Joyce Sidman is the author of The Girl who Drew Butterflies (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which received the Sibert Medal, as well as Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a Newbery Honor Book. Her other books include Swirl by Swirl, Winter Bees, and Before Morning (all Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
For her acclaimed body of work, she has received the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. When not writing, Joyce enjoys exploring the woods near her home in Wayzata, Minnesota.
What made you decide to become an author?
From early on, I felt compelled to write. Words came into my head, and I wrote them down. Later, I kept journals that helped me sort out the events of my life. Then I moved on to poetry. I think a lot of writers are like this. Writing helps us understand the world; we’d be lost without it. I began writing for children after I had my two sons and rediscovered the joys of children’s books.
What are you most passionate about in your work?
I set aside part of every day for “pondering” time. Time alone, without noise and distraction. This is when ideas come—when things sort themselves out, when I see connections and solutions. Not just for writing, but for life. My pondering time happens during walks in the woods, where I watch the seasons change and let my thoughts wander. The natural world sustains and inspires me. I could never live in a city for long.
Where do the ideas for your books come from?
Poets have to be watchers, observing tiny details of their surroundings and examining their own reactions to them. I look everywhere: noticing this, considering that, connecting one thing to another through image and metaphor. My ideas come from whatever moves me, and whatever I feel is important or beautiful.
How much research do you do before you begin a book?
A lot, especially for Hello, Earth! Poems to Our Planet. I had to make sure I understood the current scientific theories about how this planet works—not just my childhood memory of them (tides are super complicated!). I use books as primary resources, and supplement those with current journal articles and respected scientific websites. Sometimes I contact scientists directly. I love research; it always adds to the depth of my work.
Where do you find your inspiration for new stories and characters?
From everyday life: my students, my family, my dog, the mysterious ways of animals, the changing seasons. From books and conversations. From the look of a friend’s face. All these things (and more) inspire me to write. Underneath that is a quest to discover joy, beauty, and meaning, even if it means wading through darkness and fear.
What is the process of writing a book: how does it go from an idea to a finished work on sale in bookstores?
A writing idea usually marinates at the back of my mind until another idea collides with it, or until a phrase drops into my head—and I can finally a way forward into writing. Once I have that spark, I sit down to do the other work of writing: pounding out sentences, endlessly revising, making sure every word, every line break, and every punctuation mark is just perfect. Off it goes to an editor, and I fine- tune my revisions. The editor and I work to find an illustrator whose work fits the tone of the book. Then I get to sit back and watch that illustrator create a new whole visual world around my text. I love this part!
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
It has to be the moment I received the call from the Newbery committee, telling me that my book Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night had been awarded a Newbery Honor. I felt as though the ground were giving way beneath me, as if I were floating. To have my book chosen from all the books published in the U.S. that year…wow! That was an extraordinary feeling, one that I carry around inside me like a nugget of gold.
What do you wish you’d have known starting out as an author?
That I could learn a tremendous amount from others. That being a good writer means being open to the world, developing wisdom and vision. That eventually my words would affect the lives of others.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Look for your people. You might not find them right away, but eventually, you will. They will be the ones who laugh with you, and who offer you both kindness and joy.
What do you hope kids learn from Hello, Earth! Poems to Our Planet?
I hope to remind them of their own innate power to see, understand, and act. I hope Hello, Earth! will inspire wonder and tenderness toward our beautiful planet and all who inhabit it.
What was it like working with illustrator Miren Asiain Lora?
This book evolved in an unusual way. Miren’s illustrations were already done when this project began. Usually, a book starts with the author, who writes the text (see above). Then the illustrator creates her art based on that text. But when editor Kathleen Merz of Eerdmans approached me, this art had already been created for a book published abroad (whose text, whose text, to Kathleen, did not seem worthy of the illustrations). Kathleen asked me to write completely new poems to accompany Miren’s art. I was hesitant at first. I had never written a book this way, and uncertain how I could do it. But when I saw Miren’s beautiful folk-style art, I fell in love. The diverse children in these paintings called to me. I felt their brave and curious energy, and I knew I had to give them a new voice.
For months I searched for the right way to tell their story. I had many false starts and many weeks of shuffling illustrations. Finally, I was able to create a narrative that I felt truly honored both the evocative art and the profoundly huge subject of the Earth itself. I feel proud to have met this challenge.
Can you tell us one thing people may not know about you?
I am a (self-taught) photography nut. I love nothing better than wandering around outside with my macro lens, photographing tiny things like flower petals, dew, and lichens. My camera helps me see better. I devote my Instagram account (@joycesidman) to these nature photos—including an obsessive number of treefrog pics!