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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - March 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?...)

Gillian McDunnThe Queen Bee and Me (3/20/2020) - Hello! Thanks so much for having me. I write heartfelt middle grade fiction for readers age 8-12. I have a strong interest in science (and am married to a scientist!) and love writing about the natural world. My first book, Caterpillar Summer, takes place at the beach and has a character who loves sharks. The Queen Bee and Me has two characters who are learning all kinds of things about bees. As they do, they see the connection between the bee colony’s activities and relationships and the dynamics that play out at their middle school.

[Author of – Caterpillar Summer (2019).]

Randi Miller SonenshineThe Nest That Wren Built (3/10/2020) - As a full-time middle school instructional/literacy specialist, it can sometimes be a challenge to find time to write, but I squeeze it in whenever and wherever I can, which is mostly evenings and weekends. I have an office, but I also love to write at my kitchen table, which looks out on my deck bird feeders. This is not necessarily a good approach, as I occasionally (okay, often) get distracted. I also love to write on my deck when the weather is pleasant, usually with my miniature schnauzer/writing assistant, Ella, at my feet. I’ve been writing all my life, but writing with the intent to publish for about eight years. I love writing in verse, but I also love to write prose. For the longer works I have in progress, I gravitate towards historical fiction, but for picture books, I am drawn to science and nature writing. [Debut Author]

Kourtney M. LaFavreIf Sun Could Speak (3/13/20) - I began writing with the intent of publishing in children’s literature in 2018. I try to utilize the energy from a new idea to get that first draft onto paper without delay. My office is a canvas bag that contains folders with my WIP, pens, colored pencils, and a notebook. I add notes to the folders throughout the week so that when I sit down during scheduled writing time I have something to work with. My favorite places to write are surrounded in nature, local libraries, or anywhere with a beautiful view. I write to inform and inspire. [Debut Author]

Tonya Bolden - Changing the Equation: 50+ US Black Women in STEM (3/3/2020) - I write wherever I need to. On the subway, the bus, Amtrak, an airplane if need be. When at home my preference is to write in the mornings. I began writing for periodicals in the early 1980s. My first book came out in 1990. I enjoy writing picture books as much as I enjoy writing middle grade and YA books. I love writing nonfiction and fiction alike. History is my passion. I was drawn to do a STEM/STEAM book while at work on my book Pathfinders, which includes an entry on mathematician Katherine Johnson of Hidden Figures fame. While working on that entry I became curious about other black women in STEM/STEAM.

[Author/co-author/editor of – over 40 books, including Strong Voices: Fifteen American Speeches Worth Knowing (2/2020), Saving Savannah (1/2020), We Are Not Yet Equal (2019), One Person, No Vote (YA edition) (2019), Dark Sky Rising: Reconstruction and the Dawn of Jim Crow (2019), Facing Frederick: The Life of Frederick Douglass, a Monumental American Man (2018), No Small Potatoes: Junius G. Groves and His Kingdom in Kansas (2018), Crossing Ebenezer Creek (2018), Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls (2017), How to Build a Museum: Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture (2016), Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America (2014), & Beautiful Moon (2014).]

What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

Gillian McDunn - Growing up, I had lots of animals--guinea pigs, chinchilla, finches, cat, dog, hamsters, gerbils, geckos, fish, and hermit crabs. I raised and showed guinea pigs for many years and even got a few college scholarships that way. [Scholarships for showing guinea pigs! Who knew.]

Randi Miller Sonenshine – That’s a tough one, as I’m pretty much an open book. Ha! I guess what most people don’t know is that I’m pretty competitive. Whether it’s miniature golf, Scrabble, Mahjong, or card games, my usual kind disposition takes a back seat! One other thing that some might find surprising, especially given the nature of my book, is that I used to be extremely afraid of birds. I think I can trace it back to being chased by a flock of chickens at my neighbor’s farm when I was around 8 years old. After that, I had several less than positive avian encounters! I think they could sense my fear! [Oh no! How sad.]

