The Picture Book Buzz - April Interview with STEAM Team 2020 Authors
Today I have the pleasure to introduce you to five authors from the STEAM Team 2020, with books releasing in April. I do hope you enjoy this look at some great books and fascinating creatives.
"STEAM Team 2020 is a group of authors who have a Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math books releasing in 2020. It includes fiction & nonfiction, trade or educational books.”
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?...)
Jen Malia – Too Sticky! Sensory Issues with Autism (Albert Whitman, 4/1/2020) - I started out writing peer-reviewed literary criticism. I got my Ph.D. in English and became an assistant professor of writing at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. I’m currently an associate professor of English at Norfolk State University. It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in my late thirties that I started writing for a mainstream audience and advocating for autistic people. I’ve written autism-related essays for the New York Times, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, Woman’s Day, Glamour, and Self, among others. Too Sticky! is my debut children’s picture book about an autistic girl who has to overcome her fear of sticky hands to participate in a slime experiment at school.
Maria Gianferrari – Play Like an Animal (Millbrook Press, 4/7/2020) - I grew up in a small New Hampshire town, and nature was basically my playground. I had always wanted to write, but finally made the commitment after my daughter was born, and fell in love with children’s books all over again during our read alouds. That was long ago—she just turned 18!
I’m an animal lover, so it should come as no surprise that all of my current picture books, both fiction and nonfiction star animals as main characters, with dogs taking center stage in the fiction ones. Most of my fiction books are about the human canine bond, and loosely based on our late dog, Becca and our daughter’s bond. She has no siblings, so Becca was like her dog sister growing up.
I also love to write about nature and fascinating creatures in the natural world that inspire curiosity and wonder. I’m especially passionate about urban ecology and those creatures who live among us as our wild neighbors.
[Author of - Operation Rescue Dog (2018), Terrific Tongues (2018), Hawk Rising (2018), Hello Goodbye Dog (2017), Coyote Moon (2016), Officer Katz and Houndini (2016), and Penny & Jelly books (2015/16)]
Loree Griffin Burns– You’re Invited to a Mothball: A Nighttime Insect Celebration (Charlesbridge, 4/7/2020) - I’m a scientist and a naturalist and a writer and a mom. Each of these identities influences the books I make for young readers. I think I have the most interesting job in the world: I choose topics that are fascinating to me but that I don’t know a whole lot about, and then I dedicate all of my energy to learning about them. Sometimes this takes a year, sometimes it takes two or three years. Sometimes the research requires me to travel to faraway places, like an uninhabited island in Iceland, and sometimes I’m able to research things in my own backyard. Always, though, I’m learning new things. Always, I get to share those new things with others. I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing with my life.
[Author of – Life on Surtsey: Iceland's Upstart Island (2017), Beetle Busters: A Rogue Insect and The People Who Track It (2014), Handle with Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey (2014), Citizen Scientists: Be A Part of Scientific Discovery From Your Own Backyard (2012), The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honeybee Catastrophe (2008), and Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam and the Science of Ocean Motion (2007).]
Marta E. Magellan – Python Catchers Saving the Everglades (Pineapple Press, 4/20/2020) - I’ve been writing and being published since I took Journalism in middle school (proud editor-in-chief of the Hialeah Jr. High Stampede). My professional life since then has revolved around writing. Before I became a full-time children’s book writer, I taught Survey of Children’s Literature, Creative Writing, and Composition at Miami Dade College. I wrote magazine and newspaper articles during that time, but didn’t have as much time to dedicate to writing as I wanted.
It was my love of children, books, and nature that led me to writing children’s STEAM books. I like wild animals in their natural habitats, and that’s what I write about. Bats, pythons, and vultures aren’t everybody’s favorite animals, but I find them fascinating.
[Author of – Amazing, Misunderstood Bats (2019), Anole Invasion (2018), and The Nutty Little Vulture (2017).]
Pat Zietlow Miller – My Brother the Duck (Chronicle, 4/21/2020) - I feel like I’ve always written. As a kid, I was on my school newspaper and wrote English class essays and then was a journalist and then a magazine editor and then a corporate writer. But I started really working to be a picture book writer 11 years ago. It took me four years to sell my first book, and since then, I’ve sold 20 books.
