Here is a brilliant picture book to read in the classroom for every month of the year (starting in January) for teachers who are looking for the perfect tool to teach about conservation.
Erin Dealey is a children’s author of over a dozen books. She grew up in Oakland, California, where she often did her homework on the roof of her garage. School visits, kidlit conferences, and ZOOMS have taken her as far south as Brazil and as far north as Tok, Alaska. You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.
DEAR EARTH … FROM YOUR FRIENDS IN ROOM 5 is just like it sounds: a picture book full of letters! That’s right, it’s an epistolary picture book! In this story a bunch of students write letters to the Earth as they learn to take care of their world. They ask for advice on what they can do better and the relationship blooms over the course of a year. With both darling and breath taking illustrations by Luisa Uribe, this is a book that will steal your heart just like one of the students who becomes a main character over time. I adore a good epistolary book and this is now a new favorite!
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your writing journey? What brought you to this book?
Erin: I was teaching high school English/Creative Writing and Theater full time, and my first forays into publication were articles for local newspapers, and a column for the California Theater Educators Association. Then, as so many of us teachers do–because I could not find the materials I needed for my class–I started creating them myself. I wrote skits for my theater kids to perform. That led to writing plays for the classes of my Elementary colleagues and creating performance material for my theater students at Sugarloaf Fine Arts Camp, where I head the theater department in the summer. At first I thought I might write a YA novel, since I taught high school and certainly knew my “characters.” But at night, I was immersed in bedtime stories with our daughter, and that’s when the nudge to maybe write a picture book hit me. It turns out picture books are a lot like theater.
As for what brought me to this book, you might be surprised to learn that a holiday card that was the inspiration for DEAR EARTH…From Your Friends in Room 5. I was so taken by the gorgeous angel on the card, created by my friend, author/illustrator Dow Phumiruk. The angel was holding Earth in her hands, and that got me wondering: Why was she holding the earth? Was she protecting it? I brainstormed all those WHAT-Ifs in my Idea Notebook. To me, my notebook is like an artist’s sketch book, with thumbnails of possible characters and storylines. I always start my initial drafts in longhand. It’s pen and paper for me. Bottom line: I knew there was a story here somewhere.
Me: I love how you have kids writing letters to the earth, asking how they can help, and the earth writes back. What gave you the idea for this story?
Erin: I wrote a few drafts of this manuscript about the angel as Earth’s protector, but something was missing. I have always loved the format of Mark Teague’s DEAR MRS. LARUE: Letters from Obedience School and thought maybe I could write an epistolary story between Earth and the angel. After a few more drafts, I realized the story would have more impact if the letters were between Earth and a classroom of kids wanting to help our environment. At that point, I was off and writing!
Me: I’ve seen several picture books about conservation and how kids can help, but nothing quite like this. This is a truly engaging approach. And then you added the character of Bernard who really helps to make this story personal and gives it a circular ending. Brilliant! Was the story this tight from the first draft? How many revisions did it undergo?
Erin: Thank you so much for the kind words. I’m so glad readers like Bernard! I’ve lost count as to how many revisions this went through because there were early drafts with the angel, and then Room 5 took over and Bernard kept chiming in–haha. I’m sure I took it to my writing group at least twice before we submitted it. There were revisions once I had a contract too, but mostly to make sure my nonfiction information was correct. (Shout out to nonfiction author Melissa Stewart for her guidance!) I also remember edits for the poster on the reverse of the book jacket. How many is that—maybe ten in all?
Me: This book really shows how we can all take care of our planet, no matter how young we are. You have a multitude of ways that are accessible for kids to be able to implement right away (turning off lights, using a re-usable water bottle, recycling paper, etc.). Why is this message something you wanted to share with young readers?
Erin: As a teacher and parent, it’s always bugged me that we would set aside just one day for Earth Day, which was a brilliant and important way to raise awareness when it first began. But honestly? Every day should be Earth Day. I wanted to find a way to encourage these wonderful Earth-friendly habits all year long. When you think about it, most schools celebrate I-Love-To-Read or Read Across America Day, but we encourage students to read every day, right? Why can’t Earth Day be like that, a day to celebrate the good deeds we’ve done for our planet all year?
Me: I love that. What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Erin: I’m not sure if this qualifies as a surprise, but initially I had the kids in Room 5 talking about composting in November. My editor, Tamar Mays, pointed out that although this might be possible in California—where I live—she lives on the East Coast and her compost bin would be a frozen ice cube by then. Oops! We really wanted each monthly activity to be something kids around the world could do so, like I said, even the poster went through some revisions.
Me: The illustrations by Luisa Uribe are wonderful. I especially loved how she had the earth responding using animals in so many different settings. Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Erin: I am absolutely blown away by Luisa’s illustrations. She added so much to the world of the story, and even the tiny details have story arcs of their own. For example, once you turn the page from the turtle illustration, try asking readers how many fish they saw with the turtle. Most will answer four or five. If they look again, they will see that one of the “five” fish is a plastic bag. What a COOL way to show how easily the turtle might mistake that plastic bag for dinner! AND, if you go back a page to the February illustration of Room 5 charting plastic use, you will see that same plastic bag. Brilliant!
Me: Any advice for other new picture book writers?
Erin: Funny you should ask as just the other day, I had a friend ask me, “Where to start?” I’m copying part of my reply here:
First off there are no “shoulds.” There are people who write every day, no matter what. Some crave regular schedules–give themselves word count goals or a certain number of hours to have their “BUTT IN THE CHAIR.” These are great motivators for some. But the flip side of that is (for people like me…) that then it feels incredibly daunting (or it used to feel that way to me) –especially when life intervenes and it doesn’t look like you have a big chunk of time that day, so you don’t write at all. You will eventually find your rhythm, but in the meantime…
Just start. I recommend writing longhand to start with –just to get your ideas out. Think of yourself as an artist with a sketchbook. See where your ideas, characters, thoughts go. NO wrong answers. You may think you’re writing for one age, but the story goes in a different (older/younger readers) direction. So–like I tell all want-to-be-writers: throw up on the page. (Bruce Coville told me and a room full of other would-be authors this once at a conference and he was right!) Good or bad–don’t edit–just get the raw material out there. Writers are like potters. You don’t just make one vase out of one lump of clay and call yourself a potter. The raw material is our clay. Give yourself something to work with before you start shaping it into something. I have an idea notebook that’s very messy and full of stuff that never became books. But also full of stuff that worked.
I’m sure many others have said this but: READ, READ, READ, and check out SCBWI.
Last but not least: Have FUN!
That is great advice. Thank you for stopping by my blog Erin.
Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance yet to check out this book, track it down. This is a story that utilizes a monthly timeframe, an epistolary format, and a conservation message! That’s a lot to accomplish. Yet this book manages to do so very well. Trust me when I say that this is a book you won’t want to miss!