Georgia Sparling: 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.
Hi, my name is Georgia Sparling and I'm the producer of the Why We Write podcast. Today, I'm here with Sara Levine, who is the author of a number of science picture books including Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons, Tooth by Tooth: Comparing Fangs, Tusks, and Chompers, and Flower Talk: How Plants Use Color to Communicate, which just hit shelves this month. Sara is a veterinarian, an educator and coincidentally graduated from our MFA in Creative Writing program. Sara, welcome to the podcast.
Sara Levine: Thanks for having me.
Georgia: I'd love to learn more about your love of animals and outdoors and how did that start and how did it get you to become a veterinarian?
Sara: Well, I grew up in Connecticut, but I was born in New York City and my parents were two Brooklyn Jews who decided that they wanted to move to the country and get some animals. We moved and then there were cats and dogs, the usual, but we basically knew nothing. My parents thought, "Okay, well, we'll start off with a goat." We got a goat. The goat kept breaking out of his stall. There were shelves in the stall and he jumped from one to the other, he went over it and over it into the house and he ended up being in the house because he was so lonely. Then there was another goat.
Georgia: You’ve got to have two goats at least, right?
Sara: You have to have two goats. Then there was a baby goat and it went on like that. There were some peacocks and there's some ducks and geese. Then we went to a farm one day to buy our milk—It’s a small town. There was a calf sitting there that was born that day. The farmer made the mistake of mentioning that she was going to slaughter it because they had too many heifers born that year.
Of course we'd like to take her home. Then there was a cow. There was eventually a horse. Then the horse got lonely. I grew up with over a hundred animals. We used to write down the names. We kept inventory and I was basically taking care of them as the oldest kid. I have two siblings and I loved it. I don't know if we can say it's innate, but it certainly was. My parents are certainly both very interested in animals and I certainly got a lot of experience growing up.
Georgia: What did your parents do? What allowed them to be able to go out (of the city)?
Sara: My dad is a physician and also a medical inventor and my mom worked as a nurse before I was born, so both medical. Then my mom went on to work for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. She helped train the people who were training the puppies.
Georgia: The medical profession came pretty naturally.
Sara: Well, yes. My dad used to ask what kind of doctor I was to be when I grew up. Which I didn't know… but the best answer to that was a veterinary.
Georgia: When did you decide that was your path?
Sara: Well, I think the answer is, I'm still deciding.
Sara: I've tried a lot of different things. When I went to college I thought I would major in biology and also in English. Those were always my two big interests and it was very hard to balance the two. When I got to college, the school that I picked, didn't really have a whole animal biology department, and I didn't understand that when I was applying. It was all molecular and you had to take years of chemistry even to take biology.
I wasn't as interested in that and ended up majoring in English and writing. Then when I got out, I realized that most of the jobs I was interested in, you really needed biology. I was really upset that I hadn't taken all these classes. Then I started taking biology classes and that led to applying to veterinary school. I did the prereqs for that.
Then after practicing as a vet for years, not years, I practiced for four years. There's no way-- I had my daughter and I had some time off then and I suddenly just had this writing explosion happen and realized that I was really missing the creative part of myself and went back. That's when I discovered the Lesley program was just starting then. I was maybe the second or third class. I realized it would be easy enough, I was living in Cambridge, to go twice a year for the 10 days and get childcare and I was able to do that. It's really the first time where I was able to combine the biology and the English when I started writing about animals and science for kids. It finally came together, but it took a while.
Georgia: When did you graduate from the program here?
Sara: I graduated in, I have to think about it for a second, 2006.
Georgia: Okay. That's great. So you taught at college?
Georgia: How did that fit in?
Sara: I had the luxury of taking some time off when my daughter was young and that's when I did the MFA program. I was doing a little bit of relief type work to keep my skills up and my surgery skills up and a little bit of teaching children because I just love doing that, nature classes. Right away, not right away. The semester that I graduated, I got asked to teach a writing class at Lesley.
At the same time, I have a friend from my writing group who was a professor and dean of the math and science department at Wheelock who said that they had too many first years enrolled that year and they were looking for someone to teach an intro to bio course group. I'd always wanted to try that. It just seemed like a great time to try it because I hadn't gone back to vet work yet. I was teaching one biology class and one English class and-
Georgia: That was very inappropriate.
Sara: It was. I was just still finding my balance and Wheelock, it went really well. I really enjoy both of them, but Wheelock said, "Oh, we've never had any animal behavior class here. You want to design that and teach that?" Then by the next year they were offering me full-time work and it was just a lot of fun because I was able to design my own classes and the students were wonderful.
Mostly people who were going to be social workers and work in early childhood education. It was people who weren't necessarily looking to take science classes, but I could teach them in a way that would be intriguing. Interesting. It was a great challenge for me. I loved the work so much that I never went back to the veterinary medicine. Tragically Wheelock closed in May. So I lost my job in May, but really I was there for 12 years and it was wonderful experience. I miss it a lot.
Georgia: Yes. You've done a little bit of a lot of things.
Sara: I do like trying different things.
Georgia: That's awesome. Me too. Let's talk about your writing.
Sara: Okay, sure.
Georgia: What led you to pursue children's books? I know you also write, essays on science, essays for adults. Maybe we start with the kids’ books. Your books and why science related?
Sara: Yes, definitely, it's not what I focused on when I was at Lesley.
Georgia: What did you--?
Sara: I was in creative nonfiction and I mostly worked with Alex Johnson who is a wonderful, wonderful writer, wonderful teacher. It occurred to me that I might want to write a nonfiction picture book for kids. I wrote some books that weren't very good. It was good practice. I also got to know some of the other faculty. David Elliot was also there and wonderful. I love him too. Hi David.
Georgia: Also going to be on the podcast. [laughs]
Sara: Of course, as he should be. A couple of years out, when I was teaching at Wheelock, it occurred to me that one of the things that I was teaching would make a really good children's book and basically it was about comparative anatomy. I realized that most people don't realize that animals and humans have basically the same organs and we get basically the same diseases and there's only minor variations.
When I was teaching students about the bones, I would ask questions, I’d teach them all the bones and then say, "Okay, so what kind of animal would you be if your finger bones, your phalanges, actually went down to the ground and there was a thin piece of skin attaching them?" Then they would guess the answers to that. "What kind of animal would you be if your middle finger was the only finger that supported your whole body and went all the way down to the ground?" and they think about it. Some get it. Some not, anyway, the answer is a horse, friend, and you weren't listening of course.
It occurred to me that it would make a good kid's book. It also occurred to me that there wasn't anything like it because it's not the thing that people think about or really know consciously. I asked Susan, I wrote it up and asked Susan if she'd look at it. She did and she agreed to mentor me through the process and that's how I got started.
Georgia: That's Bone by Bone.
Sara: That is Bone by Bone. Yes. That went well. Then after that I really enjoyed the process of that and wanted to do another one. I also teach a comparative anatomy of teeth lab in a similar way. Basically, mammals have the same teeth, the molars and incisors and canines and what kind of animals have really one canine and so on. That lead to Tooth by Tooth. Then I was hooked. I just really enjoyed it.
Carol Hinz, my editor asked if I wanted to do a dinosaur book, and my initial thought is, "I don't really know anything about dinosaurs. So, no, thank you." But then I thought about it and realized, I actually do know a lot of, I know about bones, and dinosaurs have the same bones that other animals have. Comparative anatomy of dinosaur bones, and there hadn't been anything done like that. I went ahead and wrote Fossil by Fossil: Comparing Dinosaur Skeletons, if that's what it's called. That was an excellent.
Georgia: I think if people heard comparative anatomy, those of us who aren't super sciencey would just glaze over, but it's really engaging.
Sara: Well, that's the thing. I think the challenge is to make science really engaging and fun. The three books that we've mentioned so far are all very interactive because they're call and response. Whether you are reading them to a kid, or you are reading them to a group of kids, they all want to guess the answer.
Georgia: There's lots of fun questions in there that make you think of about--
Sara: It's fun reading it to the group. We practice going one, two, three, and calling out the answer.
Georgia: That’s fun.
Sara: Yes, those make you think. Then should I talk about Flower Talk?
Georgia: Yes. This one is a little bit of a departure from bones and fossils. A little bit softer subject. How did you decide to write about flowers and to go in a different direction than your previous books?
Sara: The previous three are all-- I guess, they're being considered part of a series now and they're all with T. S. Spookytooth, the illustrator.
Georgia: Okay. Also, can we talk about that please?
Sara: We can talk about Spookytooth. I’m not going to out him though. It is a pseudonym. I did have the pleasure of meeting him. He lives in England. We won an award together for Tooth by Tooth. The American Association for Advancement of Science gave us an award for our fiction book and they flew him out, so I was able to meet him and it was really wonderful.
Georgia: What is it like? I'm always curious for a picture book about working with an illustrator because sometimes people just-- I know you might write the book and then somebody else just illustrates it. How much interaction do you guys get?
Sara: We had no interaction. I think that's standard. I was sad about that. There was also the first book I don't think he'll mind my saying. There were some inaccuracies just because he didn't know the science and didn't quite understand what I was trying to do.
Then we had to go through Carol Hinz, our editor, who was wonderful but still things get lost in translation. Since we know each other now, there's a little bit more interaction. I don't know if we're supposed to be having interaction, but we have a little bit more of a back and forth.
Georgia: I think that would be hard because I'm sure you have a vision?
Sara: Yes. Well, I definitely have a vision but I think it's also the editor's-- It's the editor and the book designer’s job and really privileged to also put their creative input into the book. It isn't really just the two of us. It's more the four of us and it comes together. There's lovely things about that. It was a little bit hard for me to let go, but once I realized-
Georgia: It's like your baby going into the world.
Sara: Yes. It was my baby.
Georgia: I do love this pseudonym T. S. Spookytooth. I did a little research when I saw that was the illustrator.
Sara: He's great. He likes drawing spooky things and I like the tone to be funny. We've met, I think, halfway. Some of the illustrations were so spooky that I had college students saying, “You’ve got to get that one cut.” I would bring the sketches to them and get input from the college students each year. There's some illustrations that were a little bit over the edge of spooky.
Georgia: What age range are your books geared towards?
Sara: Mostly it varies by the book but in my target audience are the 7 and 8 year olds. That's the age that I really love-- the first and second grade. The books are usually listed as 4 or 5 through 10 or 11. Depending, Bone by Bone, it works well with younger kids and Fossil by Fossil looks a little bit more sophisticated, so more towards the older.
The next book that's coming out with Spookytooth is Eye by Eye and I just saw the sketches for that. They're really, really wonderful. His skill as an artist has just advanced so much, in my opinion, and the animals all have expressions that change based on the situation. They're just charming. I think they're still spooky but the edge is a little bit off. I'm really looking forward to that book coming out.
Georgia: That's in 2020?
Sara: Let me think.
Georgia: Or 2021?
Sara: Yes, that one's 2020.
Georgia: It seems like a long time.
Sara: There’s two more in 2020 and one 2021. Suddenly it’s much of. Some people look forward to each year.
Georgia: Definitely. Let's talk about Flower Talk. Why move on to a softer subject?
Sara: Well, it was again a topic that I taught. It was based on a paragraph that I found in the bio textbook that I basically inherited when I took over the introduction of plants and animals course. It was just a paragraph about what color of flowers attract which pollinators and I just hadn't ever known that there was a correlation.
Georgia: Me neither. It was an education for me reading it.
Sara: Yes. I think for most people there doesn't seem to be a lot about it. It just seemed like it would make a fun picture book to bring the idea out into the world. When I wrote it up, the format was a little bit like Bone by Bone or Tooth by Tooth.
The question and answer didn't work because no one knows the answer. Like what color of flower attracts the most? Well, who knows? Really, the answer is, it's white ones because at night white is the color that's going to show up the most in the dark. It makes intuitive sense and then the white flowers are also have a scent that they're going to attract the pollinators who can't see them.
Georgia: We just think flowers are pretty.
Sara: Flowers are pretty. You have all these ideas what the colors mean, but it's not how the plants are and the animals are working on it. I needed to change the format. It was a little bit boring and Carol Hinz, my editor, suggested that I need to make a plant a narrator.
