In How to Write a Story (Chronicle, July), Kate Messner advises budding writers to begin by searching for a “shiny” idea. For the 49-year-old author, who began her career in 2009 with the novel The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z, generating ideas hasn’t been a problem. By year’s end she will have published 50 books, a dozen in 2020 alone (despite the disruptions to the publishing industry from Covid-19). Messner’s combined sales, according to her literary agent, Jennifer Laughran at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, are more than 3.5 million copies.
“It’s bizarre, isn’t it?” Messner says, referring to her extraordinary output. Her 2020 releases range from picture books to Chirp (Bloomsbury), a middle grade mystery that weaves together autobiography with the #MeToo movement and cricket farming. Two books are part of her Rangers in Time series for Scholastic, which goes on pause after the July release of book 12, Attack on Pearl Harbor. Three are from the History Smashers series (Random House), illustrated by Dylan Meconis, which reexamines historical events and launches in July.
A few upcoming titles, Messner points out, took six or seven years to complete, while her picture book The Next President (Chronicle), illustrated by Adam Rex, got hustled along so that it could be released in time for the presidential election season. “It was going to be a wild year,” she says, “even before the world turned upside down.”
To keep track of her projects and maintain her writing schedule, Messner relies on a bullet journal. As we talk via Skype, she holds up this year’s, which is purple, and reads her to-do list aloud. Besides her conversation with PW, she has to work on her fifth History Smasher and make applesauce. The day before our talk, in mid-March, Messner and her daughter, who is home from college, brought several hundred author copies to area schools so that teachers could give them to families. The pair also organized educational resources on Messner’s website so that they would be easily accessible by level in a single place.
“There’s just so much tied to our schools—so many services,” Messner says. “I’ve been waking up at two in the morning. What else can I do? How can we help?”
For Messner, there’s “nothing magical” about publishing a dozen books in one year. She writes for a few hours each morning, usually fiction, and then takes “recess.” Pre-Covid-19, that meant going to the gym. Now she goes kayaking on Lake Champlain—she lives with her family on the New York side—or takes a walk. After lunch she writes for a few more hours, often switching to nonfiction.
As to what she works on, Messner describes it as “triage—what’s due next, what needs to happen next.” She adds, “There are other good things in the wings, but if I tried to think of them all every day, I would quickly feel overwhelmed.”
Messner’s ability to shift her focus among projects and make each book special is one of the reasons that Diane Landolf, senior editor at Random House Children’s Books, regards her as a “dream author.” Even though Landolf knew that Messner had other books coming out in 2020, she says Messner met every deadline and made it seem as if she were only working on Landolf’s books.
Messner’s work ethic and careful writing—and revision—are among the traits cited by Melissa Manlove, senior editor at Chronicle, who publishes most of the author’s picture books. “All of her efforts in the writing and teaching communities end up supporting the success of her books,” says Manlove. “She works so hard and gives all of us her best.” Manlove also praises Messner’s ability to make her books accessible without talking down to her readers. It helps that Messner says she often writes for her younger self, the kid who got so caught up exploring that she would wander off on field trips.
What really unites all of Messner’s books is curiosity. At a keynote entitled “The Creative Superpower of Curiosity,” held at this year’s Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators winter conference in New York City, she spoke about one of her favorite quotes from Albert Einstein: “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” The quote is on her fridge in a speech bubble next to a magnet of Einstein.
Messner’s curiosity after reading an article in a newspaper when she was visiting her parents led directly to one of her spring releases, Tracking Pythons (Millbrook). After Messner learned about the invasive Burmese python population in Florida, she contacted a team of researchers to see if she could shadow them for a book. When they invited her to a necropsy that afternoon, her equally curious family—parents, husband, and daughter—went with her. Now she tracks giant tortoises in the Galápagos.
Another of Messner’s strengths is her voice, which she developed during a summer internship at a TV station following her freshman year at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. “There was this old, grumpy newscaster, who shall remain nameless,” Messner says. “But he was also a brilliant writer. I would bring him scripts, and he would look at them once, crumple them up, and throw them out. Then he would put paper in his typewriter—I’m dating myself—and write them over. Finally, I said, ‘Can you please help me instead of doing that?’ ”
Messner recalls that the newscaster uncrumpled one of her reports and went through it with her line by line. She heeded his lessons through her seven-year journalism career, her 15 years as a middle school English teacher, and now she heeds them as a writer. “It’s really easy to admire other people and say, ‘I want to write like that,’ ” she says. “But I always come back to that grumpy newscaster telling me I have to find my own voice.”
Teaching also shaped Messner’s writing. “It has informed the way she connects with kids,” says Mary Kate Castellani, editorial director at Bloomsbury, who has worked with Messner on nine novels, including her first book, which was Castellani’s first acquisition as an editor in 2008. “She knows kids so well and has so much respect for them. She always has the kid in mind. She always starts from a place of curiosity.”
In History Smashers, Messner says, her goal is “to tell stories in a way that’s respectful of kids. Kids can handle more than we think they can. And I feel like being honest with kids is really important. Sometimes our teaching of history has not fared so well in that area, particularly when it comes to our failings as a country, our mistakes. We like to teach little kids nice stories about history. I think we can start to have those conversations earlier.”
Messner recalls eating with a group of second graders on her last school visit. When she recommended Gwendolyn Hooks’s Ona Judge Outwits the Washingtons, about a woman who was enslaved by the country’s first president, a boy remarked to her that he thought George Washington was “a good guy.” When Messner explained that even people who do important things sometimes do bad things, he nodded to indicate that he got it.
“Everybody always says, ‘We need to understand our history in order to not repeat the mistakes,’ ” Messner adds. “You can’t understand mistakes that you’re not willing to talk about with kids.”