Kourtney M. LaFavre – Most people don’t know that I received many failing grades in high school. I went on to college and flourished in that learning environment. I graduated college with a 4.0 GPA. [I know others like that. Great message to share with kids!]

Tonya Bolden - Had I known as a young person what a cultural anthropologist is/does, I think I might have sought to become one. [I wish High School did a better job of exploring options.]

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

Gillian McDunnThe Queen Bee and Me (3/20/2020) - When I visit groups to talk about this book, I ask, “Has anyone ever had a best friend who’s sometimes nice--and sometimes not so nice?” Almost every hand goes in the air--kids and adults alike! I wanted to write about Meg, a girl who struggles with feeling loyal to her best friend, Beatrix. When Beatrix is unhappy, she gives The Freeze to Meg--but even still, Meg feels like she can’t break away. When quirky new girl Hazel moves to town, Meg is drawn to her--but Beatrix doesn’t like that one bit! As Meg and Hazel begin to work on a backyard bee project, Meg has to face her fears--and decide what kind of person and friend she wants to be.

Randi Miller SonenshineThe Nest That Wren Built (3/10/2020) - For starters, I am a HUGE bird nerd! I love watching, listening to, and photographing birds. Beyond physical appearance, each species has its own unique behavior, personality quirks, and temperament. The Carolina wren, with its sassy and bold personality wrapped up in a tiny body has always been a favorite.

One spring, several years ago, a pair of them built several nests in our garage, one in a bike helmet, another on a pile of books inside a cloth shopping bag, and one in an empty flowerpot . I became fascinated by both their audacity and their clever engineering, so I started to research, and the more I read, the more enthralled I became. Then one day, I woke up with the title in my head, so I sat down to write, and the first draft just poured out.

Kourtney M. LaFavreIf Sun Could Speak (3/13/20) - The inspiration for this book idea came from my childhood. I think I was about five or six when I first discovered that the sun doesn’t actually rise and set. I had assumed that the sun was moving up and down in the sky, because the word RISE means to move upward. That was the definition that my five-year-old self understood, and five-year-old brains are very literal.

It totally blew my mind that it was the earth’s movement that created sunrises and sunsets. And I felt upset that I was misled to believe inaccurate information. I was frustrated whenever I heard people say anything about the sun RISING. That’s where the concept of a book told from the sun’s perspective began, to clear up any misunderstandings about the sun.

Tonya Bolden - Changing the Equation: 50+ US Black Women in STEM (3/3/2020) - After my entry on Katherine Johnson in Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls piqued my curiosity about other black women in STEM/STEAM, I realized that the names and faces of black women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics aren’t widely known.

What wonderfully diverse inspirations. Who was a favorite/special author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

Gillian McDunn – My favorite books as a child were Where The Red Fern Grows and Charlotte’s Web. I loved them for their characters, language, and the relationships.

Randi Miller Sonenshine – When I was young, I loved Richard Scarry, Dr. Seuss, and the Curious George books. When I was a little older, I loved Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown, as well as Ramona books, but I would read anything, including the National Geographic magazines and vinyl-covered Funk and Wagnall’s encyclopedias that were housed in our den.

I also loved poetry, especially Edgar Allen Poe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and other poets that were probably way too deep for me at the time. My dad would read these poets aloud to me, and even if I didn’t understand everything, I was entranced by the beautiful language, imagery and musicality of those poems and awed by the genius of those poets.

Kourtney M. LaFavre – As a child my favorite authors were Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl. I read and reread their books. Instead of paying attention in school, I would daydream about becoming Matilda (by Roald Dahl). In elementary classrooms I would play out imaginary scenarios in my head and then be completely caught off guard (and mortified) if I got called on by the teacher! Some other favorites were The Little Princess, The Island of the Blue Dolphins, and The Giver.

Tonya Bolden – I LOVED Dr. Seuss books! I remember being very moved by The Yearling.

