From Idea to Sale: A Picture Book Tale

I am thrilled to share the news that I have a third picture book coming out! Firefly Song tells the story of how former citizen scientist (and current firefly expert) Lynn Faust discovered a species of synchronous fireflies in the Smoky Mountains. I first read about Lynn in 2014 in an article from Mental Floss magazine titled “The Great Smoky Mountains’ Incredible Firefly Light Show.” This is how the article, written by Jen Doll, starts:

At exactly 9:27 P.M., when dusk slips into darkness in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the “light show” begins. It’s June, and for two weeks in Elkmont, Tennessee, the fireflies pool their efforts. Instead of scattershot blips of light in the summer sky, the fireflies—thousands of them—pulse this way for hours, together in eerie, quiet harmony. It’s as if the trees were strung up with Christmas lights: bright for three seconds, dark for six, and then bright again, over and over. It continues this way for hours.

As a child, Lynn Faust would huddle with her family on the cabin porch to watch the spectacle. They’d sit, mesmerized by the “drumbeat with no sound.” And though they’d appreciated the show for generations, Faust never thought the event was newsworthy. “I’d assumed there was only one kind of firefly and thought they did a nice show in the Smokies,” she says.

The natural world has long enchanted Faust. In college, she majored in forensic anthropology and minored in forestry. In her twenties, she circumnavigated the globe for three years, visiting islands you could only get to by boat, learning about cultures before they disappeared, pursuing underwater photography. Today, at 60, she’s a naturalist who writes scientific papers and field guides about fireflies. But she wasn’t always obsessed with the insect. In fact, her academic interest began only in the ’90s, when she read an article by Steven Strogatz, a Cornell mathematician, in which he marveled at a species of Southeast Asian firefly that synchronized its flashes. Highlighting how rare this phenomenon was, Strogatz noted that there were no synchronous fireflies in the Western Hemisphere.

This struck Faust as odd. It contradicted the light shows she had seen growing up. As she dug deeper, Faust found that while there had been more than 100 years of colloquial accounts of North American fireflies flashing in sync, scientists discounted those reports, attributing them to lore or optical illusion. Faust knew the truth: that her Tennessee fireflies were every bit as special as the species in Asia. But how could she prove it?

Doesn’t that sound like a perfect picture book!? I knew right away that I wanted to write Lynn’s story. There was just one problem.* I didn’t have any published books under my belt. I’d done some magazine articles and I’d written a monthly newspaper column for the past seven years, but I didn’t consider myself a “Real Author.” I was afraid if I approached Lynn, she’d look at my measly credits and say no. So, I folded up the article, tucked it away, and decided to contact her once I had a book contract. Four years later, in 2018, I sold my first book. Achievement unlocked! I was a “Real Author.” (Woohoo!!) Three years after that, I finally had a book cover and some interior sketches (by the incredibly talented illustrator Nancy Carpenter) to share, so I sent Lynn an email.

“Dear Ms. Faust,” I wrote. “Hello! I hope you and your family are doing well during this strange time. I am a children’s book author. My debut picture book, The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem, comes out on August 31 from Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, and I have a second book about a Pakistani decorated truck coming out from Chronicle Books in 2023.** I would very much like for my third book to be about you.”

I went on to explain how I thought children would love reading about her summers spent in the Smoky Mountains; and how, even though she didn’t study entomology in school, she astounded the scientific community with the realization that North America does, indeed, have synchronous fireflies. “Given that there’s a big need for picture books about women in STEM,” I wrote, “and that this particular book would have the added bonus of including information about a beloved insect, I think it will be a hit!” I also attached an article I had written for an Iowa City newspaper about the first time I ever saw a firefly. I hoped it would show her I was a true firefly fan!

Lynn responded to my email that very same day – AND SAID YES! Over the next year we spoke via WhatsApp and Zoom. We exchanged emails. I interviewed some of her family members and research partners. I devoured her wonderful book on North American fireflies, underlining especially fascinating facts and making copious notes in the margins. Lynn sent me photos from her childhood, college years, time as a young mother, and as a field researcher. She shared pictures of fireflies with me, and when I traveled to England, she gave me tips on where I’d be most likely to spot fireflies (near water in an area with lots of vegetation). I didn’t find any, but Lynn was proud of me for trying! I signed a contract for Firefly Song in early 2022 and that same year, I had the great pleasure of meeting Lynn face-to-face in the very place where she started her firefly journey – Elkmont, Tennessee. Even better, my husband came along and we got to see Lynn’s synchronous fireflies for ourselves!

My husband Warren (left), me, and Lynn Faust in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.

Our first day there, Lynn gave us a grand tour of Elkmont. It’s considered a ghost town now, but for decades it was a summer getaway for families from the city. Lynn spent childhood days wandering through the forest, wading in the creek, and jumping into the swimming hole. It was a beloved home away from home for most of her life – until 1992 when the park took possession of the cabins and eventually tore most of them down. It was incredible to see the place Lynn had told me so much about. The cottage where she first saw the synchronous fireflies (which had belonged to her husband’s family) was long gone. Only its chimney and the stone wall that surrounded it remained.

Looking towards the Faust cabin from the stone wall that surrounded it.

But luckily the cottage where Lynn spent much of her childhood was still standing and had been restored, along with a handful of other cabins.

The cottage Lynn’s parents shared with close family friends, the Mayos.

Lynn entertained us with stories of skunks wandering into cabins, bears picking apples from trees, and fireflies (of course!) lighting up the hillsides. Later that night, Warren and I came back to see the fireflies for ourselves. We met Lynn in the parking lot and she led us up a long trail to a spot where she expected the show would be good.

Lynn and me ready for a night of firefly watching.

We were not disappointed! It was amazing to watch the air come alive with twinkling lights then go completely dark seconds later, as if a light switch had been flicked off. Though the Smoky Mountain synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus to the scientists) were the main attraction, Warren and I also loved watching the tiny Blue Ghost fireflies. They flew about a foot off the ground with a steady bluish light in search of potential mates on the forest floor. One of them flew right over my shoe, creating a tiny spotlight as he passed! I don’t have any photos of the Light Show, but this video will give you some sense of what it’s like. If you really want to understand the majesty of these incredible insects, you need to see the show for yourself! Barring that, in the summer of 2025, you can read Firefly Song!

My fabulous editor, Karen Wojtyla, had the job of finding an illustrator for the book. She needed an artist who excelled at illustrating light and landscapes – someone who could capture the special magic of the Smokies alight with firefly lanterns. And boy did she ever find the perfect person! Ji-Hyuk Kim has illustrated several picture books and created many book covers, including Christina Soontornvat’s Newbery Honor book A Wish in the Dark. (I love this book cover and I love the book!)

Take a quick scroll through his website, and you’ll understand why I was so happy to discover he’d be the artist bringing Lynn’s story to life. I can’t wait to see it!

So, that’s the story of how Firefly Song came to be. If you want to receive occasional information on my upcoming books (cover reveals, release dates, preorder info, etc.) and other good news, please consider signing up for my newsletter.

In the meantime, if you’re lucky enough to live in an area with fireflies, grab a copy of Fireflies, Glow-worms, and Lightning Bugs by Lynn Faust and get outside after dark! You’ll be amazed when you learn how many different species of fireflies exist and how you can best identify them. Just be careful. When you read about the females of the Photuris genera, you’ll never look at fireflies the same way again! (And if you follow that link you can never unsee those photos. You’ve been warned!)

Thanks for reading!

Colleen

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*Whether this was truly a problem or not is a subject for another blog post!

**Rainbow Truck is now scheduled to be released in 2024.