interview by Anne-Marie Strohman
I met Evan Griffith while I was a student at the Vermont College of Fine Arts program in writing for children and young adults. He was a semester or two ahead of me, and he struck me as thoughtful, engaging, and a champion for books that reach kid readers. His debut picture book, SECRETS OF THE SEA: THE STORY OF JEANNE POWER, REVOLUTIONARY MARINE BIOLOGIST, is all of those things–thoughtful, engaging, and aimed squarely at child readers. (See some beautiful spreads here.) I was eager to know more about how Evan accomplished all this, as well as how he approached writing a non-fiction picture book, especially one where the research wasn’t always straightforward. Read on for an insightful look into writing for children. –Anne-Marie
KidLit Craft: What inspired you to write SECRETS OF THE SEA? How did you discover Jeanne Power?
Evan Griffith: During my time in the Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I decided to try my hand at writing nonfiction. I was a book editor specializing in nonfiction at the time but had always thought of myself as a fiction writer.
Looking for a place to start, I took inspiration from a literary magazine for children that had put out a call for submissions for essays about lesser-known inventors from history. I found an article online crediting Jeanne Villepreux-Power with pioneering the use of aquariums for scientific study of marine animals. This piqued my interest—I’ve always been fascinated by the ocean and as a kid I wanted to be a marine biologist. But what really drew me into her story was the fact that she had lost a great deal of her research in a shipwreck—the dramatic twist of a marine biologist losing her work to the sea convinced me that there was a compelling story to be told here.
The more I researched Jeanne, the more captivated I became with her life and her work. I wrote her story first as an essay, but my VCFA advisor at the time wisely suggested that I adapt it into a picture book biography. I’m glad she did!
KLC: The book begins with a specific moment–Jeanne barefoot in the sand on her first day in Sicily. What drew you to that moment? Why start here?
EG: You can’t cover everything in a picture book biography—you have to hone in on a central idea about your subject’s life. For me, it was Jeanne’s curiosity about the ocean and how she satisfied it. And that particular story really begins when she moved to Sicily and lived by the ocean for the first time.
So, with that opening moment, I wanted to establish a connection between Jeanne and the sea that the rest of the book goes on to explore more deeply.
I also wanted to start with a single, sensory-rich moment to draw readers into the story. I wanted readers to hear the waves lapping the beach and smell the salt-tinged air.
KLC: You use questions at a number of key points in the manuscript–at the beginning (page 3), “What would she do? Who would she become?”; then as she decides she wants to study sea creatures, “But how could Jeanne study animals that live where humans can’t even breathe?”; and again after her research is destroyed, “Without her research, who would believe her?” How did you decide to use questions and where to put them?
EG: The questions serve a couple of purposes. They invite readers to ponder the same things that Jeanne was likely pondering at different moments in her life, so my hope is that they help readers feel close to Jeanne.
But the questions also encourage readers to keep turning the pages to find the answers! That’s why some spreads end with questions—to make the page turn irresistible. With any picture book, page turns are super important.
KLC: I love the note you include in the back matter about how research can lead to discovering different versions of events or history. Why did you choose to include this for young readers?
EG: During the research process, I found some contradictory accounts of Jeanne’s life—in particular, there was disagreement about when she lost her work in the shipwreck. I found compelling evidence, including shipping records, to support the timeline that’s reflected in the book, and I’m confident in it, even though it disagrees with some accounts of Jeanne’s life online.
I wanted to acknowledge this discrepancy for young readers and let them know how I arrived at my timeline, because I think it’s really important to be transparent about facts and the conclusions that we draw from them.
I also wanted to point out the challenges of researching historical figures and events, because this is something kids will have to do a lot in school!
KLC: I met you at VCFA’s Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program. Why did you decide to go that route, and what did you gain from the program?
EG: I had been writing for years before I went to VCFA, but I was feeling a bit aimless about it, and I wanted a structured program that would give me specific goals and help me prioritize my writing. The VCFA program totally did that, but more importantly, it pulled me into a super wonderful writing community.
It also encouraged me to explore lots of different forms and genres. I went into the program thinking I was exclusively a middle-grade fiction writer; I left the program with a YA manuscript, multiple picture books, some poetry, stories in verse, and more! It really expanded my creative horizons.
KLC: What one piece of advice would you like to give to aspiring PB authors?
EG: This isn’t specific to PB writers, but I would just say to any writer: Be kind to yourself and your drafts. Many writers, myself included, struggle with self-criticism or perfectionism, so I try to give myself this advice daily. First drafts can and should be messy. Second and third and seventh drafts, too. There is beauty in the mess. Writing is mostly re-writing. When you’re feeling discouraged, reach out to some writer friends for support. Seek community. (I guess this is more than one piece of advice!)
KLC: What do you feel you’ve gained from being a part of the children’s writing community?
EG: To echo my advice above—writing can be a lonely endeavor, so it’s critical to find community. I’m lucky to have met so many amazing folks through VCFA and through the local children’s writing community in Austin, Texas, where I moved last year. My writer friends and critique partners are a constant source of inspiration, motivation, and support. One of my favorite things about this line of work is getting to buy copies of my friends’ books when they come out!
KLC: What can Evan Griffith fans look forward to? And where can they find you?
EG: My debut middle-grade novel, MANATEE SUMMER, releases summer 2022. It takes place across one transformational summer in the life of an 11-year-old boy named Peter. His goal for his last summer before middle school is to finish the Discovery Journal, a catalogue of all the animal species that he can find in his central Florida town.
But his summer doesn’t go exactly as planned—he soon finds himself taking care of his ailing grandfather, facing the loss of a friendship that means the world to him, and finding an injured manatee in a canal. As Peter navigates lots of changes that he never saw coming, he also finds his voice to speak up on behalf of manatees and all animals. This story is very close to my heart and I’m really excited to share it with readers.
Evan Griffith is the author of Secrets of the Sea: The Story of Jeanne Power, Revolutionary Marine Scientist (Clarion, 2021) and Manatee Summer, a middle-grade novel forthcoming from Quill Tree/Harper in 2022. He studied creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and received his MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
He worked for several years as an editor at Workman Publishing, where he specialized in non-fiction for children and adults, and he continues to edit books on a freelance basis. Through his role as the youth programming specialist at The Writing Barn, a creative writing education center, he also teaches online writing classes for kids. He lives in Austin, Texas with a mischievous tuxedo cat and several overflowing bookshelves.
For more from Evan on KidLit Craft, check out his contribution to our SIDEWRITING TAKEOVER:
For a great tutorial on creating backmatter for non-fiction picture books, check out this post:
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.