Honest history books for kids, monster trucks, and 'The Truth About Poop'

On the Why We Write podcast, creative writing faculty Susan Goodman talks about her adventures as a writer and telling kids the truth in her books.

Listen to the podcast

See the complete transcript below.

Episode notes

Children's book author and Lesley creative writing faculty Susan Goodman writes books that are humorous, honest, and sometimes historical. Case in point, her book titles include "The Truth About Poop," "The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial,” and "See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, and the Race to the White House."

Susan Goodman and Erika Dawes sit on steps outside holding a copy of one of Susan's books
Author Susan Goodman and Professor Erika Dawes

Susan's award-winning books grow out of her myriad interests, and never fail to engage and enlighten young readers.

In this episode, literacy specialist, Classroom Bookshelf blogger, and Professor Erika Thulin Dawes interviews Susan about how she got into kids' books, fostering other creative writers, and more.

Read more about our low-residency MFA in Creative Writing program. You can also learn more about Susan on her website.

Check out all of our episodes on our podcast page or just go ahead and subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or Spotify.

  • Transcript

    Announcer: This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Each week, we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing, and the writing life. This week, Professor Erika Thulin Dawe, a member of our Graduate School of Education interviews award-winning children's author, Susan Goodman. Without further ado, here is the interview.

    Erika: Hello, I'm Erika Thulin Dawes, professor of language and literacy at Lesley University's Graduate School of Education where I teach courses in children's literature and literacy methods. I have the pleasure of speaking today with author Susan Goodman. Susan E. Goodman is the author of more than 30 books for children; works of nonfiction that range from beginning readers to early chapter books to nonfiction picture books. She's faculty in Lesley University's Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing and affiliated with PENN New England.

    Susan's recent nonfiction book, The First Step: How One Girl Puts Segregation On Trial, has garnered much recognition, including two Honor Book awards, the Orbis Pictus Award for Nonfiction and the Jane Addams Peace Association Book Award. Her books have also been named American Library Association Notable Books and Junior Library Guild selections appeared on the best books of the year listings as well as earned nominations for State Books Awards. Susan, thank you for talking with me today.

    Susan: It's my pleasure, Erika.

    Erika: Let's begin at the beginning. How did you become a writer, and more specifically, an author of children's books?

    Susan: It's a pretty long story there, I'll try to make it short. I got my MA in counseling and psychology, and it didn't take me very long to realize that it was really not the job for me. Luckily around that time, I got a phone call from somebody at Gottard who had read my thesis, and said, "Do you know, I think this should be a book." I didn't know and actually, she didn't know because knowing what I know now, it should never have been a book, but it gave me the idea of being a writer.

    Since it just came out of the blue, I knew that I didn't have any credentials. There was no reason for anybody to hire me. Then luckily, I had taken a year off of college and gone to France for a year to go to the Le Cordon Bleu Cooking School. It was a great credential, and I parlayed that to start writing articles about food, then it was often on it.

    Erika: Also, before you made books for children, you were a journalist, too, writing many magazine articles. What made you decide to write for a child audience?

    Susan: At a certain point, you want to just write and find your own voice, and you want to write about things that interest you rather than stuff that you can just sell because it fits what Glamour wants or National Geographic wants. So I thought, I'll try kids.

    Erika: You've written about such a broad array of topics: history, nature, politics, geography, and biology. How do your books reflect your interests?

    Susan: I think those are my interests. Actually, when you think about it, everything is interesting, that everybody really circles around one or two themes in their lives. My theme is the world is a pretty amazing place. You think a young kid that you're sitting with your best friend and the dog and the couch and you're both looking at TV and you're having a fine time together. Where it might have been a fine time that dog is living in a completely different world. It sees different things, it sees different colors, it's smelling something that's happening 100 yards down the block. Did you know that? Let's tell you that.

    Many of my favorite books-- that book, On This Spot, which is really looking at time and how things change over time. One of my favorite books is the one that I'm most of proud of does that. I look for things that are pretty wonderful and try to stay wake up and look.

    Erika: Yes. Your books really do offer these wonderful details and also detailed processes and they reflect a spirit of infectious curiosity. Would you give us some examples of your research and writing process? How do you go from idea — that dog sitting on the couch — to a finished book?