I have a full-time day job in corporate communications, so I write evenings and weekends – usually at my messy kitchen table, often with The Food Network playing in the background and unfolded laundry stacked nearby. I have dreams of someday being a writer who works every day at a hip coffee shop where all the baristas know me, but that is NOT my reality.
[Author of – Remarkably You (2019), When You Are Brave (2019), Loretta’s Gift (2018), Wide-Awake Bear (2018), Be Kind (2018), Sophie’s Squash Goes To School (2016), Wherever You Go (2015), Sharing the Bread (2015), Quickest Kid in Clarksville (2016), and Sophie’s Squash (2013).]
What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
Jen Malia - I have a black belt in Taekwondo and competed in tournaments when I was a graduate student at the University of Southern California. I wrote an essay, “My Taekwondo Black Belt Changed My Life as an Autistic Woman” for Self Magazine.
Maria Gianferrari – 1. Like Penny, the main character from my Penny & Jelly books, I am an avid list maker. 2. I speak German and lived in Berlin for a year. 3. That I love pet rats—they make wonderful pets!
Loree Griffin Burns – I raise chickens, mostly for their eggs, but also because I love their quirky personalities and adorable noises.
Marta E. Magellan – I’m an open book. There is absolutely nothing about me that is not known by everybody who knows me.
Pat Zietlow Miller – I have a marvelous twin sister. She has her Ph.D. in math, and I’m a word geek, so we joke that we got opposite halves of the same brain.
Now that we know a little more about all of you, what inspired you to write your story?
Jen Malia – Too Sticky! Sensory Issues with Autism (4/1/2020) - Too Sticky! is based on my own and my younger daughter’s experiences living with autism and sensory issues. I wrote an essay, “My Daughter and I Were Diagnosed with Autism on the Same Day,” for the New York Times. I wanted my kids to see themselves in a book. I even named three of the characters after them. [What a special gift for them and other kids who need this mirror.]
Maria Gianferrari – Play Like an Animal (4/7/2020) - Our society seems to strive for efficiency, which causes a lot of stress. People have little time or make little time to have fun and decompress, myself included. Some people don’t have the luxury to play either, so it can be an issue of privilege.
I had been thinking a lot about all of the stresses kids face with the emphasis on testing, and then on top of that, schools were even eliminating recess for kids, thinking this too would be more efficient. So, that combined with making kindergarten more academic, to the loss of curiosity and wonder, made me think about play, and its importance on a variety of levels. Then I began to wonder myself about play, and how not just kids, but how so many animals love to play, and how adults have forgotten the importance of play.
Play is so lacking in importance that even pediatricians are prescribing it for their patients. How sad is that? I was pretty astounded to discover that there weren’t any picture books on this topic, and my book was born. Play is fun, it’s a natural stress reliever AND it is also one of the best ways to learn all kinds of things from cooperation to problem-solving to expressing creativity. And during this home-quarantining, anxiety-producing and very stressful time, there could not be a better time than to play—we need it! [Hopefully, more people have found time to play, themselves and as a family, during these past couple of weeks.]
Loree Griffin Burns – You’re Invited to a Mothball: A Nighttime Insect Celebration (4/7/2020) - A few years ago, I went to a program about moths at my local MassAudubon wildlife sanctuary. The man who taught it, naturalist Dave Small, mesmerized us with photographs of dozens and dozens of vivid and lively moths in all shapes, sizes, and color patterns. These were nothing like the drab brown moths I was used to seeing, and since Dave doesn’t live all that far from me, I asked him what I could do to see more interesting moths. He invited me to his annual summer Moth Ball and that’s where I became really, really hooked on moth-watching. I’ve never seen so many moths! And it turns out that inviting them into your yard or park or green spaces is not all that hard. I wrote this book to share that incredible knowledge with as many people as I could! [I can't wait to try this out.]
