After a first career in education, where she wrote about 5,692 memos, lesson plans, and curricula guides no one ever read, Mary Bowman-Kruhm decided to write for kids. Maybe they’d read what she wrote! Sure enough, her first book was I Hate School: How to Hang In & When to Drop Out (Harper & Row, 1987). It was named by the American Library Association on its lists “Best Books for Young Adults—1986” and “Recommended Books for Reluctant Young Adult Readers—1987” and by the National Council of Teachers of English in Books for You (recommended under “Self-Help” and “Easy Reading” categories). Mary has authored or co-authored over 30 nonfiction books for children, YAs, and adults and two picture books. She is a contributor to Children’s Book Insider and a faculty associate at Johns Hopkins University, School of Education. Past positions include school administrator, reading specialist, and English teacher.
In her spare time Mary likes to read, travel, and knit. Current passion: Digging wells for the Maasai village of Oltorotua, Kenya. Visit her web site: www.marybk.com and blog: The Maasai, the Mara, Musings, and a fresh water well for Oltorotua, Kenya at http://digthiswell.com
Jan: Mary, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Few writers have had the diverse writing and publishing experiences that you’ve had. You’ve enjoyed great success in writing over 30 books in a range of content areas for all sorts of audiences. You’ve written books for teens, elementary age children and adults. You’ve successfully published books across genres with many different publishers. And yet, you have acknowledged that few people know your name. What’s the “best-kept secret” of your ongoing success?
Mary: Do you remember who authored your high school history book? Few students notice, even while they are holding the actual book in their hands. It’s the curse of writing nonfiction!
A study by N. K. Duke in the Reading Research Quarterly about five years ago reported that in elementary school classrooms the author observed, only 3.6 minutes out of every day was spent on reading and talking about nonfiction books. Yet nonfiction is what most adults read and what young people like to read and need to read for success in post-school education and in the workforce. I think my “ongoing success” is because I love nonfiction myself and am naturally curious, especially about people’s lives.
Jan: Congratulations on your companion books, Busy Toes and Busy Fingers, the latter of which won the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Best Book Award – Gold Seal in 2005, written with Wendie Old (under the pen name C.W. Bowie). Both are available in Spanish. What led you to write books for the 2-year-old crowd?
Mary: Claudine Wirths, my co-author for many books, and I were riding with Wendie Old on our way home from a Philadelphia conference for children’s writers. The rain turned icy. To take our minds off the weather, Claudine told us her father taught her to write with a pencil held between her toes and we started making a list of what we could do with our toes. Once we got safely home, we turned the list into a rhythmic manuscript. Sixteen publishers rejected What Can You Do with Your Toes? A writer friend said the title needed to be action-oriented, something, for example, like Busy Toes. Publisher #17 sent us a contract!
Jan: Tell our readers about your 9-book series – A Day in the Life of – written for beginning readers, grades 1-3 to explore careers, for example: Firefighter, Coach, Architect, and others. How did you select the various jobs to describe and how did you go about researching the materials for these books about “grown-up” jobs?
Mary: Rosen (the publisher) asked us to write them for a flat rate rather than royalty and, because we felt these books would be absolutely delightful to write, we said we would. But we did ask that the photographs be taken in the MD/DC/VA area because we had researched books about community helpers and found all the books at that time were photographed in New York City or Philadelphia. We wanted suburban and rural young readers to be able to relate to the photos and we also wanted to tell the stories of a diverse group of people. Rosen agreed and consequently my husband Carl, grandson, niece, dog, among others, are pictured in them.
The Frederick (MD) chief of police recommended a Latino officer who had a German shepherd patrol dog named Bruno. Perfect! We met Officer Morales and he was indeed a Latino—with blond hair and blue eyes. Our editor approved and, in fact, the editorial team made a poster for their wall of a photo from the book—Bruno in the driver’s seat playing a trick on Officer Morales by turning on the patrol car’s lights.
Jan: You’ve written two well-received biographies about Margaret Mead and The Leakeys. Tell us about the path that led you to write biographies, and in particular, these two books.
Mary: I saw an announcement that Greenwood was planning a series of biographies and sent a query letter and some samples of my writing. The editor assigned me Margaret Mead and I delved into researching her life. Then the editorial board pulled the contract because they felt my books were written for less able readers and feared I couldn’t write for the target audience of competent readers. I was incredibly disappointed and asked the editor to let me write a sample chapter. She did and they reissued the contract.
I love writing biographies and the newest thrust—creative nonfiction—is exciting because it takes nonfiction out of the realm of dull facts and uses the techniques you fiction authors use to tell story.
Jan: You’ve made numerous trips abroad to conduct research on the work of Margaret Mead, as well as the Leakey family. What are some unanticipated benefits of your research – for you professionally and personally?
Mary: Actually, I didn’t travel much to research Margaret Mead because the Library of Congress has her private collection and several adult biographers and friends of Mead shared their insights electronically and I got help from members of an anthropology listserv. I lurk on a listserv about any topic I’m investigating and then, when I feel competent enough to post a question, I ask for help. Listservs have provided me with an incredible amount of personal information about a bio subject and I have found authorities to vet what I write.
