Literary.