After a first career in education,
where she wrote about 5,692 memos, lesson plans, and curricula guides no one
ever read, Mary Bowman-Kruhm decided to write for kids. Maybe they’d read what
she wrote! Sure enough, her first book
was I Hate School: How to Hang In &
When to Drop Out (Harper & Row, 1987). It was named by the American
Library Association on its lists “Best Books for Young Adults—1986” and
“Recommended Books for Reluctant Young Adult Readers—1987” and by the National
Council of Teachers of English in Books
for You (recommended under “Self-Help” and “Easy Reading” categories). Mary has authored or
co-authored over 30 nonfiction books for children, YAs, and adults and two
picture books. She is a contributor to Children's Book Insider and a faculty associate at Johns Hopkins
University, School of Education. Past
positions include school administrator, reading specialist, and English
In her spare time Mary likes
to read, travel, and knit. Current passion:
Digging wells for the Maasai village of Oltorotua, Kenya. Visit her web site: www.marybk.com and blog: The Maasai,
the Mara, Musings, and a fresh water well for Oltorotua, Kenya at http://digthiswell.com
Jan: Mary, thank
you for agreeing to this interview. Few writers have had the diverse
writing and publishing experiences that you’ve had. You’ve enjoyed great
success in writing over 30 books in a range of content areas for all sorts of
audiences. You’ve written books for teens, elementary age children and adults.
You’ve successfully published books across genres with many different
publishers. And yet, you have acknowledged that few people know your name.
What’s the “best-kept secret” of your ongoing success?
Do you remember who authored your high school history book? Few students notice, even while they are holding
the actual book in their hands. It’s the
curse of writing nonfiction!
A study by N. K. Duke in the Reading Research Quarterly about five years ago reported that in
elementary school classrooms the author observed, only 3.6 minutes out of every
day was spent on reading and talking about nonfiction books. Yet nonfiction is what
most adults read and what young people like to read and need to read for
success in post-school education and in the workforce. I think my “ongoing success” is because I
love nonfiction myself and am naturally curious, especially about people’s lives.
Congratulations on your companion books, Busy Toes and Busy Fingers, the latter
of which won the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Best Book Award – Gold Seal in
2005, written with Wendie Old (under the pen name C.W. Bowie). Both are available in Spanish. What led you to write books for the
Claudine Wirths, my co-author for many books, and I were riding with
Wendie Old on our way home from a Philadelphia conference for children’s
writers. The rain turned icy. To take our minds off the weather, Claudine
told us her father taught her to write with a pencil held between her toes and we
started making a list of what we could do with our toes. Once we got safely home, we turned the list
into a rhythmic manuscript. Sixteen
publishers rejected What Can You Do with
Your Toes? A writer friend said the title needed to be action-oriented,
something, for example, like Busy Toes. Publisher #17 sent us a contract!
Tell our readers about your 9-book series – A Day in the Life of –
written for beginning readers, grades 1-3 to explore careers, for example:
Firefighter, Coach, Architect, and others. How did you select the various
jobs to describe and how did you go about researching the materials for these
books about “grown-up” jobs?
Rosen (the publisher) asked us to write them for a flat rate rather than royalty and,
because we felt these books would be absolutely delightful to write, we said we
would. But we did ask that the
photographs be taken in the MD/DC/VA area because we had researched books about
community helpers and found all the books at that time were photographed in New
York City or Philadelphia. We wanted
suburban and rural young readers to be able to relate to the photos and we also
wanted to tell the stories of a diverse group of people. Rosen agreed and consequently my husband Carl,
grandson, niece, dog, among others, are pictured in them.
The Frederick (MD) chief of police
recommended a Latino officer who had a German shepherd patrol dog named Bruno. Perfect!
We met Officer Morales and he was indeed a Latino—with blond hair and
blue eyes. Our editor approved and, in
fact, the editorial team made a poster for their wall of a photo from the
book—Bruno in the driver’s seat playing a trick on Officer Morales by turning
on the patrol car’s lights.
Jan: You’ve written
two well-received biographies about Margaret Mead and The Leakeys. Tell
us about the path that led you to write biographies, and in particular, these
I saw an announcement that Greenwood was planning a series of
biographies and sent a query letter and some samples of my writing. The editor assigned me Margaret Mead and I
delved into researching her life. Then
the editorial board pulled the contract because they felt my books were written
for less able readers and feared I couldn’t write for the target audience of
competent readers. I was incredibly
disappointed and asked the editor to let me write a sample chapter. She did and they reissued the contract.
I love writing biographies and the newest
thrust—creative nonfiction—is exciting because it takes nonfiction out of the
realm of dull facts and uses the techniques you fiction authors use to tell
Jan: You’ve made
numerous trips abroad to conduct research on the work of Margaret Mead, as well
as the Leakey family. What are some unanticipated benefits of your
research - for you professionally and personally?
Actually, I didn’t travel much to research Margaret Mead because the
Library of Congress has her private collection and several adult biographers
and friends of Mead shared their insights electronically and I got help from
members of an anthropology listserv. I
lurk on a listserv about any topic I’m investigating and then, when I feel
competent enough to post a question, I ask for help. Listservs have provided me with an incredible
amount of personal information about a bio subject and I have found authorities
to vet what I write.
Writing about the Leakey family has
enriched my life immeasurably. We
visited Lake Turkana in northern Kenya and had tea with Dr. Louise Leakey, who
is carrying on the tradition of two generations of Leakeys before her, as she
scours the hot, barren soil of East Africa for fossils of early humans. Then, when we spent a few days on safari to
see wildlife, we visited a Maasai village.
We thrilled at the curiosity of the Maasai and told our guide that we
would never want to change someone’s culture, but to contact us if he found
someone we could help with an education.
He e-mailed us about six months later.
Although we have helped
several young Kenyans, we have continued a friendship with Jackson Liaram, a
young Maasai warrior herding family cattle while hoping for help to attend
safari guide school. The October 2012
issue of Highlights for Children will
have a story I wrote, with photographs by my husband Carl, about Jackson’s life,
“Living with Animals.”
|Jackson Liaram and Mary Bowman-Kruhm|
Jan: You have an
abiding interest and commitment to the people of Kenya. With the help of
Rotary Clubs in the US and the Nakuru-Great Rift Valley Rotary Club in Kenya,
you’re working for funding to dig three wells and build 100 latrines for the
village of Oltorotua, Kenya. Please tell us how readers can learn more about this important, worthy work?
For sure, they can follow my blog: http://digthiswell.com.
Rotary District 7620 has now approved
the grant proposal and it will hopefully sail through The Rotary Foundation
process, which will match donations and make fund-raising easier.
Jan: You’ve written
numerous books targeted to the needs of teens and young adults with
disabilities. I’m thinking of titles like: Coping with
Discrimination & Prejudice, Confrontations & Encounters with the
Police, Everything You Need to Know about Learning Disabilities and Everything
You Need to Know About Down Syndrome. Of these books, which was the most
gratifying to you in terms of your perception of its positive impact on
Most of them have stayed in print for many years, so I assume they help
readers. Again, nonfiction writers are
the ‘Rodney Dangerfield of writing—we don’t get no respect’ and no letters from
readers telling us our book changed their lives.
successfully collaborated with other writers over the years. What have
you learned about working with another author on a joint project? Can you
describe your process?
Their writing styles must complement each other’s. When writing with Claudine or Wendie, they
looked especially at the big picture (i.e., the structure and flow) and I
tended to handle details both in the material we wrote and submitting to
the years, you’ve conducted numerous interviews. Is there any one that was
Mary: I had
an idea for an article after I learned one of our church members, Turner, was
President for two terms of the American
now the American
Association for Nude Recreation (AANR).
So I interviewed Turner and then did more research at the American
Nudist Research Library when my husband, Carl and I were in Florida. I conducted research for my article and arranged
to interview two librarians who knew Turner. When I left for the interviews, I
told Carl that I had never interviewed anyone in the nude before; he suggested
that I not tell anyone that, or they would think I, rather than the librarian was nude.
The article is out for publication consideration. I’ll
let you know if it is accepted, but I don’t expect it to be. Nudists are very circumspect in talking about
nudism and, sadly, I couldn’t get any really lively stories out of any of my
certainly worked with a range of publishers. Do you have any tips for
writers about finding the right publisher for a given work?
Do your homework. Go to
conferences and network. Find books like
the one you are writing and check out publishers on blogs and websites, in
books like Children’s Writer’s &
Illustrator’s Market and The Best of
the Magazine Markets for Writers, in newsletters like Children’s Book Insider or the equivalent in the genre in which you
Jan: So what’s
next? What projects continue to hold your interest for future work?
Do you have advice for writers conducting research outside the USA?
Stay open to adventures. I never dreamed that Kenya would grab my life
as it has. We will make our third visit to Kenya in the near future, where
Jackson Liaram will be our guide on safari at Amboseli, with over 1000
elephants and other wildlife and Mount
Kilimanjaro providing the backdrop. We
will also have lunch, again, with Louise Leakey and visit her family’s
vineyard. Few writers are monetarily
wealthy but we reap rewards in other ways, including satisfaction in what we
Jan: What is the
best advice you’ve ever heard about writing? What would you say to
encourage beginning writers?
I would say be persistent and investigate a variety of outlets for your
writing. The profession is in a state of
flux right now, to put it mildly. Investigate and decide what is the best route
to publication for you and your topic. And it is important to remember that if you
self-publish, hire a good editor, which all, and yes, I mean all, writers need.
Jan Bowman’s work has
appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy,
Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato
Eyes, and others. She won the 2012
Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her
stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories
and a story was a finalist in the “So To
Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two
collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a
completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring
2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of
“Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and
publishers. Learn more at: