Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast #21:
Barbara Kerley (and one really cool-lookin’ iguanodon)

h1 April 18th, 2007 by jules

7-Imp is pleased to be the inaugural stop on Barbara Kerley’s current blog tour.* This is Barbara, of course, pictured here from 2004 on a Paris stop — the Eiffel Tower’s carousel, to be exact — which was part of her trip to London to finally see Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’ dinosaurs (see below for a photo from that visit), Hawkins being the subject of one of her picture book biographies. So, yes, she’s setting aside some time this month to chat with bloggers about her new novel (and writing/life in general). The novel is called Greetings From Planet Earth (Scholastic; April 2007), and we’re here to tell ya, folks, that it looks really interesting. You can read all about it below (as well as some other forthcoming titles), since Barbara has stopped by for a cyber-visit here at 7-Imp.

We are excited to have a chance to chat with Barbara; we haven’t read the new novel yet, but we’re fans of her picture book titles . . . Barbara hit the picture book scene in 1995 with her first book, Songs of Papa’s Island (Houghton Mifflin, 1995), in which a loving mama tells her daughter of adventures and life in Guam before the daughter was born — and with illustrations by Katherine Tillotson. Songs of Papa’s Island was chosen as an ALA Notable Book and one of the New York Public Library’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing. School Library Journal wrote: “Told in a leisurely pace in simple, gently cadenced language, these personal reminiscences display a lively sense of humor and a deep appreciation and respect for nature.”

And then came the New York Times bestseller, The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins: An Illuminating History of Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins, Artist and Lecturer (the English sculptor and natural history artist renowned for his work on life-size dinosaur models; he brought us the world’s first mounted dinosaur skeleton), published by Scholastic in 2001 and with illustrations by the one and only Brian Selznick, which garnered the book a 2002 Caldecott Honor. You’ve seen this book, yes? We’re sure you have. If for some bizarre reason you haven’t, take our word for it when we say it’s one handsome book — with Kerley’s detailed research and some fine storytelling. {And, in case you missed it, Brooke at The Brookeshelf reported this past Saturday on a Selznick lecture she attended (part of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures series) and shared that he creates toy-theatre-style puppet shows in his spare time. “He created one about The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins a few years ago, which featured tiny antique cabinets containing scenes from Hawkins’ life,” she wrote. Visit here to read all about it}.

Three years later, Kerley and Selznick joined forces again to bring us another gorgeous picture book biography, Walt Whitman: Words for America (Scholastic). Here Kerley shines a light on the Walt Whitman who wrote poetry celebrating America and her people (“Unlike the popular poetry of the day, which was carefully metered and rhymed, Walt wrote poems as free-ranging as his big, robust country. More than anything, he hoped to become the voice of America”), but she also takes us with Walt to hospitals as he tried to cheer injured Civil War soldiers in an effort to do what he could to reunite the country. So, if you haven’t experienced this book either, well, drop what you’re doing and read it (just as long as you promise to return to the interview). Even the book’s very inspiration is as lovely as the book itself: Selznick — the author’s and illustrator’s notes explain — saw this photo of Walt when researching butterflies to make a medallion as a gift for Barbara. Barbara writes of the medallion (which itself was of Walt with the butterfly perched on his finger), “I was moved by the expression on Walt’s face: thoughtful, joyful, alive.” The book is a wonder — a meticulously-researched and moving tribute to Whitman — and further showed what magic Kerley and Selznick can produce when they join forces (as if anyone had actually doubted that after Waterhouse). Walt Whitman was named an American Library Association’s Robert F. Sibert Honor Book (most distinguished informational book) in 2005.

