A writer and artist by nature
John Himmelman, author and illustrator of more than 65 fiction and nonfiction children's books, was very interested in bugs when he was about 10 years old. He remembers starting a bug club with his friends. They collected every kind of insect they could find and then met in an attic over the garage at one boy's house to study them.
He knew then that when he grew up, he wanted to be an entomologist, a person who studies insects. He liked to draw bugs on his class papers, although it upset his teacher very much. "I just couldn't help it," he says.
During high school he enjoyed hiking and backpacking so he could be closer to nature. He thought about being a veterinarian, but he still continued to draw. Finally, the day came when he had to decide whether he wanted to be a veterinarian or an artist.
"I remember telling my parents I needed to walk and think about it," he recalls. "I walked for miles, weighing the pros and cons." He realized that if he were a full-time vet, he would have no time to do writing or artwork. And he knew he really needed to write and draw. So he decided to enroll in the School of Visual Arts in New York.
While working in the library during college, he became inspired by Arnold Lobel's "Frog and Toad" books. He liked the muted green and brown colors and the simple stories of the friendship between the two creatures. That led him to write and illustrate a children's book.
"Talester the Lizard" was about a lizard that Himmelman's fiancée, Betsy, had bought him. His writing teacher showed the book to an editor, and it became his first published book.
He and Betsy are now married and live on five acres in rural Killingworth, Conn.
Mr. Himmelman likes to write both fiction and nonfiction. "Nonfiction can wrack your brain, so it's nice to write a light fiction book after an intense nonfiction book like 'Discovering Amphibians,' " he explains.
The ideas for each of his books come to him in different ways.
"Tudley Didn't Know," a story about a turtle, came to him when he was driving down a road by a small pond near his house and observed a turtle stretched out on a log. It looked as if the turtle might fly off the log. So he went home and drew a small sketch of the scene, knowing there was a story there. But he didn't yet know what it would be, so he put the sketch away.
He didn't forget it, though. Himmelman occasionally took it out and looked at it. Three years later, he had a perfect idea for the book.
The idea for "Chickens to the Rescue" came from reading a newspaper article with the same title. "Sometimes [a book] starts with a title, and you have to wait for the ideas of how to write it to come," he says.
Himmelman remembers an editor who would call him with titles for books. One was called "Lights Out!" Finding that intriguing, he eventually wrote a book about kids who didn't want to go to bed at night.
His interest in frogs and salamanders led him to write the nonfiction book, "Discovering Amphibians."
"The fun is sharing your knowledge with other people with similar interests," he says. "I often go out in the field with friends when working on a nonfiction book. I even write about my friends in some books."
When working on the amphibians book, he took trips with friends to Massachusetts and Vermont to study frogs, toads, and salamanders.
"I think that what makes bugs, birds, reptiles, and animals popular with kids is that they are accessible and often can be found in one's own backyard," he says. "And searching for bugs or toads is like a treasure hunt. For me the prize is coming back with a great photo to show others."
When he was first married, Himmelman couldn't support himself and his wife on his earnings from books. So he worked as a short-order cook and as a carpenter because those jobs gave him time to write, too.
But eventually he made enough money from the growing number of books he had written and illustrated that he decided to leave his regular job as a carpenter. "I remember driving home from the last day of work," he says. "It was very exciting to be able to just write and draw for a living."
Himmelman's advice to kids who want to write or draw is to read books: "Writing without reading is like an Olympic skater [who] never practices skating," he declares.
"Write about what you're interested in," he suggests. It's "fun sharing things you like to do. If you show why you are interested, then other people will be interested in reading your stories. Same thing with the artwork: Keep drawing what you like to draw. Draw, draw, draw. That is basically it – just do it."