Cynthia Leitch Smith Interview with Carole G. Vogel
October 9, 2009
Carole Garbuny Vogel is the award-winning author of 26 nonfiction books for children and young adults. Her father was a physicist and she inherited his fascination with science. Her first book was “Why Mount St. Helens Blew Its Top” (Dillon Press, 1981), co-authored with Kathryn A. Goldner, and Carole went on to write books about earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and many other environmental-related topics. Early in her career one of Carole’s editors dubbed her the “Queen of Natural Disasters” and the nickname still fits.
What kind of child were you?
I had an immense curiosity about the natural world. I lived for books and outdoor activities like camping, hiking, boating, playing in the snow, horseback riding, and exploring new places. I also had a passion for family history and science. Except for the horseback riding I haven’t changed much.
The problem for me was that my elementary school in suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was third rate. It didn’t even have a library. Instead there was a “book room,” a large janitor’s closet where teachers could choose books for the two narrow shelves in each classroom devoted to extra-curricular reading. Every year I exhausted the content of the two shelves within the first couple of months of school.
Adding to this, the suburb of 60,000 where I lived didn’t have its own town library. Instead, the book mobile from the county library system came every Thursday to the local strip mall. The book mobile was a converted bus and held more books than the two classroom shelves but the selection was static. It took me longer to work my way through its selection but eventually I ran out of books there, too.
My mother was as appalled by the lack of books as I was. So every weekend she would take my two sisters and me to the main library in Pittsburgh. It was my most favorite place in the city (actually it tied with the zoo and the dinosaur exhibit in the museum). Mom decided to do something about the lack of a local library and worked with other like-minded volunteers in the League of Women Voters to get our township to build its own facility. When news of the League’s aspirations appeared in the local newspaper, we received a spate of obscene phone calls, including one death threat, from irate citizens who didn’t want to fund a library with their tax dollars.
Who were your favorite authors?
I didn’t have a favorite author but I gravitated toward books with themes of the natural world. For instance, one of my favorites was Songs of the Swallows, by Leo Politi (Scribner, 1949). This Caldecott Medal winning book immortalizes the annual return of the swallows to San Juan Capistrano Mission and the boy who loved them. When I was little, I thought the children who lived near San Capistrano were the luckiest kids in the world because they had these special birds that came back to visit them every year like clockwork. I wish somebody had told me that the cardinals and the robins in my yard were just as special.
All migrating birds respond to an internal clock that lets them know when it is time to migrate and they commute back and forth between the nesting area where they were born and feeding grounds in warmer climes. One of the things I most enjoyed about writing “The Man Who Flies with Birds” is that I got to write about migration triggers and how birds find their way between nesting and feeding areas.
When I was a preschooler I loved “Scuffy the Tugboat,” a Golden Book by Gertrude Crampton, illustrated by Tibor Gergely. It was the story about a toy tugboat who longed for bigger things than just sailing in a bathtub. One day his owner placed him in a small brook with a quickly moving current and he sailed away. The small brook turned into a larger one and the larger one turned into a river and the river flowed into the ocean. What I loved about the book was the metamorphosis of the flowing water from tiny babbling brook to large stream to giant river to ocean.
I lived at the top of a steep hill a few miles from the Allegheny River. When it rained hard, the water from our yard cascaded down our driveway, through our backyard, through our neighbor’s yard, down a road, and into a storm drain that emptied into a small stream. The small stream joined a bigger one that collected even more water and became a large creek (pronounced “crick” by western Pennsylvanians). The creek emptied into the even larger Allegheny River. About ten or more miles downriver, the Allegheny combined with the Monongahela River and formed the roiling Ohio River. Many hundreds of miles later the Ohio joined the mighty, muddy Mississippi and eventually spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. I wanted to follow the rainwater from my yard on its long and wonderful journey to the ocean.
Do you know where the water from your yard ends up?
Could you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer?
My grandmother lived in New York City and was a great believer in letter writing. So from the time I was in first grade I wrote to her regularly. She detested letters that started out, “How are you? I am fine.” So I tried to spice my letters up by tattling on my sisters and describing the trouble that the boy next door got into. I left out the part about my role in these events.
I loved writing letters and by the time I entered college I had mastered the craft. One of my old boyfriends saved all the letters that I had sent to him freshman year. When he married someone else several years later he mailed them all back to me with a note saying that he couldn’t destroy the letters because they were so beautiful.
What was the single best thing you did to improve your craft?
Switched from using passive verbs to vivid active ones.
What, if anything, do you wish you’d done differently?
