Author Michael Elsohn Ross says, “I see things that aren’t there.” There’s no magic involved and he’s not hallucinating. Instead, he studies the children’s literature market carefully, paying special attention to “the holes”—the gaps in information. These missing pieces of information become Ross’s ideas. But before an idea becomes a book, Ross considers whether children will learn from or be entertained by the topic, and whether he’s curious about the topic himself. “Following my own interests really pulls me right along. . .My greatest source of inspiration is inside my own curiosity.”
Ross’s first book, Cycles, Cycles, Cycles (Yosemite Association, 1979) filled the first hole Ross saw in environmental education—specific cyclical patterns in nature, such as the life cycle, the water cycle, the nutrient cycle and the decomposition cycle. He wrote and illustrated the book, which continues to sell well in a market where books often go out of print within a few years—proof that Ross’s approach works.
Rolypolyology (Carolrhoda, 1996) filled another hole. Surprised that no books existed about one of the most prevalent backyard bugs, Ross wrote one. The title popped into his head on a short hike, and his publishers liked the idea so much they asked him for seven additional books on other common backyard bugs. Rolypolyology determined the titles for the rest of the Backyard Buddies series—Wormology; Spiderology; Snailology;Caterpillarology; Cricketology; Ladybugology; and Millipedeology.
Ross’s degree in the conservation of natural resources from the University of California, Berkeley combined with his classroom teaching experience and his tenure as a Yosemite Institute environmental educator make him uniquely qualified to write about natural science. According to Ross, “I aim to write nonfiction as fiction.” Written in a conversational style, his books help children get excited about science by encouraging them to explore and conduct their own experiments.
The innovative approaches of Ross’s books enhance their appeal. In the Backyard Buddies series, Ross features several experiments designed and conducted by children that answer such questions as: How far can a rolypoly roll? How fast can a snail crawl? How do different kinds of spiders get along? How do worms react to different substances?
Ross’s Naturalist’s Apprentice Biography series introduces children to the study of nature. Ross carefully chose eight pioneers “who could be mentors for kids interested in particular subjects.” Ross’s biographies demonstrate how to go about studying birds, pond life, or flowers by focusing on the methods of an expert in the field.
In addition to his interest in nature, Ross always wanted to travel and study other cultures. “Ten years ago I had ideas for topics I wanted to write about that involved visits to other lands and cultures, but had no idea how to sell those ideas to a publisher.” But after the success of the Backyard Buddies series, Ross saw his opportunity and broached the idea to his editor. He’s traveled to Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Puerto Rico interviewing children, and most recently returned from Oaxaca, Mexico where he found inspiration for A Mexican Christmas (Carolrhoda, 2002) and Celebrate the Forest (Candlewick, 2003).
Ross lives in Yosemite National Park with his wife and teenage son. According to Ross, “My son loves to write. I feel like he’s surpassing me!” Ross also owns two cats, which cause him a fair amount of anxiety “because one of them is a bird killer.” Ross still works as a naturalist for Yosemite, taking visitors on educational hikes. When he’s not leading a hike, he walks out by himself, enjoying the beauty of the park and developing his next book idea.
According to Ross, “One of the most important things I’ve learned that enabled me to become a writer is to choose what you want to do in your life. You don’t have to settle for what might be more normal. [I decided] I’m going to write and live in a beautiful place and follow my curiosity.”