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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - January Interview with STEAM Team 2020 members

Today I have the pleasure to introduce you to four authors from the STEAM Team 2020 - who joined together to celebrate and help promote their books releasing this year. I do hope you enjoy this peek at some great books and fascinating creatives.

"STEAM Team 2020 is a group of authors who have a Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math book releasing in 2020. It includes fiction & nonfiction, as well as trade & educational books.”

Welcome everyone,

Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write? What drew you to STEAM books?...)

Lisa Amstutz - Amazing Amphibians: 30 Activities and Observations for Exploring Frogs, Toads, Salamanders, and More (1/7/20). I’ve been writing since 2005 but didn’t venture into children’s books until 2009. I’m an ecologist by training, so writing STEAM books was a natural fit for me. I’m drawn to the beauty and wonder of nature and love sharing that with others.

[Author of – 109 books, including: Finding a Dove for Gramps (2018), Applesauce Day (2017), Bringing Back Our Freshwater Lakes (Conservation Success Stories) (2017), Mammals (My First Animal Kingdom Encyclopedias) (2017), Spiders (Little Critters) (2017), Airplanes (Focus Readers: How It Works: Navigator Level) (2017), Diwali (Holidays Around the World) (2017), The Ultimate Guide to Gardening: Grow Your Own Indoor, Vegetable, Fairy, and Other Great Gardens (Craft It Yourself) (2016), Earthworms (Little Critters) (2016), Blue Jays (Backyard Birds) (2016), Discover Cryobiology (Searchlight Books ™ ― What's Cool about Science?) (2016), Cardinals (Backyard Birds) (2015), Robins (Backyard Birds) (2015), & The Titanic (Digging Up the Past) (2014).]

Michelle Lord The Mess That We Made (1/1/20) & Patricia’s Vision: The Doctor Who Saved Sight (1/7/2020) I began studying and writing picture books when my three children were little ones because I admired the combination of text and art in the book I read them. My first book, Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin, was published in 2006. I usually write on the sofa hunched over my laptop and wonder why my back always hurts. I try to read or write for several hours every day on weekdays.

I love true stories. My favorite type of book to write is a picture book biography because I adore learning about people. I’m in awe of people’s inner strength during tough times. Courage. Perseverance. Bravery. As one of three sisters and mother to two daughters, I’m especially interested in girl power. PS. Boys rock too. I’ve been drawn to STEAM from childhood. As a kid, I often caught ants from my backyard and put them in jars. I woke up in the morning to a multitude of tunnels—wow! How did they work so quickly? I was also interested in blood, and guts, and everything about the human body. Why are veins blue? How many bones in the human body? My grade school science fair entry, The Eye, included a dissected cow eyeball. Can cows see in color? I had so many questions as a child and I still do.

[Author of - 7 books, including A Girl Named Genghis Khan (2019), A Song for Cambodia (2015), Animal School: What Class Are You (2014), & The Quick Quarterback (2012), Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin (2006).]

Marie-Therese Miller Dealing With Psychotic Disorders (Dealing With Mental Disorders) (1/1/20) I am an English teacher at Marist College and have five adult children and a grandson. I started writing 20 years ago. I have a home office, but I can usually be found, pen in hand, hunched over a notebook on my bed-- books and articles strewn around my floor. I enjoy all aspects of creating nonfiction books for kids, from the research and interviews to the writing and editing. I write about all sorts of topics, but my most recent books have been focused on social science subjects. My undergraduate degree is in psychology and all things psychological still interest me.

[Author of - 10 books, including How to Deal Feeling Good About You (2019), How to Deal Understanding Friendship (2019), Racing and Lure Coursing Dogs (Canine Athletes) (2018), Rachel Carson (2011), & Dog Tales Series - Distinguished Dogs/ Search and Rescue Dogs/Police Dogs/Helping Dogs/Hunting & Herding Dogs (2007). ]

Nancy Castaldo - The Story of Seeds: Our Food is in Crisis. What Will You Do To Protect It? (1/14/20). I’ve been writing books about our planet for over 20 years. I studied biology and chemistry in college and later in grad school, children’s literature. I consider myself as an environmental educator who writes. My goal is to inform, inspire, and empower my readers with each book. STEAM subjects allow me to share my passion and who I am -- a nerdy naturalist -- with readers.