That makes a great list of amazing books. Thanks. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about your book ?

Gillian McDunn The Queen Bee and Me (3/20/2020) - Readers should know that this book is for anyone who’s ever been in a tricky friendship. Sometimes best friends are forever, and sometimes they’re not--but it’s important to find your own voice and to do what you feel is right.

[All this, while interweaving facts about bees and their hives into each chapter.]

Randi Miller Sonenshine The Nest That Wren Built (3/10/2020) - I am so smitten with Anne Hunter’s illustrations. The soft, earthy hues and textures fit the text so perfectly! She’s a master of detail. Every time I read the book; I discover something new. She created a fascinating parallel narrative through the cleverly camouflaged critters on each spread; one unfortunate beetle ends up dinner, while two lucky mice have their patience rewarded. She even hid an ant on every page! [Can you find them?]

We are both excited that the book is a Junior Library Guild selection and that it received a starred review from Kirkus.

Kourtney M. LaFavreIf Sun Could Speak (3/13/20) - As a former elementary teacher, I’m very excited about how this book can be used as a teaching tool. It’s jam packed with not only science information, but history and myths as well.

I hope that the biggest take away from If Sun Could Speak is to plant the seed that there are remarkable things happening all around us. I hope that it encourages readers to look around and ask themselves, “Why is this happening? How did it come to be?” The search for truth never ends as long as you keep seeking. Science isn’t just what you know, it’s also a way to think. So, while this book can be used as a tool to teach facts about science, history, and myths, it’s also a catalyst for scientific thinking. [All done from the Sun's unique point of view.]

There will be a downloadable educator’s guide and Pinterest board available on my website. If Sun Could Speak provides opportunities to connect with the Disciplinary Core Idea of Next Generation Science Standards for grade K-4 including earth’s systems, earth’s place in the universe, and energy.

Tonya Bolden - Changing the Equation: 50+ US Black Women in STEM (3/3/2020) - The book is upbeat. It offers profiles of women in a range of fields, including chemical, industrial, mechanical, biomedical, and aerospace engineering. There’s a veterinarian microbiologist, a geneticist, a roboticist, and a video game developer. And I take a broad view of STEM/STEAM.

As I say in the book, in an overview of technology I wouldn’t start with the mainframe computer (and omit the wheel and the Gutenberg press). That’s why Changing the Equation begins with Dr. Rebecca Crumpler. She earned her MD in 1864—a year before slavery was abolished in America, four years before black people had citizenship, six years before black men had the right to the national vote, and fifty-six years before America’s women had that right too. [What a great collection of women who really pushed the boundaries.]

So, what was the hardest, or most challenging, part of writing or researching your book?

Gillian McDunnThe Queen Bee and Me (3/20/2020) - The book is divided into parts, and each begins with an excerpt from the bee project that Meg and Hazel are working on together. All the facts are true! Each passage also connects thematically with the section. For example, one excerpt discusses Queen Mandibular Pheremone (QMP), which marks all members of the colony with a special smell. Anyone who doesn’t have this special mark of “belonging” will be harmed by the other bees. This excerpt is linked to the section when Hazel has her first day at the middle school.

It took a lot of work to apply my research in this way, and I love the way it came out.

Randi Miller Sonenshine The Nest That Wren Built (3/10/2020) - The biggest challenge was "weaving" in the scientific details, without sounding like a textbook, disrupting the flow of the verse, or making the text too complex or inaccessible for young readers, while still using accurate science vocabulary that would inspire curiosity and inquiry. As an educator and parent, I wanted it to stand alone as a beautiful read aloud, but also provide those teachable moments. To that end, I used the scientific terminology, but included a glossary (which is partially illustrated) and additional facts in the back matter.

Kourtney M. LaFavreIf Sun Could Speak (3/13/20) - Some of the most interesting things I learned while researching for this book were the different myths from other cultures about how the sun came to be. The most challenging was trying to take such large ideas and put them into words in a way that would make the ideas accessible to children. I enjoyed reading and learning about some of the people throughout history whose ideas influenced what we think and know about the sun.

