Q&A with Andrea Debbink, author of ‘The Wild World Handbook’
The former American Girl editor will discuss her illustrated middle grade nonfiction guide online at the Wisconsin Book Festival on May 26.
Andrea Debbink’s new book, “The Wild World Handbook: How Adventurers, Artists, Scientists — and You — Can Protect Earth’s Habitats,” is intended for middle grade readers — but I lingered over every glorious page. “Wild World I,” as Debbink has taken to calling the May 25 release (because a second volume is due out from Quirk Books this November) is informative but not dull, serious but not dire. Hopeful, even as it leaves no stone unturned on the path to mitigating grave ecological issues like climate change, deforestation and overfishing. The colorful book is divided into nine habitats and it is equal parts history lessons, biography, trivia, geographical guidebook and DIY craft exploration — a clear reflection of Debbink’s nearly 10 years as an editor at the now-shuttered American Girl magazine, a position she left in 2019 to write books full time. But while The Wild World Handbook is the University of Wisconsin–Madison alum’s fourth book, it’s the first that’s entirely in her own voice, sprung from her own imagination and experience and whimsically brought to life by Netherlands-based illustrator Asia Orlando. The result leaves readers — whether middle grade or middle-aged — informed, inspired and, most importantly, empowered.
Debbink will discuss The Wild World Handbook virtually on May 26 at 11 a.m. as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival’s ongoing online lineup.
The Wild World Handbook was a pleasure to read. How did it come about?
I was really interested in women in the outdoors. I’d resurrected a feature at American Girl called “Who’s That Girl,” this historical feature where we’d pick a woman each issue, talk about her childhood and then who she grew up to be, and I loved that. So I started researching women in conservation and environmental issues, thinking I’d write an anthology of short biographies of women in the outdoors. But that was around the time the market was getting saturated with anthologies, and the woman who became my agent worried by the time it came out it would be a little behind the curve. So then I started researching how I could reshape that idea, and when I started looking at the history of conservation, I began to see there are massive gaps as far as who is represented, not just women. If you do an initial Google search of influential conservationists, it’s the same 10 people all the time. I know these people had an influence, but whose stories weren’t being told as widely? Once I accumulated that list of biographies, I started to fill out the rest of the book with ways that I can encourage readers to actually engage with nature, not just read about it.
And there is already a second Wild World Handbook coming this November?
This was originally conceived of as one book, because I’m a little overambitious sometimes with my ideas [laughs]. Quirk loved the idea but they’re like, ‘That’s a lot for one book, how about we make it two?’ So that’s how I got the two book deal with them, because we decided the first book would be ‘Habitats’ and the second book would be ‘Creatures.’ And then it’s been on a really fast track ever since. I started writing The Wild World in January 2020 and I just got the box of advance copies for The Wild World II.
You excel at writing for middle grade children, but that’s no easy task. How have you mastered that voice?
I really credit my experience at American Girl, I had a chance to develop that voice of relating to kids where they are without talking down to them. But it was interesting, when it came to writing Wild World, it was the first time I’d written for this audience in entirely my own voice. Something that helps me, especially as it relates to this topic, is my background is not in science; it’s in journalism and history. So I’m just like the average person trying to understand it myself, and I think that actually helps, because I have to break it down to a really basic level. Part of it is just simplifying what you’re talking about without talking down to your audience. Respecting your audience, their age and where they’re at.
One of the things I appreciated most about this book is that you managed to make me feel like I could actually do something about some of these big issues that often make me feel small and ineffectual — and I’m an adult. You write, “There are birds that fly in our skies today because someone a hundred years ago cared enough to protect them. There are forests growing tall because someone planted seedlings. … History is full of people who destroyed nature and history is full of people who protected and cared for it.”
I feel the same way, especially when it comes to climate change. It’s such a massive thing, it’s hard to understand how our individual actions can matter. But it helps me a lot to look back at history and see how I’m benefitting today from actions taken in the past. Like, I knew so little about the bird conservation movement that happened in the U.S. Even in Wisconsin, back when Aldo Leopold was writing Sand County Almanac, there weren’t many sandhill cranes, if there were any. And now it’s like, every park I go to in Madison this time of year, I see a sandhill crane. There’s a reason for that. People took action to make sure they are still here. So for me, I get more motivation from looking back than looking ahead, and that’s definitely something I wanted to bring to the book because I think the reader can really be inspired and motivated by stories like that.
