Oftentimes kids are reluctant to read non-fiction books. They complain that the genre is boring. Freelance authors, such as Chana Stiefel, have made efforts to change this negative image. Today, I have the opportunity to chat with Chana about her career and some of her books.
Chana sent me a couple of books in exchange for this interview and an honest review. She will be participating in a book giveaway. See below for details.
Welcome Chana Stiefel.
After graduating from New York University with a master’s degree in science and environmental reporting, you worked as a writer and editor at Scholastic. How did your educational background and writing and editing experience at Scholastic, influence your freelance writing career?
NYU taught me the nuts and bolts of writing and helped me get an internship at Scholastic, which led to a career. My colleagues at Scholastic provided me with great mentorship and support. After the birth of my second child, I started freelancing. Much of the work I receive comes from connections with people I’ve worked with in the past (editors who are still at Scholastic or have moved on to other companies) or from referrals from my friends from NYU. It’s amazing how many of us have kept in touch for more than 20 years! Social networking definitely helps.
Did motherhood affect your decision to pursue a freelance career?
My transition from being a senior editor to freelancing was a result of both happenstance and a lifestyle decision. Since becoming a mom, I had been working part-time for Scholastic. My wonderful editor allowed me to work from home. When my husband and I moved to New Jersey, I was still searching for childcare when a new editor came on board. He called to say I either had to come back to the office full time or freelance. I wasn’t ready to work full-time and so my freelance career began. I started freelancing for Scholastic and my client list grew from there.
I would caution anyone interested in freelancing not to drop everything at once. Let’s face it: The pay ain’t great. If you have a job that you enjoy, you can freelance on the side. (As I tell my kids, “Go to medical school. You can always be a doctor and a writer.”) On the flip side, if you’re a stay-at-home parent and you want to do something stimulating and challenging, definitely write (or blog) while the house is quiet (like naptime or 3 a.m.). You never know where it will lead.
What challenges did you face when you made the leap between an editorial position and doing freelance writing?
Top three challenges: 1) Workflow. Freelance work can be very hot and cold. Some weeks I am swamped. Some weeks I’m going through the old Rolodex (ok, not really) looking for assignments. It’s hard to find a balance. 2) Camaraderie. Freelancing can be a lonely business. It’s important to keep in touch with friends and other writers so you don’t turn into a recluse. 3) The refrigerator. I usually work at home, but many days I work at the library. I find that on those days I lose weight and I’m also more productive because there are fewer distractions.
In the last few years, you have completed a few non-fiction book series. For Enslow Publishers, you wrote a six-book early reader series called “Animals on the Family Farm” and a “Ye Yucky Middle Ages” series for upper elementary readers. For Scholastic Inc, you authored a two-part biography that highlights the life of astrophysicist, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and pilot, Barrington Irving. Some of my readers may be interested in learning how one enters the profession of writing children’s non-fiction. Can you provide 3 tips?
First, in publishing, there’s an age-old problem that in order to get published you need to be published. In other words, editors are looking for experienced writers. So how do you get experience? If you’re interested in non-fiction, I think the best place to start is by writing magazine articles. Magazine editors may be more open to publishing new writers if the work is good. Research children’s magazines (there are dozens) in your local library or in publications like the “Children’s Writer’s & Illustrators Market.” Make sure to follow each magazine’s submission guidelines. By writing several articles, you will gradually build a platform as an experienced writer.
Second, write what you’re most passionate about. I happen to love science so I enjoy spending hundreds of hours doing research and writing about topics like orangutan eating habits or ways to clean up space trash. But if I had to write about a book called “Hedge Funds for Kids” I’d probably bang my head against my filing cabinet not knowing where to begin.
Third, keep current. Follow trends in education and the media. Find out what kids want to read most, but also what teachers, librarians, and parents are looking for since they’re the ones who buy the books.
What efforts have you made to align your books with the Common Core Standards? Have you created any supplementary materials for teachers or homeschooling parents?
My books all align with the Common Core in that they challenge kids to think critically, come up with strategies for solving problems, and develop analytical skills. A good rule of thumb is to come up with five critical-thinking questions that kids should be able to answer after reading a chapter. Good non-fiction should also engage readers (especially reluctant readers) with an interesting narrative and not read like a textbook.
At Scholastic, I used to work on Teacher’s Guides, but for my recent books, publishers have produced them in-house. I would be happy to create supplementary teaching materials if that’s something a publisher is interested in.
On your website you mention that you attended, the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) conference. Should children’s writers consider attending this conference? Can you share a few things that you learned at the conference?
I attended last summer’s New Jersey SCBWI summer conference. It was fabulous. Three amazing things happened as a result of that conference: 1) I joined a wonderful critique group of fellow picture book writers. We share and critique each other’s stories every week and we give each other a lot of support. 2) I pitched my first picture book DADDY DEPOT to agent John Cusick from Greenhouse Literary. We signed a few months later. 3) Thanks to John, I got a book deal for DADDY DEPOT, which will be published by Feiwel & Friends in 2016.
If you are serious about writing, I highly recommend attending a conference or workshop. In publishing, making personal connections can make all the difference. Also, professional development is important in every career. These conferences have so much to offer in terms of hands-on workshops, receiving manuscript critiques, and learning about new developments in the industry. Attending a conference is a commitment of time and money, but it can really pay off. FYI: I plan to attend the 21st Century Children’s Non-fiction Writers Conference in June at SUNY New Paltz if anyone wants to join me.
In addition to writing, you have visited many schools. What have you enjoyed the most during your time in the classroom?
I love seeing children’s hands go up when I ask a question. Kids today are so smart and savvy and they love to share their knowledge and experiences. Also I have a great deal of respect for schools that devote time and resources to author visits. With so much media vying for kids’ attention—and school budgets being slashed—it’s wonderful when a school sends a message that books are an essential part of our lives. Also kids love meeting a real, live author. I really get a kick when they ask me for my autograph.
Thank you for providing complimentary copies of two of the books in the “Ye Yucky Middle Ages” series. The books provide a nonconventional approach to learning about life during the Middle Ages. Did you have to adapt your writing style in order to write a history book with a sense of humor and tongue-in-cheek voice?
Not really. But I think I had to use extra humor to avoid wallowing in all the gore and bloodshed. The Middle Ages were really yucky!
What type of resources did you use to research these historical topics? Did your inquiry lead you to any primary sources or museums?
I read piles of books on castles, knights, and food of the Middle Ages. But seeing castles and armor up close made a huge difference. New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art was a terrific resource for exploring suits of armor and weaponry. I really got a feel for the detail, labor, and artistry that went into building each sword and suit of armor. Nothing was mass-produced. What’s more, wearing metal must have been extremely hot and heavy. Imagine wearing a Mini Cooper on a hot day! Standing so close to the armor, you can’t help but be mesmerized by the notion that a real knight wore that suit!
My husband and I have also visited old castles in France. They may have been stinky and crawling with rodents at one time, but they are magnificent structures that are still standing after more than 500 years. I can’t imagine any of our modern buildings lasting for centuries.
After researching and writing about medieval recipes that are offensive to most America palates, did you look upon food in a different way?
I’m very grateful for my refrigerator! And you won’t see me eating lamprey pie anytime soon.
It appears that you have currently switched your focus to writing fiction. What caused you to make this change? Can you share anything about your latest writing projects?
I have always loved picture books, so it’s a dream come true to finally be publishing one of my own. Many of my picture book ideas come from made-up bedtime stories or silly ideas we throw around at the dinner table. I’m currently writing several new picture books and I’m outlining my very first Middle Grade novel based on my experiences at sleep-away camp. Also, I’m working on a few new non-fiction proposals.
Is there anything else that you would like to talk about?
To paraphrase the label on my favorite T-shirt, “Do What You Love, Love What You Do.” For me, that’s writing books for kids. Thanks so much for inviting me to do this interview.
Anyone who leaves a comment on this blog by Sunday, June 22 will be eligible for a book giveaway. The randomly selected winner will be sent an autographed copy of Castle Stinketh: Could You Survive Living in a Castle?