By Domenica Di Piazza, Editorial Director of Twenty-First Century Books
It’s not every day that you meet someone who says, “How about publishing this manuscript about eating bugs?” That’s exactly what happened when I met Christy Mihaly at a writers’ conference in New York a couple of years ago. She and her writing partner Sue Heavenrich had a fantastic idea for a book on just that subject. Together we expanded the scope of the book to include invasive species, weeds, wild plants, and feral species. Complete with recipes and interviews with chefs and ordinary people who love getting creative with unusual sources of food. It turns out that much of the rest of the world is way ahead of the United States!
The resulting book for Twenty-First Century Books, new this fall, is Diet for a Changing Climate: Food for Thought. Christy and Sue shared some of their thoughts with me about writing nonfiction, researching this book, and the reading they enjoy for pleasure.
Q&A with Christy and Sue
Christy Mihaly (left), Sue Heavenrich (right) [courtesy of the authors]
How do you approach writing and researching YA nonfiction? Is it different from the other writing you do?
We both do a range of writing, from adult nonfiction, articles for kids’ magazines, middle grade and YA books to picture books and poetry. What’s fun about writing for the YA audience is that we can dig deeper and provide greater detail than we do for younger readers.
When researching for Diet for a Changing Climate, we focused on aspects that would be of particular interest to YA readers. We talked with teens who eat bugs and interviewed folks who forage for their meals.
How did you come to write this book?
In 2013 Christy read about a local bug-eating event and was intrigued. She didn’t attend the dinner, but she interviewed the woman organizing it. As Christy became increasingly fascinated with entomophagy (it’s good for the planet, and it’s good for your health!), she researched further, reviewing reports by experts at the United Nations that support the expanded worldwide practice of entomophagy. As an environmental lawyer, she was most interested in the potential for the positive environmental impact of entomophagy.
Meanwhile, Sue, who has a background in studying insects, was putting together notes to write a “kids’ field guide to insects—and how to eat them” kind of book. This idea hit her one morning after she’d knocked a few dozen Japanese beetles off her bean plants and into a bucket of water. As she poured out the beetles for birds to eat, she started wondering whether people ate beetles.
When we discovered we were both working on a similar idea, we decided to collaborate. It helped that we have been critique partners for many years. We knew one another well, and each of us respected the writing skills and work ethic of the other.
After two more years of further discussions and research, we completed a book proposal for a writing conference we were both attending. An editor at the conference encouraged us to write the book, though it wasn’t for her. We celebrated by breaking out a snack pack of crispy crickets and outlined an expanded book. Christy met Domenica at a conference in New York not long after, and she loved the idea!
How did you research this book?
We interviewed foragers, scientists, chefs, and kids to learn about the latest developments on eating weeds, invasive species, and insects. We read scientific journals, field guides, and pretty much any book we could find about our topics. Plus we did hands-on research—gathering wild ingredients, tasting, cooking … beyond that initial cricket snack.
Chapulines, aka toasted grasshoppers, traditionally served in Mexico with garlic, salt, and lime or lemon juice. Popular at Seattle Mariners games too! So popular, in fact, that fans are limited to one order per person. [photo: Miguel Gonzalez/Redux]
Do the two of you eat weeds, bugs, and invasives?
Sue remembers picking chokecherries and elderberries with her mom in Utah. In high school, she browsed books by Euell Gibbons and field guides on edible plants. She cooked up dandelion greens and acorn pancakes. Now she harvests wild greens for quiche and gathers purslane and edible flowers for salads. Eating insects happened by accident at first, usually while camping. These days, though, Sue cooks bugs on purpose. Little green caterpillars on the broccoli? Extra protein—just toss ‘em into the stir fry. Carpenter ants on the counter? She brushes them into a Ziploc bag to freeze them for the next frittata.
As for Christy, let’s just say she’s a more recent (though willing) convert.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book? Why is the book important?
We want to counteract the feelings that so many kids (and adults) have of being powerless in the face of climate change and what’s happening to the earth. We wanted to explain that changing what you eat can make a difference. And we wanted to present these ideas in a fun way, to encourage people to try things they might not otherwise eat.
We believe young people are more willing than many adults to be flexible in their thinking and in their food choices. We hope that readers will come away from Diet for a Changing Climate excited to try one or more of the foods we have presented.
What are you reading for pleasure these days, either fiction or nonfiction or both?
We can’t resist the chance to recommend this year’s fun new middle grade novel Boy Bites Bug, by Rebecca Petruck, which involves—you guessed it—entomophagy. And of course, the classic Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappe, was a big inspiration to us. That well-thumbed book sits on the cookbook shelf in our kitchens.
For Christy, recent reading includes a pile of nonfiction picture books. Among her favorites: Coyote Moon, by Maria Gianferrari and The Noisy Paint Box, by Barb Rosenstock. Middle grade favorites include The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly, and Bugged: How Insects Changed History, by Sarah Albee. From the adult section, she likes H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King, and Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah.
Sue also reads a lot of nonfiction, especially about bugs. Recent reads: Bugged, by David MacNeal, Darwin’s Backyard, by James T. Costa, and the picture book Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles, by Patricia Valdez. Sue reads science fiction as well as middle grade and YA novels that embrace hope. Two older books that had the most impact on her are My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George and Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson. Plus her dad’s old geology textbook with awesome drawings of dinosaurs.