A Few Quick Questions With…Dr. Heather L. Beal

Earlier, I posted my quick take on Hurricane Vacation, I’ve now read and written about three of Dr. Beal’s books, it’s about time I asked her a few questions, right? I really am impressed with the idea behind this series of books and hope that they find their way into the lives of many children. (while being very glad I live in Idaho, where most of them aren’t applicable). Here’s some more information about the author and her books—I hope you enjoy.

Tell us about your road to publication—you talk about it a little on your website, but how did you make the decision to apply your education in writing books for children? Having made that decision, how did you implement it? How steep was that learning curve behind the first book?
Great questions. First, I tried to explain a tornado watch to my daughter one rainy, stormy, evening when I feared the watch might become a warning. Needless to say, I failed horribly and ended up scaring her. It was then that I realized that not only had I chosen the wrong time to talk with her (right before or during the event).

I started researching what was available and while I found a lot of ‘science of’ types of books, nothing was out there that could teach my daughter what to do ‘just in case’ in an age-appropriate way. Once I realized there was a gap, I decided I wanted to do something about it. I starting learning about book design, formatting, and structure. I had already dabbled in fiction books, but I had never looked at writing children’s books. As a linguist I realized that writing a children’s book was simply talking ‘child’ and the children in my books wanted their voices heard in their own special ways.

The steepest part of the learning curve had to be not so much the writing, the story developed as I wrote, but in how to balance the message, keep the story interesting, make sure children could learn how to be safe, and do it in as few words as possible. I would say that the struggle was, and continues to be, balancing that word count against everything I, and my beta-readers (mostly emergency managers like myself), think should be in the books that teach little ones how to stay safe.

I don’t want to ask “where do you get your ideas?” But how tricky is it to figure out how to present the topic to your readers? What’s been the hardest (or, if it’s a better story, the most surprisingly easy) of the topics so far to tackle?
When I started, I had a variety of topics I wanted to cover, and I still do. Before starting my third book, Lions, Leopards and Storm, Oh My, I took it to my followers, the 1,000 or so subscribers of my newsletter and asked them – where should the focus be? Hurricanes, volcanoes, severe weather, etc. The consensus was severe weather, followed by hurricanes, so that was where I got my ‘marching orders’ for the 3rd and 4th books.

The trick, or the hardest thing I feel I have to do, is figure out how to introduce all the topics, various disasters, without making my kiddos look like the unluckiest children on earth to experience everything – lol! I find that while some of the experiences can naturally occur within a classroom environment, as it might happen in day-to-day experiences such as the tornado in Elephant Wind, the storm in Lions, Leopards, and Storms, Oh My or the training for earthquakes in Tummy Rumble Quake, not everything would. For this latest book, Hurricane Vacation, the kids are visiting their cousin and we start to explore how a family prepares for a disaster. It’s important that my readers can relate this events to their own lives and different environments.

After a few of these under your belt, do you have an impulse to step out of the natural disaster realm and do something silly or fantasy-based like a rhyming book about unicorns sliding down rainbows?
While I am a huge fan of mermaids, unicorns, and the like, I have to be careful that my characters stay within the realm of what children need to do, and can do, to stay safe. Creatures with special powers or skills wouldn’t necessarily be seen by the children as having to act the same way they would.

That being said I would love to start a series of board books that more playfully look at what to do and not do as during various scenarios, sort of a question – answer short book that allows children to express themselves and laugh at the silly things the character thinks to do. I teach earthquake safety in childcare and use Tummy Rumble Quake as part of that, but my favorite part is asking the kids about how to drop, cover and hold on through a series of questions where I do it wrong. For example, I ask “do I cover here” and alternate covering my head, framing my chin, covering my ears, or my face – which gets them to laugh as the “teach me” how to do it properly. I think that could be a great series of books that would entertain as well as teach even younger kiddos what to do to stay safe.

I’m fascinated by the process of putting together a book like this—and seeing how different children’s book authors answer this. What’s the process like between you and the illustrator behind the scenes? Does it vary a little from illustrator to illustrator?
It’s a very educative one. I have been lucky to work with two different illustrators and have learned a lot about creative license. I provide a page by page guidance document if you will of my vision for the cover and page illustrations, but sometimes I get stuck on what exactly I want to depict and there is a great collaboration with my illustrators on ideas about how to best approach the desired image. There is variance between illustrators, but that too has taught me a lot. For example, my first illustrator brought my vision of different children to life, but her cultural background was different from my own and it was a really fun discussion about how kiddos here are different than where she grew up and it helped me realize the importance of not assuming my writer’s vision would be the same as my illustrator’s vision.
What kind of feedback are you getting from kids, parents/guardians, teachers? Are there one or two items that really stand-out to you?
I do get a lot of feedback from parents, and childcare providers. If I had to pick what was most talked about, it would have to be the songs and the resources and questions in the back if the book. I remember the Berenstain Bears from when I was a kid and that was where I got the idea to have the questions that parents and providers could talk with kiddos about to see if they understood the topics, or just have available to answer their more detailed questions. On my list of ‘hot’ items to do is getting a recording of the songs on my website to compliments the free downloadable certificates of training and song posters that can be used to help kids remember what to do in these scenarios.
Can you talk about your next project yet?
I have a couple of things in the works, but the very next project is the sequel if you will to Hurricane Vacation. When we end Hurricane Vacation the family is on the way to the shelter. Coming up next has to be what happens there. My goal is to help demystify a shelter and make it a less-scary idea. A lot of work has been happening within emergency management and sheltering operations to help create safe, child-friendly spaces within shelters and I want to highlight to positives of shelters. Again, like all disaster situations, there are negatives, but the goal of these books is to focus on the positives and help empower children to be safer and better prepared for what often times cannot be prevented.
Thanks for your time—and thanks for Hurricane Vacation. I enjoyed it, and hope it finds its way into the hands of many kids who could use it.

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