Marianne Berkes encourages her readers to explore the outdoors and connect to nature, a love nurtured by her parents when she was a child. She remembers biking on forest paths with her father, and fishing in Long Island Sound from a pontoon boat that her father built. “It was white with blue polka dots and we called her Nelly Bell.”
Berkes remembers that her mother filled their home with singing and her grandfather told stories, further shaping her as a writer-to-be. One summer when Berkes was nine or ten years old, she and her friends wrote, directed and starred in a musical play in her backyard. In high school, she wrote for the school newspaper and in college she wrote her first picture book for a creative writing class. Before Berkes turned to writing as a profession, she founded a nursery school where she taught for several years, directed children’s musical theater in the summer, wrote press releases and transcribed sermons as Norman Vincent Peale’s media director, and moved to Florida and became a children’s librarian for the Florida Public Library.
In Florida Berkes found time to write, and stumbled on an idea while listening to the frogs in her backyard pond serenade her each evening. “The singing of the frogs was amazing to me,” she says. Taking full advantage of the library in which she worked, Berkes researched the various frog species and their specific songs. They became her cast of characters in her first book, Marsh Music. The book ends with birds singing their dawn chorus to the rising sun.
Berkes next began work on Seashells by the Seashore after a trip to Florida’s Sanibel Island yielded a wide array of fascinating shells. But a comment by a student at a school visit planted the seed for a companion book to Marsh Music. The child said, “Now I know what your next book is going to be,” but Berkes was slow to catch on wondering how the child could possibly know about the seashells book. “Birds!” the child said, and the proverbial light bulb glowed. Berkes recorded morning bird song on her pond, researched the bird species, and wrote Marsh Morning completing the circle with frogs tuning up for their evening concert.
Over in the Ocean, in a Coral Reef is a fresh twist on an old song. During story time at her library, Berkes remembers singing “Over in the Meadow” with her young patrons. At the time a save-the-ocean poster graced the library walls and another seed was planted. Berkes used the rhythm and rhyming pattern of the song, and situated her story in a new habitat. Three other Over in the… books have been published, focusing on the rainforest, the Arctic and Australia, each carefully researched and vetted by expert naturalists. The newest one, Over in the Forest: Come and Take a Peek!, will be published in 2012.
Remember the picture book Berkes wrote in college? She submitted it to several publishers at the time, but they rejected it because the layout design was too advanced for book-making technology of the day. She never gave up on the idea, though, and read it to her students for several years. Now that creative paper-cut designs can be incorporated into children’s books, Berkes’ college project What’s in the Garden? will be published in 2013.
Generally, Berkes tries to be organized and keep regular business hours in her approach to creating a new book, but admits that her process sometimes defies organization. “I’m haphazard,” she says. “I’m embarrassed to tell you that, but sometimes I get my best ideas in the middle of the night. Sometimes I start writing after dinner.” With every book, however, Berkes tries to remember what it is like to be a kid. “I want to fascinate kids about the world around them without being didactic,” she says, using David Sobel’s quote as a guide: “…let us allow [children] to love the earth before we ask them to save it.”
In every book and school visit, Berkes’ love for children shines through, but she also admits to worrying about children today because they are growing up too fast. “How can you be six if you haven’t even been five?” she asks.