Author interview with Sarah Albee

A few weeks ago, I reviewed POISON: DEADLY DEEDS, PERILOUS PROFESSIONS, AND MURDEROUS MEDICINES, by Sarah Albee. Today, I’m excited to host Sarah for an interview with the author! Read on to learn more about how she wrote this particular book and much, much more…


LAT: Welcome, Sarah, and thanks for agreeing to answer my questions!
LAT: You know how much I love your new book, POISON. The whole time I was reading it, though, I kept wondering… how did you first become interested in writing about poisons?
Sarah Albee author photoSA: I’ve been fascinated with poison ever since I was a young kid, from the first fairy tales that were read to me, to stories that I read myself as I got older. Snow White, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Shakespeare—I wanted to know if those poisonings from literature were possible in real life, and if they were, I wanted to know what was going on at the molecular level of a person who’d been poisoned. The idea of writing a book about poison occurred to me a few years ago, as I was researching my book, Why’d They Wear That? Associating poison with fashion may sound odd, but my interest was piqued as I learned more about how arsenic became wildly popular in the 19 th century—it was everywhere—at every apothecary shop, in arsenical green fabric, in paint pigments, even in edible arsenic complexion wafers (!). The history of poison just seemed like a perfect way to link so many things that intrigue me—mysteries, detective stories, human passion, alchemy, art, politics, social history, and the history of medicine.
LAT: And that linking of so many different topics is one of the biggest reasons I enjoyed reading it so much! Besides geeky nonfiction authors, what kind of readers do you think this book will appeal to?
SA: I hope it will have what publishers call “crossover appeal,” which for me would be kids who think they prefer to read only fiction. I personally love knowing the “back story,” no matter what genre I’m reading. I find that I still ask myself: “Could that actually happen in real life?” I hope the book will appeal to science-oriented readers, history lovers, and to kids who love mysteries!
LAT: I think it will. Your passion for the subject comes through on every page. What was your favorite part of the book to research and/or write?
SA: At the risk of sounding hokey, every part of the research was fascinating. Poisons in the ancient world, poisons in the Renaissance, poisons in the 19th century and the rise of forensics—I mean, there was literally never a dull moment. I loved visiting a poison plant garden and seeing in person all the poisonous plants I’d been reading and writing about. I loved talking to museum curators and getting special, private access to amazing collections of bones and body organs and
artifacts.
LAT: Sounds like fun! What was the hardest part of the research and/or writing for you, and how did you deal with that?
SA: The hardest part was figuring out how to narrow down my topic. Early drafts of the book were, well, in need of a firm editorial hand. Luckily I have wonderful beta readers and a fantastic editor, and with varying degrees of gentleness and candor, they informed me that I needed to cut, cut, cut. Thank god for editors.
LAT: Hear, hear! I can relate to that one. Did anything during the research phase surprise you, catch you off guard, or make you change your planned course for the book?
SA: Yessirree. See above re having to narrow down my topic. In an earlier draft, I’d included a pretty extensive history of anesthesia. It is SO COOL. Preparing a patient for surgery in ancient times ranged from having the patient inhale fumes from a soporific sponge soaked in mandrake and opium, to bonking him over the head with a mallet. Which unfortunately led to many patients never waking up. The discovery of ether and chloroform totally transformed the way surgeons performed operations. But my editor and I finally decided we needed to cut most of that out, which pained me as much as bodily cuts without anesthesia. (Ha ha, not really!) Although many types of poisons were used as both analgesics and anesthetics, I had to acknowledge that they didn’t quite fit in a book about nefarious poisons. (Side note: I now have the most profound respect for anesthesiologists.)
