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True Story Blog


Award-winning illustrator Shennen Bersani talks about her debut as an author. ACHOO! WHY POLLEN COUNTS teaches children about bees, pollen, and the pollination process through the story of a baby bear and his allergy.

Q. Is ACHOO! the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was your first manuscript and what became of it?
A. No, ACHOO! wasn't my first. Actually, my mother gave me a copy of "Little Women" back in fourth grade. My first "manuscript" was written after I read it. I wanted to add to the drama, so I wrote and illustrated "Grown Women", creating a new world for Jo and her sisters. My ten year old brain knew very little of adult women, but I had fun drawing ladies' costumes and creating paper dolls out of them. Unfortunately all my childhood journals hit the dumpster after I got married and left the house. Later, I wrote a manuscript for a picture book on marsupials. I sent it to a publisher with some illustrations of kangaroos. Their editor told me it was too non-fiction for her company's book focus. She later went on to hire me as an illustrator. I did not let that deter me from writing many more manuscripts since.

Q. What event or person inspired ACHOO!?
A. My son first introduced me to CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) and suggested I write about it. I was beating my head with how to teach about bees, without becoming a non-fiction textbook. So that subject was spinning in the back of my mind. Along comes a new thought - the problem of pollen. I got hooked on the thought of pollen, children's allergies, and how I could educate kids about the importance of that messy, irritating stuff everyone loves to hate. Once I earnestly researched pollen I knew I was onto something big. Pollen isn't just a springtime sneeze, it is a growing global problem and is found year long in our atmosphere. The more I researched the topic, the more I realized I had found a home for my waiting pollinators - the bees. I described the importance of honeybees in this book, because I did not want kids to be frightened and go screaming when they see bees in their yards. I want them to understand the important role bees play in our food chain and why it is important to protect them.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book? Were there other titles that you considered?
A. The title, "Achoo! Why Pollen Counts", was my first and only choice. I felt it really described the manuscript, since it's an educational trade book.

Q. What is your favorite sentence or scene in ACHOO!? Was it in the first draft?
A."Yuck! Icky! Why am I so sticky?" huffed Baby Bear. He stretched his sleepy muscles by rolling in a golden field of clover. I think this is adorable imagery, I get really animated when I read this page to children. You can compare this to my original draft, "Yuck! Icky! Why am I so sticky?" sighed Baby Bear as he stretched his sleepy cramped muscles, still tight from hibernation, by rolling in a golden field of clover. Here's where my editor came in. She suggested we bring the text down to a younger grade level. I was fine with that.

Q. Why did you choose to name your main character Baby Bear instead of a "human" name?
A. (Smile), the little guy is just a baby bear experiencing life in the forest for the first time outside his den. I didn't want to tag him with a monoclonal, I wanted all little children who read the book to relate to him as themselves. I gave proper names to the other characters he encounters because I wanted those to be his friends, and likewise to have the young reader feel like they are their friends as well. Little critters a child can relate to.

Q. How did you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. I felt the third person drives home the science facts and importance of the subject, while allowing children to put themselves in the story more easily.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began to write?
A. All of it. I spent three months researching daily everything I could about pollen, forest animals, black bears. I dug up every creature that eats pollen, wrote to vetters to double check the science. I hiked through a few national parks and pine forests, visited live bears in New Hampshire, observed a large honeybee hive at the Boston Museum of Science, and constantly researched bees pollinating flowers everywhere I could. I also contacted beekeepers, and went to multiple butterfly conservatories. I compiled pages and pages of info, then stopped researching over Christmas and New Year. One day in January, I sat down with all my notes and started writing. It was easy to put together at that point, because I had thoroughly done my homework in advance and gave it milder and restful thought while incubating over the holidays.

Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did Baby Bear appear before the words?
A. Ah, this might really surprise people. The entire time I wrote it I pretended one of my peers was illustrating it. I took myself out of the equation completely. Previously, my manuscripts were written to accompany my illustrations. Since those are all sitting neatly in a box, unpublished, I thought I'd try a different angle. I actually came a millisecond from suggesting a peer illustrate it, until my closest friends remarked how I would regret that years to come. Ultimately, illustrating it was the most rewarding experience I've had as an illustrator. I'm thrilled with how the book turned out.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on ACHOO!.
A. Ecstatic! Then me and my BFFs partied like it was 1999.

Q. How long did ACHOO! take to be published—from the time you got an offer until it was printed?
A. Fourteen months, from contract to printed book.

Q. You illustrated several books before ACHOO! How did being the writer and illustrator compare with being an illustrator of someone else's work?
A. I illustrated 21 books before ACHOO! I'm seasoned enough so that I feel confident I will do a great job illustrating someone else's words. I love bringing text to life, and I know the publisher wouldn't have hired me if I wasn't a good fit for an assignment. While illustrating ACHOO!, though, I was very tough on myself. I was my own worst critic. I became obsessed and anal over making the art breathtaking. I overate jellybeans and tanked up on too much coffee. Totally crazy! I was wired night and day. It actually took a few months to move back into my groove.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. On the author side, I'm researching rodents and transportation. Wearing my illustrator cap and painter's smock, I'm doing the research for my twenty-sixth picture book - it's non-fiction and Hawaiian. Perfect subject matter to become enveloped in during our blustery Boston winters.

Q. What's your #1 tip for writing children's books?
A. I'm sure people have told you their number one tip for writing -any- kind of book is to keep a journal and just Do It! Make daily writing your habitual habit. So you've done that. My tip is to take that manuscript you now cherish - and before you send it off to a publisher - have a young child read it out loud. This is your target audience! Plus little kids are (sometimes brutally) honest. Does the youngster stumble over difficult words? Does the little reader enjoy the story, or "get" your point, or laugh at the funny parts? If you haven't won the tyke over then maybe you need to do some editing. Now no cheating, if the child doesn't understand your point, don't butt in and explain. When your books are on reviewers desks you won't be there to do explaining! Your manuscript will have to speak for itself.

Don't know any K-3 graders? Don't make that your excuse not to find your young reader. Beyond your own kids/grandkids, extended family, neighbors, you can find an army of children at your local elementary school. Or ask your local children's librarian if you could give an Inside Out Story Time, where the kids read stories to the adults. Any way you find your "readers", by gaining the perspective of your target audience you can take a weak tale to a solid award winner!

To learn more about Shennen Bersani and her books, visit her website
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