Transcript from an interview with Seymour Simon

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Seymour Simon. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Seymour Simon

Space Monsters

My first book, as I said, was Space Monsters. And [I] wrote the book and drew the pictures, and my teacher stapled the pages together and forced the class to listen to me when I read the book, and I realized the power that an author has. And that's really when I began.

But many of my books deal with topics which I began doing when I was a child. When I was in third grade and everybody else was writing their addresses, their name and the street they live on and the city and the state, I put down the name of the planet that I lived on and the solar system, Milky Way Galaxy in the universe.

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A junior scientist

I was born in the Bronx, and the Bronx is part of New York City, and, of course, it's a very urban area. But even in the Bronx, there were many vacant lots, and the vacant lots were like jungles for tiny animals – the insects that live there, the plants and the weeds and the cats that would prowl all around the the vacant lot. And when I was older, I wrote a book called Science in a Vacant Lot, which sort of told about those things that one can explore very close to home.

Many of the books I write are about far, distant places – about the galaxy, stars and the universe; and even far, distant places on Earth, like the mountains of the Himalayas. But many of the books are also about things which are right next door, so, for example, I've written books about dogs and books about cats. I've written books about all the little animals that you can keep in a jar, called Pets in a Jar. I've also written books about observational astronomy, because when I was a kid, I was president of the Junior Astronomy Club at the American Museum of Natural History. And at that time, we had 900 members all across the country. We used to have observation meetings in Central Park, where a group of about a hundred of us would walk in, escorted by a policeman, to make sure that we were safe.

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Light years away

Well, some of the topics that I write about have numbers which are extraordinarily big, so for example, the distance to the closest star in miles would be trillions and trillions, and no one really knows what that is. So, I try to use an analogy. So, for example, we measure distance in space by something called the light-year, which is the distance that light travels in a year. [It] happens to be a huge number, but if you were going to go – and of course you can't go, but if you were going to go on an airplane going 500 miles an hour, it would take you one million years to go one light-year. And the closest star to us in space is 4½ light-years away. So, the chance of our visiting the closest star is probably not very great.

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Einstein Anderson

I also write fiction books, and the fictional character that I created was supposed to be called Seymour the mad scientist. My editor pointed out that that was a little bit too much, so we nicknamed him "Einstein" after the greatest scientist of the twentieth century, and his last name is Anderson. So, it's Einstein Anderson, science detective. And I've written eight of those. Each of those have [sic] ten stories within them, and they're science puzzles where Einstein interacts with the other children in his class, and something happens, and Einstein has to figure out what is happening. And the story stops, and the reader is challenged to explain what happened, using some scientific principle. And they turn the page, and the story continues, and Einstein explains to everybody.

Einstein is also, of course, an alter ego of myself. When I taught, I used terrible jokes and puns all the time, so Einstein is always punning and using terrible jokes – which, of course, kids find enormously funny, because terrible jokes are what they like.

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Choosing photographs

I choose the photographs, or take the photographs for my books, even before I begin writing them. I know the kinds of images that I'm looking for. I choose the images either from a source such as NASA; or Jet Propulsion Laboratory, if it's outer space; or scientists who have been studying wolves in the field for many years. And these photographs that I choose, I winnow through them – I go through them and choose the images which are the most striking, the most arresting to me, because I'm almost childlike in the sense that I know what interests me, and if it interests me, again, I think it might interest the kid.

And after I get the photographs, I do a thumbnail of the book, and I sort of design the book before I even begin writing it. I know that on this spread we're going to be talking about a particular thing, and I have two or three photographs which I know will be used on that page. And all of this stuff goes into the editor – the photographs and my text – and what the designer does is decide whether to use the photograph on one page or another, or to spread it across the back of the text, but the pages stay together. And all of the books that I write are not written as individual pages. You can read any of my books from beginning to end without the pictures, because it tells a story. And I think that that's very important, particularly in a book on photographs. I want the kids to be drawn into the book, and I want them to read it from beginning to end.

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Grandpa's book about trucks

Boys are frequently interested in trucks, and I wrote a book called Seymour Simon's Book of Trucks. But the reason I wrote it is because I had a grandson who was just fascinated by trucks. Writing a book takes a while, and it was several years before the book actually came out. And I presented the book to him, and I said, "Joel, Grandpa has written a book for you - just for you."

And he said, "Seymour" – he calls me "Seymour." He said, "Seymour, I'm not interested in trucks anymore." And he saw my face fall, and he said, "But that's all right. Benjamin," his younger brother, "is interested in trucks."

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"I'm a sidewinder"

I'm often struck by how interested nonreaders, or early beginning readers, or readers who are having difficulty in reading – how interested they are in my books. And they remind me of a story that a teacher told me. The boy was reading a book about snakes, and he was lying on the floor and wiggling back and forth. And his teacher said to him, "What are you doing?" And he said, "I'm a sidewinder moving across the sands of the desert." And she told me later that that was the first book he ever asked to be read to him, and carried it around because he was so proud that he knew about all of the pictures in the book.

I think it's important that we get the interest of a nonreader before we try to teach them how to read. And all of my early books – that is, the younger books – are so geared that if a child picks them up, he's going to be fascinated by the photographs, and he will want to know what is it in this photograph that he's seeing. Many of them ask to be read to, and many of them learn to read because they have the same page read to them time and time again.

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"The things I want to know are in books. My best friend is the man who'll get me a book I [haven't] read." — Abraham Lincoln