Barbara has also authored two books published by the National Geographic Society: 2002’s A Cool Drink of Water and 2005’s You and Me Together: Moms, Dads, and Kids Around the World. These are nonfiction titles with beautiful, bold, colorful full-page photographs. And while it’s true that A Cool Drink of Water is a wonderful introduction to the topic of water for classrooms (depicting people around the world collecting, chilling, and drinking water) and You and Me Together serves as a wonderful introduction to families around the world (as School Library Journal said about Water, the book’s “design and layout will allow for classroom use, group sharing, or individual reading”), they both are so much more. As Kerley has put it before, she is “interested in showing how a richly diverse world shares much in common . . .” And, because of this and as you’ll read below, she truly believes both titles are as much about tolerance as anything else. About You and Me Together, Booklist wrote, “Read sequentially, the words form a rhythmic poem about parents and children spending time together. But the richest use of the book might be reading it spread by spread, allowing the words and pictures to spark conversation between adult and child about the world beyond their own communities.” Below, Barbara discusses her next National Geographic title, A Little Peace, scheduled for a May ’07 release.

She also discusses another forthcoming nonfiction picture book biography, entitled What to do About Alice?! : How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy (Scholastic, 2008). So, let’s get right to it then and talk to Barbara a bit about these future titles as well as other stuff. Team 7-Imp thanks her kindly for stopping by!

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7-Imp: Please do tell us all about Greetings From Planet Earth.

Barbara: Back in 2002, I read an article about the 25th anniversary of the Voyager space probe launch. Both spacecraft carry a Golden Record of sounds, pictures, music, and even greetings in 55 languages, to introduce Earth to any beings in space.

The idea captivated me. What would you put on a record like that? What would you leave out? It seemed perfect to explore in a novel.

Thinking about the launch in 1977 — and the ’70s in general — brought back my childhood impressions of another major event: the Vietnam War. I had recently spent several years teaching English to veterans in a college prep program and was especially fond of the Vietnam vets I’d worked with.

So all these thoughts coalesced as I explored the novel’s theme: What does it mean to be human? The novel is set right before the Voyager probes take off. It’s about a boy working on a Voyager project for school, who starts to question why his dad never returned from Vietnam and why his mom is keeping so many secrets.

(By the way, folks who are curious to learn more about the Golden Record should check out {this page at} NASA’s web site. You can listen to the Earth sounds and greetings and see some of the pictures that were sent up. Very cool).

7-Imp: We love your National Geographic releases (You and Me Together: Moms, Dads, and Kids Around the World and A Cool Drink of Water). Can you tell us more about A Little Peace?

Barbara: Back in the ‘80s, I’d served in the Peace Corps in Nepal, and that kind of experience really teaches you how much people all around the world have in common.

When I wrote A Cool Drink of Water, I thought the book was as much about tolerance as it was about H2O. Same with You and Me, which celebrates the bond that parents and children have, all over the world.

So, I sort of felt that I had already written about peace. Twice.

But I couldn’t shake something my daughter had told me in 2002, when she was in 6th grade. I’d asked her one day if they ever talked about the war in Afghanistan during school.

She’d said, “Not much,” and then added, almost as an afterthought, “Some kids scribbled out Afghanistan in all the Social Studies books with their pencils.” And, “Sometimes out on the playground, the boys say they hope the war is still going when they’re older, so they can kick some butt.”

Both those observations really upset me. I’ve been feeling this deep need the past several years to write about peace. The day of Shock and Awe, as the bombs dropped on Baghdad, I was working up in my office, revising Walt Whitman: Words for America, about this great big soul of a man who tried to heal the country during the Civil War. Greetings from Planet Earth explores the cost of war on a soldier who fights and on the family he leaves behind. And finally, A Little Peace, a beautiful picture book with the simple theme that we all have the power to make the world more peaceful — we can all spread a little peace.

Uncle Walt (don't worry; image is officially in the public domain)7-Imp: Can you talk a bit about the extensive research that went into The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins and Walt Whitman: Words for America (which we think are just beautiful books in every way)? And can you talk a moment about what inspired you to pick those two figures as book subjects?

