On skiing, tree-ography, Leslie calling, and a slush pile: Writer and SCBWI-MI R.A., Carrie Pearson
Charlie Barshaw coordinates our regular Writer Spotlight feature and interviews writers of SCBWI-MI. In this piece, meet current (but soon-to-be former) Regional Advisor and non-fiction picture book writer Carrie Pearson.
|Carrie on a bridge, 2018|
Marquette is beautiful, but what is it about the Upper Peninsula that makes you the enthusiastic Yooper you are?
Valid question! I didn’t grow up in the Upper Peninsula, but the first time I visited it with then boyfriend, now husband Wally (who did grow up in the UP), I told him I felt like I belonged there. The natural beauty and granite-outcropping ruggedness appeals to me. The vast and deep Lake Superior creates such change – from weather patterns to ecosystems – that nothing feels static, which I appreciate. My home town, Hillsdale, is flat farmland. There is beauty there, too, but the sightlines (and smells, hello fertilizer!) are very different. I wouldn’t trade my downstate childhood (warm inland lakes, owning/riding horses, summer fireflies, long country roads). But, for many reasons, I appreciate my life in Marquette.
You love skiing. Self-defense against the long winters, or something else that appeals to you about moving through snow on wooden planks?
I do love skiing. I used to Nordic ski race using the skate technique on groomed trails, but now I primarily backcountry ski using wider, floatier skis in the woods. Someday, I’ll have to figure out a manuscript centered in this setting. It’s magical; the only sounds are made by nature, and the shush shush shushing skis, which is wonderfully meditative. The light and shadow patterns across the snow are captivating. My favorite time to ski is when the day is fading into the evening, and the woods seem to glow. Want to come up and try it?
|Carrie and KAST 2023|
On your website, one of your former jobs included babysitting your “too-much younger” sisters “whom [you] now adore” (emphasis mine). Am I reading too much into this, or is there a story to be told about power struggles and sibling age differentials?
Good catch, Charlie. My parents divorced when I was seven. My mom remarried when I was 10. She and my stepfather had two daughters when I was 14 and 15 ½ years old. Of course, I loved my tiny sisters, but I was a built-in babysitter at a time when I wanted to be less family-centered (aka carouse with friends). My sisters and I are parents now, and that shared experience – and some maturity – has brought us very close.
A Warm Winter Tail was your first authored picture book. In the book, your POV characters are actually the animal children questioning their mama on how human children do the various things that animals do. What was your inspiration on writing this book, and on writing it this way?
The inspiration came from worry about how animals survive through the frigid U.P. winters. Seriously. I couldn’t sleep because of that worry when I first moved to Marquette. It took 16 years for me to decide to write children’s books, research how animals survive in the cold, get the idea to switch the POV, and write it well enough to sell the manuscript. I sleep better at night now.
A Cool Summer's Tail is a companion book. Had you always considered the possibility of a sequel?
No, but when A Warm Winter Tail did okay, the publisher thought it would work to create a companion. It was somewhat more manageable because I’d already sorted out the structure and rhythm but harder because they wanted me to use the same animals wherever possible for a direct comparison. Plus, the little bit of rhyming I included in both books broke my brain. I don’t know how rhymers do it.
Those first two books seemed a natural fit for you: animals in nature adapting to the changing seasons. But Stretch to the Sun: From a Tiny Sprout to the Tallest Tree on Earth was a stretch for you, detailing the growth of a huge, ancient tree on the far side of the country. What caused you to pick this topic and write this story?
My mom, who knows I love all things nature-y, asked if I knew what was happening in the tops of redwood trees. The ecosystem in the canopy is varied from that on the ground, and people were finally getting into the tallest trees on earth to research it. I was hooked quickly and then it was a matter of immersing, learning, and trying to find the story. I received a grant from SCBWI to travel to Redwood National Park and tour the forest with a park ranger. That experience changed everything about the manuscript because I could finally tap into the sensory world I’d explored.
Your recent picture book, Real Princesses Change the World, just had its book birthday. Another stretch for you, from nature to biography. What was the initial seed of this book?
Actually, I say that Stretch To The Sun: From A Tiny Seed To The Tallest Tree On Earth is a “tree-ography” – a biography of a special tree. So, in considering this project, I told myself I’d already explored the genre; I just needed to do the same thing for 11 humans who are public figures. What could go wrong? It required the same skillset of researching, synthesizing, determining themes, and focusing each word toward them. Side note: We submitted it as a MG proposal, but Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan wanted it as a picture book. I could see their vision, and we said yes.
Did you get to meet any of the Real Princesses?