    Susan: Well, ideas come from everywhere, and sort of early on in my career, I had written a book about the rain forest, and I was doing a school visit about it. As I was talking to these little young kids who were a little squirmy, I talked about the animals in the rainforest, I talked about this and that, there was a sign of the sloth. Then I looked at the audience and I said, "Why not." So I told them about the sloth, that it moves very slowly. It's a creature that moves slowly, eats slowly and even poops slowly too, or infrequently, I explained the sloth’s poop only about once every two weeks. Then I got my laugh, I was able to calm them down.

    Well, after that, the principal came up to me and she said, "Mrs. Goodman," exactly in that tone, and I thought, "I'm in trouble. What did I do?" She said, "What a wonderful presentation. Just wonderful." For the 10:30 drop, the sloth part. Her school, her moral support, that's fine. In that moment, there were just two people there. There was the grown-up who was saying, "Isn't this interesting? This is the biological function, anything is alive does it. Isn't it so interesting that we have these baboons and where do they come from and blah blah?" I went home, and I immediately started researching this book, I'll show you.

    My challenge that I set to myself was I was going to write this book, it was going to have all sorts of information about poop and its role; biological, historical, sociological, all sorts of amazing facts and it's never going to cross the line in terms of taste. Unfortunately, any word you use when you talk about poop has a joke in it, so I take the taste away. Then I just started researching, and researching is really the best thing about nonfiction because you can find such great stuff. It's so much fun, and it's almost like a treasure hunt when you find a great fact you feel like you've struck gold.

    So I've written many books about it. I, of course, looked and saw what my competition had done. Except for really Everybody Poops, there would be no books at all about this that I was pretty early about pooping. You read the books, but then you start trolling for stuff and that was fun. If you go to Google and you say, "elephant poop" or excrement or feces and you just look and see what you can get, and then you start using ad search words to see what will come up: excrement feces warfare. There is always something, and that's where I learned about this magician who helped with World War II by making bombs that looked like camel dung because the people that were fighting in Africa had a superstition, the German [unclear] units there that if you rolled over camel dung, it would be good luck and they were able to- How can you find these kinds of information? You look for it.

    Erika: Well, the photos on your website make it clear that writing has been an amazing adventure for you. There are pictures of you and a big parka with an Arctic backdrop, in a flight suit strapped into the seat of a helicopter, and standing next to the tire of an enormous monster truck. Tell us about some of the unusual experiences that you've had while working on books, and which adventures stand-out as most memorable? Tell us about that Arctic adventure, that picture of you in that parka, in a helicopter and a monster truck?

    Susan: Well, the monster truck was a funny one because my editor- most of the time, authors come up with their own ideas, but occasionally, they give them- an editor might ask them to do one. When my editor said, "Will you write a book on a monster truck?" I said, "You got to be kidding me. Really, monster trucks?" She said, "Trust me, do it."

    Erika: Absolutely.

    [laughter]

    Susan: I thank her it was a big- boys love monster trucks, it's been very popular but and so that's why I was there in Miami, Ohio for many days at a monster truck rally. I think I lost many decibels off of my hearing and ate more fried food that fair than I ever have in my life, but I actually often look for books where I can have an adventure. I sort of knew I was going to get to the Amazon or anywhere, I was going to have to get somebody to give me an assignment. So, when I was back being a magazine writer, I would always look for places that would take me somewhere and still did with books.

    Now books, unfortunately, the editors do not pay for those trips but it was pretty exciting to go to Schenectady, New York in June and a pair of cutoffs and get in a plane that was part of the Air Force and be in a military cargo and halfway over, once you get towards the pole, having to put on all your gear because there drop down not wheels but skis so that you climb off the ice on the polar ice cap. Who would say no to that?

    Erika: Speaking about your book, See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, and the Race to the White House, you state, "Democracy is serious business but you can laugh and learn at the same time." You do use humor to great effect in many of your books. How does writing for a child audience influence your decisions about content and style?

    Susan: Well, I think that first and foremost, it's the subject matter. You have- the tone has to fit with what you're writing. Let's face it, humor is the sugar that helps the medicine go down. I mean, if you can get kids laughing, they're paying you attention, and if you can sort of quash or put aside your whole [chuckles] there is a lot that's funny about political situations, sometimes anyway. This was an interesting book because I find that the books that are my ideas, I usually have an easier time writing and, of course, sometimes editors give me ideas and I have to pay the bills.