LAT: Perhaps it’ll come in handy for another book, somewhere down the line. I can image you collected a TON of interesting information along the way. How do you manage all of your research for a book like this? What’s your system? (Tell me, please, because mine feels woefully amateurish!)
SA: Ha! I wish I could tell you that I’m super systematic about my research, but every time I begin a new project it’s a big, blobby mess. For this book, I began by reading widely—biographies about the Borgias, Roman emperors, Catherine de Medici, Empress Wu. I read early medical journals, up-to-the-minute scholarly articles, and primary sources like travelogues and diaries. I took an online course in chemistry, and another in forensics. I interviewed tons of people, and became a pest to my science-teacher friends (“explain to me again what an alkaloid is?”). The one godsend was I knew what my structure would be—the book would be chronological, from ancient times to the present, so I was able to lump my topics and my poisoners/victims into their respective historical eras.
POISON cover
LAT: Wow, that’s an impressive research list! Did you do all the photo research for the book too? Can you tell us a bit about that process?
SA: The first time I did my own image research, many books ago, I was overwhelmed, and totally clueless about how to go about it. Image research is a steep learning curve, but now, many books later, I absolutely love that phase of the process. I did a couple of guest posts on Melissa Stewart’s blog about image research for students here, and for professional writers here, if people would like a bit more detail.
LAT: You’ve helped me come up to speed in that area as well, and I’m eternally grateful for your generous advice!
LAT: I think every book teaches us something new, about the world, about ourselves, or about the craft of writing. What have you learned as a result of writing this book?
SA: I try not to get too political in my books or on social media, but the more research I have done about the horrors of poisons and environmental toxins people used to be exposed to, the more horrified I have grown by the current trend in our country to roll back hard-fought regulations for clean air and clean water, and to defang agencies such as the FDA and the EPA. When you know the history of the way things used to be, you shudder at what could happen once again.
LAT: I had the same thoughts when I was reading your book. I’m glad that myself, and all the other readers out there, will have this broadened perspective going forward.
LAT: What other writers do you look up to and why?
SA: I have so many kidlit writers that I look up to and love, both fiction and nonfiction—but this answer would be way too long if I tried to list all of them. So I’ll stick to just a few writers of adult books I admire. Mary Roach is a favorite of mine. I love her sense of humor and her offbeat science topics—I like to think that our missions are aligned. I love P.G. Wodehouse. I love historians who can write, and write well. It’s like a breath of fresh air when you find a scholarly, well-researched book that’s also beautifully written for a reader’s enjoyment, with grace and style and wit.
LAT: What are you working on now?
SA: I’m working on several projects right now and I wish there were more hours in the day because I’m so excited about all of them! I have a book about the human/dog relationship coming out next March with National Geographic, called Dog Days of History. And I’m working on a book that’s a collection of quirky biographies, as well as a series of biographies for much younger readers, and a new American history series for upper elementary kids, which will probably be called “What Were They Thinking?
LAT: Gosh, you’re busy! Is there anything you wish I would’ve asked you but didn’t?
SA: You’ve done a darn good job covering the bases, Laurie. But hmmm. Kids often ask me what my favorite part of my job is. And I joke about how great it is to be able to work at my bed-desk, but honestly, one of the best parts of this job is when I visit schools, and meet the kids I work for. Let’s face it: for a nonfiction writer, fiction can be stiff competition, not to mention the myriad screen-time options vying for kids’ attention. So my goal is to write fascinating, entertaining, and accurate books that kids choose to read. I want them to see how amazing history can be.
LAT: Well said. I feel exactly the same way. I’m so glad you could visit, Sarah, and thank you for answering all of my questions!


