Top of the World: Author Steve Jenkins’s 1999 BGHB Nonfiction Award Speech

by Steve Jenkins

I’ve been working on books for children for seven years, and a few themes keep emerging. I have the feeling, often, that book ideas have chosen me, rather than the other way around. In my books, I try to present straightforward information in a context that makes sense to children. Children don’t need anyone to give them a sense of wonder; they already have that. But they do need a way to incorporate the various bits and pieces of knowledge they acquire into some logical picture of the world. For me, science provides the most elegant and satisfying way to construct this picture.

My father, who is a physicist, encouraged my early scientific exploration of the natural world. He was also a frustrated artist and supported my ongoing interest in drawing and painting. As a budding naturalist, I progressed from collecting spiders and lizards to amateur geology and chemistry. I always assumed I’d be a scientist myself. On a whim, however, I chose design as a major in college. I loved it, and I worked contentedly as a graphic designer for twenty years without thinking too much about the path that I had chosen.

I truly stumbled into making children’s books and feel incredibly lucky to have found a way to unite my early interest in science and my chosen career of creating art. But it was my editor at Houghton Mifflin, Margaret Raymo, who saw the potential in a book about Everest. I had doubts about how well collage illustration could express the visual qualities of the Himalayan environment. Margaret was confident that it could work and eventually convinced me to give it a try.

I already had a voyeuristic interest in Alpine mountaineering and had read enough harrowing accounts to consider myself a serious armchair adventurer. Approaching the subject from the perspective of a children’s book, however, was a new challenge. I got excited when I realized how many different scientific concepts could be presented in the course of a journey to a high mountain peak. Everest allowed me to introduce climate, geology, geography, continental drift, altitude, and history in a book that is both an adventure and a survival story.

Simply having the opportunity to create Top of the World was reward enough. For it to receive this kind of acknowledgment is beyond my wildest dreams. I am so grateful to all of you for supporting my humble efforts — and for caring about the way we present scientific information to children.

Steve Jenkins is the 1999 Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Book Award winner of The Top of the World: Climbing Mount Everest (Houghton). From the January/February 2000 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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