    This was one of those examples where an editor approached me to ask me to do this book. It was in a tough time in my life, my mother was dying, I was home in Detroit taking care of her and I said, "I don't think I really want to do this book now, thank you but I don't think so," and she kept pushing. Again, now in retrospect, I think it was a lifesaver in a lot of ways because it gave me something else to focus on as well. I was being sort of querulous what we were talking and I said, "I'll do it but you got to let me do it my way," and I said, "I want to tell the truth I'm not going to soft-pedal this because what's the use?"

    Soft-pedal wasn't really the right word, but I'm not going to just give information that isn't either interesting nor valuable. She said, "Sure no problem, no problem." So this 40-page book expanded to 96 pages and she was great because every time I sort of said, "Okay, I think this is really funny, too bad I can't do this". She said, "Do it." So, it expanded, it got funny, but I think when you're trying to catch kids, there's a lot of rules. One, they're not rules there're smart moves, one, funny if you can do it. Two, tell them the truth, kids have B.S. detectors and they know when you're just glossing over something.

    Also, they have a remarkable sense of injustice and a sense of fearless and indignation about injustice, and so the book fed on all of that and I learned so much.

    Erika: You're preparing to write another edition of that for 2020, how are you wrapping your head around that given our current context?

    Susan: I don't know. [laughs] This is going to be tough, this is going to be tough.

    Erika: To tell the truth. [chuckles]

    Erika: It is, it's funny because we've done many new editions of this book. We updated in 2012 and then they were going to do a reprint and so the editor said, "Well, since we are anyway," once Trump had been elected we had little factoids pictures of each president and factoids about them afterwards, and she said, "Would you like to write the facts about Trump?" I thought about it and the tool that I used is he's the only president there in the board game named after him, and he had a birthmark on each one of the bottom of his feet. I got away that time.

    [laughter]

    Erika: Do you expect that you will address Russian influence in the election in the book?

    Susan: Well, I think I have to, don't you?

    Erika: Absolutely.

    Susan: I certainly talked about the election between Bush and Gore, and the accusations of very, very prejudicial practices that were happening in the South to keep away the black vote. You got to, I think you got to.

    Erika: We look forward to that one

    Susan: I don't know if I do. We'll see.

    Erika: How has your writing for children changed over time?

    Susan: I guess I've changed so it must've changed. I don't know, I almost don't know how to answer that question. I think technically since I was trained as a magazine writer, I probably started in that kind of style. The first book I wrote was one where we accompanied a bunch of kids to the Amazon rainforest and it was written, have you ever seen article written with lots of quotes and things. Of course, it was a book as well but as I look back, I can see that what my training was and what I was doing, and I think as I've gotten more experienced and tackled many subjects there's the right way to handle a subject though there's many right ways, but there's different ways and so I start sort of pushing into one and another and getting used to those techniques and so at least technically I think that they've changed a lot.

    Erika: You teach aspiring writers, how does your writing influence your teaching and your teaching to influence your writing?

    Susan: That's another headscratcher, too. I know how to write and I have written influences it, they teach me in so many ways their mistakes. I know that sounds silly because it's harder to see your own mistakes than it is someone else's and I can see, "Oh wow, I've done something like that. I think it's not a good idea for me to be more aware of that in myself." Equally, teaching is an amazing lesson for any writer. It forces you to be this writer, which I had had no training. I was someone one who somebody said, just spoke and decided, "I'm going to be a writer," so I was very, very self-taught.

    By teaching students, I've had to analyze what works and what doesn't work and what's very effective, it certainly has helped my writing, there's no question about it. In terms of clarity, in terms of style, and in terms of freedom.

    Erika: In The First Step, you make a powerful statement about the process of social change. You say, "The march toward justice is a long twisting journey." What is the role of nonfiction books for children in that journey? How can books be instruments for social justice?