I should have gotten a Ph.D.
Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?
I majored in biology, earned a masters degree in teaching, and taught elementary school for five years in Pittsburgh. My husband found a job in the Boston area and we moved but I couldn’t find a teaching position in our new location. Then I saw an ad in the newspaper for an el-hi science textbook editor. I landed the job and began ghostwriting science text books and teachers guides for the elementary school market.
While at work I met another science editor whose skills and expertise were comparable to mine. At lunch one day we discovered that we shared the same desire – to write a children’s book. The next day Mount St. Helens erupted and we decided to write about the volcano together. Through dumb luck and perseverance we found a publisher and we went on to write eight more books and launched a freelance-editing partnership. We parted nine years later when our interests diverged.
Congratulations on the release of The Man Who Flies with Birds (Kar-Ben, 2009)! In your own words, could you tell us about the book?
The Man Who Flies with Birds is the story of Yossi Leshem, an Israeli bird expert. Yossi actually soars with eagles—and with storks, pelicans, and other high-flying birds. Using a silent glider, motorized only for takeoff and landing, he can stay aloft among bird flocks for eleven hours. By tracking the migratory patterns of the 500 million birds that pass over Israel each year, he has been able to significantly reduce the number of bird/airplane collisions.
Since early childhood Yossi has been fascinated by birds but it wasn’t until he reached his mid-thirties and learned about birds striking planes that he began his life’s work of studying and eventually flying with migratory birds. Spending so much time in the air, made Yossi acutely aware that birds have no boundaries. He wondered if a shared concern about birds could be used to connect people of different nationalities. This unique nature book is based on Yossi’s research, and offers new insights into the science of migration, examines the impact of changing ecological and cultural conditions on birds, and tells the story of one man’s mission to protect the environment and make peace in the Mideast one bird-lover at a time.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
I read an article in New Scientist Magazine that described Yossi’s work and I immediately knew his life story would make a great children’s book. So I contacted Yossi and asked him if I could write a children’s book about him. He was interested but on the condition that we would co-author it together. I agreed and so “The Man Who Flies with Birds” is an autobiography even though it is told in the third person.
What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?
Shortly after I signed the contract with Lerner Publishing for “The Man Who Flies with Birds,” I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. Between the stress and the anesthesia I completely lost my writing ability for about 10 months. This was more traumatic than the cancer.
The cancer was picked up so early that the cure rate is nearly 100 percent so I wasn’t panicked about dying from cancer. What panicked me was the thought that I might never be able to write again. It was a short term memory issue. I would start to write a paragraph and by the time I got to the second or third sentence I would lose my train of thought. I didn’t know where I was going.
What made this even more frustrating was that I had outlined the book completely before my diagnosis. I knew what was supposed to go on each page. But I was dealing with extremely complex science concepts and I needed to address the complicated political situation in the Middle East. Putting all of this at kid level and making it an interesting and fast-paced read was the challenge. My ability to write came back gradually and finally I was able to complete the manuscript and quickly go through the editing and production stages with my editor.
I got a great conciliation prize for delaying publication. The very week that the finished layout was scheduled to go the printer, a U.S. Airways jet taking off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport encountered a flock of geese. The impact destroyed the engines and the pilot, Captain Sullie Sullenbeger, made his extremely skilled emergency landing in the Hudson River. All aboard survived.
My editor and I made the decision to include a photo of the passengers standing on the wings of the downed airplane and a description of the incident. This made for one monumental headache. Remember, the book was already complete. There were no holes that need to be filled. Fitting Sullie’s story in, meant pulling an existing photo from the book and writing new text that fit in seamlessly. We pulled this off successfully. If you read the book you don’t get the sense that something else should have been in the spot.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?
My co-author is an Israeli and lives in Tel Aviv, which is seven time zones away from my home in Massachusetts. During part of the time we were collaborating, Yossi was on sabbatical in Japan, which was even further away, so finding a time when we could speak was a challenge. Luckily we both used Skype so telephone bills weren’t exorbitant and most of our communication was done via email.
Language was a tremendous barrier. Yossi’s native language is Hebrew and some of the reference articles that I needed were written in Hebrew. I found translations for some but occasionally the meaning of words was lost in translation and the information was incorrect. So I was extremely dependent on Yossi for providing the information I needed. Luckily, he was an expert on his own life and work!
Yossi’s written communications were clear cut but he speaks with a thick Israeli accent so sometimes I had difficulty deciphering what he said. For instance he pronounces the word for “birds” as “beards.”
