David Schwartz says his source of inspiration is the universe. “I write about the things I’ve been wondering about since childhood,” he says. For instance, when he was a boy, he rode his bike everywhere, so he wondered if he kept riding at a constant speed how long it would take to ride across the United States. Schwartz made a few mental calculations while riding, but his wondering didn’t stop there. The Earth is bigger than the U.S., so how long would it take to ride around the Earth? He wondered how long it would take to connect all the stars in the sky. And he wondered how far frogs could hop.
During the time Schwartz taught Writing for Science, a freshmen English class at Yale University, he had an idea for a book that might appeal to children. He wanted to give children the same sense of awe and wonder that he felt about the universe. Originally, the book was about astronomy, but he found himself using big, big numbers—the explanations for which required books of their own—so the book evolved from astronomy to big numbers. How Much is a Million? was rejected 17 times before an editor called to express interest. It has since received rave reviews and was selected as a Reading Rainbow Book and received the Horn Book Honor Award.
During school visits, Schwartz tells the children “wondering is wonderful.” His favorite questions begin with the words “what if.” In G is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book(Tricycle Press, 1998) Schwartz gave himself the luxury of playing with math ideas and problems that he’d thought about for so long. But the page that defines the heart of the book and the theme in all of Schwartz’s books is “I is for If”. Schwartz describes the word “if” as a great word for math problems, because it leads to wondering and then you can use math to figure out the answer.
The mysteries of nature fascinated Schwartz as a kid. He remembers riding his bike to the local pond and building a raft out of scrap wood so he could float around and watch the frogs. He’d catch the frogs and see how far they could hop and then release them into the pond. He calculated that a three-inch frog hops five feet—a distance 20 times its own length! Then he started to wonder. “Suppose I could hop 20 times my own size. I could hop from home plate to first base. I’d be on the Yankees!” Thirty years later Schwartz visited a pond one day with his girlfriend and remembered watching frogs as a kid. The kernel of an idea started to form for a book on proportions and If You Hopped Like a Frog(Scholastic, 1999) was born.
If Dogs Were Dinosaurs (Scholastic, 2005) is a companion to If You Hopped Like a Frog, and Schwartz’s most recent book. Instead of discussing proportions, Schwartz uses the concept of comparative sizes. “If the Milky Way filled the U.S.A., the solar system would fit in the palm of your hand.” Schwartz masterfully illustrates for kids the relative sizes of impossibly large or small things that are difficult to imagine.
Schwartz graduated from Cornell University with a degree in biology. Before he started writing for children, he was a journalist. One of his most exciting research trips took him to Africa to study hippos—an article that later appeared on the cover of Smithsonian Magazine. Now he works from his Oakland home, writing and speaking to schoolchildren across the country. After a presentation on How Much is a Million?, one of these children gave Schwartz the idea for If You Made a Million. The student wrote, “You forgot the thing we like best. Millions of dollars.”
Schwartz is an outdoorsman and demonstrated his ongoing passion for nature in three carefully crafted series. Look Once, Look Again: Exploring Habitats is a twelve-book series that includes zoos, the forest, the pond, and the park. Look One, Look Again: Exploring Plants and Animals is another twelve-book series covering everything from plant fruits to animal noses. Finally, Schwartz’s twelve-book Life Cycles series highlights butterflies, bean plants, and hummingbirds.
On his website, Schwartz says, “One of my favorite ways to spend a few days or a week is to pack my car with a bicycle, a pair of binoculars and my hiking boots and head for the Sierra Nevada mountains. . .At night I’m likely to be gazing up at the stars. They still fill me with awe, just as they did when I was a child.” Throughout his life, Schwartz’s keen passion for nature, math, and science has kept him focused on the mysteries of the universe. Mysteries he’ll continue to share with and interpret for his readers.