Georgia: It was sassy.
Sara: Well, then once I did that, I was like, “Oh, if the plant is the narrator, I can give that plant any personality I want,” so I modeled it after my cranky Jewish relatives.
Georgia: That’s awesome. [laughs]
Sara: Like loving but funny. That's why it was best.
Georgia: You also have a different illustrator on this one? Definitely had a completely different feel. There was like the bee that's also a little sassy, buzzing around the pages. It's watercolor which I thought was really beautiful and lends itself well to the subject matter.
Sara: It's lovely. She did a nice job.
Georgia: It's Masha, can you pronounce her last name?
Sara: You know, I've never said it out loud. I say it out loud, I don't know if I'm saying it correctly. Masha D’yans? Masha, if you hear this, I apologize. Someday we’ll talk and you'll tell me how to pronounce your name.
Georgia: This book just came out in January.
Sara: No, it's actually coming out in March.
Sara: My box arrived.
Sara: That’s how you’ve seen it but it’s not out yet.
Georgia: How does it feel to have this new book come out?
Sara: It's exciting. I always get nervous at first and I always see things that I wish were different or the flaws. I worry that the reviewers, are they going to understand it? That they are not going to understand the science or what I'm trying to do. Which is a valid worry because most people who do book reviews are not science people.
I feel like I want to stand up and say this is what I was trying to do. Anyway, it happens as it happens and then hopefully, people will get it and appreciate it but I always get a little nervous. I got so nervous before Bone by Bone came out that I actually considered canceling it. I just felt like the book was horrible. That wasn't what I thought. It wasn't what I thought but it ends up being a good book.
Georgia: We're always more critical of our own usually than other people.
Sara: I think so.
Georgia: They look at picture books and think it's simple. There's not that many words. Anybody could do that, kind of like with abstract painting or something. I was wondering could you disabuse people of this notion and talk about the process?
Sara: Yes, it's not easy. Well, first of all, you have to think of an idea. The idea really to make it worthwhile-- To make the effort worth a while, I feel like it needs to be an idea that hasn't been done before or hasn't been done in this particular way. Because if someone's going to bother putting all the effort and time and money into bringing a book into the world, it should be unique. It needs to be engaging and it needs to be appropriate for the age audience that you're trying to reach and structure is really important and difficult.
Georgia: Especially when you have so few words. You really have to say a lot in short.
Sara: As an undergraduate, I wrote some poetry and I studied a little bit. I took a poetry writing class. It feels a little bit similar to that where you're constantly honing it and trying to take out all the words that you don't need.
More recently the last book that, one of the books that I recently got published, was my first attempt to write fiction. That is completely new in terms of structure.
Georgia: Is that a kids’ book as well?
Sara: It is a kids’ book.
Sara: It's a kids’ book. It has an embedded math concept. The call was out for fictional books with embedded math concepts. Someone I was in a writing group with at the time had mentioned it and I had to look and realized one of the math concepts was actually a science concept about sorting and organizing so that I tried to write the book and it worked.
In order to write fiction, there are certain set structures and I had no idea. This is something I had to learn and figure out how to do. There has to be some tension and resolution. It was a case like three tries until it was able to. Anyway, I think I veered off the topic that it's hard to write children's books. It is hard.
If you really want to do it, do it because it's worth it.
Georgia: Do you get to interact with kids very often and see how they're responding to your work?
Sara: I do because I teach a nature camp in the summer each year so I get a chance to work with kids then. I also volunteer at a local public school in Cambridge once a week. Those kids are younger than my target audience but I can still go in and try things out with them to see how they respond.
It's a 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old group. I can see there's a very big difference in how the 3-year-olds respond and the 5-year-olds. They'll give me a thumbs down, thumbs up, or thumbs half way.
Georgia: Is that your writing group?
Sara: Yes. That one of my very key writing groups.
Georgia: That's awesome. Will you tell me about your reading life or your reading habit?
