I’m excited to introduce you to Anna Forrester, Philadelphia-based writer, adventurer, and science enthusiast. Between years spent teaching, designing landscapes for play, and writing for kids, Anna brings a uniquely well-rounded perspective to children’s lit. Some Eastern Penn Points readers may know Anna from her blog Hmmmmm which is linked in the blogroll at right. But I’m especially happy to give Anna the chance to talk about her debut picture book, BAT COUNT, publishing on February 10 with Abordale Publishing.
Rachel Dougherty: Hi Anna! Congratulations on the upcoming book birthday for BAT COUNT! How did this project come about?
Anna Forrester: Hi Rachel! And congrats on everything YOU have going on—which hopefully you can share soon!
In 2009 my family bought a farm in central Pennsylvania. It included a falling-down barn inhabited by a colony of bats. This was right around the time that reports of White Nose Syndrome—which has now killed about 6 million bats in the US—were showing up in the news, and I read about a citizen science project called The Appalachian Bat Count which was trying to track bat colonies to help understand the disease. My family decided to get involved.
As for Jojo, she has a bit of me in her and a bit of one of my kids. We both are hyper-aware of the massive ecological changes that human activity has wrought, and of the reality of this period of mass extinctions that humans have triggered and are now living through. It is a heavy burden, and writing BAT COUNT felt like a small way to make a difference in the face of it all, and to give voice to the hopes and fears that come with all this worry.
RD: How did you go about researching bats? What was the most interesting thing you discovered while you were gathering facts?
AF: I did a lot of research online; because of how delicate they are, actually holding and working with bats requires special training that I don’t have.
One of the coolest things I learned is that bats mate in the fall, and females store the sperm through hibernation, only becoming pregnant in spring when they wake up. I like to imagine that they have enough reproductive control that they can decided in the spring whether they want to go through with it or not—though I may be projecting a little bit there.
Also: I knew that bats in North America eat a lot of bugs, including ones that can be harmful to humans and crops, but I didn’t know that fruit-eating bats in more temperate climates actually have this totally cool ecological role of pollinating and spreading seeds for all sorts of cool rainforest plants—basically re-foresting the rain forest!
RD: Can you tell us a little about citizen science? Have you ever reported any findings to local scientists?
AF: Citizen science is a way regular people like you and me can help professional scientists do their jobs. Doing citizen science may mean gathering data, or may mean going online and doing tasks that would otherwise take too long or be too hard for scientists to do alone. Anyone can be a citizen scientist, and it is a great way for kids and adults to learn and do science. Scistarter is a great place to find cool citizen science projects.
RD: Creating more diversity in the picture book world is such an important movement right now – can you talk a little bit about the importance of inclusion in BATCOUNT?
AF: The limited representation of people of color in picture books—African Americans in particular—and the degree of stereotyping that exists in what is out there, is a problem if you believe—as I do—that all kids should be able to find both “windows” and “mirrors” in the books they read. I’m especially aware of this living in a city that is 44% African American. (I’ve written a lot about the overall issue here and here on my blog, Hmmmmm. And here, I also talk about how Jojo and her family, in BAT COUNT, ended up being a family of color.)
RD: What are some of your favorite picture books right now, nonfiction or otherwise?
AF: I love the classics. I will never outgrow CAPS FOR SALE, and the magic of that one, pivotal page turn where the hats disappear. And in my thinking and my writing, all roads somehow seem to always lead back to THIS IS NOT MY HAT: again, killer page turns, but also I love love love books that incorporate ambiguity in smart, thoughtful ways.
RD: What made you start writing for children?
AF: Right after college, I started teaching, and I went back to get my Masters Degree in Early Childhood Education at a place called Bank Street College. When it came time to select a thesis topic, I discovered that writing and researching a children’s book was an option. I jumped on that, and wrote my first book then. Then I didn’t try again for almost 20 years!
RD: What was it like to see your words brought to life by Susan Detwiler? How do the images compare to what you’d imagined?
AF: One of the weirdest things about seeing Susan’s first sketches was how much they looked like our place in Central PA. It was kind of spooky. And then there was the dog, which was totally Susan’s idea and which was a GREAT inclusion: a kid like Jojo, who loves animals and whose parents are so busy with two younger siblings, would definitely want to have a dog.
RD: If you could have lunch with any writer (living or dead), who would it be and why? And what would you eat?
AF: I would like to have lunch with Richard Peck. The voice of his YEAR DOWN YONDER books is so fantastic. I would invite Kate DiCamillo—just so I could listen to her awesome laugh—and Jean Craighead George because she would have amazing stories to tell. Oh, and E.B. White—definitely E.B. White.
It’s funny that they are all Middle Grade writers—I guess I imagine a dinner to be about talking and listening, not looking at pictures. So I’m automatically imagining great voices.
As for food, in this weather I’d make a big pot of cream of broccoli soup and get a loaf of bread from my favorite, defunct Philly bakery (assuming dead bakeries are acceptable here too): Breaking Bread (RIP). Nothing too complicated.
RD: What is your favorite word?
AF: I don’t think I could possibly pick just one. But I do have a favorite name that I’ve been holding on to for a while, and that someday I hope to work into a story: Eli Buckalew. (Plucked from a tombstone.)
RD: Do you listen to music while you’re working? If so, what’s your favorite work soundtrack?
AF: I end up listening to miscellaneous classical and piano music, or Amalia Rodriquez (I like Fado) – only music without lyrics, or that’s in a language I don’t speak. Lyrics distract me.
RD: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new and exciting?
AF: I have a bunch of projects in the works—I’m a bit like a short order chef, with lots of pans on the fire at once. Most akin to this book, though, is a project I’m working on about fairy shrimp, which are these cool little freshwater critters that have been around since dinosaur times, and which you can only find in vernal pools (which are cool in and of themselves).
RD: Do you have any writing advice that you’d like to share with aspiring authors/illustrators?
AF: Learn to manage your distractions, and just write. Every day. Which sounds like the easiest thing in the world but is actually the hardest.
Rachel Dougherty illustrates and writes picture books in Philadelphia. See her illustration work here (http://www.racheldougherty.com/). Her debut works as an author and author/illustrator will be released in 2018 by Simon Spotlight and Roaring Brook Press. Follow her on Twitter @R_dougherty for updates.