    Susan: Well, look at Harriet Beecher Stowe. Books tell people about the world and that's the effect that they have. If they're inspirational, either in terms of urging people towards anger or giving them knowledge of what they can do or giving them a sense that their self-image is something that's been imposed upon them, then you've given kids directions in which they point their lives or adults as well, of course. I think that when I wrote See How They Run, it taught me something amazing. I was writing the finale, what kids could do and what they could do for social change, this is the election book.

    I started looking at history and looking at how certain movements and change came about, and I realized that people have always said that things hit you in a different way sometimes that is unbelievably meaningful and what I realized is that every movement, every step towards freedom, be it the right to vote for anybody or the right to vote for men or the right devote for women, the right to vote for African Americans in any other minorities here. it all comes because people need the push. People make itself, they start talking, they start doing, they start mobilizing.

    For The First Step, which was about the first desegregation case in the United States of America, I wanted to make that point more clear than ever, 'cause I think we need it more than ever.

    Erika: Talk about how you came to that story, the aspect of the untold history there.

    Susan: Okay, sure. I was born and bred in Detroit, Michigan. I'm old enough to have lived through the '68 riots and to have lived through redlining that made white flight happen very fast in Detroit. My parents decided to stay in Detroit and so there were a lot of- as the neighborhood shifted, sometimes there were a lot of tensions. I was very glad to be there though, I think it defined a lot of who and what I am. When I came to Boston in the earlier mid-seventies, it was right after the forced busing decision. I was amazed at the degree and the lack of shame about prejudice that was here. Do I want to leave? Is this the right place for me?

    But I met somebody who had a son from a different marriage and so here, that's how life works. Many years later, decades later I went to do a walking tour and it was the Black Heritage walking tour. That's when I learned about the Sarah C. Roberts vs. City of Boston, which was the first case that ever took on school segregation. An amazing case and to put it in some kind of perspective, this was before the civil war. This was when 90% of African Americans were slaves. It was when 2% of the remaining 10% went to school, and here was this family that kept applying to get their kid into a school nearby her home, which was a legal right of every Boston child except for black kids, African American kid.

    When she was kicked out of school, they took on the world and brought this to a higher court. It was not only an amazing case because somebody did that, but it included so many firsts, that's why I called it the First Starters. The first time this kind of suit came up, it was the lawyer who took care of it but initially Robert Morris was the first African American lawyer to do a jury trial. He asked Charles Sumner later to accompany him. That was the first interracial team. It wasn't the first time that people lost though. They did lose the case and I've been asked, "Why did I write about a case that lost and could I really do that for kids?" and I was so amazed that somebody would ask that question.

    Now when I go into school visits, I always ask kids, "Somebody told me that they didn't think I should write a book for kids or something if somebody loses, what do you think?" And really to a person almost they say, "Of course you have to do these books." And none of those words, but they say, "Well, how else would we know what happened? How else can we prepare for when our lives maybe?" They're so smart and they know everything. Here's some admission to give them more.

    Erika: It comes back to your point that we need to tell children the truth because they're capable of handling it. This is an important story in a larger narrative of our arc towards social change, and it's the kind of story that doesn't make it into the social studies textbooks that children experience-

    Susan: No.

    Erika: - in school.

    Susan: No, no. Not at all. It's interesting when I think about it, you asked me, where did the ideas come from and stuff. Really, very often it's from anger, I guess. The poop one I wasn't that angry. It wasn't angry, but it was sort of looking at the belligerence. We're just looking at an attitude and thinking that's a bad attitude or certainly with this book being so amazed at their courage, but angry that they had to have their courage.

    Erika: Do you have a trend that you are moving toward more books that take a stance, that speak towards social activism? What are you working on next? Does it follow in that vein?

    Susan: Yes, and interestingly enough, it is another book that started from a bit of outrage. I was doing school visits in Texas and it was a wonderful experience. The librarians organized this and it was really wonderful and so many of them are so both progressive and so interesting. But, there I was in this hotel for a week, so one night in the hotel I was just looking at the television and there was what seemed to be a very ignorant conversation about evolution and the anti-evolution bias that shows up a good amount in the state, and I thought to myself, I have to write about this. I'm very proud of the title. It's something I'm working on now. It's called In Your Face: Evolution and Everyday Life. Just talking about it, even in your face. Your eyebrows are there to take the water and make new drip down so that you can see as a hunter. You can just talk and then you have the nose and then it's in different shapes because they've been there in different places for different groups of humanity that are in different parts of the world, blah, blah, blah and it moves on. It's for older kids. Not older-older but upper-level grade, sort of let's see how they learn.