We also had cultural challenges. Israelis in general are more laidback in their view of time and their concept of deadlines. “Tomorrow” in Yossi’s parlance could mean tomorrow or three days from now or a week or three weeks in the future. This was compounded by the fact that Yossi is a tremendously busy man.
Could you update us on your back-list books, highlighting as you see fit?
Wow – I’ve written 26 books so the list is long. Let’s start with The Restless Sea, a six-book series on the oceans for middle school students (Scholastic Library, 2003). I wish I had published these six books as individual trade titles and not as a series for an institutional publisher. The books represent some of my best writing and most important ideas, and they are enhanced by the most amazing photographs.
The books didn’t get the exposure that my singleton titles have received. The reviewers treated them as a set and did cursory reviews, making we wonder if the reviewers actually did more than glimpse at the table of contents. This sounds like sour grapes but I devoted three years of my life to this series and the silence of its reception was deafening. If I could have written the reviews this is how I would have described the individual titles:
Read about sunken cites that lie beneath the ocean and cities which are sinking now and may drown in the near future. You may be surprised by the causes of their demise. The ground beneath your feet may feel rigid and unmovable but the Earth’s thin, outer crust is broken into large slabs called tectonic plates. The plates move relative to each other, colliding, ripping apart, or scraping past each other. This jostling gives rise to spectacular mountains ranges and immense canyons on land and beneath the sea. Learn how these tectonic movements reshape coastlines and unleash the world’s cruelest natural disasters—monster earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. A discussion of doomsday rocks—giant meteorites—and their potential to wipe out life as we know it rounds out this book.
Note: In this book I predicted the destruction of New Orleans by a strong hurricane two years before the city was destroyed. When I was writing the text I felt so strongly that New Orleans was doomed that I convinced my husband to change our vacation plans so we could show the city to our kids. I’m glad he listened!
Human beings have collectively become one of the potent forces in nature, transforming the ocean through overfishing, uncontrolled coastal development, global warming, and pollution. The most dangerous refuse in the ocean may be discarded military equipment, such as bombs, mines, and poison gas. The ocean is not as resilient as it once seemed. Filthy harbors, dead zones, toxic algae blooms, mass extinctions, and alien invaders from distant waters are all ominous signs of troubled seas. The current generation of scientists and policy-makers has had limited success in reversing the decline of the oceans. Read why the next generation—the kids in school today—will be better equipped to make a difference when they reach adulthood.
It’s eat or be eaten beneath the sea. Discover how underwater creatures adapt to their dangerous environment and how they survive and even thrive in a place where most wildlife ends up in the belly of a predator. Cannibalism, deadly venoms, and even sex transformation (changing from a male to female or vice versa) are successful strategies used by some species to compete.
Gripping real-life stories about killer storms, ship crushing ice, fire at sea, and starved sailors turned cannibal will keep readers turning these pages filled with incredible oceanic disasters and the natural forces that contributed to them. Bloodthirsty pirates of long ago—male and female—come to life in these narratives, along with harrowing accounts of modern-day piracy.
From the violent origin of Earth and its oceans in a cosmic demolition derby to the celestial impact on waves, tides, and ice ages, readers will be awed by the extraterrestrial forces at work in the natural world. Journey along the hidden landscape of the sea and discover the complex paths of currents, and the relationship between ocean and climate in this dramatic investigation of the world ocean and the secrets it has yet to reveal.
The ocean floor covers nearly 71 percent of the Earth’ surface, yet we know more about the sun, moon, and stars than about the depths of the sea. Until recently, the extreme pressure and inability to navigate underwater made deep-sea exploration almost impossible. Journey deep beneath the sea on a quest for adventure, knowledge, and sunken treasure in this exciting look at how ocean mapping, manned submersibles, and underwater robots are revealing the secrets of the ocean.
Here are my other titles:
Weather Legends: Native American Lore and the Science of Weather (Millbrook Press, 2001)
This book juxtaposes Native American myths of the origin of interesting weather occurrences with an explanation of the meteorological forces that create weather. In it you will find native legends of murderous serpents, immense sky warriors, and kindly spirits beings, and how these entities are linked to the amazing dramas that take place in the sky overhead. The book also gives a brief summary of how scientists understand the meteorological forces that dominate the atmosphere and create the weather we experience.
Breast Cancer: Questions & Answers for Young Women (Twenty-First Century Books, 2001).
