Written with a lively, playful voice, Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers introduces young readers to a variety of “animal underdogs” and explains how characteristics that might seem like weaknesses are critical for finding food and staying safe in an eat-or-be-eaten world. Author Melissa Stewart answers some questions about her inspiration for the book, as well as her research and processes for writing nonfiction for children.
Q: When did your passion for nature start? Did you spend a lot of time exploring the outdoors as a child?
A: Yes. My parents owned 10 acres of land on one side of the street, and there was a national forest on the other side. We had a meadow and a stream and all the woods a child could ever want. My brother and I spent most of our childhood playing outdoors. It’s probably no surprise that I became a science writer, and he became a wetlands specialist and environmental consultant.
Q: You’ve written more than 190 nonfiction books about science for children. How do you continue coming up with fresh, original ideas?
A: Ideas are everywhere. Every time I see or hear or read something new, I ask questions, and new book ideas emerge. The trick is figuring out which ones have the most potential and then keeping track of them.
I have an idea board in my office. When it’s time to start a new book, I look at all the scraps of paper with ideas scrawled on them and pick the one that excites me the most.
Q: What inspired Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers?
A: I’ve been fascinated by animal superlatives for as long as I can remember. After all, who doesn’t admire the world’s biggest, fastest, strongest creatures? But in early 2013, I began thinking about anti-superlatives—the smallest, slowest, weakest animals. Maybe I could write a book about them.
One morning, I woke up with the beginning of the book in my head and ran to my notebook. Later, as I typed the text into a computer file, I realized that this wasn’t going to be just an anti-superlative book. It was going to be an anti-bullying book too. And to write it, I’d have to revisit some painful parts of my childhood. This was going to be a book only I could write, but it would come at a price, and that scared me. So I shut the file.
Six months later, I convinced myself to just add some research notes to the file. I wasn’t writing. I was just assembling information. Eventually, I could see that all the pieces were falling into place, and I finally felt brave enough to write the ending. I was committed.
After finishing the middle of the book, I shared “Smallest, Slowest, Weakest” with my writing group. They pointed out plenty of problems, but author-illustrator Steve Anderson saw my vision clearly and gave me an incredible gift—the title Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers.
In December 2014, I did a week of school visits in Summit, NJ. Each day after school, I dug into the manuscript. All that time with no distractions really paid off. By the time I went home, the manuscript was ready for submission.
Q: Do you have a favorite animal underdog?
A: I was a clumsy, uncoordinated, unathletic kid, so the western fence lizard is kind of my hero. See how its “weakness” helps it catch prey? Let’s face it. Eating is pretty important if you want to stay alive, and this lizard has come up with a completely unique way to get the job done.
Q: How did you approach research for this book?
A: It’s not hard to identify animals that are small or slow or lazy (sleep a lot), but it’s much trickier to pinpoint animals that are shy or clumsy or odd looking. To find all the examples I needed, I did a TON of general reading about animal behavior with the underdog lens in mind. Over time, the perfect candidates slowly merged.
Q: What does your writing process look like?
A: It’s different for every book. Since I knew the hook of this book (anti-superlatives/animal underdogs) very early in the process, and the beginning and voice came to me in a flash, the biggest challenges were flow, rhythm, and pacing, which are all interrelated.
First, I needed to answer a few key questions:
- How many animals should I include in the book?
- Which underdog traits warranted multiple animal examples and which needed only one?
- In what order should the animals/traits be presented? What was the underlying logic of the flow?
Initially, I made decisions based on these questions on my own. But with the expert guidance of my editor, Vicky Holifield, and I thought about them more deeply as we refined the manuscript.
Since we wanted to keep the fabulous title Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers, we decided that the first half of the book would focus on ways animals use their perceived weaknesses to avoid enemies. The second half would highlight animals that use their underdog traits to get food and/or survive in their habitat. I created a chart to help me stay on track. Once this big-picture revision was done, I focused on close revision—looking at every single word in an effort to be as precise as possible while maintaining the playful voice.
My favorite piece of art is the back cover. I don’t think there has ever been a picture book with an animal group portrait that showed the fronts of the animal’s bodies on the front cover and the backs of their bodies on the back cover. It’s ingenious. I also love that the naked mole rats are collecting the lines in the bar code, as if they’re sticks to eat. That’s hilarious!
Q: This book has a subtle but important message of understanding and celebrating differences. Was this message something that drove your creative process from the start, or did the message develop over time while writing the book?
A: It was there from the start. In a recent article, children’s book author Laura Purdie Salas says: “…there’s a common, crushing misconception that fiction is creative writing drawn from the depths of a writer’s soul, while nonfiction is simply a recitation of facts that any basic robot could spit out. The reality is very different. I think my personality, my beliefs, and my experiences are deeply embedded in the books I end up writing.”
I couldn’t agree more! Even though the information in Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers is presented in a fun way, the book’s central nugget, its creative core is serious. I was severely bullied as a child, and this book is my way of offering hope to children who might be facing something similar right now.
Everyday across America, children get picked on for being small or slow or shy or overweight or clumsy, but sometimes these perceived flaws turn out to be a core part of what makes them successful adults. Using examples from the animal world, I encourage children to flip their thinking, and to be kind to one another.
Q: You are a big supporter of children reading various forms of nonfiction writing. Why is it important for young readers to be exposed to a wide variety of nonfiction?
A: Most people who choose to be children’s librarians and literacy educators value and connect strongly with stories and storytelling. And it’s natural for them to assume that all young readers feel the same way. But a growing body of research shows that about 42 percent of elementary students prefer expository nonfiction over fiction and narrative nonfiction. An additional 33 percent enjoy narrative and expository texts equally. If we want students to thrive as readers, we need to give them access to the kinds of books they’re most likely to fall in love with. That’s why every classroom and school library should include a rich, diverse selection of narrative and expository books.
Q: In an article for School Library Journal, you map out five different categories of nonfiction. Which category would Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers fall into?
It’s expository literature. The book highlights a narrowly-focused STEM concept (how body features and behaviors help an animal survive) and has an expository writing style. It’s a list book with a compare and contrast text structure; a lively, lighthearted voice that frequently incorporates direct address; and rich language, such as vivid verbs, playful nouns, alliteration, metaphors, internal rhyme, and onomatopoeia.
Q: What are some ways educators can use your book in the classroom?
A: I’ve created a meaty Teacher’s Guide as well as a Readers Theater to accompany Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers. The Teacher’s Guide includes an animal survival activity that supports the Next Generation Science Standards and language arts activities that focus on text features, point of view in nonfiction writing, and how authors and illustrators interact to create nonfiction art that is beautiful and accurate.
Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers will be at your local library, indie bookstore, or Barnes & Noble September 1! Check out the book trailer, Teacher’s Guide, Readers Theater, and Meet the Animal Underdogs: Vital Stats and Map resources.