Melissa Stewart is the author of more than 170 science books for children. So prolific is Stewart that her list of titles reads like a card catalog, covering such categories as animals; the environment; health and human body; Earth and space science; physical science; experiments and activities; math and technology; and novelty books and games. Her ability to explain difficult scientific concepts to any age level makes her books a favorite among teachers, parents and students. The recipient of several awards, Stewart says, “The Green Earth Book Award is my favorite because my mission as a writer is so similar to their mission as an organization.” To help children form an appreciation for the sciences.
Stewart’s interest in nature began as a child. Her family owned ten acres in New York across the street from a national park, and she grew up hiking with her father. “It made me fall in love with the natural world,” she says. Stewart and her brother used the woods as their playground, too. They constructed outdoor forts, built jumps for their bicycles, dammed streams, and caught frogs and turtles. “My early experiences shaped the person I am today and what is important to me,” Stewart says.
Although Stewart loved science, medicine was not a career option because she says “the smell of hospitals makes me hurl.” While conducting research for her college thesis on cloning fruit flies, a professor showed her an article in Discover Magazine on her thesis topic and told Stewart that she could have written the article.
Such outward support and belief in her abilities gave Stewart the courage to apply to New York University’s graduate journalism program. When she graduated, print journalism was undergoing a sea change, laying off seasoned staff writers in favor of freelancers. Unable to compete with the level of experience flooding the marketplace, Stewart turned to editing science textbooks and educational books for children which eventually launched her career as a children’s author.
To say Stewart is disciplined is an understatement. Her day begins at 6:45 each morning when her husband leaves for work. She responds to emails, and then tackles the list she made the night before. She regularly works on ten projects at once—all in various stages of completion. One day might be devoted to writing; another to research; another to reviewing notes from an editor; another to interviewing an expert; another choosing photographs or writing captions. Research takes four forms: printed material, such as studies, articles, or books on her subject; the Internet, where she locates scientists conducting research on her topic; expert interviews; and first-hand observation. “First-hand observation is important to me,” Stewart says. “It is the foundation of many of my books.”
For instance, Under the Snow grew from an observation she made one March at a favorite hiking spot—a pond near her home in Acton, Massachusetts. “The wind had blown all the snow off the ice, and you could see down through the ice,” Stewart says. “I actually saw the red-spotted newt swimming around.” The observation led to a question: “What are those guys doing swimming around? They’re supposed to be hibernating.” At the time Stewart believed all salamanders hibernated, but she checked to make sure. Turns out they don’t. Her question led her to a larger idea—what animals do when snow blankets the ground–one she describes as “meaty enough for a whole book.” In Under the Snow, Stewart explores animals in fields, forests, ponds, and wetlands.
No Monkeys, No Chocolate culminated a ten-year journey that began as a book about the wild rose. On another hike Stewart encountered wild roses in bloom, but when she looked closer she saw an entire ecosystem on the plant eating and being eaten. Unfortunately editors rejected the manuscript saying no one was interested in plants, so Stewart shelved the idea. But then she visited Costa Rica and saw the cocoa tree with a similar microhabitat living on the leaves, flowers, and fruit. “Here’s my plant,” Stewart remembers saying. Virtually everyone loves chocolate—an entry point she used to hook readers and editors. Stewart employs a three-layered text to interest young readers as well as those capable of more sophisticated scientific information. The simplest layer introduces a concept. For example, cocoa flowers can’t bloom without cocoa leaves. The second layer expands the concept. And according to Stewart, wise-cracking “bookworms reinforce the challenging information and incorporate humor.”
When speaking with Stewart, one concludes that she writes as much for herself as for her readers. The desire to know, to explain, to discover drives her not only to unlock nature’s secrets, but to share them with children. Much the same as her father did when she was small.