In 2003, the New York Times referred to children’s book author Seymour Simon as the “dean” of science books for child readers. Simon, who was a classroom teacher for nearly 25 years, has been making books (more than 300 now) for nearly 50 years, and nothing much is stopping him.
This August sees the publication of Rocks & Minerals, another addition to Seymour’s Harper series of photo-essay nonfiction titles. Quoting poet William Blake in the Author’s Note of his new book, he wants children “to see a world in a grain of sand, / And a heaven in a wild flower, / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, / And eternity in an hour.” Specifically, he encourages children to become “rock hounds,” those who collect rocks and build collections of various kinds of them.
I talked to Seymour briefly via email about this new book and his enduring career in the field of children’s literature.
Jules: Have you always been a fan of rocks? Were you as a boy?
Seymour: When I grew up in a very urban neighborhood in the Bronx, there were not very many things in nature that were available to collect. But there were vacant lots on my street, and there were plenty of rocks to pick through, try to identify, and to collect. So I became a rock collector. I have fond memories of taking my young sons and their friends on rock-collecting trips for rocks and minerals.
The new book encourages kids to search wherever they live for a bit of our planet’s history, rocks, and minerals. Also, I have the opportunity now to show magnificent color photos of specimens from all over. Backyard and vacant lot science is available for all kids whether they live in the country or in a big city.
Jules: Do you ever miss teaching?
Seymour: I miss teaching a great deal. I loved teaching and was a natural teacher.
Fortunately, I still teach when I speak in schools around the country. I use my books to help me teach. I take the kids on a tour from Earth to the ends of the universe, using my books as a kind of guide. We begin with my address in the universe on the last page of my book, The Long View into Space [published in 1979], go on to the moon and the planets, then to the stars, the Milky Way Galaxy, and to the ends of the universe. I’ve written many books about all of these and they fit in with my journey.
Jules: What do you think are some of science teachers' best practices with regard to teaching science and using children's literature?
Seymour: There is not a subject that is being taught in schools that is not helped by children’s literature. The better the teacher, the more they use the best books available to them to help their teaching.
Jules: You've written over 300 books. Care to share a memory or two that really stand out from all your many years of research and book-making?
Seymour: So many memories of writing books and articles. Picking one is like asking a parent of 300 kids who is his favorite kid. It’s impossible to pick. (Anyway, my other books would be very upset if I didn’t pick them.)
So, let’s go back to my first published book in 1968, Animals in Field and Laboratory. My memory is that whenever I tried an experiment on animal behavior for the book, the results were frequently unexpected and made me much more cautious in trying not to sound dogmatic when I wrote about the experiments. It’s a good lesson that I continually use in my writing. When I write, I’m more interested in arousing enthusiasm in kids than in trying to teach facts. The facts may change, but the enthusiasm for exploring the world will remain with them for the rest of their lives.
Jules: What do you think have been some of the best changes in children's book-making in the decades you've been in this field?
Seymour: I can only talk about nonfiction children’s books, because most of my books are in that category. But the greatest change I’ve seen is that the nonfiction trade books are much less textbook-like than they used to be when I began writing. The early nonfiction children’s books were like simplified high school or college textbooks. These days these books are clearly designed to be attractive and interesting and not just lists of facts. I think that’s great, and I hope that my own voice has contributed to making nonfiction topics as interesting and accessible as possible for all kids.
Jules: What's next for you?
Seymour: When I started out, I wondered if I would ever run out of topics for new books. Now I know that the topics for nonfiction children’s book are infinitely expanding.
I just wrote a book for my HarperCollins’ series of science and nature book, titled Exoplanets. Not that many years ago, no one knew of even one exoplanet. Now we know of thousands of exoplanets and think that there may be 70 billion exoplanets in our own galaxy alone! And that’s only one example.
We have new and exciting findings in all of my upcoming books, Big Cats; Horses; Water; Sea Creatures; Destination Jupiter; Guts; Destination Moon; Elephants; Ecosystems. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. (Oh yeah. I forgot that I just revised my book, Icebergs and Glaciers.)
Jules: Thanks, Seymour. Happy researching!
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
Photo of Seymour Simon rockhounding in Aruba courtesy of Liz Nealon.