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  • Writer's pictureMary Boone

Six Questions with Elizabeth Shreeve

Elizabeth Shreeve grew up in a family of writers and scientists. After studying geology, working in the field of landscape architecture, and raising three sons, she now writes children’s books that celebrate the origins and diversity of life on Earth. Elizabeth is the author of The Upside-Down Book of Sloths (Norton Young Readers) and the award-winning Out of the Blue: How Animals Evolved from Prehistoric Seas (Candlewick). Upcoming books include Dinosaurs to Dragons: The Lore and Science of Mythical Animals (Atheneum). Elizabeth lives in northern California with her family. Find her on social media @ShreeveBooks, visit her website, or check out her YouTube channel.

1. How did you begin your journey as an author?

Hi, thanks for including me on Six Questions! Like most writers, I started as a reader—a dreamy, quiet child with my nose in a book. Reading drew me into worlds of fantasy or whimsy. I loved the Oz series, the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories. Biographies, too. My mother and I read poetry together, which gave me a taste for the rhythm of words. And I distinctly remember the corner of library where the Nancy Drew books waited! I grew into an avid, eclectic reader, and my husband and I read constantly to our children when they were little. When my mom died suddenly, in 2000, I found a way through grief by creating stories she would have enjoyed.

2. How do you know your idea will make a good book?

There’s a thrill of excitement—an actual physical tingling—when a good idea hits. The most promising ones feel like books I would have gobbled up as a child or my kids would have loved. Next comes the due diligence phase. I comb Amazon, AbeBooks, Publishers Weekly, and the library catalog to see what’s been published and what’s coming up. I run ideas past writing group friends and my agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette. Then, if signs look promising and I’m still excited, I start learning about the topic and doodling ideas. A book project will take many months or even years, so it’s important to be selective. For me, only a small percentage of ideas turn into completed manuscripts. And realistically, I know that only a few of those will be acquired for publication.

3. How do you divide your time between research and writing?

I dive into research and swim around for a good, long time. That’s why I love being a nonfiction writer—I get to learn about the history of Earth, the diversity of life, the human story. I enjoy reaching out to scientists and other experts, visiting museums and fossil sites, or delving into art collections. Along the way, a storyline begins to emerge. At first it’s an outline, like a wire framework that’s sturdy enough to hang clothes on but flexible, too. Then at some point, along come the actual words. The balance shifts gradually from research to writing, a back-and-forth process with no firm edges. I’m still checking details when reviewing final pages!

4. If you could tell readers one secret about The Upside-Down Book of Sloths, what would it be?

The original illustrator was the amazing Steve Jenkins. His collage-style artwork, not to mention his rigorous, research-based approach to nature and science, made a huge impact on nonfiction books for children. Sadly, Steve passed away suddenly in December 2021. What a loss to all of us! From a selfish perspective, Steve had barely started sketches for the book and I feared that the project would fall by the wayside. Norton Young Readers, however, assembled portfolios from three other artists. We reviewed them together and agreed on Isabella Grott. Her illustrations are quite different than Steve’s would have been, but they’re lovely (those sweet sloth faces!). A lesson here, I guess, is that book projects can go through lots of ups and downs. Hang in there!

5. How was the editorial process? Did you do any revisions? If it’s a picture book, did you have a lot of collaboration with the illustrator?

Revisions to this book mostly involved layout and design, something I’m familiar with after many years in a design office. I structured the manuscript with six pairings, each with a modern tree sloth and a prehistoric sloth, plus sidebars. As a result, I crammed WAY too much onto each page. The sketch dummy was a hot mess! My editor and I worked to simplify layouts and move information to separate spreads. Layout is a critical aspect of picture books, especially with nonfiction books for older kids where the information is complex and layered. Sometimes it’s better to have less on the page, no matter how much you want to include more cool facts! I also provided comments on more developed artwork, hoping for more color. Sloths are a bit drab, after all—but rainforest butterflies and flowers are bright and beautiful!

6. What are you working on? What’s next for you?

It’s a busy time! I’m deep into writing a middle grade nonfiction book, Dinosaurs to Dragons: The Lore and Science of Mythical Animals, coming out from Atheneum in 2025 with illustrations by Violeta Encarnacion. The concept popped into my head over five years ago, inspired by a cast-off book at a library sale. It’s the most challenging, research-heavy project I’ve attempted—and it has changed me as a person, stretching my understanding of history, culture, geography, mythology, and science. Other books are on their way, too! Norton Young Readers will publish The Oddball Book of Armadillos in Fall 2024, with more lovely art from Isabella Grott, followed by Fast Feet, Big Brains: The Story of Human Origins, with illustrations by Juan Carlos Alonso. And a short, rhyming picture book, On an Ocean Journey, comes out from Sasquatch Books in 2025 with gorgeous artwork by Ray Troll.

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1 Comment

Joy Moore
Joy Moore
Nov 28, 2023

I learned a lot from this interview!

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