Marta E. Magellan – Python Catchers Saving the Everglades (4/20/2020) - I live in Miami, so the Everglades is practically in my back yard. I visit often, to go birding or biking there. There was a time when I saw deer in Shark Valley and river otters in the Anhinga Trail. Now when I visit, I only see alligators and wading birds. I had many questions. Where did all the mammals go? The Burmese pythons have been devouring them. What are these non-native pythons doing in the Everglades? They were brought to Florida by the pet trade. People didn’t realize how big (and expensive) they could get, and they began to set them loose. Many simply escaped. And the result has been devastating to our ecosystem. Things will only get worse. Now that the small mammals are gone, they are going for the bird and ‘gator eggs. It won’t be the Everglades as we know it unless we control the invasion. I knew that I had to teach children about the havoc exotic pets can cause and hope they would grow up to keep pets responsibly. [I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that people release exotic snakes, but I am.]
Pat Zietlow Miller – My Brother the Duck (4/21/2020) - I don’t have a clever story about how I came up with this book. It kind of came out of nowhere after I thought of the character’s name – Stella Wells. (My mathematician sister’s last name is Wells, so there’s a nod to her there.) And then, the story changed dramatically as I revised. With STEM being such a focus in schools, I was happy to make Stella a scientist and had fun reviewing the scientific process. And. I had lots of fun thinking of every duck pun possible. There’s even a shout-out to a famous children’s book about ducks worked into the text. [But that's good to know, too. It doesn't always require a flash of lightning.]
Inspiration comes from so many different sources. Who was a favorite/special author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
Jen Malia – I was selectively mute as a child, which means I normally didn’t talk much with anyone outside my close family circle. The imaginary world of books was a lot easier for me to navigate than the real world. Nancy Drew mysteries were my favorite.
Maria Gianferrari – One of my favorite picture books was called Miss Twiggley’s Tree, about a shy woman who lived in a treehouse with her dog, Puss, and some bears—my introvert dream come true!
My love of nonfiction was also evident back then. I had a well-worn copy of a book called Shark Attack that was scary and fascinating and when I was very young, I used to pore over a state dictionary that listed state birds, flowers, flags, capitals, mottos, nicknames, etc. I loved re-reading it.
I also read and re-read all of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books, and I loved Island of the Blue Dolphins. I wanted to live alone on an island with dogs. Are you sensing a theme here? At the time, I wasn’t aware of their problematic and stereotypical portraits of native characters. I wish the young me could have known and read Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark book series back then. I know the younger me would have loved it too.
Loree Griffin Burns – When I was about eleven or twelve years old, a friend of the family offered me his collection of National Geographic magazines. He had hundreds of them, and he let me take them all. For free. These magazines were my main reading material for years* afterward, and I think they heavily influenced my storytelling. When I learn about something new, I want to see it happening with my own two eyes. If I can’t be there myself, I want someone else to be there, preferably taking giant, stunning, full-color photographs to help me feel like I’m there. I’ve been SO lucky to work with Ellen Harasimowicz, a talented photographer and good friend, who helps make my books look and feel like the National Geographic masterpieces of my childhood!
* I was also obsessed with organizing these magazines, created a mini card catalog system modeled after the one at my local library. I was that kind of kid. [ Ha!]
Marta E. Magellan –After I read Little Women, I wanted to read everything by Louisa May Alcott. I read Little Men and Jo’s Boys, but didn’t like them that much. Then, I picked up Eight Cousins. That’s when I said to myself at age nine, “I want to write books like this.”
Pat Zietlow Miller – My favorite books were The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin and Bridge To Terabithia by Katherine Patterson. Both were gifts from my librarian aunt. But I read everything I could get my hands on. Everything! And, I didn’t encounter Judith Viorst’s picture books until I was in college, but … oh my! She’s my favorite picture book writer of all time, and her books totally get into the head of a kid. Everyone knows Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, but there’s also The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, I’ll Fix Anthony, and her Lulu series.
All such great books! I think I've read most of them. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about your book ?
Jen Malia – Too Sticky! Sensory Issues with Autism (4/1/2020) - I wrote Too Sticky! from the point-of-view of an autistic girl to raise awareness and acceptance for autistic females. Only 1 girl is diagnosed with ASD for every 4 boys, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A lot of girls are overlooked for an ASD diagnosis because they mask their autism by imitating the behavior of other neurotypical girls. [Interesting. I did not know that.]