    Again, it's fun for the most part. It's not always funny, there are many things that I look at that are more serious and they have to be told in the tone that's appropriate for them and I love the idea of doing this, it's pretty fun.

    Erika: I remember catching a news story recently about discoveries that adaptations can actually happen or adaptations that become more fixed in a species can actually happen much more rapidly than it was previously thought that they could. In a lot of your books, you speculate about the future. You give us a little look into, for example, On This Spot, what might happen on this spot in the future, or your wonderful one about what toilets might do for us in the future, [laughs] or the amazing illustration. Will there be an aspect of that in this book? Are you going to predict?

    Susan: Well, are you talking about, I mean even in your face?

    Erika: Evolutionary changes.

    Susan: Yes, sure. It's happening so fast. In fact, I dropped this book for a little while to work on something else. When I picked it up again and started working on a section, the information was new. Locating certain genes for ADHD and stuff like that people didn't know even a couple of years before. I imagine I will speculate and it will get outdated.

    Erika: I have no doubt that you'll keep up with it because your curiosity drives you and it's a wonderful model for your young readers.

    Susan: Thank you. Basically, when doing research, let me just say firsthand experiences are always the best if you can do it. That is another reason why I always try to go someplace to actually see and hear and smell and listen what environment is. When you come back, you can express that and you can explain to the kids what it's like. If you do it with exciting enough pros, you can make them feel like they're there. That's always my first choice and if I can, I actually get to the place.

    Another thing, of course, that's really important are interviews. I have learned that whatever weird fact that you need and there is somebody in this world that have spent their entire life thinking precisely about that issue and it becomes a game, a detective game of how to find them. With Poop, it wasn't so hard but I had written about space and I wanted to write about the space toilet because of course, every kid wants to know how you poop in space, particularly when you have microgravity. I, of course, who to call? Call NASA. That wasn't hard.

    I asked many questions that I had about space because I was going to write about it anyway. Then this was the first time I actually called somebody on the telephone about this subject. I was surprised so I said, "I have one more question," and I'm starting to stutter and falter a little bit. She said, "The space toilets?"

    Erika: [laughs] She knew.

    Susan: I said, "Yes ma'am." She said, "Well, that would be Dr. Flush."

    Erika: No way. [laughs]

    Susan: He does have a real name, but at a certain point I guess they all nicknamed him Dr. Flush and I ended up talking to Dr. Flush who gave me all the scientific facts and it was nice. It was a funny story but it broke my intimidation there. For Gee Whiz, which was the follow-up book Gee Whiz, it's all about pee. My mom actually came up with a great question. She said to me, "Suzie, I always wondered what happens when knights have to use the facilities?" I said, "Good question, mom. Thank you." The problem with those two books is that if you wrote emails to people, you really had to make sure they didn't think it was some nut or spam.

    I knew that in Worcester, there was an armory, there used to be, it isn't anymore. It was the museum of knights and armor and stuff like that. I used the most, I wrote an email using the most pretentious language I could think of, but I got the guy to talk to me. It was a very matter of fact answer, I was sort of disappointed. They just picked down their mail, those chainy things that they have and do it like anybody else does.

    Erika: I have to ask, how did you find out that story about the doctor who reattached a swordsmen's nose after it was cut off by-- I don't even know how to describe this. He peed on the nose, sewed it back on and it healed perfectly. Where on earth did you find that information? [chuckles]

    Susan: I can't remember now because it's been a long time, but I do know that it must be that they used it as a sterilization thing so that the tissue wouldn't infect. Because people use urine for that a lot and they also use it for-- If you step on a sea urchin and stuff like that, if you take it out and you pee on it, it doesn't get infected. I know that we have our own personal experience.

    Erika: It's pretty amazing information.

    Susan: It is and you get so much information. I got so much information that I couldn't use it all and sometimes problems like that can make good solutions. I said, "I have so many, I want to do something with these." So we decided we just list facts on the endpapers. The endpapers are just filled with all the spillover of great facts. In fact, I just want to read to you one that I find to be the most profound. This comes from The Truth About Poop that I wrote and both The Truth About Poop and Gee Whiz. It's all about pee or illustrated by Edward H Smith. We were a great team I think. He's very funny.

