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Life on the Deckle Edge

From the LeBrea Tar Pits to Outer Space - take a safari with Author Donna H. Bowman

On this Valentine's Day, I'm thrilled to welcome someone for whom I have a lot of love - Donna H. Bowman, children's author, long-time critique group buddy, and former Co-Regional Advisor for SCBWI Southern Breeze.

Her books include (two versions of) BIG CATS (Intervisual Books/Piggy Toes Press), and two nonfiction titles from Picture Window Books: DID DINOSAURS EAT PEOPLE? – And Other Questions Kids Have About Dinosaurs, and WHAT IS THE MOON MADE OF? - And Other Questions Kids Have About Space. Donna also has an entrepreneurial streak we'll hear more about in a moment.

Hi, Donna! Let’s start at the beginning. I know you grew up running wild – in a good way – in California. Tell us a little about your childhood adventures in the great outdoors.

Our home in Los Angeles was just a few hours from an oasis where my love of nature thrived - Yosemite National Park. I played in the shadow of trees that weren’t just tall compared to my youthful height; they were the tallest trees (360 feet) in the world. My family rode mules with long ears along paths that hugged huge granite mountains. We hiked to roaring waterfalls, hunted for rocks in icy rivers, picnicked near deer in green meadows, and were often awakened at night by brown bears trying to break into trashcans outside the cabins. (They must have liked potted meat more than I did!) This haven supplied my creative family with endless photographing, writing, and drawing fodder.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

A writer or an astronaut. Now I write about astronauts. I became focused on writing for children when I was expecting my first child.

We first met many moons ago forming a critique group of northeast Georgia SCBWI members. You served tirelessly as Co-Regional Advisor for SCBWI Southern Breeze from 2006-2010. Tell us about the role SCBWI has played in your career.

SCBWI conferences, workshops, and retreats have given me valuable opportunities which helped shape my career. Through SCBWI, I met my awesome critique group, learned insider tips from professionals, built a network, and enriched my skills. An SCBWI Southern Breeze writing contest brought recognition to one of my nonfiction stories by awarding it second place. I even met editors at SCBWI Southern Breeze conferences who ultimately published my books. I’m very grateful to this organization and try to give back at least as much as I’ve received. Whether in the role of co-regional advisor or volunteering in other ways, one member’s success is celebrated by many.

Do you have any favorite tips to pass along to aspiring writers?

Sure. At the top of the list is: Regardless of your skill level, constantly strive to get even better. Read dozens of books in the genre you want to write. Surround yourself with writers you admire. Build a network. Write what you love; let your passion shine.

I know your publishing success, like most, is the result of years of hard work. What has it been like to write nonfiction science and nature books for kids?

It took me 25 years of patience and persistence to finally achieve my first published book. Then, within the span of nine months I had four new books released. It was quite a ride -- absolutely a dream come true! I love doing in-depth research and getting to know amazing scientists and leading experts. An astronomer, paleontologists (one who actually named four dinosaurs!), the curator of the Bronx Zoo, and an African safari guide were amazing consultants. They were excited to help present up-to-date scientific findings. More knowledge was gained while collecting sticky, pungent petroleum bubbling up from the La Brea Tar Pits lawn, or wrestling two three-month-old tiger cubs at a private wildlife preserve. Gathering information was fun. Narrowing down which great facts would fit within the limited word count was torturous. I wanted to include all of them!

I love the fact that the content of your books in the Picture Window series arose from actual questions from young readers. So what color was dinosaur skin? And speaking of color, why is Mars red?

The list of kids’ questions was phenomenal. They asked anything and everything regardless of whether or not answers might exist. I was pleasantly surprised to discover scientists had already taken these tough questions to their think tanks.

What color was dinosaur skin? I’m glad you asked! Colors in skin fossils faded away millions of years ago, but scientists do have a theory. Much like today’s lizards and birds, colors may have helped dinosaurs find mates, hide, or signal warnings. Some dinosaurs were likely brightly colored, while others may have been earth colored.