This is a revised edition of my award-winning book, Will I Get Breast Cancer: Questions & Answers for Teenage Girls. It really should have been titled “Everything You Want to Know about Breasts and Breast Cancer.” It provides a thorough explanation of breast physiology, function and health. I don’t shy away from issues dealing with size and development, sexual response, and how to respond to stupid wise-cracks from boys.
I tackle breast cancer head on in a non-frightening way. I explain what cancer is, how it is diagnosed and treatment options. I also deal with the emotional and physical aspects – what to expect when someone has breast cancer—and I wrap up with current research and hope for the future.
I may be one of the few self-help writers who has actually benefited greatly from the content of her own writings after publication. I had not experienced breast cancer personally when I wrote the book but I found the book extremely helpful later when my own cancer was diagnosed. I went into panic mode but I knew I could trust what I had written. The book actually calmed me down. A year later my mother was diagnosed with more advanced breast cancer and my mom and I found the book quite useful when we looked at her treatment options, and when my daughter weighed whether or not to be tested for the breast cancer gene.
Nature’s Fury: Eyewitness Reports of Natural Disasters (Scholastic Reference, 2000).
Tornadoes, blizzards, hurricanes, wildfire – read for yourself the eyewitness accounts of people who faced 13 different natural disasters and lived to tell about it. Their stories are taken from historical archives, newspapers, and other published sources and from personal interviews and correspondence. These first-person accounts show the courage, ingenuity, and resilience of survivors in the face of natural forces that cannot be controlled. It is a very real view of what it is like to face nature’s fury and survive.
This book was a winner of the Boston Authors Club Book Award for young readers.
Legends of Landforms: Native American Lore and the Geology of the Land (Millbrook Press, 1999).
Exploding volcanoes, earth-rattling quakes, mammoth floods, as well as a myriad of other geological and meteorological events have shaped the landscapes of North America. Long ago native Americans attributed these events to fearsome dragons, bloodthirsty serpents, helpful giants, and other spirit beings with earth-sculpting capabilities. These interpretations were passed on in the form of legends. This book retells some of these legends and also provides dynamic scientific and explanations of earth-shaping forces.
Some of my earlier titles are:
- Shock Waves Through Los Angeles: The Northridge Earthquake (Little Brown, 1996)
- The Great Midwest Flood (Little Brown, 1995)
- The Great Yellowstone Fire co-authored with Kathryn A. Goldner (Sierra Club/Little Brown, 1990)
My website shows most of the other books that I have published.
If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?
I would tell myself to get a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Holocaust studies, and become fluent in German, Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Polish, Italian, and French so I could read original documents. Additionally I would study conflict resolution so the lessons of the Holocaust could be applied to current events.
Cynthia, I bet that’s not the answer you expected!
What special advice do you have for children’s nonfiction writers?
Unless you have a trust fund, make sure you have the skills and degrees necessary to get well paying work to supplement your writing income.
Other than your own, what is your favorite children’s nonfiction book of the year and why?
I need to take a pass on this question. I am on the awards committee for the Boston Authors Club and so I see a lot of incredible books but I am not comfortable publicly identifying which one I like best. However, if you are looking for a good read, go the Boston Authors Club website and check out the award-winning books and recommended ones for both young readers and adults. The top award winner in each category takes home a prize of $1,000.
What do you do when you’re not in the book world?
My husband and I have spent the last few years rebuilding my grandparents’ 75-year-old lakeside cottage. We alternate our time at the lake between grunt work in the house and yard, and fun things such as hiking, kayaking throwing barbeques and dinner parties, and entertaining out-of-town guests. Some of our biggest challenges involve keeping bats, ground squirrels, and flying squirrels out of the attic and keeping Canada geese and great blue heron off our dock (if we don’t our dock gets covered in bird poop.)
Genealogy is one of my greatest passions. I am the daughter of Holocaust survivors and as a result I have tremendous interest in family history and the historical events that impacted my family. This interest has led me to some of my most amazing life experiences.
For instance, I joined a dialogue group that brought together children of Holocaust survivors with sons and daughters of Nazis. In the group I met a woman Inge Franken whose father, like mine, was born in Germany in 1912. My father’s life and the lives of his family members in Germany were shattered when Hitler came to power and enacted his anti-Jewish legislation. Many of his relatives were murdered. I have been able to learn the fate of most of his close relatives but to this day I still don’t know how one of his uncles perished—he vanished without a trace.
Inge’s father became a devout Nazi, joined the German Army, and participated in the siege of Leningrad, which killed 1.5 civilians, mostly be starvation. Together, Inge and I speak in classrooms in both the United States and Germany about growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust.
What can your readers look forward to next?
I’ll let it be a surprise.