Sara: Sure. I read picture books and middle-grade novels and YA novels, and a lot of fiction for adults and also some nonfiction for adults. Basically, I'm always hungry for books and it's how I fall asleep but it's also how I engage with new topics. I'm a reader. My mom said that one of the requirements, whenever we moved, was that we need to be walking distance to a library.
Georgia: That's your policy?
Sara: Yes, it is a good policy and one that I've continued with as an adult.
Georgia: That's awesome.
Sara: Yes. I read a lot.
Georgia: What do you tend to gravitate towards when you're doing your own research or just what subjects will jump out to you as things you want to read about?
Sara: To be truthful, I don't read as much non-fiction as I read fiction, but the non-fiction that I know is from taking classes, going to vet school, and all the science classes that I've taken. If there's something I need to know about, like for the dinosaur book, I felt like since I only knew about dinosaur bones I just looked up what's the best textbook on dinosaurs and I read that, which was fun because I actually was able to design a class around it before I left.
I was able to teach a whole class on dinosaurs. Having known nothing, I knew enough to teach a very intro course. I like comparative anatomy, I'm very interested in animal communication, plant communication, animal-plant interaction.
Georgia: Why do you think those jump out to you?
Sara: I think just because of my experience. I grew up in the woods. I spent a lot of time with plants a lot of time with animals. We were a little bit isolated in terms of not having a lot of other kids around so a lot of my social interactions was with the animals. I guess I just have an affinity for the natural world.
Georgia: Is it hard to live in a city then?
Sara: It's very hard to live in the city actually. I spend a lot of time in the summer in Connecticut, that's where I teach the nature group, getting my nature fix.
Georgia: Nice. We're going to transition to talk a little bit more about your science related essays for adults. I read “What Hands Can Do,” which I think won the Pushcart Prize.
Sara: Well, it was nominated.
Georgia: It was nominated for Pushcart?
Sara: Yes. That's interesting. Where were you able to find that? Is it still online or did you-
Georgia: It's still online at Fictionaut. Then there was another one I didn't get to that was about I think the cow.
Sara: “The Body of a Cow”
Sara: That tells the story of the cow who we got from the farmer.
Georgia: Great. I have to go back, and I'll definitely link these in the show notes so people can check them out.
Sara: That will be great.
Georgia: But I thought that “What Hands Can Do” is so interesting because the images that you're using in there, it's about you performing spaying surgery on a little dog and you're talking about diving and also the fact that you want to become a mom and you are going to inseminate yourself. I was just like, "Wait, what?"
Sara: It's got a little of everything.
Georgia: It was so fascinating and I felt like the images, surgery can seem squirmy, but it was just fascinating and it was such an intimate moment. I thought-- I was wondering could you talk a little bit about that essay, how did that come to you? How did you even decide to put it to paper?
Sara: I wrote that essay a while ago, the baby who was going to be born is now 18. I wrote that actually when I was in the program at Lesley. I wanted to write about surgery. I don't think people realize how intimate surgery is and it's just the things that I noticed while doing it aren't things that I've heard other people talk about or articulate, so I wanted to bring that into the world. A combination of all the things I was thinking about then.
Georgia: I thought of all the different images it could easily have felt very fractured but they fit together really well which I was impressed by.
Sara: I was hoping at that point that that was going to be the title essay for the book of essays. There were others that I had written during that time that I feel like still stand up. I'm taking this year off mostly for writing since I lost the job at Wheelock. I've been getting back to the essays and hoping that I'll have a book come together called What Hands Can Do. They all have the metaphor the hands are in all the different essays. That's something that brings them together.
Georgia: How often in the balance of what you're writing, whether it's for kids or for adults ,is it just whatever idea comes to you?
Sara: Yes. I really had a writing explosion, the creative non-fiction that was happening when my daughter was young. I had this very big fear about being a single mom which was insomnia. I had trouble sleeping and the idea of the baby waking me up, which happens. What ended up happening in my case is I had this enormous creative energy that started, it was there in other parts of my life, but when she was born it was there.
She would wake me up to nurse and I'd get her back to sleep and then I'd just get up and write. Most of those essays were written between 2:00 and 4:00 in the morning. It's a nice time to write because your judging brain is sleeping so you can just write anything. When I wasn't as exhausted I could edit it and put it together.
