Editor Glenn Hovemann is delighted to present another “Conversation with the Artist” this time featuring author Anthony Fredericks. Anthony Fredericks is a veteran nature explorer. He grew up on the beaches of southern California and during summers camped (and swatted mosquitos) in the Sierra Nevada mountains of eastern California. Later he attended high school and college in Arizona where he often spent his free time trekking through the Sonoran desert. Now Tony explores the hillside in south-central Pennsylvania where he and his wife reside and frequently hikes the mountains of western Colorado where his granddaughter lives. A former classroom teacher and reading specialist, he is Professor of Education at York College. As the author of more than 30 children’s books (some about “buggy” things) he is a frequent visitor to schools around the country, where he shares the wonders of nature with a new generation of naturalists.
Glenn: May I call you Tony? Or would you prefer Professor Fredericks?
Tony: I prefer Tony.
Glenn: Well then, Tony, you’re no slouch as a writer. Over 100 books! But what’s really interesting is that you write both professional books for educators and children’s books for kids. I’ll bet that those are two very different writing experiences, yes?
Tony: Absolutely, they are two very different writing experiences! As a writer I want to keep “pushing the envelope” as it were. I enjoy challenges as a writer – whether it’s exploring a topic I know nothing about, or examining a topic I thought I knew a lot about, or even discovering some new stuff about a topic I never knew before. And now that I’m also writing adult trade books (Walking with Dinosaurs and How Long Things Live) I’m pushing my literary “envelopes” even further.
Glenn: Writing for kids must be pretty easy, right?
Tony: Children’s writing easy? HA! The absolute truth is that writing for kids is the toughest writing I do. When writing for grown-ups I can use big words, fancy phrases, erudite conclusions, and magnificent metaphors. Not so with kids…they simply won’t stand for it. Every word, every phrase, and every sentence has to be absolutely precise. In fact, when I do school visits I frequently tell kids that it takes me anywhere between 20 and 30 drafts of a 32-page book manuscript before I’m satisfied with it. I will often agonize for days over what kind of punctuation mark to put at the end of a particular sentence. I’ll spend hours pouring over a thesaurus or the Children’s Writer’s Word Book just to get a certain word in its proper place. I’ll spend weeks constantly revising the lead sentence in a manuscript just so it captures the exact mood I want. It is both my greatest challenge and my greatest pleasure. When I do school visits and a youngster comes up to me and says, “I want to be a writer just like you” then I know it’s all worth it.
Glenn: You’ve written five “One” books now for Dawn Publications, starting with Under One Rock: Bugs, Slugs and Other Ughs. These books present creatures in their own neighborhoods — like insects under a rock, or bugs on one goldenrod plant (On One Flower). They are neighbors. Maybe they get along, and maybe they don’t. How did you come up with that idea?
Tony: Several years ago I was doing a presentation for a local environmental group. Afterwards, an older lady came up to me and told me a story about how her grandson enjoyed nothing more than visiting the stream near her house and turning over rocks to see what was under them. At that same time, I was teaching an undergraduate course entitled “Teaching Elementary Social Studies” in which we were discussing various strategies to help kids understand the concept of “communities.” All of a sudden the two ideas just “came together” while I was taking a shower (by the way, showers are great places to generate writing ideas) and I thought to myself, “Hmmm, I wonder what kind of community of creatures could be found under a single rock?” And so I quickly dried myself off, strapped on my hiking boots, and went for a stroll through the woods behind my house…peeking under rocks, turning over boulders, and glancing beneath stones of every shape and color. I quickly assumed the persona of a ten-year-old boy (my wife once described me as a ten-year-old boy trapped in a middle-aged body) and imagined what that boy would see or say. And did I make some amazing discoveries! Thus was born the original idea for Under One Rock.
Glenn: I couldn’t resist picking up rocks either, when I first received your manuscript! My wife and I were walking near our house and we picked up several rocks and — wow! — three or four of the insects you talked about in the manuscript were right there. So I figured maybe you knew what you were talking about. And I figured that kids might have the same success I did. What about the other books in the “One” series? Did you inspect a cattail in a nearby wetland to prepare for Near One Cattail? Or a goldenrod flower before you wrote On One Flower?
Tony: Absolutely. I wanted to get as close as possible to each of the “central figures” I was writing about. In short, I wanted to do exactly what I had the youngsters doing in each of the books. Since my wife once described me as “a ten-year-old boy trapped inside a middle-aged body” I wanted the opportunity to prove her right! And, so, for each book I took on the persona of the central character(s) so that I could see each selected item (cattail, rock, flower, etc.) just as a youngster would. The only difference was that I had to clean up after myself whenever I tracked mud in on the kitchen floor!
Glenn: Looking under the rock, or on a flower, or in a tidepool isn’t enough research for you to write a book, though.
Tony: Right. I needed to verify my discoveries with some good, old-fashioned research. One of the things I often tell kids during my school visits is that writers must be sure that everything they put into print is absolutely true and correct. That’s why I will often double or triple-check every fact or figure I include in a book. I’ll talk with scientists (via phone, e-mail, or in person), I’ll read several science books, I’ll chat with my Biology colleagues, I’ll tap into some Internet sources, or I’ll consult my own professional library or the resources of the local public library. In other words, I’ll use everything and anything available that will ensure that what I write is what students should know.
Glenn: Without ever saying it, your “One” series makes the point that nature is as near as a rock or a flower.
Tony: Exactly. I’m a big fan of zoos, wildlife parks, and aquariums. But I’m an even bigger fan of the nature that is around us all the time. Nature is available to anybody, any place, at any time. I wanted kids to be able to walk out their back door and find a rock or a flower and focus on that item for an extended period of time. What would they see? All we have to do is to stop for a few moments, find something that we may take for granted (a rock, perhaps) and carefully examine or observe it. Just a few moments “interfacing” with a common item in a familiar environment can reveal some amazing discoveries.
Glenn: OK, Tony. If I hear that you’ve been staring into puddles then I’ll brace myself for “In One Puddle!”
Tony: It’s hard to keep secrets!