Back in 1991-92, I sent a list of ideas to an editor at HarperCollins. I desperately wanted to write a book in their Let's Read And Find Out Science series because my sons loved those books. The editors liked one of my ideas, but what they really wanted me to do was to write a book about butterfly metamorphosis. I loved the idea. The first book I checked out of my elementary school library was What is a Butterfly (as I've written about before). But when it came time to write my own book, I had to search for a way in. I needed to find the story, the narrative thread. I knew I wanted to have a child or children in the book because I witnessed my own sons' wonder at the natural world every day. How great it would be to have the book show that as well as the actual beauty of metamorphosis. I thought of setting it in a backyard, a child watching metamorphosis in nature. But I knew how hard that is real life, and I didn't want to set the kids up for failure.
Then it occurred to me: The year before, in nursery school, my son's class had watched caterpillars turn into Painted Lady butterflies. Not only that, but they had kept a journal. I dug out the journal and realized it was a perfect way in. In my book, From Caterpillar to Butterfly, a class of kids (age indeterminate because it turns out teachers do this with classes from preschool to third grade) watches the magic of metamorphosis. When I wrote the book this way I was not being savvy or smart, tying the book to the curriculum, giving teachers a way to use a book with a hands-on activity. I was just writing a nonfiction story. But boy did it work. That book is still in print after lo these many years, it was just made into a Big Book, and let's just say if all my books did this well I'd be writing this from a villa in Tuscany.
Why has this book been such a success? Because teachers find it extremely useful to help them teach. Many teachers use it in conjunction with a hands-on butterfly unit. They order the Painted Lady caterpillars and as they watch the process, the book enhances and then reinforces what the children learn. Teachers who don't have the budget or the time (sad, sad) to do the actual project use the book because it's the next best thing. And the children learn about the process of metamorphosis by Being There, even if they're not.
I had no idea back then that I was creating a useful teaching tool. Now, of course, this is the kind of thing we all think about when we write our nonfiction books. How can teachers use them in the classroom? How can we make a teacher's job easier and more fun? How can we help teachers bring the joy of learning to their children? I have tried to do that with every nonfiction book since then--from my other science books like Honeybees to my Holidays Around the World series.
I tell children in school visits that whenever they read a book they should know that the author was thinking of them when she wrote the book. I would like to tell teachers the same thing: we think of you, too.
Please let us know what more we can do to help.