A whole book from a glass of water

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June 21, 2014

Michelle Mulder’s new book Every Last Drop: Bringing Clean Water Home, was recently published by Orca Books of Victoria, which creates a variety of top-notch books for young readers.  Mulder grew up in Port Moody, B.C.,  and can be seen pedalling her bicycle around Victoria, where she now lives with her husband and child. She’s a lifelong reader and a world traveller. She and Coastal Spectator editor Lynne Van Luven  had an e-mail chat about her work and publications.

Michelle, Every Last Drop is your third book in the Orca Footprints series.  Can you talk a bit about the first book in the series, Pedal It!, and how you got involved writing these sorts  of educational non-fiction books with this Victoria publisher?

I never imagined becoming a non-fiction writer. My passion has always been novels, both as a reader and a writer.

Another one of my passions is bicycles. I ride my bike every day, and whenever I travel, I notice other people’s bikes. One time, I was sitting in my inlaws’ living room in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when I heard a strange sound outside. I went to the window to investigate and saw a man pedaling slowly down the street, blowing into a whistle. Suddenly, across the street, a door flung open, and a woman came charging at him with a knife in her hand … and a big smile on her face. The man stopped his bike, propped it up on a kickstand, took the knife, jumped back on the bike and started pedaling, setting in motion a sharpening stone set on the handlebars.

All at once I realized that I’d underestimated the humble bicycle. I began researching bicycles and their uses around the world, and the more I researched, the more excited I got. But three years passed before I worked up the courage to approach Orca Book Publishers with a proposal for Pedal It! I chose Orca because they’d published two of my novels, and I love the relationships they establish with their authors. I knew they published non-fiction, but I didn’t know how they’d respond to my book idea. As it turned out, their answer was a question: would I be willing to write not only this book, but two more in a brand new series about ecological issues?

I took a deep breath, signed a contract, and started researching like mad. Last fall, my book Brilliant! Shining a Light on Sustainable Energy hit the shelves, and this spring, Orca released Every Last Drop: Bringing Clean Water Home. Every book has been an exciting adventure, and I love all the learning I do as part of my writing process.

 What sorts of books did you like to read when you were a kid?

I loved novels. I devoured Beverly Clearly’s books and then Judy Blume’s. In particular, I remember reading and rereading Judy Blume’s Deenie. It was the first book I’d read about a kid who felt like she didn’t belong, and for me it was a revelation. Although I never worn a brace for scoliosis like Deenie did, I’d always felt socially awkward, and this book showed me that I wasn’t the only one in the world who felt this way. Even though I had very little in common with the main character, reading her story somehow made it okay to be me.

As a teenager, I stopped hanging out in the children’s section of the library and headed for the adult books. I read everything from pot-boilers to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and I loved them all for different reasons. The books that I read as a young person have stayed with me all my life. I may not always remember the titles or the names of the authors, but each story is like a separate life experience, and by the time I hit university, I felt like I’d lived several lives already!

 Once in a while, I meet someone who (erroneously) thinks that writing for kids is much easier than writing for adults.  Can you talk a little about your philosophy of writing for young readers?

Whether I’m writing for kids or adults, I want to write honestly and clearly, in a way that engages the reader. This can be challenging when I’m writing non-fiction for young people because my research materials are all written for adults. Sometimes I can’t even understand my sources myself!

That’s when I seek out experts. I write to them with many questions, and they’ve all been extremely patient in answering. When at last I feel like I could chat knowledgably about every aspect of my topic, I begin to write. I believe a good children’s writer can explain absolutely anything in a simple, thorough way that both engages and empowers the reader. For me, that takes a lot of research and revision. And then a lot of polishing to make it all look effortless.

Every Last Drop reminded me how much Canadians take water for granted, and how much we waste.  What has been young readers’ response to this book when you visit them in schools or at readings?

I think they’re surprised that someone can write a whole book about a glass of water! Funnily enough, though, I found it challenging to make the book so short. The first chapter is about how humans have collected drinking water since the dawn of time. (How do you tell that story in ten pages or less?) The second chapter discusses where our water comes from, where it goes once we’ve used it, and how climate change affects the water cycle. The last two chapters explore how people get and conserve water in countries around the world.

I’m fascinated that I can turn on a tap and fill my glass with a healthy, danger-free, life-giving liquid. I hope that, by the end of the book, young readers will share my fascination.

Can you discuss what your next book will be about — or is that an impertinent question?

Rubbish! That’s what the book is about. A few years ago, I read Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (Penguin 2009). I was horrified to learn that, in North America, one third of all our food gets thrown away as garbage—tossed out of farmers’ fields, or into grocery store dumpsters, or into garbage cans in homes. I wondered if anyone had written about this for kids, and I began my research. I read both about what we throw away as a society and people who live off of the garbage of others. Then I read Zero Waste Home, by Bea Johnson. It completely transformed the way I thought about waste (not to mention how I shop)! We got rid of our garbage can, and I wrote a proposal for Trash Talk! Moving Toward a Zero-Waste World. It’ll be on shelves in Spring 2015.

Learn more about Michelle Mulder’s world at www.michellemulder.com

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