Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Behind the Books: Slithering Snakes

Back in November, I wrote a series of posts about how I get ideas for books. I thought I could finish up the strand before Thanksgiving, but it turns out, I have a little bit more to say. So here is my final post about book ideas—at least for now.
Many of the books I write are based on ideas I develop myself. I usually write these manuscripts on spec (speculation), send them to editors I know, and hope they fall in love and decide to publish them.

But sometimes an editor comes to me with an idea. Near the end of 2007, an editor from National Geographic Books for Young Readers asked me to write a leveled reader about snakes. I said “yes” immediately. After all, I’d always wanted to write a book for the revered National Geographic Society.

But after I hung up, I started to realize the ramifications of what I’d done. I’d agreed to write a book about snakes. Snakes. What was I thinking? Sure, I’m a nature lover, but here’s the truth: Snakes really creep me out. Always have. Always will.

I’ve encountered my fair share of garter snakes. I’ve seen a cottonmouth or two. And I even spotted a deadly fer-de-lance in a Costa Rican rainforest. But my most memorable snake encounter happened in the Galapagos Islands.

While hiking across a large expanse of volcanic rock with two herpetologists (scientists who study reptiles and amphibians), I noticed a sudden movement on the ground. I looked down expecting to see a cute little lizard scuttle by. But instead, I watched in horror as a large brown snake slithered right over my hiking boot.

I couldn't help myself. I screamed.

I expected my hard-core scientist companions to look at me with disgust, so their reaction stunned me. The mild-mannered researchers actually whooped with joy.

It turns out my little “friend” was a Galapagos snake, a rare species the scientists had never seen before—even though this was their seventh trip to the Islands. Good golly, I was practically a hero in their eyes.

But let’s get back to my problem. I had to write a book about snakes—my least favorite creatures. What choice did I have? I dug in and started researching.

It turns out snakes are more interesting than I ever imagined—from the way they move and swallow prey to the way they mate and have young. In the end, the project turned out to be a lot of fun. And I was able to craft an engaging, age-appropriate manuscript that I knew kids would love. Then the folks at National Geographic did what they’re know for—came up with stellar images that perfectly illustrated my text.

Snakes still give me the willies, but my effort truly seemed worthwhile when my nephew read Snakes! and gave it his ultimate form of praise. “Cool,” he said.

And so it is.


  1. Hah! Great story, Melissa - poisonous snakes especially, are one of the few creatures that really creep me out. How awesome that you got to see a fer-de-lance! Your nephew is right - cool, indeed. :)

  2. The galapagos Islands are the most incredible museum of evolutionary changes. Worth visiting

  3. Thanks for your comments, Jessica and Zuri. I feel really lucky that traveling to exotic ecosystems is part of my job. Seeing the fer-de-lance in Costa Rican was an exciting moment, and I truly treasure the time I spent exploring the Galapagos. Stay tuned for future blog posts that include more information about both trips.