We are delighted to start 2023 with a visit from debut author, Polly Owen. Her first picture book, Darwin’s Super Pooping Worm Spectacular, was published last week and takes a fascinating look at Charles Darwin’s research as he tries to discover worm superpowers!
The Story: Charles Darwin loved all nature but he was particularly fascinated by earth worms. Many people thought that they were pests but Darwin was determined to prove them wrong and show how useful worms can be.
Darwin carried out a range of experiments to test the worms’ senses. He planned a spectacular worm show which didn’t go as he expected. But then he took a trip to Stonehenge and discovered a worm’s real superpower…
Thank you for visiting Story Snug, Polly and congratulations on the publication of Darwin’s Super Pooping Worm Spectacular. We really enjoyed learning all about earth worms and Darwin’s experiments.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing journey so far?
I enjoyed writing as a child but it wasn’t until I had children that I thought about writing as a career. My daughter inspired me and I loved making up silly rhymes for her. Now, 10 years on, she is my editor and budding writer herself! It’s been a slow but enjoyable journey. After a few near misses, competition placements and lots of rejections everything came together when I met my publisher at a 1:2:1. I have I Am In Print to thank for that. But my agent Emily and critique groups really helped me hone my stories along the way (which is where I first met you, Catherine!). I can’t recommend crit groups enough.
Yes, having support from great critique partners is really valuable. I would be lost without mine!
We didn’t know that Charles Darwin’s was fascinated with worms! How and where did you get the inspiration for the book?
Again, the inspiration was my daughter. She loved nature and minibeasts so my mum bought her membership to the Earthworm Society. She planned on attending some earthworm events but then lockdown happened. My mum was also the first person to tell me about Darwin’s book about earthworms. At first I thought it would be a heavy read, as it was a subject I knew nothing about and written during the Victorian period, but I was so wrong! Darwin was such a good writer and his experiments just leapt off the page as being perfect for a picture book. I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been done before.
We had no idea about Darwin’s earthworm obsession either! How did you go about researching the book?
Well, I read Darwin’s book! Luckily he’s a great author and he had me hooked. The difficult bit was taking his 40 years of research and picking out a thread for a picture book. Darwin was interested in so many things and this one book covered the worms biology, the soil, plants and the geology and formation of landscapes, so I had to focus on just a few aspects. I thought children would love his experiments on the worms’ senses and also the impact of their poo on plants and growing our food. This also fits in with KS1 and KS2 topics at school.
How different is the final version of the book to the first draft?
Very! It started out with me pulling lots of interesting bits from Darwin’s book and over about 50 edits it became more structured, concise and fun. My critique groups had to endure quite a few early versions and they gave me lots of encouragement and suggestions. When I thought it was ready, my editor (who I met through IAMINPRINT) had a few suggestions which really bought out the silliness and poo aspect. My agent, Emily, helped with some of the final edits and it felt like a real team effort by the end. I’ve just found my first draft and from start until publication date in Jan 2023, it will have taken three and a half years!
I don’t think a lot of people realise how slow publishing can be, especially for highly illustrated books.
We love Gwen Millward’s illustrations and the differing spread layouts, the speech bubbles are particularly brilliant. Was there any collaboration between you and Gwen before the book was published?
No, there wasn’t any (although I did write a few illustration notes). My publishers had an idea that Gwen would be perfect for the text and luckily she was able to fit me in! When I saw the illustrations I was blown away and reached out to thank her. Luckily I hadn’t really pictured anything in great detail, so it was a wonderful surprise. I also knew the text was a huge challenge to illustrate, with worms not having eyes, for example, so Gwen’s use of glasses on the worms was really great.
We love their sunglasses! One of our favourite illustrations shows the worms tucking into a cherry leaf banquet.
Do you have a favourite illustration?
My favourite illustration changes all the time, so I guess I love them all. But for this interview I’ll pick … the first picture: Darwin with the plants, which starts it off so beautifully.
Do you have a favourite location or environment to write in?
I write in my bedroom, in bed, or at my desk overlooking the garden. I brainstorm and write first drafts on paper before switching to the PC for editing.
Which authors have influenced your writing? Authors that you may have read as a child as well as current authors.
I read a lot as a child and was read to frequently. Some of my favourites were: AA Milne, Hilaire Belloc, Spike Milligan, Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. The authors I read to my children (who initially inspired me) included Julia Donaldson, Peter Bently, Gareth Edwards, Kes Grey and The Ahlbergs (to name a few). But now there are so many more!
We’re always interested to know what authors enjoy reading. Which recent children’s books have you particularly enjoyed?
As a family, we’ve recently enjoyed The Ickabog and A Little Princess. And the last picture book I bought was Kid Christmas by David Litchfield, which is really beautiful!
A Little Princess was my favourite book as a child. I wonder where my copy is now!
Are you able to tell us about any future titles or projects that you’re currently working on?
I do have something coming out in 2024 but I can’t say what it is yet.
About Polly Owen
Polly Owen is an author from Hertfordshire. With a degree in Mathematics and Statistics she loves STEM subjects and incorporating serious science into silly picture books. Nature and history play a big part in her non-fiction books but she also loves to write in rhyme.
Thank you to Quarto for sending us a review copy of Darwin’s Super Pooping Worm Spectacular. You can win a copy for your school plus a Worm Explorer Activity Kit. Details are in the flyer below;