Illustration of "Brianna's Book Stop" by Jeffrey Duckworth / Book Cover for WHERE DO DIGGERS SLEEP AT NIGHT? (on the bookmobile) by Christian Slade

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Good News Tuesday: Interview with Lisa Kahn Schnell, a Debut Nonfiction Author

Profile Picture of Charlesbridge Publishing
So excited to be celebrating Lisa Kahn Schnell,
who just signed a contract with  Charlesbridge!

Happy Good News Day Tuesday! Today I'm so excited to celebrate with Lisa Kahn Schnell who just signed a contract for her first picture book! Congratulations, Lisa!

Lisa was kind enough to agree to do an interview where she shares wonderful information about her book,  her writing process and the unique benefits and challenges of writing nonfiction for kids. (And some wonderful information about horseshoe crabs too! :o) )

Please enjoy Lisa's very thoughtful answers!

What can you tell us about your upcoming book?

My book will be about horseshoe crabs. The focus will be on the annual mass spawning event that takes place each year in Delaware Bay. In addition to all the horseshoe crabs that clamber onto shore, thousands of migrating shorebirds stop to eat the horseshoe crabs’ eggs. Scientists and volunteers come to study all these organisms--they are part of the story, too.

I hope the book will be a sort of invitation, that it will pique people’s curiosity and encourage them to come out and see these amazing animals. The book (title still to be determined!) is scheduled to be published in 2015, by Charlesbridge.

How did you get the idea to write about horseshoe crabs?

Despite having seen horseshoe crabs on the beach ever since I was a child, I didn’t know much about them. I started to read more and became fascinated by their story—not only have they been on this planet for hundreds of millions of years, but their tiny green eggs are critical to migrating shorebirds (who have their own amazing story!).

It turns out that horseshoe crabs are important to human health, too. I had been completely unaware that a product distilled from horseshoe blood is used to test pretty much all medical equipment, as well as vaccines and other medicines, to be sure they’re not contaminated with dangerous bacteria. This test using this product, called LAL (Limulus Amoebocyte Lysate), basically replaced the old-style tests on rabbits people used to do.

Horseshoe crabs are found all up and down the east coast of the US, and related species are found in Japan, China, India, and Indonesia, so it seemed like a book about them might appeal to a fairly large audience. It just all seemed like too good a story not to share. Plus, you know, I like the beach, and this gave me the perfect reason to go!

Can you describe your path to publication?

Long and twisty, and the book isn’t even out yet! Most recently, I attended the 2011 Highlights Bootcamp for Science Writers. I was especially inspired by one of the presenters, Loree Griffin Burns. She was—is—clearly having fun with her work! And, she helped me realize that writing about science could allow me to share that feeling of being out in the wild with a trusted expert, someone who shares what they love about the world in a way that makes me feel excited about it, too. 

Once I had read a lot about horseshoe crabs and conducted interviews and even participated in some field research, I wrote and revised until I had a manuscript that was in reasonable shape. I attended the Falling Leaves Conference (SCBWI—E NY, in 2012), where I met editor Alyssa Pusey from Charlesbridge. Alyssa’s presentation at the conference made it clear that she cares about, and deeply understands, the challenges of writing non-fiction. After the conference, and after some more revising, I submitted my manuscript to Alyssa. Much to my delight, she accepted it!

What do you see as the unique challenges and benefits of writing nonfiction?

For me, the biggest challenge is to find a way to harness the energy that I feel when I’m out in the field, looking at some fascinating plant or creature, or talking to an expert, and to translate that energy onto the page. I want some kid in Chicago, who may never see a live horseshoe crab, to feel as excited about them as I do. I guess the other big challenge is leaving behind so much of the amazing information I uncover. Sadly, it just can’t all fit into one little picture book.

I think there are many benefits to writing non-fiction. I get to choose a subject that fascinates me, go to interesting places to learn more about that subject, talk with knowledgeable people to gather more details, and then I get to share what I’ve learned with children--and hopefully some adults, too. Seems like a pretty good gig to me!

What advice would you give to new and aspiring writers?

I am still a new and aspiring writer myself! Some things that have helped me so far, though—

I like to stick to a schedule. That means that I don’t answer the phone or schedule appointments in the morning, because that’s my work time. Even if I only work for half an hour, and even if no one else in the whole world cares if I do it, I need to show up for work.

I’m sure most aspiring writers have heard it before, but reading matters. The librarians at our local library tell me I’m great for their circulation numbers. I check out tons of non-fiction books, and that has helped me figure out what appeals to me in terms of form, presentation, and subject matter.

Also, it has taken some time, but I now have a network of other writers—local friends, online groups, in-person writing groups, people I’ve met at conferences. I can truly say that these people have kept me afloat during the bad times!

My dance teacher recently said something to me that I think applies to writing, too. She said, basically, “Stop concentrating on getting everything just right. Trust yourself. Show your joy!” And this comes from a woman who is quite a perfectionist.

I find it easy to get distracted by imagined (and sometimes real) rules about writing, or the new Common Core standards, or what’s current in the market, or whatever. But the writing I’ve produced that I consider to be most successful happens when I relax and trust myself. Doing that is not easy, and it’s not always under my control (in fact, it feels like it never is). When I manage to pull it off, though, I’m usually pleasantly surprised. So, if you love to dance, or write, or if you find some subject fascinating, let it show, and see what happens!

Lisa Kahn Schnell has worked in a prison, served as Peace Corps Volunteer, and started a school garden. She lives in eastern Pennsylvania with her husband, their two daughters, and a charming Ghanaian cat who stalks her ankles. (Only her ankles. Why?)

Congratulations, Lisa! Can't wait to read the book!

Have you considered writing nonfiction for kids? What benefits and/or challenges have you discovered?


  1. Congratulations, Lisa! I've heard fantastic things about Charlesbridge.

  2. Congratulations, Lisa. And how great to discover a non-fiction topic that fascinates you! I'm sure it will fascinate children as well.

  3. Yes Lisa. I completely agree with Mirka and J.A. I have heard wonderful things about Charlesbridge and you have a fascinating topic. What a fantastic combination!