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5 Questions With… Deborah Lee Rose (THE SPELLING BEE BEFORE RECESS)

by Deborah Lee Rose
 | May 24, 2013
Deborah Lee Rose is an internationally published author of bestselling children’s books including three brand new titles—SOMEONE’S SLEEPY, a lullaby, JIMMY THE JOEY, a true koala rescue story, and THE SPELLING BEE BEFORE RECESS, a funny school story inspired by “The Night Before Christmas.” Her classic THE PEOPLE WHO HUGGED THE TREES has been included in major school language arts anthologies and translated into seven languages, and her ocean literacy book INTO THE A, B, SEA: AN OCEAN ALPHABET has sold more than a quarter million copies. As a professional science writer she helped create and blogs for Howtosmile.org, the NSF-funded STEM activity collection for all ages, named a Best Website for Teaching and Learning by the American Association of School Librarians.

You’ve said, “It takes work to capture complex concepts in simple words, and to find new ways to present what is familiar.” What new ways have you found to approach the traditional spelling bee in your upcoming picture book, THE SPELLING BEE BEFORE RECESS (Abrams Books for Young Readers, August 2013)?

Because children and adults both have loved my school story THE TWELVE DAYS OF KINDERGARTEN and its two sequels, all inspired by “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” I decided to jump off from another beloved rhyme, “The Night Before Christmas,” for a longer school story. The air of intense expectation and surprise and the rollicking rhythm in “The Night Before Christmas” all lent themselves to creating a funny readaloud about a down-to-the-wire school spelling bee. The most fun of all was choosing the words for the bee in the book that could be called out just the way Santa calls out his reindeer names in the classic poem. (The book also includes four full spelling lists.)

I put a new twist on the traditional spelling bee by having the school principal throw in a tiebreaker. In the book, it’s “One minute to recess, and no one was winning!” The principal announces that for the next word, the two finalists will spell AND tell what the word means. The tiebreaking word I chose—SESQUIPEDALIAN—I learned from Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Tom Chapin’s song for kids titled “Great Big Words.” (I first heard him sing the song in person at a reading conference.) I picked this particular word because it was so big, I myself didn’t know what it meant for years until I finally looked it up! The meaning turned out to fit the story perfectly, and this word in fact helped a former champion clinch the National Spelling Bee prize.

Last month, the Scripps National Spelling Bee (which airs on ESPN May 28-30) announced a new rule: in addition to spelling a word, contestants must now be able to define it as well. So, we have to ask: were you writing with a crystal ball?

The announcement of the new Scripps National Spelling Bee rule—that henceforth all contestants must be able to tell what the word means—came as a total surprise. I only learned about it a week before I spoke at IRA in San Antonio, when the spelling bee book was already printed!

If I did write THE SPELLING BEE BEFORE RECESS with a “crystal ball,” it was the lens of raising my own children. My daughter read all the time and understood the nuances of word meaning. My son memorized the required word list at top speed the night before each spelling test. So I had the idea of setting two characters, Smart Ruby, who’d “read at least ten zillion books, maybe more,” and The Slugger, who memorized word lists and “never struck out,” in the nail-biting final round of a school spelling bee.

What has been your personal experience of school spelling bees? Any chance we’re interviewing a spelling champion?

Sigh…I wish that were the case, but in fact it was just the opposite! (This did come in handy for emotional authenticity when I was writing the book.) In fourth grade, I “got out” in the very first round of our school spelling bee. My hopes were dashed when I misspelled the word similar as though it rhymed with familiar. I’ve never forgotten that misspelled moment to this day, and it was the beginning of my lifelong love affair with the dictionary and thesaurus.

Let’s move beyond spelling and talk about math (and science). Can you tell us about your work with Howtosmile.org?

You’ll notice I tucked some spelling words about math and science, like equate, brain, and pollution, into the bee in THE SPELLING BEE BEFORE RECESS. I have been a science writer for UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science for a long time. In helping build the collection of 3,500 online STEM activities for Howtosmile.org, I became aware of different aspects of the activities, including links to children’s literature.

Many Howtosmile.org activities were created with specific children’s book connections, and even more have the potential to be used with both nonfiction and fiction books. One of my favorite activities is “Lupine and Butterflies,” because it starts with learners reading MISS RUMPHIUS by Barbara Cooney. Reading MISS RUMPHIUS to my own children instilled in me a desire to inspire young readers with the wonder of the natural world.

Your latest book, SOMEONE’S SLEEPY (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2013), isn’t just a “literary lullaby”—it will soon be available as an actual MP3. How did that come to pass?

When my son and daughter were little, they could stay awake through countless bedtime stories (while MY eyes were closing) but a lullaby song always seemed to work. When the possibility came up of turning SOMEONE’S SLEEPY into a song, I knew I wanted to ask Tom Chapin to set the text of the book to music. His songs for kids, from laugh-out-loud ballads to lullabies, have been our family favorites for years. As a children’s author who loves music, it is truly extraordinary for me to now be an official lyricist through this creative collaboration.

© 2013 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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