Maria Gianferrari – Play Like an Animal (4/7/2020) - Not really, but I hope that it inspires all kinds of play, and makes kids happy, especially now! [These crows sure seem to be having fun!]
Loree Griffin Burns – You’re Invited to a Mothball: A Nighttime Insect Celebration (4/7/2020) - Shockingly large and stunningly beautiful moths are common, and there’s a good chance some of them are your neighbors. All it takes to see them for yourself is a little know-how and some late nights. And everything you need to know to prove this to yourself is in the book. I hope you’ll give it a try! [Sounds like a blast!]
Marta E. Magellan – Python Catchers Saving the Everglades (4/20/2020) - It really is for the younger set—four to eight-year-olds. I use two native species to tell the story of the python invasion in the Everglades—a smart wood stork and a curious marsh rabbit. The information from the wood stork is factual, and of course, there are photographs. But I wanted to make it short and light for the little ones.
There is another book on this subject for older children written by Kate Messner, but I wanted the little ones to know about this destruction of an ecosystem. By the time they’re nine or ten, some of them already own ball pythons and other exotic species (I know because they come to my presentations), but what I wanted was for children to know at a very young age that exotic animals can be devastating and are best kept to zoos and professional handlers. If they absolutely must have a non-native animal (and that includes cats), they need to know never to let it loose. By showing the results and what needs to be done to fix it (yes, the pythons need to be eliminated), children might on their own become responsible pet owners. No one wants to kill beautiful snakes, but that’s what it has come to. [What a great goal. I hope you are successful.]
Pat Zietlow Miller – My Brother the Duck (4/21/2020) - I want readers to know that research makes everything better. You can think you know something, and research can prove you wrong! Or, it can prove you right and also teach you something you didn’t know before. Looking things up in books, gathering data and talking to experts is always a good thing to do when you’re trying to find out more. But, maybe, ask more questions than Stella does in this book. [What a great way to spark curiosity and hopefully an interest in asking questions!]
So, what was the hardest, or most challenging, part of writing, or researching, your book?
Jen Malia – Too Sticky! Sensory Issues with Autism (4/1/2020) - The hardest part was learning how to write a book for kids. I had never intended to be a children’s book author. I wrote an essay, “What a Muppet with Autism Means to My Family,” for the New York Times. An illustrator introduced me to Albert Whitman editors who read my essay. They asked me if I would be interested in writing a children’s picture book with an autistic girl as the main character. I always loved science, especially as a kid, so I decided my main character, Holly, would participate in a slime experiment at school. I had trouble with sticky hands growing up, so I gave Holly this sensory issue too. But my early attempts to write a manuscript were not quite right for a young audience. Luckily, I had great critique partners and a fantastic editor and agent to help me shape the story. [I'm glad you stuck with it and created this book!]
Maria Gianferrari – Play Like an Animal (4/7/2020) - One of the challenges when writing expository nonfiction is figuring out the structure—how to impart the information, since it’s not narrative. I focused on strong, action-oriented verbs to appeal to the youngest readers and listeners and hope that it gets them to move and play and explore and create and wonder. [Making expository nonfiction fun is a great goal!]
Loree Griffin Burns – You’re Invited to a Mothball: A Nighttime Insect Celebration (4/7/2020) - Moths come out after dark, and they’ll start coming to backyard lights soon after sundown. But the most active time of night, in my experience, is actually the wee hours of the morning. I saw the most incredible moths between midnight and 1am. Which is a really hard time for someone who usually goes to bed at 9:30pm! [Though it sounds like it was worth it!]
Marta E. Magellan – Python Catchers Saving the Everglades (4/20/2020) - There is a tremendous amount of information about the python invasion, and a lot of authorities and python contractors (the "catchers") were willing to talk to me. What was for me the hardest was finding photos. Either photographers wanted to charge me $250 or more for EACH photo I wanted, OR they were free, but the resolution or quality just wasn’t there. I spent so much time online at a variety of places, and I could have spent easily another three or four months on it if there hadn't been a deadline. [Wow!]
