Yuck, You Suck!: An Interview with Authors Heidi E. Y. Stemple and Jane Yolen

Prepare to get sucked into a hilarious poetry collection in Yuck, You Suck!: Poems about Animals That Sip, Slurp, Suck. Sixteen slurpy poems introduce a suction-filled selection of animals, and spectacularly sticky illustrations from Eugenia Nobati spotlight these stupendous suckers.

Today we’re joined by the incredible author team Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple to hear about their writing journey! Read on to read about their experience and watch a fun read aloud video.

How did YUCK, YOU SUCK! develop?

Jane Yolen (JY): Yuck, You Suck! is a follow-up book of poems Eek, You Reek!: (Poems abouts Animals that Stink, Stank, Stunk). I have been a poet, writer of lyrics for bands, writer of verse novels, etc. since I was very young. (Am writing operas now!) My daughter Heidi and I have written more than 25 books together, a number of them in rhyme because she is as good (or better!) than I am at it. Besides it’s fun. Also we are big nature lovers, and both together and apart have written many books about nature. (Hint: She is the child in my Caldecott-winning book Owl Moon.)

Heidi E. Y. Stemple (HEYS): The funny part of this collaboration is that when my mom pitched the first book Eek, You Reek!, I thought it was a silly idea that would never sell. After all, it seemed too narrow. How many animals stink? All I could think of were skunks. So, I told her I would be happy to write my poems IF she sold the book. I thought it was a long shot. Well, she wrote her half of the poems and sold the book. Then she got to sit back, say “I told you so,” and watch me do the second half of the work. But, in the process, I did a lot of research making sure the book wasn’t at all narrow. She had written about very similar animals—skunks and weasels, but also a bug or two. So, I researched and found a bird, a turtle, and an ox that stank. Once Eugenia Nobati came aboard as the illustrator, it got really fun! Anyway, as you can imagine, I didn’t hesitate to be excited about Yuck, You Suck!. I knew right away it could be a great book. We knew we wanted to squeeze in a few more poems than EEK, and we also knew that we wanted to have the same amazing backmatter. We are hoping to do a third…

What are some fun things you learned while writing YUCK, YOU SUCK!?

HEYS: One of the cool things about writing a book like this is that almost everything is new. When we started thinking about it, we thought, what animals suck? Vampire bat, remora, butterfly, hummingbird, mosquito. What else? Then we dug in and started looking for other critters that suck—in different ways and for different reasons. But, ALSO, we found out that vampire bats don’t suck at all—they kind of bite then lap up the blood of their victim and that remoras don’t actually suck (which I used as the title for the poem about the remora), because suctioning is a different thing scientifically than sucking. The mechanisms for what these animals do is fascinating. Don’t get me started on the hummingbird. It also doesn’t suck and I couldn’t even begin to explain it in a poem. What’s exciting about writing nonfiction poetry is you are allowed to have fun with those facts that you find in your research (as long as they’re accurate, of course). And, you get to use similes and metaphor and word-play—these are a few of my fa-vo-rite things. In order to make sure all the facts that you can’t squeeze into a poem are still available to the child reader, we added extensive backmatter. I am pretty nerdy—the backmatter is often my favorite part of any book.

JY:  For me, finding all these new, fascinating (and sometimes YUCKY facts is the fun part of working on these books. Writing the poems is secondary. After we were both done individually researching and writing, Heidi and I get to critique one another’s poems while sitting across from another at my dining room table. No blood is shed (or sucked) in these critique sessions, but we are both honest with one another, and give praise where it is due. Listening to an honest critique and then going back to work on the piece is part of our every day. No bad feelings. And sometimes . . . wonderful surprises,    

Have you done anything else besides write for a living?

JY: Yes. I was an editor for the first few years of my writing life. First for adult science fiction and mystery books, and after that strictly for children, which I much preferred. I have also taught in both college (“Children’s Lit” at Smith College) and at workshops (writing picture books, mostly).

HEYS: I didn’t start out writing. I had other jobs before. You would think that with a family like mine who write a lot about nature, my job before writing must have been as a biologist, a science teacher, or even a veterinarian. But, nope. I started my career as a probation/parole officer and worked for a while as a private investigator. That seems so completely different, right? But, truthfully, I use a lot of the same skills I learned in those jobs. Writing, especially writing a book like Yuck, You Suck!, is a lot about researching and finding answers to things you don’t yet know. Those are the same things I did when I worked in the courts and as a private eye. So, my two careers aren’t as far apart as you would think.

How often do you write?

JY: Every single day (unless I am traveling or sick.) I get up, get dressed in my “work clothes” (i.e. as if going out to an office to work), and begin before breakfast and quit usually with only a few meal breaks and to hold conversations with my husband and my daughter until bedtime. I do sometimes take breaks for walks outside, for movies, or for trips to interesting places (where I take lots of notes for possible books or poems). And I write a poem a day and send it out to over 1,000 subscribers.

HEYS: I do not write every day. I can’t. I have another job that takes up a lot of my time. I do try to write as much as possible. But, even when I am working on a book on deadline, that doesn’t mean writing every day. Today, for example, I spent about three hours watching videos about building motorized bikes and scooters out of parts you have in your house. I did this because a character I’m writing needs to do this and I know nothing about it—yet.  So, I didn’t write anything, but I was researching. When we were working on Yuck, You Suck!, we spent as much time researching as we did writing. Probably more. When I’m working on nonfiction poetry such as the poems in YUCK, I keep notes while I research. I also have long lists of words that I find associated with each animal. Many of those words work their way into the poems.

Can you say “suck” in a book? Isn’t that a bad word?

HEYS: Well, we definitely gave this a lot of thought while we were writing. Our argument was that we are using the word in its correct scientific meaning. We are taking the word back! OK, though seriously, we did worry that the publishing company wouldn’t like the title and we worked feverishly with our phenomenal acquiring editor Carol Hinz to come up with alternative titles in case the acquisitions committee didn’t think it was appropriate. But everyone loved it and I’m sure the kid readers will too. The jury is out on whether their parents will find it as funny… but, really, we are using it contextually correctly and we hope that this leads to discussion about word use and how words can be changed to mean many things. Even perfectly good (and accurate) words such as “suck.”

JY: I have little to add to Heidi’s memory of how much worrying (unnecessary, as it turned it) we did about using that word, that title. And yet, in books for young readers, often there will be questions about words or concepts or facts that should be kept in, taken out, defined and redefined. So this wasn’t a new problem for either one of us. And we both have raised children. Both have wrestled with “bad” language in family situation. Both, as poets, are very aware of how potent a single word can be, And also aware that this is a book that can and will be used in schools. And finally we are both great punsters, aware of how words can make you laugh even in uncomfortable situations.

Praise for Yuck, You Suck!

★”A delightful book that amuses and educates.”—starred, School Library Journal

“[S]ufficient suckers and lappers of blood, ranging from fleas and mosquitoes to vampire bats, lampreys, and leeches, to gleefully put anyone off their lunch.”—Kirkus Reviews

Watch this fun video from Jane and Heidi

Connect with the authors

Jane Yolen lives in Massachusetts and has written more than 400 books across all genres and age ranges, including the Sydney Taylor Honor book Miriam at the River. She has been called the Hans Christian Andersen of America and the Aesop of the twentieth century.

Heidi E. Y. Stemple is the author of more than forty books and numerous short stories and poems, mostly for children. She lives and writes on a farm in Massachusetts.

Find more amazing illustrator and author interviews here on the Lerner blog!

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