InterVIEW with NF Author Christy Mihaly
Interviewed by Sheila Herrera
What do you like to do when you aren't writing?
I love to get outside. I walk with my dog in the fields and woods and cemeteries around where I live. In summer, I go kayaking on local ponds (without dog); in winter, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing (with). I also like to hang out with grandkids. And read. In the pre-pandemic days, I loved to listen to live music. And, though I'm not very good, from time to time I pick up my old cello and see if I can still play.
What inspired you to start writing?
I really enjoy sharing cool information with kids. I've always loved writing, and I spent years thinking I'd like to write for children. But until ten years ago, I was busy doing other things.
Then in 2011, my husband took a sabbatical and we moved with our family to Spain for a year. I left my job as a lawyer and decided this was my chance to be a children's author. Because we were in an unfamiliar country, I was seeing new places, people, foods, and ways of doing things every day. Everywhere I looked, I found story ideas! I started writing short stories and articles for magazines. These included a short story about a girl who moves to Spain and a history piece about the sailors from southern Spain who navigated for Columbus. After we returned home, I began writing books. In fact, I recently sold a not-yet-announced picture book that arose from my time in Spain.
As a writer, what do you love about the process? What do you find most difficult?
I love the flow—the feeling of being lost in the flow of writing. (Getting there can be difficult, though, and sometimes writing is just a slog of drudgery.)
I also appreciate the editing process. I love working with a smart, perceptive editor who can help me see my work with new eyes and make it better and better.
The most difficult for me, honestly, is getting started: the moment I have to pick an idea and figure out how to turn into a story is my hardest challenge.
Do you do research for every book you write? And, when you research, what does the process look like?
I do, yes. I write mostly nonfiction, so of course I always research. I also do some level of research for fiction, and even for poems.
The process varies for different books. When I wrote Hey, Hey, Hay! (an informational fiction picture book about making hay) the initial idea came from watching the haymaking process. So it started with my own observations. But as I wrote the book, I kept checking with farmers and other experts to make sure everything was true to life.
With books focused on history, I've spent a lot of time in historical society reading rooms. I've traveled to the spots where historical events occurred, and visited re-enactments. For some science books, I've started with online research and then tracked down experts to interview. The basic process is that as I learn about a topic, I identify questions that I need to answer. And then keep going. Sometimes it's hard to know when to stop, but I can usually tell when I've answered the questions that I (and my readers) will be most concerned with.
You've written stories, poetry, and more than 20 nonfiction books for young readers. What was your debut book and how long did it take you to write? Has the process gotten easier?
My first book was published in 2016—and it does not have my name on it. It's National Geographic Kids' Junior Ranger Activity Book, a 160-page activity book. I worked with a book packager (Bender Richardson White) to write the text and create quizzes, trivia, maps, stories, etc., about the US National Parks.
The writing took about seven months of concentrated effort, during which we went through several rounds of reviews and revisions. Between the time Lionel Bender initially contacted me and the publication date was eleven months.
And yes, the process has gotten easier. With practice, I've grown more efficient. I have a better sense of what phrasing works, which facts are fun and kid-friendly, and what's the appropriate language for the readers I'm targeting.
As a Rate Your Story Judge, what genre do you most enjoy reading? And, what things do you look for when you provide feedback and rate a story?
I love reading picture book manuscripts. It's so satisfying to be able to review the full work and offer feedback on the dramatic arc and character development from beginning to end.
In commenting, I tailor my comments to the manuscript's merits and deficits, trying to be as helpful as I can in suggestions to strengthen the manuscript. In rating the story, I consider the overall work, including its heart and the emotions it conveys, and whether it has a satisfying plot or structure, luscious language, characters that resonate, originality, and accurate facts.
What in your opinion makes a nonfiction picture book successful?
Putting some of yourself into your story. A successful nonfiction book makes us care about the topic. It's imbued with a sense of the author's experiences and love for their subject in a way that captures a young reader's imagination. (For more about this, I recommend the recently published book of essays by nonfiction writers, edited by Melissa Stewart, Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep.) Picture books can accomplish this in different ways – with pathos or humor or art or numbers. Each reader is different, and a book succeeds if it finds a reader who loves it.
When do you feel it is important to have a website?
When you sell your first story. Before selling a manuscript, each book creator needs to decide for themselves. If you want to focus your energy on creating books rather than websites at that point, then you should write the books and defer the website. But once you've sold a manuscript, even before the book is published, it's a good time to create an online presence. You want a place where readers can find you. Your website becomes a tool to get your book into the hands of your readers—and that's your goal.
Congratulations on Water: A Deep Dive of Discovery, your new book which releases this month by Barefoot Books. Please tell our members about the book?
Thank you! I'm excited about this book, so beautifully illustrated by Mariona Cabassa. It's all about water—from the water cycle to the states of water (ice, water vapor, liquid) to the ways we use it, how to protect it, and more. I wanted to convey the wonder and magic of water while giving kids accurate information. I also wanted to introduce kids to the interrelated environmental issues that face us, and how water is central to understanding and addressing them. Climate change, world hunger, drought and flooding, animal extinctions – water is at the heart of all these crises.
With the talented team at Barefoot Books, we created a gorgeous, oversized (64-page) picture book full of maps, graphs, sidebars, and lively, bright illustrations. It has fold-out page wings for extra-large graphics, and fold-up flaps with ideas for activities, experiments, and action items.
And I'm excited to share that Kirkus likes it! WATER got a starred review, which said, "Mihaly has a way with words; her explanations are clear and her language well chosen, with pleasing alliteration. … She addresses readers directly, with respect for their capacity." So, I'm hoping kids will like it too!
In closing, please share a final writing tip with our members.
What I'd say is: Find what you love in your work, and focus on that.
If you don't love what you're writing, it will show. So, if you are struggling to love your work, try to figure out why. Ask yourself: Is there something else you'd prefer to write? Why not write a short story or article? Something shorter or longer, on another theme or topic? Could you write a poem, as a break or for inspiration? I often find writing a poem will clear my head and help me rediscover the joy.
Of course, you won't love every word you write. First drafts always need revising. But are you loving the process? Can you see that you'll love the final book? Or are you missing that spark?
There are days when I'm not happy with what I've written, or I have an assignment that I don't really feel like writing … but overall, I deeply love my work. I love that my job is writing these books. And I think if you feel that way about your writing, it will show, and that love will carry you through … even if you have to slog through seven rounds of revisions to get where you're going. Hang in there, writers—you can do it!
Christy Mihaly’s works:
Illustrated by Mariona Cabassa
Sept 2021, Barefoot Books
Illustrated by Manu Montoya
2020, Albert Whitman & Company
Illustrated by Joe Cepeda
2018, Holiday House
2018, Twenty-First Century Books/Lerner
Junior Ranger Activity Book, National Geographic Kids, 2016 (uncredited author)
Governing the United States series, Rourke Educational Media, 2020 (Ask the Mayor, Ask the Governor, Ask a Congressperson, Ask the Attorney General, Ask a Judge, Ask the President.)
Shaping the Debate series, Rourke Educational Media, 2019 (Climate Change, Free Press, Free Speech, Human Rights, Immigration, Women’s Rights.)
Sunlight (Natural Resources) Pop! 2019
Rocky Mountain (Scientists in the National Parks) Rourke, 2019
California’s Redwood Forest (Natural Wonders of the World) Focus Readers, 2018
Elephants (Animals of Africa). Focus Readers, 2017
Moose (Animals of North America). Focus Readers, 2017
All About Apps (Cutting-Edge Technology). Focus Readers, 2017
Using Math in Fashion (Math You Will Actually Use). Rosen Central, 2017
Getting Paid to Make Cosplay Costumes and Props (Turning Your Tech Hobbies into a Career). Rosen Publishing, 2017
Christy Mihaly writes children's books, articles, stories, essays, and poems. She practiced law for more than 20 years, and is particularly drawn to writing nonfiction -- all kinds of nonfiction! "WATER: A Deep Dive of Discovery," her fall 2021 title, leads young readers on a fascinating tour of the world of water.