That part of my life, that's how my writing worked. Once I started working full time, I took a half a day off a week and would go to a friend's house and we'd have lunch together, we still do that, and then go in separate rooms and write. The writing happens then, and then during vacations and then over the summer, I wasn't working as much after the summer I just did a little bit of teaching.
That's when my writing happened. At the beginning I was still working on essays but once I wrote that first picture book, that's where most of the focus was.
Georgia: Do you have a preference or is it dependent?
Sara: I think picture books are easier in that it's an idea and I can keep working on the idea until it's done so it feels like it's easier to write sticking it into small time slots. When I'm writing essays, I think I need to, teaching was maybe more of a distraction for that and it was a little bit harder to focus now that I'm not teaching those are coming back to me.
Georgia: They more personal it seems like?
Sara: Yes, it's my personal and I need more time for just walking around in the woods and thinking about things. I figure out what makes sense to write and what makes sense. Whereas a kids’ book, I think I'm using my-- there's a structure that I'm starting off with and then I'm filling it in so I don't have to start with as much of a blank page.
I'll start with the idea and then I'll know what I'm doing so I can go back to more easily. For the kind of adult reading it feels harder. Recently, I'm getting into rewriting with having all this time which involves a lot of riding my bike to a cafe and sitting there which works.
Georgia: The thing that is similar I think with at least the two essays that I looked at plus your books is that they do combine science and also obviously the humanities, as you're writing. Is that just inherently who you are?
Sara: I think I'm just interested in science. I'm interested in animals, certainly.
Georgia: Do you think you'll ever go back to being a vet or are you a confirmed writer?
Sara: I don't think I'll go back to being a vet. Well, I think you can be a writer and be a vet.
Sara: But the thing is that I love teaching so much and I feel like the teaching really fed my writing and vice versa. I would love to be able to teach again, I just need to figure out the right situation.
Georgia: This year you're going to be devoting to writing?
Sara: So far since May.
Georgia: Is it a little terrifying to have so much time to do that?
Georgia: It's like, "This is what I want to do. This is what I have time for," but it's like, "Oh no now, this is what I'm doing. This is what I have time for."
Sara: I didn't start off with the plan I started off with, "I'm going to get a job. I have to get a job and I'll do well with that structure." What happened was I a little bit created my own structure. It turns out that there are other people around who are also trying to do this and there's support and structure around that. It does help. Getting together with other people and doing it with other-- It just started working. I was realizing that it was going well and that maybe I should let myself have this time.
Georgia: How did you start to find those people on those networks?
Sara: Some of them were in writing groups with me in the past. I knew. Sometimes, just sitting and writing in Café Nero, people start talking to you. I have met other people who are not only writers, they're science writers.
Georgia: That's really cool.
Sara: There's some community with that. I never, ever thought I'd be able to sit in a cafe and write because I'm an introvert. I can't even work with music on. The music is going and people are talking and there's something about getting into a zone and picking up on other people's energy who are also writing that it kind of works.
Georgia: That's awesome. Cool. I think that's a great place for us to stop there. I'll link to your books and your stories in the show notes. Thank you so much for coming.
Sara: Thank you for having me.
Georgia: This was awesome.
Sara: It's my pleasure.
Georgia: Thank you for listening to Why We Write. For more information on Sara Levine and her new book, Flower Talk, which hits shelves today, please visit our podcast page. The link is in the show notes. We'd also appreciate it if you would rate and review our podcast. We're off next week for spring break, but we'll return Tuesday, March 19 for an interview with Jess Rizkallah. Jess graduated from our undergraduate program and went on to get her MFA at NYU. She is an award-winning Lebanese American author, slam poet and founder of Pizza Pi Press which she started as an undergrad here at Lesley. Here's a peek into our conversation.
Jess Rizkallah: But then at Lesley, I took a short fiction class and all of my stories, they’re just zoomed in so much and the feedback I got in the workshops was like, "I don't really know the overarching thing you're trying to say with this story. It's beautifully written and moments are rich but I don't understand what the plot is trying to do." Then I realized like, "Oh, maybe I should I should just chase poetry."