Writing about the Leakey family has enriched my life immeasurably. We visited Lake Turkana in northern Kenya and had tea with Dr. Louise Leakey, who is carrying on the tradition of two generations of Leakeys before her, as she scours the hot, barren soil of East Africa for fossils of early humans. Then, when we spent a few days on safari to see wildlife, we visited a Maasai village. We thrilled at the curiosity of the Maasai and told our guide that we would never want to change someone’s culture, but to contact us if he found someone we could help with an education.
|Jackson Liaram and Mary Bowman-Kruhm
He e-mailed us about six months later.
Although we have helped several young Kenyans, we have continued a friendship with Jackson Liaram, a young Maasai warrior herding family cattle while hoping for help to attend safari guide school. The October 2012 issue of Highlights for Children will have a story I wrote, with photographs by my husband Carl, about Jackson’s life, “Living with Animals.”
Jan: You have an abiding interest and commitment to the people of Kenya. With the help of Rotary Clubs in the US and the Nakuru-Great Rift Valley Rotary Club in Kenya, you’re working for funding to dig three wells and build 100 latrines for the village of Oltorotua, Kenya. Please tell us how readers can learn more about this important, worthy work?
Mary: For sure, they can follow my blog: http://digthiswell.com. Rotary District 7620 has now approved the grant proposal and it will hopefully sail through The Rotary Foundation process, which will match donations and make fund-raising easier.
Jan: You’ve written numerous books targeted to the needs of teens and young adults with disabilities. I’m thinking of titles like: Coping with Discrimination & Prejudice, Confrontations & Encounters with the Police, Everything You Need to Know about Learning Disabilities and Everything You Need to Know About Down Syndrome. Of these books, which was the most gratifying to you in terms of your perception of its positive impact on readers?
Mary: Most of them have stayed in print for many years, so I assume they help readers. Again, nonfiction writers are the ‘Rodney Dangerfield of writing—we don’t get no respect’ and no letters from readers telling us our book changed their lives.
Jan: You’ve successfully collaborated with other writers over the years. What have you learned about working with another author on a joint project? Can you describe your process?
Mary: Their writing styles must complement each other’s. When writing with Claudine or Wendie, they looked especially at the big picture (i.e., the structure and flow) and I tended to handle details both in the material we wrote and submitting to publishers.
Jan: Over the years, you’ve conducted numerous interviews. Is there any one that was particularly memorable?
Mary: I had an idea for an article after I learned one of our church members, Turner, was President for two terms of the American Sunbathing Association, now the American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR). So I interviewed Turner and then did more research at the American Nudist Research Library when my husband, Carl and I were in Florida. I conducted research for my article and arranged to interview two librarians who knew Turner. When I left for the interviews, I told Carl that I had never interviewed anyone in the nude before; he suggested that I not tell anyone that, or they would think I, rather than the librarian was nude.
The article is out for publication consideration. I’ll let you know if it is accepted, but I don’t expect it to be. Nudists are very circumspect in talking about nudism and, sadly, I couldn’t get any really lively stories out of any of my interviewees.
Jan: You’ve certainly worked with a range of publishers. Do you have any tips for writers about finding the right publisher for a given work?
Mary: Do your homework. Go to conferences and network. Find books like the one you are writing and check out publishers on blogs and websites, in books like Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market and The Best of the Magazine Markets for Writers, in newsletters like Children’s Book Insider or the equivalent in the genre in which you focus.
Jan: So what’s next? What projects continue to hold your interest for future work? Do you have advice for writers conducting research outside the USA?
Mary: Stay open to adventures. I never dreamed that Kenya would grab my life as it has. We will make our third visit to Kenya in the near future, where Jackson Liaram will be our guide on safari at Amboseli, with over 1000 elephants and other wildlife and Mount Kilimanjaro providing the backdrop. We will also have lunch, again, with Louise Leakey and visit her family’s vineyard. Few writers are monetarily wealthy but we reap rewards in other ways, including satisfaction in what we do.
Jan: What is the best advice you’ve ever heard about writing? What would you say to encourage beginning writers?
Mary: I would say be persistent and investigate a variety of outlets for your writing. The profession is in a state of flux right now, to put it mildly. Investigate and decide what is the best route to publication for you and your topic. And it is important to remember that if you self-publish, hire a good editor, which all, and yes, I mean all, writers need.
Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers. Learn more at:
I am moved to tears in reading this interview with dear beloved Mary. What an incredible and special surprise. It is such a great treat to read this exchange between two very extraordinary thinkers and writers. I am thrilled to be able to learn about Mary’s adventures and successes in her life with writing, traveling and sharing her life in so many meaningful ways.
I have always had a dream to go to Africa. Mary is living that dream for me.
Thank-you Jan for surprising me with this gift.
Thanks for reading and I am happy that you enjoyed it.
Hope you’ll continue to read and respond to the blog posts.
Feel free to go to Mary’s blog site to learn more about her special “Digthiswell” project. Also – someone wrote to me to ask if Mary and I are related. No. But it’s a good question.
Best Regards, Jan
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