Pat Zietlow Miller – My Brother the Duck (4/21/2020) - This book went through several revisions. At first, the main character was a detective looking for clues instead of a scientist looking for data. And, once I made the switch, I had a lot of fun researching science experiments and duck facts. Luckily, I could keep all my duck puns! [I'm so glad you made the shift.]
Are there any upcoming projects that you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
Jen Malia - I’m writing a middle-grade science fiction novel told from the point-of-view of an autistic girl. I’m also writing a book proposal for a nonfiction parenting book that’s part science writing, part memoir, and part self-help. [What great books. I'll be keeping an eye out for them.]
Maria Gianferrari – At the moment, I am between projects, but I have books coming out in the next few years on, you guessed it—dogs! To Dogs With Love is a love letter to all kinds of therapy dogs forthcoming from Macmillan, with illustrations by UK illustrator, Lucy Fleming. I’m also really excited to be partnering with Italian illustrator Felicita Sala on a book entitled, Be a Tree, forthcoming from Abrams, both in 2021. I’m also thrilled to be working with Bagram Ibatoulline again on another predator book, this time on bobcats, called Bobcat Prowling, coming in 2022, also from Macmillan. [I can't wait for these, especially since I regularly have bobcats prowling through my yard.]
Loree Griffin Burns – My next picture book, coming from Charlesbridge Publishing in spring 2022, is called Honeybee Rescue. It’s about Jon Nelson, a beekeeper who specializes in rescuing bee colonies that have built homes in places they aren’t wanted, like abandoned buildings, unused chimneys, and even the walls of homes. His breathtaking work—and Ellen’s photos of it—will completely surprise you. I can’t wait to share this one, either! [I like the unique twist to this book. Actually, rescuing bees.]
Marta E. Magellan – I’m working on several projects at once. Two biographies about two fascinating people, another book about invasive species who started out as someone’s pet, and a novel. [We'll have to keep our eyes open.]
Pat Zietlow Miller – I have a sequel to Be Kind coming out in 2021. It's called Be Strong. And in it, Tanisha -- the girl who spilled grape juice in Be Kind -- explores all the different ways there are to be strong. And, she finds quite a few. I hope this book inspires kids and adults to find their inner strength and use it to make the world a better place. Jen Hill illustrates and the book is coming from Roaring Brook. [I can hardly wait for this one!]
You all certainly have some tantalizing books on the horizon. If you could meet anyone (real or literary), who would that be?
Jen Malia - I love nineteenth-century science fiction. I’d love to talk to H.G. Wells or Jules Verne. Two of my favorite science fiction novels are The War of the Worlds and Around the World in Eighty Days. [I think that would be a lively discussion.]
Maria Gianferrari – I’d love to meet Emily Dickinson, and walk our dogs together at the sea. [Wouldn't that be fun!]
Loree Griffin Burns – Barbara Kingsolver wrote a book that changed my life (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, HarperCollins, 2007), and my fondest wish is to one day thank her by having her over for lunch and showing her around the garden (and the life) her words inspired. [I hope you get that chance.]
Pat Zietlow Miller – I’ve always wished I could have met Erma Bombeck. I read all her books when I was in middle school – even though I was hardly her target audience – and thought she was hilarious. I learned so much about how to write from reading her. And she seems like she was an awesome person. I remember seeing her appear on Johnny Carson, not because she was a model or an actress or a singer, but because she was a regular person who was funny and personable and could tell a good story. I remember thinking: “I could do that.” [She would indeed have been fun to meet.]
Last question. What is your favorite animal? Or one you are enamored with right now. Why?
Jen Malia - One of the characters in my work-in-progress is a Siberian Husky, so I’ve spent a lot of time researching this breed. When I was in Alaska, I bought one of my daughters a small stuffed Siberian Husky. She named him Alaska and still likes to carry him around. [I love huskies!]
Maria Gianferrari – It’s really hard to say—I love nature and animals and the ones I get to know more intimately while working on a project tend to be the ones I love most at the time. If I have to name one right now, I would say river otters, who are very playful and dog-like, but I also love pet rats. They’re sweet and very affectionate. I also have a rat manuscript that I’d love to see published—any rat/rodent-loving editors out there? [Does anyone know of a rat-loving editor?]