You can find out more about Sarah Albee at her website, and be sure to check out POISON: DEADLY DEEDS, PERILOUS PROFESSIONS, AND MURDEROUS MEDICINES!

Interview: Luke Reynolds on SURVIVING MIDDLE SCHOOL

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed SURVIVING MIDDLE SCHOOL by Luke Reynolds. As you may recall, I LOVED it! Today, Luke was nice enough to let me interview him so I could get a few of my questions answered (and let you get to know him a bit better, as well!). If you haven’t read my review yet, please go take a quick peek now so you’ll know a bit about what we’re talking about in the interview below.
Luke Reynolds headshot
LAT: Welcome, Luke! Thanks for agreeing to answer my questions!
LR: LAURIE!!!
LR: You are so kind and thoughtful and what a wonderful surprise! I really appreciate it! Indeed, I would be honored and thrilled to have an interview on your blog. THANK YOU!!!!! And thank you so much for sharing the book: you rock!!!
(Ed. note: See what kind of guy he is? I ask him to do work so I have content to put on my blog, during the month of September when he’s busy settling in with a new class of students as well as running the parenting gauntlet himself, and he thanks me for it, in the sweetest way possible. Plus, he loves exclamation points as much as I do!!! OK, back to the interview…)
LAT: You say you didn’t know this stuff in middle school, so… just how old were you when you finally figured it all out? (As I said in my review, I didn’t get it until I was in my 30s. This book could’ve saved me an awful lot of time and trouble!)
LR: I think it was yesterday that I figured it all out! 🙂 Truthfully, I haven’t figured out all that much, but what I wanted to do in the book is to remind myself and my students about what really matters in life. One of the things I say to my 7th grade students almost every day is that I AM STILL GROWING AND LEARNING, and I always promise them that anything I challenge them to do, I try to do too. So, much of the book is from what my own 7th grade students have shown and taught me in their own vulnerability and joy and pain and hope and humor.
LAT: I love that! I AM STILL GROWING AND LEARNING should be tattooed onto all of our foreheads, I think. Maybe we’d finally achieve world peace, or at least get a little closer than where we are now.
LAT: Through my school visits, I am lucky enough to meet with kids from preschool to high school. I love them all, but middle schoolers are my favorite kids to work with. Yes, there is so much vulnerability and joy and pain and hope and humor all jumbled together in them, and they’re trying so hard to make sense of it all. I’ve heard teachers say middle schoolers are the hardest to teach, but I suspect they may be the most rewarding, too.
Surviving Middle School cover
LAT: After reading SURVIVING MIDDLE SCHOOL, I want to make your book required reading for every kid everywhere who is about to start middle school (so they don’t make all the dumb mistakes I did). Then I felt bad, because I have conflicting feelings about required reading at any age. I imagine that you probably have similarly mixed feelings. As an author, it probably sounds pretty good to you! But… as a language arts teacher, how do you feel about required reading of that type?
LR: You are so kind! I am a big believer in letting kids choose which books they want to read. Even for SURVIVING MIDDLE SCHOOL, I would try to do what I do with other books and students–I’d show them the book and let them read the first few pages, and if it doesn’t resonate with them, I’d want them to find something else. Anytime we force students to read only certain kinds of books, I think we turn them off to reading in general. Not to say that we shouldn’t challenge our students to read a variety of books–but we should always encourage kids to find books that are absolutely IRRESISTIBLE to them–books they love so much they’d want to smother them with ketchup and eat them if they could. I tried my best to make SURVIVING a smothered-in-ketchup kind of book, but if a kid doesn’t think so, I would say to not read it and find something else! 🙂
LAT: OK, then I hope every kid who is about to start middle school anywhere wants to smother SURVIVING MIDDLE SCHOOL with ketchup and eat it!
LAT: Speaking of eating… I have a gluten sensitivity, so I can’t eat garlic bread anymore. I sorely miss its buttery goodness, which, frankly, made your book a little hard to swallow at times (I had to give all of mine to the space gnomes!). What can you recommend as a gluten-free alternative to garlic bread that I can avoid giving to the space gnomes?
LR: Great question! Our family is attempting to go mostly gluten-free, and while at first I was terrified of missing out my foodish soul-mate, I found out about some truly sublime gluten-free breads. Rudi’s is a company that makes AMAZING gluten-free garlic bread. So even the space gnomes can’t steal the garlic bread from those of us who need to or want to live gluten-free! (Here’s the link to Rudi’s Products: http://www.rudisbakery.com/)
LAT: Awesome! Thanks for the recommendation!!
LAT: Finally, if you had to condense your whole book into one short paragraph, what would you want middle schoolers to know most of all?
LR: One thing: YOU MATTER. Your presence here on this earth and in your school and in your family MATTERS. You belong, even when you feel like you don’t. You have a beautiful purpose, even when you feel like you don’t. Just because you might feel weird or strange or like somebody is constantly sticking pretzel sticks up your metaphorical nose, IT WILL GET BETTER. I promise.
LAT: Beautiful, Luke. I hope they hear your message.
LAT: Thank you again for stopping by and sharing your thoughts with us today and for doing what you can to make the world a better place, one middle schooler at a time.
LR: Thanks so much Laurie, and huge hugs and much peace your way!
What a great guy, huh? For more great writing from Luke Reynolds, be sure to check out his other books, as well as his blog.

The Emmanuel's Dream blog tour wrap-up

Emmanuel's Dream cover

Emmanuel's Dream cover
This is something I’ve been meaning to do for a very long time now, but just never got around to doing. Better late than never, right? Here’s a roundup of all the fabulous blogs that featured Emmanuel’s Dream a few months (gulp) ago for the blog tour. If you want to read reviews of the book, guest posts from me, or interviews with me about the book, look no further! Here they are gathered all in one place to make things easy for you.

Mon, Jan 12 Great Kid Books Review and interview
Tues, Jan 13 5 Minutes for Books Review
Wed, Jan 14 Unleashing Readers Review, teachers’ tools, and interview
Thurs, Jan 15 Sharpread Interview
Fri, Jan 16 Cracking the Cover Interview
Sat, Jan 17 Booking Mama Review
Mon, Jan 19 Once Upon a Story Review and interview
Tues, Jan 20 Proseandkahn Review
Wed, Jan 21 Geo Librarian Review and interview
Thurs, Jan 22 Nonfiction Detectives Review
Fri, Jan 23 The Fourth Musketeer Review
Fri, Jan 23 Kirby’s Lane Guest post, Friend Friday
Mon, Jan 26 NC Teacher Stuff Review
Tues, Jan 27 Teach Mentor Texts Review and writing prompt

Many thanks to these fantastic bloggers for their dedication to promoting great books for kids! I hope you’ll check them out for their other reviews and posts, too.

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