    This fact is when they are upset, chimps who've been taught sign language indicate their frustration by making the sound for poop. It's like they're saying, "Oh, shit."

    Erika: Exactly. [laughs]

    Susan: It's sort of funny but also, I don't know if you guys noticed but what is it? 98.7, 98.8 of our DNA is identical to chimpanzees. We're very, very close cousins over a very long speck of time. It's just, is that what they're thinking? Does it have the same value in their minds? It's just-

    Erika: Remarkable to find.

    Susan: It's a remarkable fact.

    Erika: One of my favorite books is On This Spot: An Expedition Back Through Time and this book takes place on this spot in New York City, tracks it back from present day all the way back to 540 million years ago.

    Susan: It's one of my favorites, too. I think the books that I like the most about mine, as I maybe mentioned before, strike on these mind-blowing ideas. Because I think that even if kids don't understand them when we're in the presence of something divine we all feel it. This came about in a very weird way as one of the underemployed like most writers are. There are some advantages and one thing is that you can go play hooky. One day I just had that just going to go to the movies because I'd started writing something I was frustrated.

    I thought, "Okay, I'm going to movies because I can." It was some afternoon and I was waiting in line and behind a little eight-year-old and her mom. This little girl was so angry. She was saying, "I hate her, mom. I hate her and I'm never going to be friends with her again." The mom and I just looked at each other and gave each other a glance as this little girl kept on raving. I think we passed a smile amongst ourselves. I'm sure the mom was thinking, "They've been best friends," those kinds of best friendships that eight-year-old girls have that are practice for marriage.

    They're going to be back at the table at the lunch table the next day and they're going to have their little heads together and yapping around, but that's not what I was thinking. I was thinking things change and sometimes things that you think are going to last forever, they change. How do you explain that to kids? I started thinking about it and thinking about it and thinking about it. Ultimately, that's how the book came about. It's a book where it starts with New York City. It starts by saying how busy and active New York City is and how many people live there and blah, blah, blah.

    Then when you turn the- and then at the very bottom it says, "But in this spot." and when you turn the page it says, "175 years ago New York was a different city." Then it explained about the chickens in people's backyards and the corn that was being grown on 5th Avenue and all those kinds of things. Then it goes on and on and it says, "And on this spot 350 years ago it was a different city. It was called New Amsterdam." After that, we moved to the ice age. Then it really gets to be the ice age and then it becomes tropical.

    New York was an amazing place. On that spot there were volcanoes, there were glaciers that were so heavy they cracked the Earth's crust, there was a tropical scene, there were mountains that were the highest mountains on the Earth ever. Really, I go through time and show these changes. About two-thirds of the way through the book is the first time I say things change. Then I talk about the fact that people's lives change, technology changes, the world changes. That's the way ideas can come to you is there's just an idea you have and how do you tell it without ever preaching? How do you get the ideas and emotions across without ever expressing them? I think in that book I did that's why I'm so proud of it.

    Erika: It's remarkable in that it's a perspective-shifting book as so many of your books are. You explore a topic, an idea, a concept and open our eyes in many different ways that we could look at something that seems so very familiar but yet there's so much more to know about them. Thank you for your books and for the opportunity to talk today.

    Susan: Thanks a lot.

    [music]

    Announcer: Thank you for listening to Why We Write. This podcast is just a taste of the many amazing people who are part of the Lesley writing community. If you want to know more about Susan Goodman and our creative writing program, see photos from our interview, and more, please head over to www.lesley.edu/podcast. Of course, Lesley is spelled L-E-S-L-E-Y. If you've enjoyed the podcast so far we'd appreciate if you would rate and review it on the podcast platform of your choice. Now, here's a clip from next week's interview.

    Renee Watson: Then I realized there are no black people in that book or in the series. That was something that really bothered me and it was just like, how are we here in real life but not represented in this book? The same could be said for Portlandia. There are shows that talk about Oregon, the Pacific Northwest but black people are erased. I really want to write something where a black girl can exist.