I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Elisa Boxer, an award-winning journalist and the author of several must-read picture books, including ONE TURTLE'S LAST STRAW (illustrated by Marta Álvarez Miguéns, Crown/Random House Kids, May 10, 2022.)
I'm delighted that I can share this insightful interview with you, today.
|by Elisa Boxer and Marta Álvarez Miguéns|
Dawn Prochovnic: Welcome to the blog, Elisa. I’m looking forward to hearing more about the path to publication for your compelling new picture book, ONE TURTLE’S LAST STRAW.
Elisa Boxer: I am delighted to be here, Dawn, thank you so much for hosting me on your blog!
DP: In your comprehensive online bio you say, “My singular self-imposed task has been consistent: Dig deep enough to uncover the soul. Because regardless of the subject, there’s an emotional spark. Always. My job is finding that spark and crafting it into something relatable and universal.”
I’d argue you accomplished that goal right from the opening page of ONE TURTLE’S LAST STRAW, which reads,“What if one small choice had the power to CHANGE THE WORLD?”
I’d love to hear how the initial idea for this story came to be, and if there was any one moment along the way that you credit with helping you uncover the relatable and universal emotional spark for this story?
EB: I'm so glad you picked up on the significance of that opening page, because to me, that one question ("What if one small choice had the power to change the world?") is really everything - at least it became so. I didn't initially set out to convey this message. In fact, in the early stages, I was just looking to write a picture book on the topic of ocean pollution.
|Interior Image: ONE TURTLE'S LAST STRAW|
When I stumbled across the viral video of the sea turtle with the straw stuck in his nasal passage, it tugged at my heart. I wanted to know more, so I set up an interview with the marine biologist responsible for filming the video and helping to save the turtle's life. She told me this wasn't necessarily the result of someone littering on a beach, and that even in landlocked communities, straws can blow into storm drains and travel great distances to the ocean, where they can impact marine life. The fact that this turtle almost died because someone, without even thinking about it, could have casually tossed a straw in the trash, really got me thinking about the far-reaching impact of a single decision. We make them every day, right? I want young readers to realize just how much power lies in every conscious choice.
|Interior Image: ONE TURTLE'S LAST STRAW|
DP: That's a really powerful backstory, Elisa. Thanks so much for sharing it with us.
In addition to being an accomplished children’s book author, you’re an Emmy Award-winning journalist, Columbia-trained newspaper, magazine, and TV reporter, and Today Show parenting team blogger. This suggests you have quite a bit of experience submitting ideas to editors, and yet the children’s book publishing industry can pose its own unique challenges. I’d like to hear about the process and timeframe between your initial idea for this book and the manuscript that was formulated fully enough to submit to an editor. I’d especially like to hear if there is anything in particular that you bring from your other research and writing experiences that helps you be more successful in your role as a children’s book author?
EB: When I set out on the children's literature path, I didn't realize just how similar it would be to journalism. But especially as a nonfiction author, so much is the same in terms of topic selection, in-depth research, distilling the information down to a relatable narrative, finding a hook, and writing the story with emotional resonance.
As for the timeline, after I found the video of the sea turtle with the straw stuck in his nose, I was so moved by it that I tracked down Christine Figgener, the marine biologist, and asked for an interview. She was in Costa Rica on another research mission at the time, but was so great about quickly emailing me back and arranging a phone call. We spoke the very next week, and I was so motivated after that talk that I sat down and wrote the manuscript in one weekend. It was the quickest first draft I've ever written. When I'm able to talk to someone directly involved in the story, it's such a huge motivator for me. That's one thing I love about journalism, interviewing people at the heart of a story. The whole turtle book process moved really quickly, compared to my other books. After a few rounds of back-and-forth revisions with my agent, out it went to editors. And it found the perfect home with Emily Easton, the VP/Publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers. She brought so much heart to the process. And it ended up being a two-book deal with A Seat at the Table: The Nancy Pelosi Story!
DP: Wow! This is another example of how much power lies in every conscious choice, in this case, the conscious choice to learn more about the turtle's story!
When you compare one of your earliest drafts of this story to the version in 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?
EB: I'm going to answer this question differently than I would have yesterday, because today my author copies just arrived (YAY!) and while my son was reading through it, he said "You changed the ending!"
I will do a bit of a spoiler here and say I had completely forgotten that in the draft I initially sent to my agent, the child at the end of the book does the same thing as the child in the beginning -- tosses a straw in the trash without giving it a second thought. So it was more of a cautionary tale. I had wanted young readers to think, "uh-oh, we know what could happen next!" Because they would have just read the harrowing tale of the turtle swallowing said straw.
But my agent thought it would be better to end on a hopeful note, which we did. I won't completely spoil the ending, but I agree it's a much better one!
I'm also thrilled that Dr. Christine Figgener, the marine biologist, agreed to write an afterword. When Emily Easton acquired the book, I hadn't yet asked Christine if she'd write something. It's such an important part of the book and I am so glad it's in there!
DP: I love how the book ends—and I agree, Dr. Figgener's afterword adds a really nice touch.
When you compare the path to publication for this book to the paths to publication for your next two books coming out later this year (COVERED IN COLOR and SPLASH), what are some of the key similarities and differences in terms of the publication journeys for each?
EB: I've been thinking a lot lately about how different these books appear on the surface, but how remarkably similar they are in some important ways, namely that their subjects manage to turn terrible hardships into hope. In One Turtle's Last Straw, the turtle's near-death ordeal helped wake up the world to the dangers of plastic straws. In Splash!, Olympian Ethelda Bleibtrey used swimming not only to heal from polio, but also to change some sexist rules of society. In Covered in Color, the artist Christo grew up under terrifying and oppressive Nazi rule, and then under Communism, yet he and his wife Jeanne-Claude created these incredible installations of public art that were ultimately symbols of freedom.
In terms of publication journeys, all three books began with a deep desire to learn more, which led to copious amounts of research in libraries, online and over the phone. The acquiring editors for SPLASH! (Sarah Rockett at Sleeping Bear Press) and Covered in Color (Howard Reeves at Abrams) were editors I was already working with on other projects, while One Turtle's Last Straw was my first book with Emily Easton. Although this book ended up releasing after our other book together, A Seat at the Table.
Having three books come out in the same year, with three different publishers, has been eye-opening in terms of how differently each house handles everything from acquisitions, to revisions, to proofs, to marketing. Just when I begin to assume something based on how one publisher does things, I am reminded that the next publisher has a completely different process. It's an adventure! I will say that the one constant with every book is that I remain thoroughly in awe of the illustrators and how they bring the words to life in ways that are beyond anything I could have ever imagined.
DP: These are really helpful observations, Elisa. Reading your books, it's very clear that they come from a place of a deep desire to learn more, and I can't help but think that this desire to learn more rubs off on your readers.
Your debut picture book, THE VOICE THAT WON THE VOTE, launched at the very beginning of the pandemic, at which time you wrote a beautiful blog post about the ways in which the kidlit community came together to support each other and the other participants in the kidlit ecosystem (e.g. indie book stores, young readers, teachers, librarians, parents.) Your second book, A SEAT AT THE TABLE, launched a year later while the pandemic carried on. Now that you have pandemic-era book launch experience, what have you found to be the most effective and meaningful way(s) to connect with young readers and book buyers during these challenging times?
EB: Thanks so much for referring to that blog post, I was moved to write that in the middle of an emotional roller coaster that none of us could have known would last as long as it has! And I love how you call it a kidlit ecosystem. We really are an ecosystem, aren't we? At this point, I don't have any idea what it's like to launch a book during anything other than a pandemic! The launch event for my first book was scheduled for that second week in March when everything shut down, and we had to cancel it. As you mentioned, my second book launched in quarantine. Three books in, I'm getting ready for my first in-person event, which I'm super excited about: An outdoor storytime, Q&A and book signing on the lawn of my local Scarborough Public Library.
But I have to say, even though my launches thus far have been very different than what I expected, I've really been focused on celebrating the processes that led to these books coming to fruition, the books themselves, and everyone involved. If I'd been focused on launch events, who knows, maybe I would have still been just as able to focus on the more intangible aspects? But maybe not. And I am thrilled that I've been able to connect with educators and students around the world, whereas my focus might have been more local were we not in a pandemic.
Ultimately, to answer your question (I got here eventually, ha!) I think the most meaningful connections with young readers and book buyers come from how deeply and passionately we connect with our own work, and our ability to authentically convey that, regardless of the medium.
DP: I think you've hit on something really important, Elisa. Your enthusiasm is definitely contagious!