[Author of – 21 books, including DK Life Stories: Ada Lovelace (2019), Back from the Brink: Saving Animals from Extinction (2018), Sniffer Dogs: How Dogs (and Their Noses) Save the World (2017), Beastly Brains: Exploring How Animals Think, Talk, and Feel (2017), School of Dragons #2: Greatest Inventions (DreamWorks Dragons) (2016), The Race Around the World (Totally True Adventures): How Nellie Bly Chased an Impossible Dream (2015), This or That? 3: Even More Wacky Choices to Reveal the Hidden You (National Geographic Kids) (2015), & National Geographic Kids Mission: Polar Bear Rescue: All About Polar Bears and How to Save Them (2014.]

Although the route and timing differ, it definitely appears you all are nature/science nerds at heart. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

Lisa Amstutz – I lived in Guam for two years as a kid. It definitely broadened my world. I loved exploring the jungle, snorkeling, and trying to crack coconuts with my brother. I did NOT love the typhoons and ensuing power outages! [What an amazing opportunity!]

Michelle Lord – I excelled in math. In 7th grade the school counselor suggested I enroll in the advanced algebra class. Being shy, I sat in the last row. When the teacher wrote on the chalkboard, it looked to me like he used invisible ink. Nothing. I knew if I raised my hand and spoke up, everyone would stare at me. So, when the teacher asked if anyone had questions, I slid further down in my seat. As the months passed, I became more lost in this math that used letters. Then report cards came out, my parents met the teacher, and I was moved to the front of the class. I still couldn’t see anything. Guess what? I needed glasses! I passed the class, but I’m still learning lessons about speaking up for myself and not seeking invisibility. [You are in good company.]

Marie-Therese Miller – For most of my life, I have eaten Jif peanut butter on crackers for lunch every day. [That's a new one!]

Nancy Castaldo - Although I love traveling around the world, I’m obsessed with visiting America’s National Parks. Each one of us has a stake in these extraordinary places. It’s where we can see science happening up close and marvel at the beauty, history, and wildness of our country. I visited ten last year, including Rocky Mt. NP, Isle Royale NP, Grand Canyon NP, and Saguaro NP! [I have the Eastern NPs left to be able to check of all the parks. One of these days!]

Now that we know a little more about all of you, tell us what inspired you to write your story?

Lisa AmstutzAmazing Amphibians: 30 Activities and Observations for Exploring Frogs, Toads, Salamanders, and More (1/7/20). I’ve always found amphibians fascinating, but in recent years have become more aware of the perils they face. Pollutants, habitat loss, climate change, and a deadly fungus threaten the very existence of many species. I hope that this book will help to raise awareness not only of these threats, but also of the reasons we need to value and protect amphibian populations.

Michelle Lord The Mess That We Made (1/1/20) & Patricia’s Vision: The Doctor Who Saved Sight (1/7/2020) Seeing news stories about the devastation of ocean pollution, especially plastic, on turtles, seabirds, and other marine animals broke my heart. I wondered; how can I make a difference? I hope my new book shows children that they can make small changes for good.

I was inspired to write Patricia’s Vision: The Doctor Who Saved Sight after my mother was diagnosed with cataracts and scheduled for surgery. I had never heard of Dr. Patricia Bath. She invented the Laserphaco Probe and technique for laser cataract treatment. I found it fascinating that what is a common medical procedure today, was merely the spark of an idea over three decades ago. Ophthalmologists around the world have restored sight to multitudes—all because this groundbreaking inventor never listened to the word, “impossible!” Dr. Bath was the first female African American doctor to receive a medical patent. She said, “I was paid less, marginalized, and debited for my credits, but I kept my eyes on the prize.” She had a passion for helping people, especially those in need. Everyone should know her inspiring story!

Marie-Therese MillerDealing With Psychotic Disorders (Dealing With Mental Disorders) (1/1/20) My dad was a clinical psychologist who worked in a psychiatric hospital in the late 1950s, when those diagnosed with psychotic disorders had poor prognoses and long hospitalizations. He was heartened when the new treatments offered more positive outcomes. His experiences inspired me to write about the history of psychotic disorders, the impacts on diagnosed individuals, and the cutting-edge therapies available.

Nancy Castaldo - The Story of Seeds: Our Food is in Crisis. What Will You Do To Protect It? (1/14/20). I started researching The Story of Seeds around 2008 when my daughter worked for a local farm store. Up until that time, I focused on endangered animals, not endangered crops. Once I realized the crisis at hand, I had to explore it further. It impacts not only our food security, but also our national security.

Thank you all for sharing your very personal connections to these books. Who was a favorite/special author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

Lisa Amstutz – I was blessed to have parents who read to me—a lot. Two of my early favorites were The Snowy Day (Ezra Jack Keats) and Richard Scarry’s Best Storybook Ever. Once I learned to read, I read everything I could get my hands on. I particularly loved mysteries—Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, etc.

Michelle Lord – I couldn’t wait for my 2nd grade teacher to read aloud our daily allotment of Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. This story of true friendship and sacrifice touched my heart. This was the first time I experienced deep feelings from the words in a book. Surprise. Anger. Sadness. Despite sitting crossed-legged on the floor in the midst of my class, I could not stop the trickle of tears when Charlotte died. I still adore this book!

Marie-Therese Miller – I had so many, but E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web was a favorite of mine. Serendipitously, White became a research subject of mine when I wrote my dissertation about his best friend and colleague at The New Yorker, James Thurber.

Nancy Castaldo – I had a favorite book as a toddler titled, What Shall I Put In The Hole That I Dig? Clearly, I loved nonfiction and seeds at an early age. Some things stick with you throughout your life.

These are all such beloved books. Thanks Nancy for sharing one I was unfamiliar with. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about your book ?

Lisa Amstutz - Amazing Amphibians: 30 Activities and Observations for Exploring Frogs, Toads, Salamanders, and More (1/7/20). This book – and others in the series – are packed with information as well as activities for kids to explore. They are great resources for teachers and homeschoolers as well as amphibian lovers young and old!

Michelle Lord The Mess That We Made (1/1/20) - You can make a positive change in your world!

Patricia’s Vision: The Doctor Who Saved Sight (1/7/2020) - Dr. Bath was a remarkable woman who followed her heart. As a girl, she had never met a female doctor, yet she knew she wanted to become one. She didn’t let the opinions of others determine her path in life. "Do not allow your mind to be imprisoned by majority thinking,” she said. “When I encountered discrimination, I stayed focused on my goal and worked to outsmart the racism I faced…” I hope Dr. Bath’s accomplishments inspire young readers to persevere with their own goals in their own lives.

Marie-Therese MillerDealing With Psychotic Disorders (Dealing With Mental Disorders) (1/1/20) I’m hoping that readers of the book come away with an understanding of psychotic disorders and empathy for those who are diagnosed.

Nancy Castaldo - The Story of Seeds: Our Food is in Crisis. What Will You Do To Protect It? (1/14/20). When the hardbound edition of this book released in 2016, it was a Junior Library Guild Selection, NSTA Outstanding Trade Science Trade Book, a Sigurd F. Olsen Nature Writing Notable title, and was listed by Nonfiction Detectives as a Best Book of 2016. It also received the Green Earth Book Award for YA Nonfiction. I am so very happy that it will be more accessible to readers now as a paperback.

Teachers can download an accompanying curriculum guide from my website. (

I love how each of your books highlights a way that kids can make a difference in the world; either through their actions or by following their hearts. What was the hardest, or most challenging, part of writing, or researching, your book?

Lisa Amstutz - Amazing Amphibians: 30 Activities and Observations for Exploring Frogs, Toads, Salamanders, and More (1/7/20). The hardest part of this book was the photo research. Many of the animals in this book are hard to photograph—they are shy, live underground, or are endangered. It was difficult to find good-quality photos to illustrate some of the topics I wanted to highlight.

Michelle LordThe Mess That We Made (1/1/20) - The most challenging part was the trying not to overwhelm kids with the negativity of this important information. Julia Blattman created beautiful illustrations to add balance to the text and offer a sense of wonder in the greatness of the ocean. My goal is for young readers to find The Mess That We Made informative, accessible, and encouraging.

