Ellie Peterson (RRHS '96) - Author
River Ridge High School alumnus and former Komachin Middle School teacher Ellie Peterson won the 2023 Washington State Book Award for Picture Books for her book, How to Hug a Pufferfish!
Peterson recently answered some questions for us about her experiences at NTPS and her new book.
How and when did you first get into writing and illustrating?
I've always loved to write and draw, but the pull of science was strong in me, and so I studied to become a science teacher - a career I'd have for the next 21 years! I took watercolor or drawing classes here and there, but my art mostly took place as doodles in the margins of my meeting agendas. However, when I had kids, I fell in love all over again with picture books. I decided to try my hand at making stories, taking courses on children's book writing and illustration, and joining the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. My first attempts were stories about child/parent relationships and were frankly not very good. I soon realized that the science concepts I was teaching middle schoolers could be learned by younger students if they were framed as entertaining non-fiction picture books with humorous illustrations, and that's where I found my "in" with the world of children's literature.
Did you have any experiences while attending North Thurston Public Schools that supported this?
I had a number of amazing teachers, but a couple who stood out for helping to shape my career path were Ms. Heinrich and Ms. Music at River Ridge High School. Ms. Heinrich taught biology in a way that made me exceptionally curious about the natural world and would later become an inspiration for how I taught science. Ms. Music was my French teacher and she set up a program for us to teach basic French phrases at a nearby elementary school. Spending time with younger students reinforced for me that I wanted to work with them in some capacity as an adult.
What was it like coming back to NTPS to teach after graduating from here?
Coming back to teach at NTPS was really like coming home! I had no intention of teaching in the same district I graduated from, but I attended a teacher's career fair at the Tacoma Dome just before graduating college and passed by the North Thurston booth. There were so many familiar and welcoming faces, happy to see me and genuinely curious about my college experience. I immediately knew I wanted to apply to work anywhere in the district! Later, I found myself sitting in the Komachin Middle School lobby, waiting for my interview and seeing Mr. Longmire (who had taught me middle school science) walk through. He paused, did a double take, and said, "It hasn't been that long, has it?" I taught science for two wonderful years at Komachin under the mentorship and guidance of Vicki Leonard before moving to Seattle and continuing my teaching career there.
How do you decide on the topics for your books? And specifically, tell us more about How to Hug a Pufferfish!
All of my books are inspired by my own experiences or the experiences of those close to me. As I mentioned earlier, a couple of my books (It's a Round, Round World! and The Reason for the Seasons) are inspired by science lessons I taught for years. School is Wherever I Am is a picture book motivated by the day to day learning experiences of my students during the pandemic. Sandcastles are Forever (May, 2024) is inspired by my own experience watching friends come and go as part of a military family. How to Hug a Pufferfish came about thanks to my daughter who, when younger, would occasionally explode at her friends after being repeatedly squeezed, carried, and tickled. Her reaction reminded me of a spiky pufferfish I had caught while fishing as a little girl. How to Hug a Pufferfish has become a gentle guide for friendships that respect physical boundaries and has become one of my most requested presentations at school visits. I was overjoyed when it won the Washington State Picture Book of the Year award and can't wait for a whole new set of young readers to find it!