November 10, 2021

Birth Stories for Books: Who Is a Scientist? by Laura Gehl

Hello readers! Up next is another Birth Stories for Books interview. Today's guest, Laura Gehl, shares some unique insights about her path to publication for one of her latest books, WHO IS A SCIENTIST?, so let's get right to it. 

Dawn Prochovnic: I’m so glad to have you on the blog, Laura, and I’m excited to learn more about your latest book, WHO IS A SCIENTIST? (Millbrook Press, October 2021.) 

Laura Gehl: Thanks so much for having me, Dawn! 

DP: In recent interviews on Mr. Schu Reads and the Lerner Books websites, you’ve talked about what inspired you to write this book. I’d love to hear more about the process and timeframe between your initial idea for the book and the manuscript that was formulated fully enough to submit to an editor. For example, the book features a very diverse range of scientists. How did you connect with these individuals, and how did you arrange for the excellent collection of photographs in the book that features snapshots of the scientists’ professional lives and personal hobbies?

LG: Great question! I had a few scientists in mind when I started working on the project. To find more, I posted on social media, talking about my vision and goals for the book. Some scientists volunteered themselves after reading my post, while others were referred to me by friends who thought they would be a great fit. Then I needed to find photographers…in many different locations…to take the photos! One of the photographers was someone I knew personally, and one was a referral from an old friend. The others I found through online searches for photographers in each of the cities where the scientists lived. It was actually a LOT of work to find all the photographers, connect them with the scientists, arrange for permission forms and payments, etc…not to mention that we were dealing with COVID. And one scientist moved to Australia before we got her photos taken! But the hard work paid off. The photos of each scientist at work and at play are the heart of the book, and I am thrilled with how they turned out. 

DP: The photos are an excellent aspect of the book! It's fun to hear how they came to be. 

When you compare one of your earliest manuscript drafts to the published book, what stands out for you in terms of what is most different? Likewise, is there anything in particular that stands out that was included in your earliest drafts and survived the revision process?

LG: The biggest thing that stayed the same was the primary text (Who is a scientist? This is a scientist. Isha is a meteorologist.) And on the flip side, the biggest change was the addition of the secondary text, giving more information about each scientist’s work. 

DP: In addition to the primary and secondary text, I love the many “extras” in this book. The "Meet the scientists” QR code that takes you to a video where the scientists introduce themselves. The name pronunciation guide in the back of the book. The flow chart that helps a reader decide what branches of science they might most enjoy exploring. 

Image from Who Is a Scientist? by Laura Gehl

DP: How did those extras come to be? Were these elements included in your initial vision for the project, or did they develop in collaboration with your publisher’s editorial team? 

LG: The back matter was very much a collaboration with my publisher. Millbrook is amazing with back matter, and I’m so grateful I got to work with Carol Hinz and Jordyn Taylor, among others, on the special back matter for this book. 

DP: Sounds like you had a great team to work with! 

Reflecting on the journey from idea to published book, is there any one moment along the way that you credit with opening the door for this particular book to find its way to publication? 

LG: I think including photos in my proposal was probably key to the book being acquired. The photos in the proposal were just photos I took from the Internet—not the photos that we ended up using in the book. But they gave my editor a sense of what I wanted to do with the book in a way that would have been very difficult to accomplish using only words. 

DP: It appears like your approach was really effective.

Shifting gears a bit, one of my favorite parts of being an author is connecting with young readers at school, library, and bookstore visits, and I’m always looking for new pro tips. Your bio indicates you are a former reading teacher, and your website indicates you do author visits, so you have experience on both sides of the table. Based on this experience, what professional advice or suggestions do you have for fellow author/presenters in terms of planning successful (in-person and/or virtual) events? 

LG: I think understanding the age group that you will be presenting to is key. If you haven’t spent time around 3-year-olds and you want to present to preschoolers, try to sit in on a library storytime or a preschool class before you put together your presentation. Same with 1st graders or 5th graders. What will work best for each age group is different. With 2-year-olds, for example, you really can’t ask a question and then have kids raise their hands to answer. If you call on a 2-year-old to answer a question, they will probably tell you that their cat’s name is Pluto or that they are wearing blue underwear. For the youngest kids, props, puppets, and songs work great (I like adapting a song they will already know, like Old McDonald or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, to fit the book I am reading to them). For older kids, you can keep the same amount of interaction and humor but target it differently…with quizzes and games and group brainstorming exercises, for example.    

DP: Excellent tips, Laura.

I know from your social media accounts (and from our being in a book launch group together!) that you've had quite a year in terms of new releases, plus you offer freelance editing services, and you maintain an active schedule of virtual book events. How do you balance the time between your different book projects and the different aspects of the publishing business?

LG: I like doing lots of different things, because I never get bored, and if I am having trouble with one project, I can work on a different one. That said, I’ve learned that I sometimes need to say no even when I wish I could say yes. This fall, I’ve just been too busy to take on freelance editing projects, and I’ve had to turn down quite a few. My local SCBWI is doing a mentorship program right now that I would have loved to be a part of…but I knew I just didn’t have the bandwidth at the moment. It’s really hard for me to say no to anything writing-related, but sometimes it’s necessary, both in order to preserve my mental health and to preserve time to write! 

DP: If you could go back in time, what would you tell your pre-published self? Or, said another way, what do you know now, that you wished you would have known a bit earlier?

LG: I would tell myself to find a great critique group (or two) much sooner!  

DP: Is there something you wish someone would ask you about your path to publication for WHO IS A SCIENTIST?  that you haven’t had the opportunity to share yet? 

LG: I don’t think anyone has asked if I sold this book as a proposal or as a completed manuscript. The answer is that I sold it as a proposal… but I did include the basic text for the manuscript in the proposal. I didn’t recruit the actual scientists or the photographers until after I sold the book, but I had “placeholder” scientists and placeholder photos in my proposal to show how the finished book would look.   

DP: It sounds like that approach really helped the publishing team envision what you had in mind.

Do you have anything you’d like to tell us about what you’re currently working on? 

LG: Right now I’m working on another project with the fabulous team at Millbrook, a book about climate change, which will release in 2023 in time for Earth Day. I am learning so much every day I work on this book! (And for your readers who are considering how to sell a NF book idea, I sold this new book on proposal with sample text included, similar to Who Is a Scientist?)

DP: Thanks so much for sharing your Birth Story for WHO IS A SCIENTIST? with us, Laura. I've learned so much!

LG: Thanks again for hosting me, Dawn! 

Friends, the best way to thank an author whose insights have been helpful and/or intriguing to you is to support their work. Buy their books. Request them from your library. Read and share them with others.   


Laura Gehl is the award-winning author of more than two dozen picture books, board books, and early readers including One Big Pair of Underwear; My Pillow Keeps Moving; Always Looking Up: Nancy Grace Roman, Astronomer; Except When They Don’t; and Odd Beasts. Laura lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with her husband and four children. Visit her online at and follow her @AuthorLauraGehl on Twitter and Instagram


Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including, Lucy's Blooms, Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?, and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to the award-winning book, Oregon Reads Aloud, and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at  

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