Six Questions with Annette Bay Pimentel
Annette Bay Pimentel writes award-winning nonfiction books for kids about the people and ideas that have shaped our world. Her book All the Way to the Top won a Schneider Honor, and her new book, Before Music: Where Instruments Come From, comes out this week. When she’s not digging into archives, pounding away at her treadmill desk, or teaching nonfiction writing for McDaniel College, she quilts (crookedly), gardens (occasionally), and helps administer her library as an elected Library Trustee. She lives in Moscow, Idaho. You can learn more about Annette and her books by visiting her website.
1. When do you write?
I work on my writing every day, but I define that broadly. Sometimes I’m actually putting words to paper or revising. Sometimes I’m researching. Sometimes I’m promoting my books or doing school visits. Sometimes I’m reading other nonfiction picture books. Sometimes I’m critiquing friends’ writing.
2. Where do you write?
About 10 years ago I jerry-rigged a treadmill desk by disassembling an IKEA desk and pairing it with a cast-off treadmill. I’ve never looked back. Now I can’t imagine writing without walking. I’ve only convinced two other people to adopt a treadmill desk, but I can’t figure out why everyone doesn’t do it.
3. What one piece of advice would you like to give to aspiring kidlit authors?
Read many, many recently published books in the genre you want to write. Reading critically will teach you as much as any conference session or university class could.
4. Where did you get the idea for Before Music?
I have six children, and they all took music lessons growing up. At one point we had a family combo of two violins, a cello, and a bass. One of our violin teachers often talked to our daughter about the material that her violin and bow were made from. She had even planted a maple tree in her yard in honor of violins!
In 2014, I attended a conference about writing nonfiction for children. On the plane ride home I brainstormed nonfiction topics that interested me and thought about how fascinating I had found everything that violin teacher told us. In between packets of peanuts and sips of soda, I wrote several stanzas of a rhyming text about the materials a violin is made of. That was the beginning of this book.
5. What was the process or timeline for this book, from idea to publishing?
The rhyming text I wrote on the plane didn’t feel substantial enough to make a book, but I liked it. So I tucked it away.
Four years later I presented at the National Council of Social Studies. I attended lots of sessions at the conference, too, and loved them all. These, I realized, were my people: fascinated, just like I am, by the ways we humans build culture and society. I’d never before heard anyone claim to be a children’s social studies writer, but I decided that’s how I’d think of myself.
So on the plane ride home, I started brainstorming ideas connected to branches of social studies. When I got to geography, I recalled that rhyming text about violins that I’d written on another airplane. It occurred to me for the first time that I wasn’t really fascinated so much by how violins are made as I am by the idea that people are driven to use the natural materials where they live to make music.
That was a substantial enough idea for a book.
I ditched the rhyme—I’m not very good at verse!—and wrote a spare text with a voluminous back matter. Editor Courtney Code of Abrams saw the manuscript and proposed we make the back matter into the book. In the end, we kept a spare narrative line running throughout the book and paired it with lots of pages of supplemental material.
The book is oversized, 80 pages long, and highly illustrated. Madison Safer did an amazing job with the very, very, very many illustrations. I love her charming folk style. Our book will be out in the world this week!
6. Who should read this book?
Publisher’s Weekly calls Before Music a “reference picture book,” which I think is a good description: you can read it as a picture book with younger children, skipping the supplemental stuff; or older kids who love facts can dive into all the details.