I did not meet any of the princesses. However, I’ve had some fun email and social media interactions with a couple of them and/or with their staff. It’s been a bit surreal and nerve-wracking sometimes, but I try to remember one of my early bosses who said that everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time.
I remember talking with you years ago, when you mentioned your interest in writing about Dr. Virginia Apgar. I mean, many years ago. What winding, circuitous path did you follow to finally find this book on the shelf? (August 7, 2023)
Yes, this one was a journey story. It took me a while to get my arms around the complex STEM research and find the best way into Dr. Apgar’s story. Eventually, we submitted when biographies were being bought by many publishers. This was good because it meant there was interest on the sales side but bad because many already had a bio or two on their lists. After it sold, things moved along nicely. Then the pandemic hit, and everything related to the editorial process halted for almost 18 months. However, Nancy Carpenter, the fantastic illustrator, toiled on, and as the pandemic lifted, everything came together. The result is a book I am thrilled to share.
You’ve been co-Regional Advisor for as long as most SCBWI-MI members can remember. But there was a time when Carrie Clevidence Pearson was just a pre-published writer from Marquette. How did you find SCBWI?
|Leaving for AZ, 2005|
I mapped out and took us on educational adventures during the day. After I washed our four plates and four forks at night and swept the dust from the tiny house on wheels, I wrote about our adventures in story form. The next morning, I’d read what I wrote to my captive audience. They loved the stories (honestly, they had no choice), and I loved writing and sharing them.
By the time we returned, I had decided to learn how to write and publish children’s books and found SCBWI through the World Wide Web. I joined SCBWI on June 1, 2005, and attended my first conference on June 11. *
Backing up a bit, my college degree was in early elementary education, and I taught at the University of Michigan-affiliated preschool. Books were an integral part of my training and teaching. I’d been a decent writer throughout school and later, I wrote business plans and marketing materials when I transitioned to the business world. Books play a huge role in our family culture. All that considered, the decision to learn how to write children’s books felt like a natural evolution.
Far away from the hustle and noise of below-the-bridge Michigan, how did you get tempted into leadership roles?
|Carrie and Leslie MMW|
Even though I love living in Marquette, connecting to my people has always been challenging. Thankfully, early on, I met author Boni Ashburn who lives in Houghton, even farther north than I, and illustrator Diana Magnuson in Marquette. I knew I wasn’t alone, but I wanted even more connection. I knew that volunteering would bring that. I helped create flyers for several SCBWI-MI conferences, giving me an inside look at the planning and people behind these opportunities.
Evidently, Leslie Helakoski, the co-RA at the time, was watching. She interviewed me for a piece on book marketing (I had authored my first book by then), and we hit it off. I remember lots of laughing during that interview.
How, in all the years of piloting one of the most active and populous SCBWI regions in the country, were you able to live a life and pursue your own writing?
|Carrie and Jodi 4/1/23|
It’s ALL about the team. I believe effective leaders create a path for a talented team to shine. Sometimes that means more active mentoring, but often it is just lighting the path and stepping out of the way. As co-RAs and now dear friends, Leslie and Jodi offered strengths I’ve learned from and leaned on. They were closer to the action and never made me feel like a lightweight for not being able to visit venues or meet up. They took a heavier load when I needed to be physically or emotionally elsewhere, as did members of Ad-Comm in earlier days and the Leadership Team now. See, it’s all about the team!
What are some of your proudest achievements as SCBWI-MI R.A.?
I love that our community is growing into understanding how to be a creative safe space for all of us. I love that we offer several consistent scholarships and opportunities to lend a hand when people need it. I appreciate our positive and supportive culture and that we are actively trying to improve as creators and colleagues. When I see all the pieces of our giant book-creating puzzle fitting together, I’m proud to have been part of building it.
So, what are your plans, now that you’ll soon have more free time?
This question made me chuckle; I get busier as I grow older. Maybe now that I am 60+, I understand I’d better get crackin’. Regardless of the motivation, I will research and write more nonfiction books for children (stay tuned for an announcement) and share them with readers. I will try to write a fiction manuscript that my discerning agent feels is ready to submit. I will paint (a new passion), hang out with friends and family, volunteer on the Steering Committee of SCBWI’s Impact & Legacy Fund, co-chair with Jodi the SCBWI Marvelous Midwest Conference in 2024, and ski. 😊
Please share any social media contacts:
Facebook: Carrie A. Pearson
*My first conference was “How High The Moon” in East Lansing on June 11, 2005. I attended presentations by our own Shutta Crum and Nancy Shaw, editor Michelle Frey, and agent Tracey Adams who was a year into opening Adams Literary Agency. I remember asking the question, “What is a slush pile?” The co-RAs in 2005 were Ann Finkelstein and Paula Payton.