TRAVELING THE UNIVERSE ON A PAPER PLANE: AN INTERVIEW WITH SEYMOUR SIMON
By Eleise Jones
© 2005 Ruminator ReviewToday the name Seymour Simon is synonymous with science writing for children. This association has been a long time in the making—through three decades of scientific discovery, Simon has penned more than two hundred children’s books, and he shows no signs of slowing down.
Simon lives on Long Island, not far from his childhood home in the Bronx. He traces his early interest in the natural world to his old neighborhood’s abundance of vacant lots, which later served as the basis for his book Science in a Vacant Lot. As a teenager he was elected president of New York’s Junior Astronomy Club and went on to earn a degree in animal behavior.
Before Simon started writing for children, he taught them, primarily about the earth sciences. His first writing assignment came in 1963 for Scholastic magazines, on the eve of humankind’s first landing on the moon. Simon’s predictions about what we might find up there led to dozens more articles and eventually to his first book: Animals in Field and Laboratory: Science Projects in Animal Behavior. Early on his work was illustrated with pencil drawings, but today many of them are accompanied by full-color photographs—some taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, nature photographers, or Simon himself. His books are enormously well received thanks to his dexterous craft, his penchant for the extraordinary, and his continued connection to kids (he credits his grandchildren as sounding boards as well as sources for new material).
Indeed, we can travel the universe by way of Simon’s canon. His books take us into vast outer space to tour the planets, then soar through the atmosphere, along the tips of icebergs, and into the mouths of volcanoes. They observe the habits of gorillas and the intricate workings of the human heart and brain; they discover the internal clocks of chrysanthemums and farm dogs; and they even squeeze into the living spaces of microscopic insects and viruses. There is no place on, in, or around the earth that Seymour Simon is afraid to explore.
I recently reached him by telephone to discuss his prolific career and insatiable curiosity.
JONES: What makes a good science book for children?
SIMON: Well, a lot of it is indefinable. A lot of it has to do with the writing, whether it’s interesting, whether it’s clear, whether it leads to further interest in the subject. It’s almost like asking what makes a good fiction book. The difference is that in a science book the information also has to be true and as accurate as we know it at the time, since obviously some of these things are further investigated, and down the road something will be found which will change what you’re saying. I think, however, that’s less important than making sure what you write is stimulating and opens up the world instead of just answering questions and closing down any further investigation, or any further interest.
JONES: Why do you choose to write for children and not adults?
SIMON: I was a teacher when I began writing, and I began writing for Scholastic magazines. I submitted an article, before we set foot on the moon, about what we might find there. They not only published the article, they actually had me in for an interview and asked me if I might be interested in doing a monthly science supplement for their fifth-grade magazine. So that started me, and I wrote maybe seventy or eighty articles for Scholastic over a number of years before I wrote my first book.
JONES: You once said you "grew up as a country kid as well as a city kid. What about these environments interested you as a child?
SIMON: I was born in the Bronx, which is of course very, very urban, even when I was born, which was many years ago. But the thing about the Bronx is even at that time there were vacant lots with a profusion of weeds and all kinds of things growing as well as insects and things like that. In addition, there were plenty of places—parks we could go to and a seashore not far away where we went in the summers—and my parents (in common with a lot of people in those days, particularly in that area) would go up to the Catskills for the summer. I was a kid and naturally they dragged me along, so for a couple of months during the summer I was out in the country. I really had the benefit of both environments—the stimulation of the city and all the things that the city can offer, and I was also in the country every summer and was constantly collecting little animals, pets in a jar—I wrote a book called Pets in a Jar, naturally. Today I live in a suburb but have a country house as well, and every week I go up to the country house and spend some time there. So I still consider myself both a city kid and a country kid.
JONES: How have your interests changed through the years?
