Thank you so much for agreeing to do an interview with me.
I read in one of your online bio's that you didn't really begin writing until your 30's, what did you do before that? Did you always want to write books for children?
I have been writing since at least second grade and, thanks to a wonderful fifth grade teacher, knew I wanted to be a writer from the time I was ten years old. But classes about writing were thin on the ground when I was in school, so after I graduated I worked a lot of different jobs just to pay the bills: bike mechanic, costume seamstress, administrative assistant to name a few. Whenever I tried to write in my free time, though, I came up against my own inability to shape a story. Finally, I confessed to a friend that I really wanted to write for children, and she told me about a class I could take. The class taught me that there are tools of writing -- a revelation to me -- and also that we must write from our hearts about what matters most to us. I started writing for children in 1979 and haven’t stopped since.
People tend to write about what they know. So how do you stay young at heart and write to keep young children engaged in the story?
One of the best things I do to stay open to all the possibilities of stories is to travel. I seldom travel a long way (although I’ve been to London, South Africa, Spain, Mexico, and Vanuatu), but wherever I go, whether sailing or canoeing in the BWCA and Quetico, or visiting Minnesota prairies to look for native plants, I’m aware anew of the amazing world that we inhabit and the many, many stories that share the world with us. Maybe stepping out of my own life, even if it’s just a little step, reminds me in some way of how amazing our world must look through a child’s eyes.
Is there a driving force behind what you write? Do you have any goals in mind when you begin writing a book? Is there an age group you prefer to write for?
For me, a story starts with an idea, a line, a character, something that makes me want to follow that trail of breadcrumbs and see where it leads. Many, many of my stories fail in terms of being publishable, but they all teach me something about writing. And because most of the stories that call to me seem to be for young children, and because that’s how the stories come out when I write, I have mostly written picture books and an occasional middle grade novel.
Was there any one of your stories that failed to be publishable that you would consider rewriting or one that you had a real attachment to?
I have several manuscripts right now that are making the rounds that I hope will be published, and if an editor suggests revision, I'm always willing to give it a try. I think of all writing as practice, so even if a story is never published, I'm glad to have worked on it and learned from it. That said, I do have a manuscript about writing picture books that I hope will make it into print sometime
What does a typical day of writing look like for you? Do you have any pre-writing rituals?
I don’t have a typical writing day, because a good share of my time is taken up with earning a living. I teach in a low-residency MFA program at Hamline University in writing for children and young adults and do free lance editing as well. But I feel as though some part of my brain is always on the alert for possible stories and keeps track of ideas until I find time to sit down and work on my own writing.
What do you do when you're not writing? When it comes to reading, what type of books do you enjoy? Do you have a favorite author?
When I’m not writing or working, I love to garden and hike and canoe and just generally be outside. And I read—children’s books, of course, but also mysteries and other novels for grown-ups along with some non-fiction. I love too many authors to have a favorite one.
I recently read your upcoming book Plant a Pocket of Prairie. What prompted you to write it? Is the disappearance of prairie wildlife a topic that is close to your heart? Do you have a bit of prairie at your house?
Plant a Pocket of Prairie seemed like a natural follow-up to Big Belching Bog. I love visiting Scientific and Natural Areas in the spring, summer, and fall to discover the native plants that grow there. Because almost the entire prairie in Minnesota was plowed up and farmed, there really are only pockets left—less than one tenth of one per cent of the original prairie. We really can’t bring that original prairie back because it was gone even before anyone understood all the dynamics of a prairie. I also read Doug Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home, in which he shows the connection between native plants, native insects, and native birds and the consequences of losing our native plants. I wanted children to know about the prairie, what an amazing ecosystem it is, how at risk it is, and how even a small pocket of prairie plants can help native insects and birds and other animals. Almost all the grass in my city yard has been turned into prairie or vegetable garden, and now plants grow up that I didn’t plant, whether brought there by birds or simply from seeds waiting in the soil. I feel passionately that we must preserve what we have left of prairie and make every effort to restore as much as we can. Aldo Leopold’s first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts. We need to save the parts we have left, even if we can never recreate the whole.
If a child were to grow just one of the many plants you mention in your book, which one would you suggest?
Which plant would I recommend a child grow? That depends on where the plant will grow and how much sun it will get. If the plant is in a flowerpot or box, I might suggest coreopsis or coneflower or aster. If there’s room for a plant in the ground, I might suggest native sunflowers, since they provide so much satisfaction, beauty, and seeds for wildlife to eat, or Monarda (also known as bee balm) or butterfly weed, which monarchs love. But the whole nature of a prairie is that everything in the prairie is related to everything else, so once someone plants one plant or flower, I say plant another, and another, and another. Paul Gruchow wrote, "The prairie teaches us that our strength is in our neighbors."
In your book you answer the question of what the average person can do to help the native wildlife in their area. Do you think a change of perspective towards our nations unique ecosystems will occur in our lifetimes? Will we be able to stop species from going extinct due to a lack of suitable habitats?
I have no idea what will happen to our ecosystems in our lifetime. I’m not trained as an ecologist or climate specialist or horticulturalist or naturalist. I am someone who loves what we have left in native plants and animals, and I think anything any of us can do, however small, has the potential to make a change.
I really enjoyed reading Plant a Pocket of Prairie. It's not only a lighthearted call to action, but also a great field guide for kids who are curious about what lives in their backyard. Do you have another book in the works?
Right now I am working on a non-fiction survival story that takes place on Isle Royale and a picture book about cats, with which my two cats are always willing to help by walking over my keyboard an random moments.
There you have it, that was Phyllis Root, author of Big Momma Makes the World, Ten Sleepy Sheep, Big Belching Bog and Plant a Pocket of Prairie among others.
Plant a Pocket of Prairie comes out on April 15th