Award-winning children’s author and poet Leslie Bulion has enjoyed reading and writing since the fourth grade, but becoming a professional writer wasn’t always her dream job.
After following a few different career paths, Bulion is now the author of several children’s books. Her latest book, Serengeti Plains of Grass, is a lyrical salute to Africa’s Serengeti Plain.
Bulion joined Zydalis Bauer to talk about her path to becoming an author and what inspired her newest book.
Want to get up close and personal with nature? Check out some tips from Leslie Bulion in this digital exclusive.
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Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: Award-winning children’s author and poet Leslie Bulion has enjoyed reading and writing since the fourth grade. Now, after a few different career paths, Bulion is the author of several children’s books, with her most recent release entitled “Serengeti Plains of Grass.”
She joined me to discuss her career and the inspiration behind this lyrical salute to Africa’s Serengeti Plain.
Leslie Bulion, Children’s Author & Poet: I really had never had any thoughts about writing professionally. I studied science. I became a social worker.
And then a friend of mine — who had been my friend a very long time — I wrote her a letter about some feelings about parenting, and she happened to be the editor of a parenting magazine, of “Parents” magazine.
And so, she said, “Why don’t you write for the magazine?”
And I thought, “Well, okay,” because I had been taking a break from being a social worker; my children were really small. So, I did that for a while and really loved it.
But then I told her something that happened to one of my daughters and she said, “That would make a good children’s story.”
So, I thought, “Well, her first idea was so good, why not listen to her second idea?”
And I never sold that story, but I really just fell in love with the learning and the process. And I’ve always loved children’s literature and read voraciously myself and then with my daughters.
So, I thought, “Well, this –this really feels right.”
Zydalis Bauer: And so, your latest book, titled “Serengeti Plains of Grass,” is a lyrical salute to Africa’s Serengeti Plain.
Why did you choose to write about this area in particular? Where did the inspiration come from?
Leslie Bulion: Well, I was very, very fortunate to spend some time in East Africa. It was quite a number of years ago, but my husband’s sister was working there on a teaching fellowship, and she invited us to come. And our girls were invited, too, and we were there a whole month.
And we spent a little bit of the time while we were there on safari and only two days in the Serengeti. But it just affected me so much. Everything about it, this the expanse, the splendor, the animals that you could see, and then the ones that were sort of hidden under the tall grass that you didn’t know were there, but you knew something was going on.
And I just always wanted to go back. And it took me a long time to figure out how to go back through writing.
Zydalis Bauer: And so, this book will explore all of those different animals that you were just talking about in the Serengeti Plain, as well as the productive ecosystem that exists there.
Can you share with us a little bit about what we can expect to read and learn about in this book?
Leslie Bulion: One of the things that Tanzania’s Serengeti Plain is well known for is the great migration of more than a million wildebeests, hundreds of thousands of zebras, gazelles that move through the whole Serengeti Mara ecosystem — really into a little bit of Kenya, too — not exactly in a circle, but they have this cycle following the rains and the monsoons.
So, the book follows that into the Serengeti Short Grass Plain, which is sort of the southeastern part of the Serengeti and follows the food web from the base of the food web, which is the grass, through the animals that eat the grass. And they are large and small. And then animals that eat other plants and moving up through animals that eat the smaller animals, the animals that eat the bigger animals, the top predators, and then the recyclers that eat all of the leavings of the animals and the scat of the animals and recycles it back into the soil to feed the grass and start the cycle over again.
So, there’s kind of two things going on: the migration cycle and the food web.
Zydalis Bauer: Science is one of those topics and subjects that it appeals to anyone of all ages. But sometimes it can have complex concepts to explain.
So, do you ever find it challenging to write in a way that children can comprehend these concepts?
Leslie Bulion: One of the books that I wrote a while ago “At the Sea Floor Cafe,” I did study oceanography, and I think at first it started out to be a little too complex, because I knew a lot about the subject.
But I approached the books that I’m writing from a basis of, certainly, understanding biology and ecology, but really not knowing the ins and outs of a particular area or of a particular group. Like when I wrote about amphibians, I really didn’t know anything about amphibians. So, I’m approaching it from nothing and soaking everything in.
And then…not trying to teach everything, but just trying to share what I find really fascinating and what I call juicy science stories and something cool that kids could really relate to.
And one of the things about writing poetry is, that you have to hone everything down to just a handful of words. So how are you going to get that across, in just so few words? And that’s — I think that’s what helps me just make it into this little package.
Zydalis Bauer: Something that you just mentioned brings me to my next question. You said that you wrote about amphibians, but you didn’t know much about amphibians. And so, a lot of your books have a broad range of — of nature and science. I mean, you talk about spiders to stink bugs and birds to random body parts.
So, what’s the research that goes into your writing — your next subject?
Leslie Bulion: Yeah, that’s — that’s a great question!
So, I have sort of multi-pronged research. One of the things that I absolutely love to do, and part of my mission when I meet with kids, is to talk about getting outside and exploring yourself however you ca. Any kind of hands-on learning — for the way I learn, it’s best for me. And I think it’s really fun for everybody to get out in nature and to be learning those things.
So, that’s one thing that I always do is try to get out in nature, hands on with people who are experts in the field. And then I read very widely. I read giant textbooks about amphibians and guidebooks about amphibians. And then I start sort of drilling in and reading about specific amphibians that I think I can fit into a book, because I always have a theme.
In that case, it was amphibian acrobats, so I was looking at how amphibians move. Actually, the title came first in that book, because I like alliteration, so I was like, “Amphibian Acrobats? Okay! Now who’s going to get to be in this book?”
And so I looked at all of these great again, like juicy science stories about amphibians, and really honed in on specific ones, so that it would cover a broad range of what amphibians do. So, I’m trying to look at what makes an amphibian an amphibian, and also tell this fun story about which ones are acrobats and how I can fit them into that theme.
And then I — and I also read fiction, because I like to sort of get — connect with the emotion of characters in books that are in love with these animals or having something to do with these animals. And I know an author named Bill Harley who wrote “Night of the Spayed Foot Toads,” and so, I read that book because there was a kid who was really into protecting the spayed foot toads.
And so, I do a lot of different kinds of research and then start the writing.
Zydalis Bauer: One of the things that I most admire about your story is how you followed all of these natural passions of yours and found a way to turn them into a living for yourself.
So, what advice would you give to others, and what do you hope young readers take away from reading your stories?
Leslie Bulion: I think everybody is different, so I’m not such a great advice giver, but I would say…one of the things that’s very important if you want to write for children is to read what’s being published right now, or in the last five years, because trends change. It’s not that you want to write to a trend, but even in the time that I’ve been writing, there’s a lot more back matter in books for kids.
Kids just have these amazing, inquisitive minds. And they — they are not reading books where an adult is telling a young person, “Well, this is how the world works”, or “This is what I want you to think about,” it’s to open the door for them. And so, it’s important to see what is out there.
And then to just keep writing.,and keep writing and keep writing. You have to love the process. It’s very hard to get to where you are in the business end of writing children’s books — if you’re lucky enough to get there, that’s something that you have to learn about.
So, you have to learn the art and the craft and — and the business. And there’s great ways to do that: going to conferences, joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. That’s certainly something that I would advise anybody to do if they’re interested in children’s writing, because there’s just a lot of great material when — and people who are working hard to share it. It’s a very sharing community, which is very wonderful.