Tonya Bolden - Changing the Equation: 50+ US Black Women in STEM (3/3/2020) - My last study of anything STEM/STEAM-related was Engineering 101 in college—decades ago. I had A LOT of learning to do. Fortunately, several of the women in the book were good enough to review their entries. Also, I reached out to fellow writer and science maven Jennifer Swanson for assists with some things and she was extremely helpful.

Even though your books are very different, sounds like the challenge to naturally and appropriately incorporate science required significant work. Any upcoming projects that you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

Gillian McDunn - These Unlucky Stars will be published in 2021 with Bloomsbury. When a game of Ding Dong Ditch goes wrong, Annie is saddled with the responsibility of caring for the badly behaved dog of her cantankerous neighbor. But as Annie overcomes her fears, she learns that sometimes friendship—and luck—is what you make of it. [Sounds fascinating. I'll keep my eyes open for it.]

Randi Miller Sonenshine – I have a middle grades historical fiction I started several years ago that has been calling to me a lot lately, but I have a few picture book manuscripts that need revision before sending out on submission. Both are in verse and have strong nature/science themes. I also have some very exciting news, but it’s a little too early to share yet. Sorry to tease but stay tuned! [Interesting. Can't wait to hear your news!]

Kourtney M. LaFavre – I’m currently working on an original folktale, a silly sheep story, a story to promote mindfulness, and a nonfiction ocean book. I’m also seeking literary representation for my work. [That's a great range of topics! Good luck on your hunt.]

Tonya Bolden - I am at work on a biography of an amazing female attorney and on one of trailblazing female politician. [Exciting. We'll have to keep our eyes peeled.]

Time for a fun question - if you could meet anyone (real or literary), who would that be?

Gillian McDunn - I always love meeting writers! Right now, it would be a three-way tie between Kate DiCamillo, J.K. Rowling, and Rebecca Stead. [Three amazing authors.]

Randi Miller Sonenshine – I’d love to have a tea party with Jane Austen, Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Maurice Sendak, and Shel Silverstein...quite an eclectic bunch, but wouldn’t that be something? [That would be such a cool party to attend!]

Kourtney M. LaFavre – I always find these kinds of questions difficult because my mind gets flooded with possibilities. I would love the opportunity to meet my great-great grandparents and those who came before them. It would be incredible to tell my children the personal stories of how their ancestors made their way here from Italy, Ireland, and Lebanon. What was their life like? Why did they leave their homes? What were they hoping for? Being able to connect with our past is powerful and what a gift to leave behind for those that are yet to come. [That would be wonderful.]

Tonya Bolden - Reporter April Ryan, historian Eric Foner, and Nick Pavonetti, producer of This Is Us. [That would be a fascinating group.]

What is your favorite animal? Or one you are enamored with right now. Why?

Gillian McDunn - Besides my dog, Friday (who is my *favorite* favorite animal), I would have to go with sea otter. They are just the cutest!

Randi Miller Sonenshine – Birds, of course! However, I’m fascinated by possums (or opossums, depending upon where you live) and vultures (still birds, I know). They are such intriguing, misunderstood underdogs that contribute to our environment in surprising and important ways. I’d love to write a book about them.

Kourtney M. LaFavre – I am fond of most animals, but my favorites and cats and birds. We’ve had free range chickens; each have their own personalities and they are a lot of fun to be around.

This month, the birds win - sorry Friday. NOW, let me take a moment to introduce you to these amazing STEAM books!

Synopsis: Meg has always found comfort in her best friend Beatrix's shadow. Self-assured Beatrix is the one who makes decisions, and the girls have been a pair since kindergarten. But middle school has brought some changes in Beatrix, especially when Meg tries to step outside her role as sidekick.