With Patricia’s Vision: The Doctor Who Saved Sight (1/7/2020), the benefit and the challenge in writing it was working with a living subject. Of course, I enjoyed interviewing Dr. Bath and asked her way too many questions—she even said so! She said she had never given so many interviews to one person before. Narrowing the focus of a grand life into the limited format of a picture book of approximately 1000 words proved challenging. Sadly, Dr. Bath passed away before she saw Alleanna Harris’ wonderful illustrations or the final book.

Marie-Therese MillerDealing With Psychotic Disorders (Dealing With Mental Disorders)(1/1/20) Well, the neurobiology was a bit tricky to grasp. But the most difficult part was reading about and interviewing those touched by psychotic disorder. Their real-life challenges with delusion and hallucination are sobering. On the other hand, their resilience is inspiring.

Nancy Castaldo - The Story of Seeds: Our Food is in Crisis. What Will You Do To Protect It? (1/14/20). One of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of writing and photographing The Story of Seeds was the travel and research involved. I spent time at Russia’s seed bank in St. Petersburg in the middle of winter. It gave me a valuable perspective I needed. I also was in communication with a seed scientist in Iraq.

Each book seems to have presented its own interesting and unique challenges. Perhaps that's part of what keeps you all writing STEAM books. Are there any upcoming projects that you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

Lisa Amstutz - My next book will be released this fall. Plants Fight Back is a humorous, rhyming take on plant defense mechanisms, illustrated by the amazing Rebecca Evans. I’ll have another announcement coming soon! [Nice!]

Michelle Lord –I’m currently working on a story about a man who turned garbage into greenspace. Several phone calls later, I’m still seeking that elusive interview. [This will be fascinating.]

Marie-Therese Miller – I am grateful and thrilled to be working with the editors at Lerner Publications on a series of social-emotional learning books for young readers. Four of the selections are slated for August publication. [We'll need to keep our eyes open for these.]

Nancy Castaldo – I have another book releasing in May about farming and sustainability – The Farm That Feeds Us. This gorgeous picture book, illustrated by Ginnie Hsu, introduces younger readers to the workings of a sustainable farm through the year. I can’t wait to share it with readers this spring. [I'm definitely sensing a theme here!]

These all sound like fun books to watch out for. If you could meet anyone (real or literary), who would that be?

Lisa Amstutz - Hmm. As far as literary figures, I think Jo March from Little Women would be fun to meet, and I’d love to give Winnie-the-Pooh a squeeze. Authors I’d like to meet (living or dead) include Wendell Berry, Rachel Carson, and Madeleine L’Engle.

Michelle Lord – I would like to meet Eleanor Roosevelt because she championed human rights for all, Michelle Obama to gain strategies from her “when they go low, we go high” motto, and especially my grandmother who died from complications of rheumatoid arthritis before I was born. People who knew her tell me that she was the most amazing human being they had ever met.

Marie-Therese Miller – Winnie-the-Pooh. I believe I could benefit from his insightful bear philosophy, while we share some honey and Jif.

Nancy Castaldo – Rachel Carson.

That's 2 votes for both Pooh & Rachel Carson. I don't know about you, but I think this would be a truly fascinating lunch to attend! What is your favorite animal? Or one you are enamored with right now. Why?

Lisa Amstutz - I’ve always loved watching birds and keeping lists of the species I’ve seen. My recent book Finding a Dove for Gramps grew out of this hobby. In the amphibian realm, I’d have to say the poison dart frogs are my favorites – they are so colorful!

Michelle Lord – Hmmm. Dogs are my favorite animal because of their friendship, loyalty and unconditional love. One of my dogs passed away a few months ago, but she’ll live in my heart forever.

Right now, I’m enthralled by hummingbirds. I enjoy watching these energetic birds flit from flower to flower around my deck. I can’t help but smile when they dive-bomb others who dare approach their feeder with a KWEE, CHIK, CHIK. Huge character bundled in a tiny package.

