Janet Halfmann grew up on a crop and dairy farm in central Michigan. She remembers playing with newborn kittens in the haymow, picking and eating corn straight from the field, picking wildflowers in the woodlot, and piling into the pickup after supper to go to the back forty to see how much the corn and soybeans had grown. Nature dictated the successes and failures of her life, and she learned to appreciate and respect it.
Today, nature is an inspiration to Halfmann in her books for children. As the author of a long list of nonfiction picture books, she has written about a variety of topics, including alligators, polar bears, dolphins, pelicans, hermit crabs, and plants. “My dad loved the land and the animals,” says Halfmann. “I think his love for nature and living things rubbed off on me.”
After Halfmann married and had children, she considered writing for children. Like most writers, she took some classes in children’s literature and creative writing and sold her first magazine article, entitled “Burrowing with Earthworms,” to Ranger Rick. Once she tasted success, Halfmann hungered for a full-time writing job so she returned to school for a degree in journalism. As a journalist, she reported for a Kansas paper, became the managing editor for Country Kids, and an editor/writer for Golden Books. When Golden Books left Wisconsin, Halfmann lost her job and decided to pursue her original dream of writing for children.
Halfmann’s nonfiction book ideas come from a variety of places. Sometimes, she proposes an idea to a publisher. “In the case of Plant Tricksters, I proposed a series of six books called Nature’s Tricksters.” Halfmann’s idea featured various animals and plants, including one book called Plant Tricksters. “The publisher contracted me to do just the Plant Tricksters book as part of a plant series.”
In the case of her books by Soundprints, Halfmann says, “The publisher gives me an animal and I come up with the story.” Relying primarily on books and Internet articles by scientists who watch nature and record detailed observations, Halfmann does a tremendous amount of research for each of her nonfiction books. “I want to know in detail all about that animal—how it acts, where it lives, how it defends itself. I also try to incorporate the sounds the animal makes to make the story more realistic.” Halfmann’s nonfiction stories usually zoom in on one particular aspect of the animal that she thinks will interest children. “In Safe in a Shell: The Story of the Land Hermit Crab, I focus on the crab getting too big for its shell, and finding the perfect shell being used as a decoration on a child’s sand castle.”
Halfmann’s first fiction title, Little Skink’s Tail (Sylvan Dell Publishing, 2007), grew out the research she did for a nonfiction book on lizards. “I was fascinated by young skinks who often have bright blue tails that they snap off to escape an enemy,” says Halfmann. “The tail keeps wriggling to distract the enemy while the skink escapes.” But the real shocker for Halfmann was the fact that the skink’s tail grows back. “Right away, I knew that this little skink with the twitching blue tail had a story to tell,” she says. As with so many fictional stories, snippets of ideas come from unusual places, and Little Skink’s story was no exception. Halfmann’s four grandchildren unwittingly gave her an idea during a game of dress-up. “Little Skink soon began pretending, trying on the tails of all the animals in the forest,” says Halfmann. “As I wrote, I pictured my granddaughter dancing about, showing off each tail.”
Halfmann writes from her Wisconsin home. “I work about ten hours every day,” she says, “but many of those hours aren’t spent writing.” The business of writing—researching new markets and new story ideas, promoting herself and her work, and submitting manuscripts are all necessary part of a writing career, but do not involve producing new material.
Halfmann’s upcoming work will continue her new-found interest in fiction. Sunflower Princess and Bewitching the Chickadees, soon to be released by Windstorm Creative, carry on Halfmann’s life-long love of nature. The books will feature illustrations by her daughter, Laura Halfmann. “In my books, I try to convey the wonder and excitement I feel about the person, or animal, or place that I’m writing about,” says Halfmann. “I hope my readers sense that wonder and excitement and experience it, too.”