Barbara: I read all the primary and secondary sources I could find, scouring footnotes and bibliographies for more and more sources. I used interlibrary loan to get books and articles, some quite old. For both projects, we were helped by historians who had studied their subjects for years and were kind enough to review the manuscripts and art for accuracy. I did all my Waterhouse research at home (though Brian Selznick, the illustrator, spent many days in England, sketching the actual dinosaurs); for Walt, I traveled to Long Island and Brooklyn to see where he was born and later lived. I also got to examine one of Walt’s actual notebooks in the Rare Books Collection of the New York Public Library. That was really a thrill.

one of Waterhouse's iguanodon's at the Crystal Palace Park in Sydenham, EnglandThe inspiration for Waterhouse was seeing a drawing from 1853 of the dinner party held in the iguanodon model. As soon as I saw it, the kid in me wanted to know the story behind that picture. For Walt, it was reading an adult novel called Gob’s Grief by Chris Adrian. Although I’ve always loved Walt’s poetry, I didn’t know until I read that novel anything about Walt’s experiences in the Civil War. I immediately wanted to learn more.

{Pictured to the left here is a photo of a Waterhouse iguanodon that Barbara took in 2004 and shared with us; it’s from the Crystal Palace Park in Sydenham, England, a London suburb. Says Barbara: “The actual Crystal Palace burned to the ground in I think it was the 1930s. But luckily the dinosaurs are at the southern tip of the park, so they were spared. You can still see them today”}.

7-Imp: Were any of your books truly surprising to you in any way after the illustrator/photographer added his/her work to your text (such as, Istvan Banyai’s work in Greetings, Selznick’s work in Walt Whitman or The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, Katherine Tillotson’s work in Songs of Papa’s Island, or any of the photographers’ work in your National Geographic titles)? Do you get to choose the illustrators or photographers with whom you work?

Barbara: It’s amazing to me how much illustrations/photographs enhance a text. The final product is different than I imagine it’s going to be, but I think that’s a really good thing. A good artist or photographer brings their own sensibility to the theme and always, always enriches it.

7-Imp: Your books seem to exude a profound respect for nature. Do you actively set out for that to be a theme in your titles?

Barbara: I certainly did for two books, Songs of Papa’s Island, which is a mother introducing the wonders of a tropical island to her daughter, and Greetings from Planet Earth, which explores the theme of what makes Earth special. I know it’s something I’ll continue to write about in future titles, as well.

7-Imp: Can you tell us about any upcoming projects/projects in-the-works?

Barbara: I have another nonfiction picture book biography coming out in Spring ’08 called What To Do About Alice? It’s inspired by Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote about his daughter: “I can be President of the United States, or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both.” Hah. The book is quite funny and the art, by Edwin Fotheringham, is terrific.

Right now, I’m settling in with a new novel. Check back in a couple years and I’ll tell you how it’s going!

7-Imp: Did Apollo, Asta, and Jemima (a.k.a., you, Natasha Wing, and Mary Nethery) learn a lot when writing The Amber Baboon, and is a sequel planned? {For those not familiar, Kerley’s cat, Apollo, and her Hollywood feline friends wrote “One Serial (but not serious) Novel,” which can be read in thirty-four separate posts here}.

Barbara: Oh, absolutely. It was a great learning experience in genre writing because the book is a thrilling adventure. The plot is what I call “Go, cat, go!” from start to finish. Currently three agents are trying to place the novel and, if they succeed, I know that all three cats want to write another.

7-Imp: Do you still go outside at night to look at the stars, scuba dive, and go on Alaskan adventures? What else do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Barbara: I still love star- and moon-gazing. I haven’t scuba dove (scuba diven?) since we left Guam in 1990, mainly because the water is so cold in Northern California that you have to wear a wet suit, and also because there are lots of sharks here, which kind of freaks me out. And actually, although my web site has a picture of Anna in Alaska, I’ve never been there. (Her grandma took her on a cruise, but Scott and I were not invited!) We do all love to travel, however. We recently went to Yellowstone, which was fantastic. I have a trip planned to Philadelphia in May to research my new novel. And and and . . . we are constantly daydreaming about new trips we want to take.

7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Barbara: I’m a little afraid of horses. When I was in fourth grade, I was friends with a very nice girl named Wendy who had been bitten on the neck by her horse. She had a big pink scar and everything. I don’t just mean a little nip — you could tell from the scar that the horse had actually bitten off some of the skin. From her neck. It gave me the willies and guaranteed I’d never be a horse-crazy adolescent girl. I still like to keep about 10 feet between me and any horse I see.

