Saturday, March 6, 2010

Interview with UNDER THE SNOW author, Melissa Stewart

KN: You did a fantastic job of including a wide variety of animals in all four of the habitats. You’ve been exploring nature for most of your life. Would you please describe an encounter or a real-life observation you’ve had with one of these animals?

MS: At a recent school visit, a boy raised his hand as I was discussing the page that shows red-spotted newts swimming just below the icy surface of a pond. “That’s a magic picture!” he exclaimed. It turns out at that school, teachers uses the term “magic picture” to describe a book illustration that also appears on the cover. I love that.

I told the students, for me, the newt image was a magic picture for another reason. They are the little critters that inspired the book. A few years ago, as I was hiking on a winter day, I saw newts swimming below the ice. They looked just like Constance Bergum’s beautiful illustration. Those real-life newts made me curious. I started wondering what other creatures do under the snow all winter long. How any of them stay active. I did some research to find out, and eventually, my findings developed into Under the Snow.

KN: How does a wood frog freeze solid and still survive?

MS: Incredible isn’t it. For a great explanation, check out this video: Please note, the last couple of seconds may not be appropriate for all young viewers.

Believe it or not, wood frogs aren’t the only critters that freeze in the winter. Check out Bugs and Bugsicles by Amy S. Hansen (Boyds Mills Press, 2010). You’ll love this book, and so will your students.

KN: When teachers instruct writing, they talk about the importance of word choice. UNDER THE SNOW has many strong verbs such as dodge, dart, whiz, and whirl. How do you choose the best words for your stories?

MS: I really wanted the text for Under the Snow to be lyrical and one of the ways to achieve that is through careful word choice, including the strong, active verbs you’ve mentioned. Studies have shown that certain sounds and combinations of sounds are particularly pleasing to the human auditory system. That’s why a writer’s tool box includes devices like alliteration, repetition, and the occasional rhyme.

When it comes to word choice, one of the most talented science writers for kids in April Pulley Sayre. The text of books like Vulture View and Home at Last is truly magical. I think all students—and all writing teachers—should read and study her books closely.

Writing lyrical text takes a lot of time and effort and trial and error. I have heard Newbery-medalist Linda Sue Park say that writers shouldn’t be afraid to play. They should experiment, try writing the same scene or passage a few different ways. Then see which one works best. I agree with her.

For me, writing a lyrical picture book is what award-winning nature writer Diane Ackerman calls “deep play.” Athletes sometimes call it “being in the zone.” I can get completely lost in the process for hours.

On really good days, I sit down at my computer at 7:00 a.m., when my husband leaves for work. The next thing I know, it’s 2:00 p.m. and I never ate lunch. The reason I was pulled out of “the zone” is because my stomach is growling. These days don’t happen very often, so I treasure them when they do.

KN: Just like the animals and the children in your story, we’re getting ready for spring in New England. What will you do outside to celebrate spring’s arrival?

MS: My husband and I go hiking just about every weekend. One of the things I like the most about living in New England is seeing the seasonal changes in the natural world. Sometimes they happen so, so slowly. Sometimes they seem to catapult out of control.

My husband says it’s spring on March 1. But for me, spring doesn’t really start until I see the trees leaf out. That usually happens in mid to late April.

KN: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

MS: Kate, I really think this blog is a fantastic resource for educators. You always come up with creative, practical activities to accompany the books you feature. I feel privileged to be included. Thanks for all your hard work.

KN: Thanks Melissa! I feel the same way about your blog Celebrate Science and your books. Our principal, Sean O'Shea, has been posting blurbs from a study which demonstrated that it is more difficult for children to comprehend and analyze non-fiction texts than fiction texts. Your books are accessible, entertaining, and provide great information for your readers. Thanks again for the interview.


  1. Hi, there is one problem with the video, hard of hearing/deaf people cannot watch it - no captions!

    Please include a brief synopsis for those of us that can't view it. We would love to know the answer!

    FYI, there are over 20 million hard of hearing/deaf people in North America.

  2. Hi Charmed,

    Thanks for your comment. Here's the synopsis you asked for: The video takes place in southern Ohio.

    Wood frogs can be found as far north as the Arctic Circle. When the first ice crystals touch the frog, a biological reaction occurs within the frog. Almost all of the water inside the frog's body pools around its organs. Then the water freezes and the organs are encased in ice. At the same time, the frog produces a sugary substance that acts as an antifreeze which keeps its cells from freezing. At this point the frog is not breathing, has no kidney function, and its heart is not beating. They stay frozen anywhere from days to months. After the thaw, it takes the wood frog about 10 hours to warm up.

    At the very end of the video, they mention that the frog will mate right after it thaws. This is the part that might not be suitable for young viewers.

    I hope this helps. You might enjoy reading Rocky Road by Rose Kent. One of the central characters is an eight-year-old boy who is also hard of hearing.

    Best wishes,
    Kate Narita