SIMON:I think I’ve maintained most of my interests. When I was in junior high school I was very interested in space (and I still am), and I went down to the Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium (which is part of it), to a club there for people below college age. The Junior Astronomy Club had hundreds of members, many from the New York area, but actually from all over the country and even the world. During that time I made my own telescope, I taught classes, I met astronomers. And that interest in space led to the many books about space I have written and still write: books about all the planets, except for Pluto, of course, because we don’t know that much about it, and books about stars and the sun and news from space and stuff like that. So, if I were to name two of the principal themes of my books, one would be animals and animal behavior, and the other would be space.
JONES: What has been your most surprising or enjoyable book to research?
SIMON: The funniest book I ever did was The Paper Airplane Book, which was kind of a lark when I wrote it, and I expected it to be very slight. The book was published in 1971 and is still in print. I still get letters from kids who have just read it and have made me a paper airplane. I guess that book has had the most impact—far beyond anything I would have imagined.
In more recent times, I suppose two favorites are the books on space, which are in full color and are oversized books that kids love, and the books on animals, which are the same thing, you know, oversized, colorful books.
JONES: I noticed in your book Icebergs and Glaciers that you thank some new friends you’ve made in Alaska. Did you go there to do research?
SIMON: I spent a week in Alaska, in Ketchikan; I was also speaking in the schools and in the library there. Ketchikan is a small enough town that within a day or two, people recognized me in the street, which really gave me a kick to no end, because no one of course recognizes me in New York. In Ketchikan I could be walking down the street and a kid would go past in a truck and yell from the back of the truck, "Hiya Seymour! That just gave me an enormous kick. And the people there were so friendly and giving. One of them took me up in his private airplane—all of them have airplanes there, that’s the way they get around, you know these airplanes which have pontoons and land on water—and he took me up and let me look at things from the air, which I found absolutely terrifying, but absolutely fascinating.
JONES: What amazes me about your books is your ability to retain the child’s perspective. You devise wonderful comparisons that a child can easily follow, for example, by comparing the growth of Earth’s mantle plates to the rate of our fingernail growth. How do you continue to seek that child’s perspective?
SIMON: I have a favorite story about a teacher that illuminates the way I write: the teacher is teaching a class, and he’s looking at the faces of the people in the class and he can see that they don’t understand what he’s teaching. So he goes over it a second time, and he’s looking at their faces and he can tell that they still don’t understand what he’s teaching. So he says it a third time. And finally, he understands what he’s teaching. That’s sort of what happens with me. If I have to ask myself, Do I understand this?, the answer is no. When I finally give an explanation that is clear enough, a little bell goes off and I say, Oh, that’s what I mean! and then I know that I’m able to do it. A lot of these books I heavily rewrite before they’re even sent out. I’ll read something the next day and if it’s at all unclear, if I’m not sure what I’m talking about or what I meant, then I’ll just work on it again and again until the meaning becomes perfectly clear.
JONES: I know you continue to speak in classrooms and you have an interactive Web site, and I wonder, are there particular topics that have always interested kids, or have their interests changed?
SIMON: The interests are not terribly different. One might think that they’re more mechanical or more electronic or something like that; they’re not. They’re still interested in dinosaurs when they’re young, they’re still interested in animals, they’re still interested in space, they still love spectacular things, you know, things that go BOOM! The interests are so similar to mine when I was a kid, to those of kids I taught, and to those of kids I see now when I’m speaking in schools, so that if you changed the kind of clothes they wear to more old-fashioned clothes, they would be saying the same thing. What has always astounded me is how much they know. I mean, I go into a kindergarten class and talk about dinosaurs and say something, and some kid is going to raise his hand and say, "That’s not a Brontosaurus, that’s an Apatosaurus!"It just amazes me that they can’t even tie their shoelaces, but they know the names of twenty different dinosaurs.
JONES: I’m also curious to know how important themes of ecology and conservation are in your books.