A special science elective is Meg's first step away, but when she's paired with quirky new girl Hazel, Beatrix steps in to stake her claim on Meg. Meg is taken aback at how mean Beatrix can be--and how difficult it is to stand up to her friend. But as Meg gets to know Hazel while working on their backyard beehive project, she starts to wonder: Is being Beatrix's friend worth turning down the possibility of finding her own voice?

This pitch-perfect exploration of middle-school friendship dynamics brims with heart and hope, and will resonate with readers of all ages.

Although this fiction novel involves the exploration of the social and emotional dynamics of middle school, Gillian McDunn weaves science throught the book as Meg and Hazel learn about bees and their social structure, while completing a backyard beehive project.

Synopsis: In the rhyming style of “The House That Jack Built,” this poem about the care and specificity that Carolina wrens put into building a nest is at once tender and true to life. Papa and Mama Wren gather treasures of the forest, from soft moss for a lining to snakeskin for warding off predators.

Randi Sonenshine’s lilting stanzas, woven with accurate and unexpected details about Carolina wrens, and Anne Hunter’s gentle, inviting illustrations reveal the mysterious lives of these birds and impart an appreciation for the wonder of the life cycles around us.

Back matter includes a glossary and additional interesting facts about wrens.

Modifying the structure of the familiar rhyme The House That Jack Built, in a way more akin to Susanna Leonard Hill's The Road that Trucks Built (i.e. not entirely cumulative), Randi Sonenshine merely repeats the line - "the nest that Wren built" - in each rhyming stanza. Fun facts and enchanting phrases ("softer than suede," "persnickety burr," & "scrawny and thin") accompany gorgeous, earth-toned illustrations of wrens building a nest and raising their young. It's a book that will be enjoyed over multiple reads.

Synopsis: Sun is out to impress in this slightly egotistical first-person account that sheds light on the facts, history, and myths about its existence. Sun seeks to inspire readers to wonder and search for discoveries in this witty STEM-infused exploration of the center of our solar system.

Packed to the gills, this informational fiction is told in the whimsical first-person point of view. While the sun endeavors to impress the reader and attain the status of our "most important star," the text and illustrations provide the reader with interstellar, planetary, and historical facts. Much of it is tongue-and-cheek. At one point, the personified planets all participate in a "circumstellar ballet," while demonstrating their positions around the sun. After briefly exploring myths and former scientists, the sun asks kids - "What will you discover? What will you learn?" It's a fun book to read or use as an introduction to the role of the sun in our oslar system.

Synopsis: Award-winning author Tonya Bolden explores the black women who have changed the world of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in America. Including groundbreaking computer scientists, doctors, inventors, physicists, pharmacists, mathematicians, aviators, and many more, this book celebrates more than 50 women who have shattered the glass ceiling, defied racial discrimination, and pioneered in their fields.

In these profiles, young readers will find role models, inspirations, and maybe even reasons to be the STEM leaders of tomorrow. These stories help young readers to dream big and stay curious. The book includes endnotes, a bibliography, and an index.

Divided into chapters - "Vanguard," (1864-1900) "Riding the Wave," (1900-1950) and "Onward" (from 1950), this book celebrates an amazing collection of women who've proven that black women are not only capable, but skilled, at science, technology, engineering, and math. Energetic text blends the struggles and accomplishments of each woman with historic events and cultural milestones. Making it valuable for social studies evaluations as well. In addition to expected professions, Tonya Bolden highlights veterinarians, an architect, marine biologist, meteorologist, roboticist, geologist, cybersecurity professional, video game developer, and mechanic. It's a great book to inspire curiosity, creativity, and action.

Thank you Gillian, Randi, Kourtney, and Tonya for giving us a little peek into you and your books. Wishing you all great success.

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

Gillian McDunnThe Queen Bee and Me (3/20/2020)

Randi Miller SonenshineThe Nest That Wren Built (3/10/2020)

Kourtney M. LaFavreIf Sun Could Speak (3/13/20)

Tonya Bolden - Changing the Equation: 50+ US Black Women in STEM (3/3/2020)

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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