Marie-Therese Miller – I am definitely a dog person. As a child, I badgered my mother relentlessly for ten years to let me have a dog. She finally acquiesced, and I have had dogs since. I even wrote six nonfiction books about dogs.

Nancy Castaldo – How can I pick a favorite? I’ve spent time writing and being with so many. I can tell you that I am a huge fan of certain predators – wolves, coyotes, hawks, and owls. My expertise as a naturalist, however, is in herps. I know and love all of them. Herps are amphibians and reptiles. You can find many photographed in the pages of my books and on my Instagram account.

NOW, let me introduce you to some amazing STEAM books that have been released this month!

Synopsis: Amazing Amphibians explores the major amphibian groups—frogs, salamanders, and caecilians—including their anatomy, behavior, and conservation needs. Young nature enthusiasts will learn about slime, venom, hibernation, and much more in this full-color overview of amphibian life history. Amazing Amphibians highlights a number of high-interest species through thirty fun, hands-on activities. Readers will learn about various characteristics of amphibians, like egg-laying, metamorphosis, and ectothermy, along with facts about their diet, habitat, behaviors, and more. This useful resource includes a glossary of scientific terms, a guide to understanding amphibian orders, and a teacher's guide to initiate classroom discussion.

"Each chapter has activities: searching out and identifying amphibians in one's area, playing games (LeapFrog, the Camouflage Game, and making Frog Slime), writing amphibian haikus, or crafting a letter to a scientist. All the activities are fairly simple; most can be accomplished without much adult supervision." ~ SLJ

Synopsis: The Mess That We Made explores the environmental impact of trash and plastic on the ocean and marine life, and it inspires kids to do their part to combat pollution. Simple, rhythmic wording builds to a crescendo ("This is the mess that we made. These are the fish that swim in the mess that we made.") and the vibrant digital artwork captures the disaster that is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Children can imagine themselves as one of the four multi-ethnic occupants of the little boat surrounded by swirling plastic in the middle of the ocean, witnessing the cycle of destruction and the harm it causes to plants, animals, and humans. The first half of the book portrays the growing magnitude of the issue, and the second half rallies children and adults to make the necessary changes to save our oceans. Facts about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, ocean pollution, and how kids can help are included in the back matter.

Using the rhyme and meter of "The House That Jack Built," the book explores the harm done by plastic waste in the oceans and overflowing landfills and then offers suggested solutions to remedy the problem.

Synopsis: Born in the 1940s, Patricia Bath dreamed of being an ophthalmologist at a time when becoming a doctor wasn’t a career option for most women—especially African-American women. This empowering biography follows Dr. Bath in her quest to save and restore sight to the blind, and her decision to “choose miracles” when everyone else had given up hope. Along the way, she cofounded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, invented a specialized laser for removing cataracts, and became the first African-American woman doctor to receive a medical patent.

The strategic use of the refrain, "she saw possibility wherever she went," and direct quotations from Dr. Bath make this biography come alive and reinforce how she never gave up. She fought for herself and others for her entire life.

Synopsis: Those with psychotic disorders can see or hear things that do not exist in reality. Dealing with Psychotic Disorders explores what these disorders are like, how they affect people's lives, and today's best treatment options.

The book covers all the psychotic disorders as outlined in the American Psychiatric Association's DSM-5, such as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and delusional disorder.

Synopsis: Something as small as a seed can have a world-wide impact. As the world becomes more aware of the threats climate change, genetic modification, and deforestation have on the longevity of our natural resources, young readers must rally to preserve our food and world. Readers of Michael Pollan will thoroughly enjoy the depth and fascinatingly intricate social economy of seeds.

"This eye-opening book on the science and politics of agriculture serves as a wake-up call to readers about the fragility of something many of us take for granted: our plant-based food supply. Castaldo clearly lays out a case for the importance of plant diversity (“Seeds equal life”), presenting engaging scientific and historical information..." —Horn Book Magazine

Thank you Lisa, Michelle, Marie-Therese, and Nancy for giving us a little peek into you, your writing, and your books. Wishing you all great success.

To learn more about these writers, or to get in touch with them:

Lisa Amstutz

Michelle Lord

Marie-Therese Miller

Nancy Castaldo

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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