MILKWEED FOR MONARCHS
AUTHOR CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT
Illustrated by Alejandra Barajas
(Beaming Books; $18.99, Ages 4-8)
Bold, gold, the chrysalis gleams. And deep down inside . . . the butterfly dreams.
Every year, monarch butterflies migrate to warmer climates for overwintering months. However, changing environments make it continually more difficult to find food and places to lay eggs. In this nonfiction picture book, the monarch’s life cycle is detailed in lyrical verse as stunning art accompanies each stage in the butterfly’s life.
The most recognizable butterfly, monarchs are classified as a vulnerable species by the IUCN, and face drastic challenges when it comes to locating food sources–milkweed. Milkweed for Monarchs is the perfect resource for young readers to learn more about these beautiful insects and how they can foster monarch-friendly environments in their own backyard. Backmatter includes actionable ways for readers to help this vulnerable species.
GoodReadsWithRonna: How did you decide to write about butterflies in your new nonfiction picture book, Milkweed for Monarchs?
Christine Van Zandt: During the pandemic, we bought a milkweed plant with the vague idea that we were helping butterflies in some way. Little did we know that our plant was loaded with eggs and soon we had a bunch of very cute caterpillars. Sadly, they were eaten by various predators in our garden, but that set me out on this journey, wondering about monarchs.
GRWR: What eats monarchs? I thought they were poisonous.
CVZ: When the monarch caterpillars eat milkweed leaves, they do retain some of the plant’s toxins. And they have the bright “stay away” body markings consisting of yellow, white, and black stripes. But they still end up being dinner for other insects, spiders, birds, lizards, and mammals. In our garden, we’ve seen ants carrying little caterpillars away; raccoons and birds pluck them off.
GRWR: Did you encounter any obstacles trying to sell this book?
CVZ: It took me a while to figure out how to write it. I tried it in prose and verse, in fiction and nonfiction. The version that ended up working best was a short rhyming poem with facts in sidebars and in the backmatter.
An earlier version of this manuscript won first place at SCBWI-LA’s 2021 Writers Day and also earned me the annual Sue Alexander Grant. Even so, when the manuscript went out on submissions, some publishers passed stating they already had a monarch book on their list and they didn’t want to compete against their own products.
GRWR: So it sounds like butterfly books are considered evergreens like dinosaur, alphabet, or things-that-go books?
CVZ: Yes they are, so both my area of focus for the story and how I presented the text had to come from a fresh angle. I’m passionate about trying to help the monarchs. The western monarch’s population went from 4.5 million in the 1980s to fewer than 2000 butterflies in 2020. The just-in 2023 count shows the population is still ~95% down.
Monarchs need milkweed because that’s the only plant their caterpillars can eat; that became my focus, how the milkweed plant is essential for this insect’s survival. Milkweed plants are also amazing: they get eaten down to nothing and keep regrowing. I welcome munched-on plants in my yard because that means insects are being sustained through their life cycle which, in turn, benefits the larger food web.
GRWR: As picture book writers we’re often told not to write in rhyme unless it is extremely well executed. Was that a problem you encountered?
CVZ: I actually didn’t but I also feel my rhyme was solid by the time we sent it out on submissions because I’d applied the various checks such as scansion. However, writing in rhyme makes revisions much harder because each round with the publisher meant not just updating the text but also redoing the rhyme. Sometimes I had to scrap stanzas and write new ones.
And rhyming books have limitations because they are not as likely to be translated into a foreign language since so much more is involved in translating poetry, though it does happen. With my first book, A Brief History of Underpants—which was written in prose—a Korean-language translation came out not long after it was published. I’d love for Milkweed for Monarchs to be translated, especially into Spanish since many monarch butterflies overwinter in Mexico’s mountains and the butterflies have been part of Mexican culture for generations. Also because the gorgeous illustrations are by Alejandra Barajas who is from Mexico.
GRWR: While the main text of the book is a short poem, the facts in the sidebar and backmatter are in prose, right?
CVZ: Yes, and that meant switching my brain back and forth as we worked through the various drafts!
GRWR: How did you do that?
CVZ: I would read through one pass focusing only on the poem, then on another pass, I’d work on the facts.
GRWR: Beyond being a gardener, are you involved with monarchs in other ways?
CVZ: We’ve had our garden designated a sanctuary which basically means that we promise to garden without pesticides, providing a certain number and variety of different kinds of milkweed plants including native ones, and also providing nectaring plants for the butterflies and other pollinators.
Beyond that, I’ve applied for and been granted free plants for a local LAUSD inner-city school and started their butterfly garden. I’ve also volunteered for Xerces for several years now, helping count the butterflies overwintering along the Southern California coast, and uploading that data to their central database.
GRWR: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
CVZ: I hope my book imparts a sense of wonder and a feeling of hopefulness. It doesn’t take much to make a difference whether for the monarchs or for other creatures in our world.
GRWR: Thank you, Christine, for sharing your amazing experience with us today. I’ve learned so much!
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FOLLOW ON SOCIAL MEDIA:
•Christine Van Zandt
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•Publisher – Beaming Books
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Christine Van Zandt is an editor, writer, and award-winning author. Her nonfiction picture books include A Brief History of Underpants (becker&mayer! kids, 2021) and, Milkweed for Monarchs (Beaming Books, 2024). She lives in Los Angeles, California, with her family. You can find her at www.ChristineVanZandt.com.