Q & A: Professor’s book for children focuses on the environment

Her life as a college professor was a pretty good one as far as Ruth Ann Smalley was concerned, but

Her life as a college professor was a pretty good one as far as Ruth Ann Smalley was concerned, but when the education of her own two children became the paramount thing in her life, it was time for a change.

A native of Pella, Iowa, Smalley had moved to the Albany area in 1992 and become a professor in the English Department at The College of Saint Rose. She left in 2004 to begin home-schooling her own two children, and with just a little more free time on her hands, she began writing her own children’s book, “Sheila Says We’re Weird,” which came out on June 1 from Tilbury House Publishers of Gardiner, Maine.

It is the story of a young girl named Sheila who is surprised and a bit befuddled by the activities of a new family that has moved into the neighborhood. The new neighbors are quite a bit more green-friendly than Sheila’s family, and while she finds them interesting, she also finds them a bit weird.

Smalley calls herself a holistic educator, and along with teaching her children and producing her book, she’s written for years about things like green living, fair trade and other environment issues in Albany’s Honest Weight Food Co-op Newsletter. She has more recently become involved in the Transition Towns movement, a form of community organizing that supports locally led responses to climate change and addresses issues surrounding environmental sustainability.

She went to Central College in her own hometown for her B.A. in English, and then got a master’s and a Ph.D. in English and secondary education at the University of Iowa. She will have a book signing on Aug. 6 from 1-4 p.m., at the Honest Weight Food Co-op at 484 Central Avenue in Albany.

Smalley lives in Albany with her husband, James, and their two children, Hannah (14) and William (11).

Q: How did the book come about?

A: When I left Saint Rose, I wanted to get more involved with environmental issues, and since I was home-schooling my own kids, I was always looking for books for them that dealt with the ecology and how the natural system works and how us humans can be a part of that if we’re paying attention. I had always enjoyed writing but never projected myself becoming a children’s writer. But then I had children myself and was constantly reading to them, hoping that I would find books that would convey the ideas and the experiences that I was hoping for them. I realized I wanted a certain kind of book, and I realized I might have to write it myself.

Q: How did you find a publisher?

A: I got very lucky. I went to a book expo in New York City about two years ago just to see what was out there; to see what people were writing about. I didn’t go to find a publisher for myself. But I ended up having a discussion with this editor and she said that publishers were looking for stories about children and what they can do to help the environment. So because I made this connection with that person, an editor, I sent off my manuscript to her and she put it through the right channels at her publishing house. Getting published is a pretty tricky scene right now. You can send out manuscripts and never hear anything. A lot of places don’t even accept anything from an individual unless they have an agent. So, yeah, I was very lucky.

Q: How long did this book take to write?

A: In the car on my way back from the book expo two years ago, the idea of Sheila just came into my head. The story started assembling right then. But I’ve had other ideas for a while. I have a manuscript that’s been languishing since 2004. I told my son, ‘isn’t it funny that the thing I wrote the quickest, that I spent the least amount of time on, is the first to get published.’

Q: Is Sheila based on a real person?

A: I had a college roommate named Sheila who did say that I was weird. I’m curious if she’ll get wind of this because I haven’t been in touch with her. She’ll probably find out.

Q: How did you get your illustrator, Jennifer Emery?

A: Typically, authors don’t get to choose their illustrator, but again I was very lucky. The publisher asked me if I had any ideas, and I said, ‘I’m allowed to have ideas!’ Let me say that the people at Tilbury are wonderful. They ended up giving me two different artists, and I got to choose. The first illustrator did delightful stuff, but when I saw Jennifer’s work I could see right away that her colors were vivid, and I could just tell from looking at the pictures that she loved to draw children. She drew kids with quirky personalities and great faces.

Q: What is your next project?

A: My next project is to get an agent. I don’t have the time to go through all the publishers and see who is publishing what. And, like I said earlier, some publishers won’t even look at your work if you don’t have an agent.

Q: Do you have another book idea?

A: I have two manuscripts, and the one I really want to get out there is about a young African-American boy who moves with his mother into his grandmother’s house after his father has been deployed for the second time in three years. It’s called ‘Malcolm’s Bees,’ and it’s about how he and his grandmother raise these bees called solitary bees. They don’t make honey, but they’re very good pollinators. It’s very important because we have a honey bee crisis right now, and we need to spread awareness about the pollinators in general. Typically, they would just find a dead tree somewhere and drill a hole in it, but because there are fewer dead trees around they’re battling habitat loss.

Q: What age range are your books aimed at?

A: I’ve read ‘Sheila’ to pre-K kids and they get it, but I would say mostly it’s for kindergarten to fourth- or fifth-graders. I do have another project I’m working on that’s more for 8- to 12-year-olds, and that’s about a family that along with their garden have a beehive and a chicken coop. When another family moves in, who used to live in one of those gated communities, they object to the chickens and the bees, and the kids in the neighborhood get involved in the conflict. It’s about the importance of urban gardening, and it’s funny how recently in Albany we had a big issue about it because somebody ratted out a family that had chickens. I wasn’t really predicting that this issue would happen, but as I was finishing the book I started reading all these newspaper clippings about chickens being raised in the city and whether it should be legalized or not. They made it very restrictive, and then the mayor ended up vetoing it anyway.

Q: Have you come up with a title for this book?

A: It’s a long one. I’m calling it, ‘Taking a Stand on Hawthorne Hill, Or How I Became a Defender of Dirt.’

Categories: Life and Arts

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