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. You’ve previously shared that your son has high-functioning autism, also known as Asperger’s syndrome, and you’ve articulated that individuals, like your son, who "see below the surface” have something to teach us all. Based on your unique experience and understanding working with exceptional young learners, what advice or suggestions do you have for fellow author/presenters in terms of planning (in-person and/or remote) book events? Put more simply, what might your son, Evan, be able to teach us about how to improve our author outreach?
EB: What a wonderful question. I just went to the source and asked my son, Evan! He said he's most drawn in when presentations are interactive. For example, when the presenter asks questions, provides visual aids with back and forth from the audience, leads a hand-on activity, or otherwise engages the listener. Personally, my favorite part of my presentations is always the Q&A. I don't even like to wait until I'm finished. I'd rather take questions as they naturally arise from the students. Not always feasible, I know, but I love the organic nature and flow of something unexpected that sparks a students' interest and that I can answer on the spot.
DP: That's excellent advice from Evan! (And I couldn't agree more about the Q&A. There's never enough time for all the questions, and I never want to miss a single one. I always encourage kids to write me with any questions they didn't get to ask during the author visit. Here is a recap of the dandies from my most recent virtual author visit.)
Taking a stroll through your blog, website and social media feeds, it is clear you are engaged in many different activities and experiences to make the world a better place, including your work as an environmental health advocate and as a mindfulness coach and columnist. How do you balance the time between your different writing projects and the different aspects of the publishing business alongside an active personal life?
EB: My mindfulness practice has actually helped tremendously with every aspect of my life, because it's really about tuning in, grounding, and being acutely present for each moment. Easier said than done, I know, especially for us recovering Type-A multitaskers. But I'm trying to make every moment count, especially now in these next couple of months before my baby heads off to college! I've found that paying full, honest attention to how I am feeling in real time helps me let go of things that might be draining my energy, and helps me put more focus on things that are important and aligned with who I am and what I can contribute. For some tasks, we have no choice, we have to do them, right? But for others, whether it's a project, an interaction, something personal, or something professional, I try to pay attention to whether I feel a sense of ease/freedom/expansion in my solar plexus, or a tightness/tension/constriction. The former means it's a big yes, and the latter means maybe it's something I should consider saying no to.
DP: That's really healthy advice, Elisa. I'm so grateful for everything I've learned from you while working on this interview.
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?
EB: I would have told my pre-published self to go for it a heck of a lot sooner than I did! Even while I was reporting for various news outlets, I was always writing picture book manuscripts in my spare time. Because I had a passion for children's literature, and a love of writing. But I didn't have the confidence to submit anything until a few years ago, in my late forties. I know it's never too late, but I do wish I'd started earlier. More importantly, I wish I'd believed in myself and my writing earlier. I actually have a book coming out in 2024 (it hasn't been announced yet) that I started writing in the 1990s!
DP: That is encouraging and inspiring on so many levels, Elisa!
Do you have anything you’d like to tell us about what you’re currently working on?
EB: Finding faith amid the darkest of circumstances has been one emerging theme of my writing, and I am humbled to be working on two Holocaust-related picture books. Hidden Hope (Abrams, 2023) is the true story of a wooden toy duck used to hide false identity papers from the Nazis, and The Tree of Life (Rocky Pond Books, 2024) tells how children in a concentration camp secretly planted a sapling, whose descendants survive to this day.
I'm also thrilled to be working on two yet-to-be-announced picture books with themes of trusting your instincts and listening to your inner voice.
DP: Thanks so much for sharing your Birth Story for ONE TURTLE’S LAST STRAW with us, Elisa! I look forward to reading your other forthcoming books when they come into the world, too.
EB: Dawn, thank you so much for having me, and for these thoughtful questions. I'm so happy to have gotten to know you through this process!
DP: I enjoyed getting to know you through our shared interest in writing for children, Elisa. I look forward to staying in touch.
Friends, you've heard me say it before: The best way to thank an author whose insights have been helpful and/or inspiring to you is to support their work. Buy their books. Request them from your library. Read and share them with others. Elisa's books, including ONE TURTLE'S LAST STRAW are available everywhere books are sold—but you know I'm partial to supporting your local, independent bookstore.
|Photo Credit: Melissa Mullen Photography|
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 www.dawnprochovnic.com.