Loree Griffin Burns – MOTHS! (Duh.) Because they are secretive … but also surprisingly observable. [I should have guessed!]
Marta E. Magellan – I like all wild animals. Nothing is as thrilling as seeing animals in their natural environment. I keep bird feeders outside my window and I love birdwatching. [It is both restful and energizing to watch birds.]
Pat Zietlow Miller – Cats. I’m a total writer stereotype. I have two cats, and I love all cats. I love cat pictures and cat videos and bookstores with cats. Cats for the win! [You are my cat's new favorite author!]
NOW, let me take a moment to introduce you to these amazing STEAM books!
Synopsis: Holly loves doing experiments and learning new things in science class! But when she finds out the next experience is making slime, she's worried. Slime is made with glue, and glue is sticky. Holly has sensory issues because of her autism and doesn't like anything sticky! With help from family and her teacher, Holly receives the accommodations and encouragement she needs to give slime a try.
This is a needed mirror (and window) into an aspect of autism and sensory issues. It offers some ways in which friends, family, and teachers can understand and help support individuals like Holly. It includes an author's note (with real-life autism and sensory experiences) and a recipe for slime.
Synopsis: Dash! Hide! Splash! Ride! Exuberant text celebrates all the different ways animals play, from rhinos taking mud baths and parrots somersaulting through the air to kangaroos boxing and dolphins diving through the surf. Additional text explains how playing benefits animals. Fascinating back matter gives more information about the featured animals in the book and encourages readers to make time to play every day!
Employing great verbs - plonk, chase, slide and glide, dunk and punch, and bound and wrestle - this book encourages kids to play, just like the animals. A wonderful book showing how playing makes you smarter and ready to face challenges. Sidebars and back matter expand on the the animals and how they play.
Synopsis: Kids are usually asleep when moths come out at night. But discovering the diverse moth population is simple--stay up late and set up a party for moths! Nature centers and museums host events called moth balls each summer, but kids can create their own right at home. Captivating photographs show how to lure in moths to study them. Direct address to the reader shows kids the magic of science found at home.
This is a great book for anyone wanting to do a little citizen science or a science project with months, as well as for anyone without a yard who wants to vicariously experience the joy of a late-night observation of moths.
Synopsis: Invasive Pythons have become a serious issue in Florida in recent years, and as told through the eyes of a clever wood stork and curious marsh rabbit in this illustrated volume for children, the plight of native species and their habitats comes alive for younger readers. An easy-to-read, colorful, and entertaining natural history, Python Catchers offers detailed information on the various python species, the risks they pose to other animals, and a lively story to inspire young conservationists. Information on what readers can do to prevent the introduction of invasive species, the laws about exotic pets, a comprehensive glossary, and a list of resources are also included.
Set against the beautiful photographs of the Florida Everglades, an animated stork and rabbit introduce the readers to the problem and solution of escaped pythons. Packed with information and extensive backmatter this is a great informational fiction STEM book.
Synopsis: A new sibling book with humor, heart, and a dash of the scientific process sure to delight young readers. Is Stella's new baby brother a duck? All the evidence seems to be pointing in that direction, but Stella knows that scientists can't just wing it. Further research is definitely required. This sweet and silly book is just ducky for new siblings, fledgling scientists and anyone who loves a good laugh.
With a dose of humor and a dash of scientific procedure, Stella Wells sets out to prove that her new , baby brother is actually a duck. This is a wonderful book for new siblings and budding scientists.
Thank you all 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:
Jen Malia – Too Sticky! Sensory Issues with Autism (4/1/2020)
Maria Gianferrari – Play Like an Animal (4/7/2020)
Penny & Jelly Website: http://www.pennyandjelly.com/
Loree Griffin Burns – You’re Invited to a Mothball: A Nighttime Insect Celebration (4/7/2020)
Marta E. Magellan – Python Catchers Saving the Everglades (4/20/2020)
Pat Zietlow Miller – My Brother the Duck (4/21/2020)