7-Imp: We know it’s very possible that you already hang out with other authors, but we’re still curious: If you could have three (living) authors over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Barbara: Oh man, it’s hard to pick just three. But I’d have to say: Andrea Barrett, who wrote what has been my favorite book for years, The Voyage of the Narwhal. She does wondrous things with the history of science. Margaret Atwood, because she is so darn sly. J.K. Rowling, because maybe if she drank enough of that rich, red wine, she would tell me what’s going to happen in HP7.

7-Imp: Is there a question you wish interviewers would ask you but don’t? If so, feel free to ask and answer here.

Barbara: Sure. “Is there anyplace folks can go to learn more about your books?”

My website has a section called “For the Classroom” that has fun ideas for teachers and homeschoolers. Also, for the month of April, there’s more information about Greetings from Planet Earth posted on the Scholastic trade books homepage.

7-Imp: We like to pose to people the The Pivot Questionnaire, since who knew that asking someone, say, what their favorite sound or noise is could tell you so much about them. So here goes:

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Barbara: How about I skip the curse word . . . and, in exchange, I will tell you THREE of my favorite words:

“Discombobulate,” partly because it sounds like popcorn popping and also because I think it’s funny that you never hear the inverse, as in, “I am feeling very combobulated this morning.”

“Oublier” (“to forget”), which I learned helping my daughter with her French vocabulary, because it starts with the sound “oo” and because it’s the kind of word I can imagine a diction coach making you say with your mouth full of marbles.

Finally, there’s “raisinesque,” which is the way my husband, a very practical engineer, recently described a bowl of grapes that had been sitting on the counter a few days too many. (Isn’t that great? We’ve been married 20 years, and yet he still surprises me from time to time.)

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Barbara: “Zit.” It grosses me out.

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Barbara: Things that are surprising and unexpected. People who follow their passion, especially when it takes them someplace out of the ordinary. Historic neighborhoods. Great art museums.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Barbara: You know when you’re in the grocery store and you see some parent being really mean-spirited with their kid — sarcastic or negative or slappy or just plain small and hard? I really hate that.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word?

Barbara: (See above!)

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Barbara: I like happy food sounds, like Coke poured over ice cubes or milk hitting a bowl of Rice Krispies.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Barbara: I’m not a big fan of whining.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Barbara: A chef in a very cool vegetarian restaurant, the kind of place where they put flowers in the salad.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Barbara: Driving an airport shuttle van in a major metropolitan area.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Barbara: “Oh, good. I’ve been waiting to meet you.”

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For more information:

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* If you’re interested in following the rest of Barbara’s blog tour, she’ll be visiting the following blogs and chatting with the following ladies in the near future:

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7 comments to “Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast #21:
Barbara Kerley (and one really cool-lookin’ iguanodon)”

  1. Excellent! I really enjoyed “Greetings..” and am always glad to get background on an author (but am occasionally too scattered to get around to it).

    Another good-on-you, guys.


  2. I’m a writer friend of Barb’s and I learned new things about her from your interview! Excellent job asking interesting questions. And Barb, I’m always amazed at the ideas you come up with for books. P.S. Cute picture on the carousel!


  3. What an engaging interview, Barb, And such a lovely presentation, 7-Imp! Thought I knew all about you, Barb, but did not know of your equinaphobia! Each of your books is so tenderly nurtured by you, it’s no wonder each one is such a jewel.


  4. What an interesting woman! Thanks for this interview. I’m not familiar with her books and will certainly take a look for them now.


  5. Great interview! I’ll be hosting Barbara at the end of the month and it was great to get to know her better. LIke David, I really enjoyed “Greetings.”

    Jules and Eisha–you two really rock the interview!


  6. […] over at Kirkus, I write about two (relatively) new biographies, Barbara Kerley’s A Home for Mr. Emerson (Scholastic, February 2014), illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, and Susan […]


  7. […] week, I wrote here about two new biographies, Barbara Kerley’s A Home for Mr. Emerson (Scholastic, February 2014), illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, and Susan […]


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