Interview by the Young Adulting Editors
Anita Miettunen is a writer and illustrator from Vancouver, BC, who loves exploring the natural world. Big Blue Forever, her first children’s book, was published by Red Deer Press in 2017. Anita serves as the Regional Advisor for the SCBWI’s Canada West chapter and also reviews books for CM: Canadian Review of Materials. She holds two science degrees and has completed the Humber School for Writers Summer Workshop (2010) and a Master of Arts in Children’s Literature (MACL) from UBC (2019). In September 2020, Anita was the writer-in-residence at Historic Joy Kogawa House in Vancouver.
Your first picture book, Big Blue Forever, was nominated for the 2018 Silver Birch Express Non-Fiction Award, among many other accolades. What was your inspiration for telling the story of Canada’s largest blue whale skeleton as a non-fiction picture book? What was your research process like?
This book really happened by chance. While living in Ontario, I’d heard that a blue whale skeleton would be showcased in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, located on the UBC campus. The whale had died and washed up on the shores of PEI in 1987, and was buried for over twenty years to preserve the skeleton, before being recovered. It wasn’t until I returned to Vancouver that I “met” the skeleton, when I began volunteering at the museum. As a writer, I thought the story of how the blue whale skeleton came to be in the museum would be captivating for children. As someone with an environmental science background, I also felt a book could bring about greater public awareness of, and connect young readers to, conservation issues such as endangered blue whales.
Writing Big Blue Forever required quite a bit of research, especially as my editor suggested expanding on the back matter. My original bullet-pointed page of “amazing facts” eventually grew into multiple sections, and doubled the book’s length! But thanks to my editor’s wisdom, and the opportunity I was given to write more—the end result was a more powerful book that fully captured why this story matters.
My research process included many steps. I searched for materials on the internet, scoured newspaper records, and combed through photos in the museum’s archives. I researched what types of whale-themed books were already published. I interviewed some of the scientists, researchers, and a veterinarian, who were part of the whale’s excavation in 2008. The interviews were especially helpful in understanding some of the researchers’ sensory and physical experiences, which I wanted to incorporate into the book. During a personal visit to Ottawa, I also visited the Canadian Museum of Nature to view their blue whale display, and happened to connect with another whale researcher who generously sent me academic papers and photos, which I was able to use for the book. I even managed to track down and connect with a few individuals who shared stories and personal anecdotes of witnessing Big Blue back in 1987 when she first beached in PEI.
Connecting with people was one of the most unexpected and joyous parts of my research process. Of course, I also spent considerable time at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum for observing and taking pictures of Big Blue.
Can you tell us about your illustration work? What have been some of your favourite projects, and what are some of your main inspirations for your artwork? Do you have plans to write and illustrate any books in the future?
I am very much a student of illustration, always learning. I’ve enjoyed having a cartoon published in a Canadian magazine and organizing and exhibiting in a group exhibit (2016) for emerging and published children’s picture book illustrators. My most recent illustration project, Remembering: Lost Words, is currently part of the ReCollections exhibit at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum (showing in person and online). While it’s different from children’s book illustration, my piece combines visual art, text, and audio, in a work that contemplates the impact of a children’s dictionary dropping nature-themed words (which really happened a few years back, sparking wide-spread controversy).
My inspiration comes from many sources, including nature, other artists, travel, museums and galleries, courses, and also my own childhood and life experiences. I do look forward to further developing my illustration work, but for now, my immediate book plans are concentrated on writing.
How did your experience in the Master of Arts in Children’s Literature (MACL) program at UBC impact your writing career? Do you have any advice for current students, and those who are interested in studying children’s literature?
I’ll always be grateful for my time in the MACL program, and the connections I made with some of the gifted instructors and fellow students. I’m interested in writing in different genres. Through the MACL program, I was fortunate to get the opportunity to learn more about how to write a children’s novel, and this learning continues to inform my writing. The MACL program also helped me gain a deeper understanding of children’s literature and publishing in Canada, including the central role of libraries and book sellers; and it expanded my local network within a very active children’s literature community. I gained skills in analyzing picture books and book reviewing; and as a result, I began occasionally volunteering as a book reviewer for CM. Also, I gained knowledge about assessing Indigenous representation in books and other media, thanks to a course taught by Julie Flett. My day job is outside of children’s literature, but I can now better impart my knowledge about children’s literature in the volunteer work I do with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and the workshops I occasionally organize. With the knowledge and confidence I gained through the MACL program experience, I hope to eventually teach children’s literature to adults in a continuing education setting.
My advice to current students would be to get involved to the extent you can in networking, conferences, and social events with other MACL students to build and nurture your connections; and reach out to the local writing community by volunteering for special events.
If you are a prospective student, think about what you hope to gain from the program and try to speak with former students to help decide if the program is a good fit for your expectations. It might be a great steppingstone if you want to purse an academic career, for example. However, this MA is not to be confused with an MFA. Prospective students should do their research, so they understand career options. While the MACL might not necessarily lead to a well-paying job for everyone, it might be an ideal degree if you are academically oriented and thinking about pursuing additional advanced studies. If you are passionate about children’s literature and want to pursue a deeper understanding of this fascinating field, the MACL is an excellent choice!
What draws you to picture books as a medium for storytelling? If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring picture book authors, what would it be?
The play between art and text in well-executed picture books will always fascinate me. I am also in awe of how picture books as a medium can tackle such widely divergent topics: from entertaining, light-hearted, humorous romps to gut-clenching, heart-stopping, hard subject matter that otherwise would be difficult, if not impossible, to talk about.
Picture books are incredibly versatile, but they are also incredibly hard to write. The publishing industry is very slow and it’s challenging to get published. So, learn all you can about the craft, find supportive peers, persevere, and don’t give up. Most of all, look for the joy so you enjoy the process.
Can you tell us about what you’re currently working on?
Among other works-in-progress, I’m currently submitting a non-fiction picture book to publishers and editors, in hopes of it finding a home. It’s one of the few projects I managed to complete last year, as my creative energy fluctuated wildly during the pandemic and I was also busy with a new job transition. All being well, I look forward to giving more attention again soon to various fiction and non-fiction manuscripts I have on the go.