Why is Mars red? Because of rust in the planet’s soil. Venus looks bright orange because of volcanoes that throw gas into the air. Methane gas makes Neptune look blue. Pretty cool, huh?

Very. Now, to change course a bit, while you keep one hand on the keyboard (also writing articles and poetry!), the other one is usually off creating some visual work of art. Tell us about your passion for photography, and how you’ve nurtured those skills.

I grew up taking photos of the beauty I saw and the adorable creatures that filled my world. It’s a thrill when I’m able to capture unique moments in time or connect with a person or animal.

One of my favorite experiences was during a photography expedition on Cumberland Island, GA. After a full day of adventure I headed back to the dock to catch the last ferry to the mainland, when I came upon a family of wild horses on the beach. The protective mare and sire hid their colt from my view. I sat patiently letting them get used to me and the sound of my voice; then my camera. The parents firmly stood guard. Time passed quickly. Too quickly! Then finally, the loving parents relaxed. Step by step they slowly backed away exposing their treasured baby. I continued talking in a soothing tone as I snapped some of my favorite photos of all time. When I absolutely, positively had to leave, I said goodbye (sigh) and began a brisk, sandy hike toward the ferry. I turned around for one last look and was shocked to see…the horses were following me! They melted my heart. We had connected. Those photos are some of my favorite not only for composition, but also for the incredible trust I was honored to receive by a protective family of wild horses.

My articles, poetry, and stories are often spawned from events such as this. Events that touch my heart and soul.

What a priceless encounter! Visitors to your website will see you are a jewelry maker in a addition to being a photographer. How and when did you begin making wearable works of art from gemstones and rocks and the like? What do you love about it?

My grandmother, mother, sister, and I shared a passion for rocks, gems, fossils, and shells. We were intrigued by the variety of God’s beautiful treasures hidden in the Earth. Just for fun, about 30 years ago, Mom and I began making necklaces and earrings by stringing polished gemstone beads with silk. People started asking us to make some for them to buy. They wanted to hear about the stones and where on Earth they originated. We enjoyed giving them a connection with nature as well as another part of the world. A few years ago I took classes and began wire wrapping gemstones into pendants. This art form allows me to highlight a stone’s uniqueness and share it with equally unique people.

You’ve spoken to groups of all ages over the years – even doing magic shows at one point! Tell us what it’s like now connecting with kids at school visits and festivals. What do you like to share with them, and how do they react?

It’s a tremendous thrill to talk with children about dinosaurs, space, big cats, or the process of writing a book. The kids’ jaws drop when I uncover a huge sabertooth cat’s fossilized skull (replica). Their noses crinkle when I unlatch a jar of pungent sticky tar (the real thing!) that trapped many ancient predators. Depending on the presentation’s focus, kids might get to see a fossilized trilobite (one of the first animals to have eyes,) a 7-pound whale vertebra, a meteorite, or an actual piece of the moon! Kids can excavate and identify an eight-inch fossilized T-Rex claw, a loooong sabertooth, or an iron meteorite. And I end each presentation with a related magic trick. Engaging kids in fun, literary safaris is a never ending blessing.

Finally, pretty-please with moon rocks on top, tell us a little something not many people know about you….

Hum… well, one time I rescued a 120-pound male Doberman who had managed to get stuck in the middle of the freeway during rush hour traffic. I slowly stopped my car in my lane, and eased open my door. I waited for the other cars to stop. Prayed. Got out, and called the scared boy. He came right over and jumped in my little Firebird. (Even though I was 8 months pregnant at the time, no other drivers got out. Wonder why? ;) Fortunately the “doby” was very well behaved. Thanks to his tag, I found his owner and they were reunited that night.

There’s a story after my own heart, for sure. Thank you, Donna, for this Valentine’s Day visit! Learn more about all of Donna's endeavors by clicking here.
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