SIMON: They’ve always been important. Years and years ago, I wrote two books, Science Projects in Ecology and Science Projects in Pollution. This was in the seventies, when I was just beginning to write, so they’ve never failed to be important to me. All of my books about animals have something about the environment and ecology in them, and likewise all of my books about things which impact the environment in both a negative and a positive way—let’s say cars, I just did a book on cars, and I talked about pollution caused by cars—so I’m always aware of it. And while at this point in my life I don’t do separate books about the environment, it’s a common theme in many of my books.
JONES: What are your new projects?
SIMON: I’m working on two new series for young children. One’s called Let’s Try It Out. There are going to be ten books in the series. They are hands-on, early-learning science activities accompanied by drawings of kids carrying out the activities—which by the way are just charming; the illustrator is Doug Cushman, and he did a wonderful job. This is really my first collaboration. I’m working with Nicole Fauteux, who happens to be the mother of two of my grandchildren, my daughter-in-law. She’s a writer and a film maker, way before she did this, and we collaborated on the idea for this series. What’s really unique about it, I think, is that we not only work on it well but everything in these books has been tested in kindergarten and first-grade classes. Nicole has been going in and doing everything that we do in the books, and as a consequence we have thrown out about a third of the things we initially had in, and put in other things in order to make sure they were understood and really worked. The first two are out, and they’re called Let’s Try It Out in the Water and Let’s Try It Out in the Air.
The other series I want to mention is called SeeMore Readers. SeeMore Readers are for beginning readers, and they’re in the familiar format such books are put in, but they’re unique. First of all they’re in full color, and they’re designed to look very much like my other books. That is, they’re double-spread photographs and so on. They’re written on levels—Level 1, Level 2; I’m actually starting to do Level 3, for the new series for 2003. I’ll just give you an idea of some of the topics.
The ones coming out in about a month are Giant Machines, Killer Whales, Planets around the Sun, Wild Bears, Danger! Earthquakes, and Super Storms. And you can see that these are really designed to appeal to kids. We’ve also done all kinds of special things for them. For example, in the back of each book is a set of four trading cards, so Giant Machines has collectible photo cards of the tractors and dump trucks from the book, and Wild Bears has photo cards of some of the bears from the book. Each of the books has been really vetted by people who teach reading, to make sure that the levels are correct. I sent these out to a whole bunch of people, the Reading Association and other reading groups, and they got enormously good reviews. So we’re really very, very pleased about these books.
JONES: What are you working on now? Do you think you’ll ever stop writing?
SIMON: No, never! I have two books coming out. I wrote a book on trucks, because one of my grandchildren was very interested in trucks when I started to write the book. It’s called Seymour Simon’s Book of Trucks, but it took a long time for the book to come out. It was several years after I promised to write Joel a book on trucks that it finally came out. He’s my oldest grandchild, and he’s in third grade now. When I gave him the book, I said, "Look, Joel, I have a book on trucks for you," and he said, "Seymour" (he calls me Seymour), he said, "Seymour, I’m not interested in trucks anymore." My face really fell, and I said, "That’s okay." And he said, "Benjamin is interested in trucks!" Benjamin is his younger brother, who is now in first grade (when the book came out he was in kindergarten). Sure enough, I realized that it doesn’t make any difference—if one generation of kids moves past trucks, there’s another generation who are just becoming interested in them.
There’s a new book coming out called Seymour Simon’s Book of Trains, and I just wrote a book about new things in space called Destination: Space, and that’s going to be coming out pretty soon. And on my agenda are books on dogs, cats, and horses. I’ll be doing those for HarperCollins, which is one of my principal publishers. And two books of mine, which are the first space books, done in black and white many years ago, are now being redone in color. That’s a book on earth and a book on the moon. There’s a lot more! I did a book on tornadoes, and I’m going to be doing a follow-up on hurricanes. The list goes on. I’m still getting as much enjoyment out of writing books as I did when I started. And if that enjoyment ever stops, then I’m simply going to stop writing books.
JONES: That’s wonderful. I hope you don’t!
SIMON: Thank you.
Eleise Jones is assistant editor for children’s books at Ruminator Review.