Monday, May 25, 2020

Interview: Hayley Barrett

My guest today is Hayley Barrett, the author of three very distinct picture books. 

In the lyrical Babymoon, a tiny new person has arrived. Mom and Dad and Baby learn the rhythm of being together through this dawn to dusk story of a baby’s day, taking the time they need to fall in love as a family. (This is the perfect gift for new parents or toddlers welcoming a new brother or sister.) 

Hayley’s second book, What Miss Mitchell Saw, recounts the story of astronomer Margaret Mitchell’s amazing discovery of a comet. Back in 1847, her find caused an international sensation. Could a woman claim the gold and glory of a royal reward? What Miss Mitchell Saw garnered a starred review from School Library Journal and was named a Mighty Girl’s Book of the Year.  


Hayley adds, since we last connected, it was named a MA Book Must Read and longlisted for a MA Book award. It’s also one of five NE finalists for SCBWI’s Crystal Kite Award. J I couldn’t be more proud of it. 

Hayley’s third book, Girl Versus Squirrel, is the rollicking tale of an intrepid girl and a resourceful squirrel’s battle of wits. It will be coming out on August 11th and I can’t wait to read it. 

Hayley, you’ve written fiction and nonfiction, poetic books and funny books, books for the very young and books for school age readers. Everything you write is a new and delightful surprise. What threads tie your body of work together? You’ve mentioned that there are elements of nonfiction in everything you write, can you tell us more about that? 

As a young person, I was more information-hungry than entertainment-hungry. I looked to books to teach me about the world. When I read (and reread) the LITTLE HOUSE books, I wanted more than to pal around with the Ingalls family. I longed to learn how to build, grow, and make whatever I might need. When I read (and reread) BLACK BEAUTY, I learned how to respectfully care for horses and how to avoid the careless mistakes that ruin them. In books, information was there to be found, and I wanted all of it. 

This is why I try to include solid, well-researched facts in all of my books, even the lighthearted, fictional ones. For example, in GIRL VERSUS SQUIRREL, the animal character’s behavior is believable because it’s scientifically accurate. I know because during my research, I consulted a well-known squirrel expert. Yep. 

Why newborns? Why Maria Mitchell? Why squirrels? What was the spark that generated each of your projects? What do you hope your books accomplish? 

Well, this world is a fascinating place, isn’t it? I find I’m interested in nearly everything, so naturally, I like to write about nearly everything. That’s one of the joys of writing picture books. I can write about whatever catches my fancy. 

The inspiration for BABYMOON happened many years ago. At that time, I was attending Penn’s nursing school in preparation to become a Certified Nurse Midwife. Although our family plans changed and I did not complete the program, I never forgot what I learned about the importance of welcoming babies with gentleness and respect. A new family must be allowed to rest and bond, but in our increasingly busy and distracted world, such families are often pressured to “bounce back” to “normal life.” We forget to take time to nurture and protect those who need it most. BABYMOON—the term was coined by a British anthropologist—is my effort to reclaim that sense of restful space. 

I must have read about Maria Mitchell when I was a girl, and she stayed with me. From time to time, I’d come across her name in something I was reading, and it always piqued my interest. Finally, I was interested enough to research her life and accomplishments in earnest. That’s when I began writing WHAT MISS MITCHELL SAW. 

GIRL VERSUS SQUIRREL also came from my childhood days. As a kid, I spent hours watching the squirrels that lived in my neighborhood. If they were feeling sociable, they’d sometimes sit on the fence and let me talk to them. I’d cluck and chirp as best I could and they’d reply in fluent squirrel. If they ever tried to speak my language, I never noticed, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Squirrels are mighty smart people. 

What obstacles have you had to overcome in your writing process? Is there a particular aspect of the writing journey that challenges you most or is each project different? 

Some writers enjoy the revision process, but I find it deeply challenging. A picture book’s text is necessarily spare, yet its story and characters must be well-developed and engaging. To accomplish this requires painstaking work and focus, and the resulting manuscript is delicate, much like a sandcastle. Changing even one small part of the whole invites collapse of the structure. 

Still, unless I want my work to molder in a drawer, I must revise. The process of revising BABYMOON was profoundly instructive and, to be honest, something of an ordeal. Revising any manuscript is tricky, but one that rhymes? Doubly so. To follow the sandcastle metaphor, it’s like trying to modify a castle that’s finished and dry. At the slightest touch, those seemingly solid walls with their boxy battlements will disintegrate and must be resurrected into an entirely new, structurally stable, and equally compelling creation. GULP. 

I’ll probably spend the rest of my life making peace with the revision process, but that’s a happy prospect. I’m fortunate to be doing the work I love. 

Your picture books have all been illustrated by others. What is your experience with the author/illustrator dance? 

I love partnering with illustrators! They get to do what they like to do best—create art—and I get to do what I like—wrangle words. There’s a strange sort of disconnected collaboration that’s required to make a picture book. Both parties are creatively separate and yet somehow, they end up in a new place together. That’s the magic we all hope for and work toward. When it happens—that magical pairing of words and images—the result is something truly special. 

Now that I have a few books in the world, I realize how much I enjoy having books that differ from one another visually. BABYMOON bears no resemblance to WHAT MISS MITCHELL SAW, and GIRL VERSUS SQUIRREL looks nothing like THE TINY BAKER. I appreciate each of my illustrators, and I’m committed to supporting not only our shared “book babies,” but all of their future work too. 

In the middle of creating these books, you also contributed to a poetry anthology, An Assortment of Animals. What was it like collaborating with other authors on this project? Does your work as a poet influence the way you approach picture books? 

The Writers’ Loft is the center of my writing life, and I’m glad I can contribute to their anthologies. I only rarely write poetry, but I adore rhyming. Once I begin to hear the music and rhythm of a poem in my head, I can’t help but work on it. That’s what happened for the first anthology, AN ASSORTMENT OF ANIMALS, for which I wrote a poem about a prehistoric equid. There’s another anthology coming, all about the ocean and its creatures, and I contributed two poems, one about diatoms and another about right whales. 

I hear that there is a fourth book, The Tiny Baker, on its way. Illustrated by Alison Jay; it will be published by Barefoot Books.  Could you tell us a little about that? 

Gladly! THE TINY BAKER is a sweet story about the proprietress of a bustling teashop that caters to stylish ants and other elegantly attired insects. When kitchen disaster strikes, her can-do clientele work together to help their baker friend. I just saw the color proofs, and the art by Alison Jay could not be more perfect. Wait ‘til you see the sugary delights she cooked up! 

Oh, sounds delicious! Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers? 

I’d like to add that the children’s literature community is wonderfully friendly and welcoming. If any of your readers are thinking about writing or illustrating for young people, they should go ahead and jump right in. The water’s fine, I promise. 

Thank you so much for being my guest today! You can find out more about Hayley Barrett and her books at    



1 comment:

  1. Love this post and I identify w/you, Hayley. I ma not a fan of revision, but it must be done. Look at you and all these books! Can't wait for SQUIRREL.


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