You also have two earlier books aimed at this audience. “Spark: A Guide to Ignite the Creativity Inside You” (American Girl, 2018), and “Think for Yourself: The Ultimate Guide to Critical Thinking in an Age of Information Overload” (Duopress, 2020).
“Spark” came out in response to letters we got at American Girl, handwritten letters from girls, where I’d see a lot of themes about lack of confidence in their creative abilities, not knowing how to pursue a creative interest. So Spark was kind of the answer to that, trying to send girls the message that creativity isn’t just something for a specific person, everybody is creative. “Think for Yourself” came out in April 2020, which is a really bad time for any book to be released [laughs]. I knew the editor at Duopress and they were looking for a writer, so they came to me with the idea and a rough outline of what they wanted. I’ve done similar projects; an educational title for a different publisher, and some ghost-writing of middle grade nonfiction. So it’s kind of like I have these two halves of my work, my personal projects and then the write-for-hire/ghostwriting side.
I was surprised to see you also had a children’s cookbook come out last month. “Kitchen Chemistry: A Food Science Cookbook” was published by American Girl at the end of April.
I loved that book, I loved working on it. I’m so happy it’s actually out in the world, because I wrote it back in 2018 and it was supposed to come out in 2019 and it was continually delayed. It was meant as kind of a continuation of “Spark,” the wonderful Emily Balsley is the illustrator on both. That book is important to me personally because I’ve always loved to cook and bake but I haven’t always loved science. I’ve always loved nature and cooking, but as a child I didn’t understand that science was part of those things. And I feel like if someone could have related science more to cooking and baking and nature and the outdoors, I probably would have been much more interested in the topic. Writing a book like Kitchen Chemistry is creating the thing I wish I would have had as a kid.
And you developed the recipes?
Yes, that was part of my job when I worked at American Girl magazine. So I developed a lot of recipes over the year for the magazine, and then I had to make a lot more for the cookbook. You’ll see there’s like four chocolate chip cookie recipes, that started as a feature in the magazine called “Cookie Chemistry.” It was the highest rated feature of that particular issue, everyone wrote in and told us how much they loved it, so that’s when we started to think oh, there’s probably a book here.
And now your first picture book, “Sylvie and the Wolf,” is slated for publication in Fall 2022 from Colorado-based Sounds True publishing. What is that book about?
It’s about a little girl that overcomes her fear, basically. It’s told in the style of a Scandinavian Folk Tale, but it’s not a Scandinavian Folk Tale — it just kind of has that feel. It’s actually a little bit autobiographical. When I was a kid, I had anxiety. I still deal with it today, but I first started dealing with it as a kid. So the story is a little bit like a fable or a metaphor for this little girl who develops anxiety and how she responds to it.
What made you decide to write a picture book?
I’ve always wanted to write a picture book, or multiple picture books. I’ve always loved them, I’ve never outgrown them. Even as an adult, I continue to buy them and read them. Because I think they’re such an interesting artistic medium, and they’re so challenging. Most picture books today are around 500 words, which I didn’t know. I thought they were longer until I started writing this one and realized oh, I have to cut this in half because it’s twice as long as it should be. So, it’s very short. It’s the shortest thing I’ve ever written. But it was also very fun to write, because it took me like a month and a half. It’s so crazy because it’s a fraction of the size of Wild World and it’s taking twice as long [to publish, Fall 2022], because that’s just how picture books work, I think. And then I wrote a second picture book that is now on submission with my agent, that took me a year and a half to write. So, you never really know how that’s going to go.
What do you most want readers to take away from The Wild World Handbook?
It was really important to me that, even though I’m talking about difficult things like climate change and other ecological issues, I wanted to somehow have this thread of hope woven through. Because in 2018, when I first started reading other children’s books out there about environmental issues, some of them were pretty depressing and dire. I thought back to when I was a kid who was very aware of things going on in the world, and anxious about those things. What did I need when I was 10 and concerned about global warming and acid rain? I needed to know the truth, but I also needed to have that presented to me in a way that gives me some hope. And gives me something to do with those realities. So, I’m hoping I accomplished that. I hope that kids read the book aware of what’s going on in nature and in the environment, but also feeling like there are things they can do in the midst of it.
Find The Wild World Handbook and Debbink’s other books at andreadebbink.com.
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