Focus on Nonfiction: Interview with Author Rebecca Johnson

Rebecca Johnson writes nonfiction (mainly science) books for kids and young adults. In my first year doing booktalks, I shared her book WHEN LUNCH FIGHTS BACK: WICKEDLY CLEVER ANIMAL DEFENSES at elementary schools. Fifth and sixth graders were simultaneously awed, disgusted, and intrigued when they heard that fulmar chicks ward off predators by vomiting on them. (The chicks can hit a moving target from 6 feet away — how cool is that?) Last year MASTERS OF DISGUISE was another big hit on my list. I’m so pleased that Rebecca Johnson has agreed to chat with the Booktalk Blog and give us a behind-the-scenes glimpse into her research and writing process.

What has been one of your most fun projects to research and write about?

RJ: My book JOURNEY INTO THE DEEP: DISCOVERING NEW OCEAN CREATURES (Millbrook Press, 2011) is based on numerous experiences I’ve had working with scientists at sea and diving into the ocean’s abyss aboard the Johnson-Sea-Link submersible. Traveling several thousand feet below the surface and encountering deep-sea animals face-to-face was thrilling and awe-inspiring—without a doubt, one of the most incredible things I’ve done in my life. Every dive on the J-S-L was unique; we’d never know what we were going to see during those three or so hours underwater. Exploring the deep ocean is like exploring another planet, one that truly is filled with alien life forms. Ocean scientists are discovering new species all the time. Writing JOURNEY INTO THE DEEP was a way for me to share with my readers some of those scientific discoveries together with the heart-pounding excitement of deep-sea exploration.


What is your research process like? Are you ever surprised by what you find out?

RJ: Whenever possible, I like to work directly with scientists in the field to do research for my books, and I’ve been lucky enough to do that for quite a few of them. Working firsthand with scientists enables me to write with authenticity, and one of my goals in writing nonfiction for young people is to give my readers a sense that they are right there in the action—in the ocean or the rain forest or on a glacier deep in the interior of Antarctica. I can honestly say that I am always surprised by something when I’m doing research for a book—it’s an endless process of discovery! And that’s a big part of the fun for me. With every book I get a chance to learn about and even experience new things.

Rebecca Johnson with Atlantic Spadefish. Photo credit: Ann Parks Hawthorne.

What do you think are the most important aspects of good nonfiction for kids?

RJ: Telling a compelling true story that holds readers’ interest and makes them want to learn more. Nonfiction is about real people and real events, and for young adult readers especially, those people and events need to be captivating, surprising, inspiring—and fun! Probably the greatest compliments I get from readers are when they tell me that after reading one of my books, they want to be scientists too and become involved in some type of scientific discovery.


Do you have more than one project going at once? How do you decide what your next project will be?

RJ: I find I work best when I can focus on one book at a time. But that said, I’m always on the lookout for new ideas. So even when I’m writing a particular book, I spend time every day reading journals, magazines, science blogs, and so on, looking for something that might form the basis for the next book. And “the next project” is the one that I can successfully pitch to an editor or publisher!


What are the most challenging/most rewarding parts of writing children’s nonfiction?

RJ: For me, an often challenging aspect is getting into the field to work firsthand with scientists. One strategy that has worked well for me over the years is to volunteer to help with some aspect of the research. For instance, I learned how to scuba dive so I could volunteer as a diver in Australia to work with scientists who study animals on coral reefs. The most rewarding aspect? That’s a hard question, but certainly one of the most rewarding things is believing that I’m changing the way my readers see the world and their place in it. We live on a fantastic planet that’s full of wonders just waiting to be discovered by the next generation of scientists.

Find out more about Rebecca Johnson and her books: