Author Talk: Barbara Kerley and One World, One Day

What’s your school day like? How about if you like in Brazil? Or Denmark? Or Kenya? See what’s the same and what’s different about kids’ days around the world through Barbara Kerley’s simple, graceful text and the gorgeous photos from National Geographic in the picture book One World, One Day.

I read this book right after I returned from China last summer. It really hit home for me and my experiences, and I knew immediately I would share it with my first graders when they start their “around the world” unit in February. (Coming up soon!) In the meantime, Barbara Kerley talks a little about her book.

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Tell us about your book.

One World, One Day follows a day in the life of school kids, around the world, from when they first get up all the way until bedtime.  My goal for the book was to share the idea that kids in America have lives remarkably similar to the lives of kids all over the world–that in spite of our differences, we have much in common.  So the book is a great mix of familiar and unexpected.  A boy in India may wash up in a pond, a girl in China may walk through rice paddies to get to school, and some kids in Brazil may sleep in hammocks instead of beds… but still, around the world, kids get up, go to school, do chores and homework, play with friends, and spend time with their families in the evening.

How did you get the idea for One World, One Day?

The book follows the theme of other books I’ve done with National Geographic: A Cool Drink of Water (a global look at water); You and Me, Together (about parents and kids, around the world); and A Little Peace (about small ways we can all make the world more peaceful).  At the core, all four books are about tolerance and reinforce the theme of how we are more alike than different, in the ways that matter.

The photos are so stunning. How much input did you have in choosing them? Which came first, the images or your text?

The photos were selected by Lori Epstein, the wonderfully talented photo editor for National Geographic Children’s Books.  She pulled photos from the magazine’s archives and also solicited photos from photographers she knows.  In fact, one photo of a big pizza was taken especially for the book!  Once we had the basic concept of the book established, Lori pulled dozens of photos and sent them to me, to give me inspiration for the text.  Then I worked from there.  She found additional photos to fill in the gaps, and I kept tweaking the text to make it fit the great photos she’d found.  We did a lot of back-and-forth, under the guidance of executive editor Jennifer Emmett and art director Bea Jackson.  I did weigh in a little bit on photo selection, but the three of them are such pros that mostly, I just tried to get out of the way and let them work!

How long does it take you to write a book? Where do you like to write? What time of day? (Or anything else you want to add about your process.)

My books with National Geographic typically take several months from concept to completion.  My editor Jennifer and I talk about the idea for a book until we get a concept and focus that we think will work.  Once we have a sense of where to go, I start working on the text.  Because all four books are illustrated with photos, I try to keep the text somewhat flexible to accommodate the availability of photos.  There are lots of issues that Jennifer and Bea and Lori have to keep track of, such as how well a photo will crop to fit a space, and making sure that there is a healthy geographic distribution–they really do work hard to make sure the all corners of the world are represented.  During the writing/photo selection phase, there is a lot of dialog making sure everything fits.  And then, I have to write the captions for each photo for the backmatter, which takes a while.  The whole thing is really a team effort.

The other books I write are picture book biographies with Scholastic Press, such as What To Do About Alice? and the upcoming title The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy). Those books are very research-intensive and take much longer to write, anywhere from six months to several years.

Barbara KerleyWhat were you like as a kid?

I was a voracious reader, loved playing dress-ups, and, when I got older, was very involved in theater (both on stage and behind the stage.)  All these interests have helped fuel my desire to be a writer, I think.

Did you like school?

I liked parts of school.  I liked teachers who gave creative assignments and I liked the shelves full of books.  I wasn’t as crazy about P.E., not because I didn’t like sports but because it seemed like I always got chosen almost last when it was time to pick teams.

So…readers want to know….what’s the grossest or most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you as a kid?

I don’t remember a specific incident, but I do remember being very uncomfortable with my height in sixth grade.  I was the tallest girl and the third tallest kid in class (yes, I counted) and remember feeling a bit like a freak and being very jealous of the petite girls in class.  I know now that those girls each probably had their own physical attribute they were equally embarrassed about — the shape of their nose or the way their ears stuck out, or something.  Everyone has something at that age, I think.  But it did take me a long time not to be self-conscious about being so tall!

If you weren’t an author/illustrator, what would you be? Why?

I’d love to be a chef and cook beautiful food that makes people happy.  Cooking is very nurturing and creative.

What’s one thing you’d love to learn to do?

I’d love to become a really good ice skater.  Clearly, I need to move somewhere with a skating rink!

And the coolest place you’ve ever been?

I’ve been fortunate to be able to travel a lot, so I’ve been to a lot of cool places.  The most unusual, I think, is Jellyfish Lake, in Palau, which is a group of islands in the Pacific.  It’s this small, brackish lake filled with non-stinging jellyfish.  The baby ones are the size of cherries, and the adult ones are the size of softballs.  They are a creamy orange color and seem to glow when the sunlight hits the water.  My husband and I went on a snorkeling trip to Jellyfish Lake many years ago.  You can swim out into the middle of the lake through all the jellyfish, which slide down your body as you pass by.  It is sort of what I imagine it would be like to swim through a Jello fruit salad.  Very cool indeed.

We loved your book! Is there a similar book from a different author that’d you’d recommend for kids who liked yours?

Yes!  A dear friend of mine, Deborah Heiligman, has a whole series of wonderful books called Holidays Around The World.  They are published by National Geographic and full of photos and information about different cultures.  There’s even fun stuff in the back of each book, like games and recipes.

What’s next?

Next up for me is The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy), published by Scholastic Press.  When Susy Clemens was 13, she secretly wrote a biography of her famous dad, Mark Twain.  So my book is a biography about her writing a biography.  Mark Twain was a really funny man, and Susy had a lot of spunk, so the book has a lot of humor and affection.

What do you wish we’d asked, but didn’t?

“Do you have a website?”  Yes, indeedy do, I do indeed.  It’s www.barbarakerley.com and it has lots of info about my life, including pictures of my pets and a photo of me as a fifth grade hippie.

Fast facts:

Age? 49
Family? A husband, a 20-year-old daugther, and a 12-pound fluffy orange-and-white cat.
Where do you live? For one more month, I will be living in California.  Then we are moving to Portland, OR.
Other books? Some of my other books include The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins and the novel Greetings From Planet Earth.
Favorite superhero? Book? Sports team? As a kid, I really liked Batman cause he could walk up walls and drove a cool car.  My favorite book was Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, which I must have read at least a dozen times.  My favorite sports team was my soccer team.  I was a fullback and we rocked.