Eliza Wheeler is deep into a project, so I’m filling in to bring you an interview with the delightful Marfé Ferguson Delano. Marfé is the award-winning author of more than 20 children’s books published by National Geographic (check them out on her website). Her most recent titles include Welcome to the World: A Keepsake Baby Book and the picture book Baby Animals. A graduate of Duke University, Marfé lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
I wanted to talk with Marfe´about her process, especially when it comes to the lively and appealing books she writes for a series we share, Explore My World. Her latest, Baby Animals, is one that will become an instant favorite among kiddos and adults alike.
Every page is a treat. Marfé’s text sings, inviting readers to imagine the lives of baby animals. *stops to count* There are at least 30 different babies shown on these 32 pages, in the kind of photos Nat Geo is famous for. Sprinkled throughout are double-page spreads that give more information, talking about what baby animals eat, how they stay clean, and the kinds of things they learn as they grow.
Jill: How did you begin writing for National Geographic Kids?
Marfé: I’ve worked in publishing ever since I graduated from college, first as an editorial assistant at a children’s book publisher in New York, then as a magazine copy editor, and eventually as a copy editor at Time-Life Books in Alexandria, Virginia. One day the head of the Time-Life editorial department called me to her office and said that several editors had remarked on the extensive rewrite suggestions I marked on the manuscripts. Uh oh, I thought, I’ve gone too far. But instead of asking me to stick to grammar, spelling, and punctuation from now on, she offered me a chance to try my hand as a staff writer!
I started out with picture captions and moved on to writing longer essays for several Time-Life Book series, on topics ranging from UFOs to gardening to Civil War weaponry. I worked with incredibly talented and generous editors who critiqued my writing and taught me a lot about the craft of narrative nonfiction. And writing about such a wide range of subjects helped me learn to be versatile.
After my children were born I started working freelance on adult and kids books for Time-Life. One day I got a call from an editor at National Geographic, who said she had heard about my work and wondered if I was interested in writing a children’s book for them. Of course I jumped at the opportunity! That book, called Sky, was all about the sky and the atmosphere and the weather. I’ve been writing nonfiction children’s books, both series books and stand-alone titles, for National Geographic ever since.
Jill: Which comes first for this Explore My World series, text or photos?
Marfé: Although the amazing photos are a huge part of what make this series so appealing, the books are actually text driven. I write the text first, then the illustrations editor finds the images that help bring the narrative to life.
One of the first things I do with one of these Explore My World books is start a word list. I jot down words that come to mind when I think about the subject. For Clouds, for example, my list began: fluffy, puffy, cotton, big, scary, billow, float, race, scud, scoot, blow. I add to the list as new words occur to me (daydream, poof, puff up) or when I encounter intriguing ones in my research—which, by the way, includes reading poetry (tattered, shredded, ribbons, seamless). When I get stuck with the writing, I go back to the list and play with the words.
That said, as soon as I begin researching a subject, I start trying to picture the book in my head. I think about structure and pacing, and I make a list of the images I envision. So far my earliest drafts for this series have been hand-written on index cards. I spread the cards out on the dining room table, shuffle them around, mix cards from different drafts together, and so on. At this point, I’m concerned more with content and flow than language, although if a pleasing turn of phrase pops into my head, I certainly write that down. Eventually I find the story line, and I think, of course! It’s so simple, so obvious! What took me so long?
Jill: After researching your subject, how do you begin putting that into language a preschooler can understand?
Marfé: I wish I had a magic formula to share (or to sell!) but basically, I have to try a lot of things that don’t work before I find a way that does. I have to live with the subject and my index cards and word list and research notes for a while. A long while, which can make meeting deadlines a challenge. If I have trouble getting a handle on a subject—and I almost always do—I keep doing more and more research and rereading my notes.
Once I move from my index cards to the computer, my drafts get way too long and complicated, as I get carried away with my own prose and all the details I think I have to include. So I keep going back, trying to refine, to simplify, to focus on the story, to not take anything for granted. I imagine telling my 4-year-old neighbor Ella about the subject. I do this out loud, in my office, in the shower, walking the dog, cooking dinner.
One of the most important things I do, maybe the most important thing for me personally, is to experience the subject for myself, on a physical level. So far, the subjects I’ve tackled for this series—butterflies, frogs, clouds, baby animals, trees—have made this step pretty easy. I take the time to really look and listen and maybe even touch and smell, trying to leave my preconceptions behind and to just open myself up to the wonder of nature, to feel connected.
When I was working on Clouds, every time I went outside, I looked up and tried to identify the types of clouds I saw. When my husband and I went out, I always asked him to drive so I could keep my eyes on the sky. One breezy afternoon I spread a blanket on the grass and lay on my back and watched clouds for over an hour, astonished by how quickly they moved and changed. When I took my dog out for his late-evening walk, I watched the clouds drifting across the moon, hiding it for a minute or two, and “Peek-a-boo!” popped into my head, and that made it into the book. I think it was a gift from the clouds, for paying attention.
Thanks so much, Marfé, for agreeing to join us today. I’m happy to learn that I’m not the only one who struggles (and obsesses!) when tackling big subjects for this age group.
National Geographic was kind enough to send me Baby Animals for a giveaway. My next book in this same series, Nighttime, was also released this week, so I’m giving away TWO books this time, one each to randomly-drawn readers who leave a comment by July 24th.
ATTENTION: It’s not too late to win a copy of Penny Parker Klostermann’s fantastic new book, There Was an Old Dragon Who Swallowed a Knight. Do that here.
Whew. I think that’s it for today. Thanks for dropping by!