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The Picture Book Buzz

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

Today I have the pleasure to introduce you to three authors from the STEAM Team 2020 with books releasing in May. 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.”

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?...)

Alexis O’Neill Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children (5/5/2020) - I’m an eclectic writer -- which makes me hard to pin down. I go where my interest takes me. I’ve been a teacher of kids and teachers, a museum educator, and have always been curious about people and the world. As it turns out, my latest three books have happened to have STEAM connections - one connects to kites & engineering, one to flash photography, and one to mathematics -- and the human stories behind them.

[Author of - The Kite that Bridged Two Nations: Homan Walsh and the First Niagara Suspension Bridge (2013), Three Irish Tales (2011), The Worst Best Friend (2009), Estela's Swap (2007), The Recess Queen (2002), and Loud Emily (2001)]

Stacy McAnultyOcean! Waves for All (5/5/2020) – – I’m a mechanical engineer turned children’s book author. I’m often asked how I went from a STEM career to an art-based career. Easy! Both engineering and writing require creativity and problem solving, and that’s what excites me. And while I’m no longer working as a mechanical engineer, science and math are prevalent topics in most of my books.

[Author of - The World Ends in April (2019), Moon! Earth’s Best Friend (2019), SUN! One in a Billion (2018), Max Explains Everything: Soccer Expert (2019), The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl (2018), Love (2018), Max Explains Everything: Grocery Store Expert (2018), EARTH! My First 4.54 Billion Years (2017), Brave (2017), Mr. Fuzzbuster Knows He's the Favorite (2017), Beautiful (2016), Excellent Ed (2016), The Dino Files #1-3 (2016), and the Goldie Blox series (2017-18)].

Theanne GriffithThe Magnificent Makers #1 (How to Test a Friendship) & #2 (Brain Trouble) (5/19/2020) – I’ve always had two passions: science and storytelling. I received my BA in neuroscience from Smith College, and subsequently went on to obtain my doctorate in the same subject from Northwestern University. I currently run a sensory neuroscience research program at Rutgers University. A few years ago, I decided to seriously pursue my second passion as a children’s book author. Given my background, it was natural for me to write science-themed books. I’m a staunch advocate of science education and finding creative ways to get kids excited about science. It really is a dream come true to be able to combine my two passions to accomplish this. [Debut Author]

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

Alexis O’Neill - I used to take part in photography and slide show competitions through the Syracuse Camera Club and loved entering the New York State Fair competitions in the summer. The experience taught me lots about storytelling with images and the photographers who excel at that. [Interesting. Good training for this story!]

Stacy McAnulty - I’m an engineer who cannot multiply (in my head) and an author who cannot spell. [Ha!]

Theanne Griffith – I lived in Chile for a total of 3 years! I studied abroad in Santiago during college, and then returned upon graduation. While there, I worked in the Catholic University. Chile has a really strong and productive scientific community and I learned so much during my time there. It was an amazing experience and I am fluent in Spanish to this day. And although we didn’t meet in Chile, my partner is Chilean and my daughters are half Chilean! [What an awesome experience and fun coincidence.]

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

Alexis O’NeillJacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children (5/5/2020) - Jacob Riis’s images kept turning up in research I had been doing on other projects. Then I stumbled across his autobiography in a bookstore at Lowell Mills. When I read it, it was as if Riis were talking to me. His immigrant story fascinated me as did his persistent social activism through photojournalism.

Stacy McAnulty Ocean! Waves for All (5/5/2020) - Ocean! is part of the Our Universe series of books. In the previous titles, I wrote about Earth and space. This time, I wanted to stay closer to home. We know so little about what’s happening beneath the waves on our home planet. I’m hoping young readers get excited by the mystery that covers over 70% of our world.

Theanne GriffithThe Magnificent Makers #1 (How to Test a Friendship) & #2 (Brain Trouble) (5/19/2020) - My inspiration for the series arose from a desire to write books that would make science feel cool and exciting to kids. I mean, after all, it is very cool and very exciting! One of my favorite STEM books when I was growing up was The Magic School Bus series. I wanted to capture that sense of scientific adventure as I was crafting The Magnificent Makers. Additionally, it was really important for me to have a diverse set of protagonists. Growing up as a young Black girl, I had very few examples of scientists who looked like me, real or fictional. I really wanted to show young readers that ANYONE can have fun with science.

Who was a favorite/special author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

Alexis O’Neill – My go-to books were Grimms Fairy Tales (translated by Lucy Crane et al., illus. by Fritz Kredel), Andersen’s Fairy Tales (translated by Lucas & Paull, illus. by Arthur Szyk), and an encyclopedia set called The Book of Knowledge.

Stacy McAnulty - I struggled to read as a child. I was behind my peers when it came to reading, and this embarrassed me. The only books I felt comfortable reading were by Shel Silverstein. They were short and silly and perfect for me.

Theanne Griffith – In addition to The Magic School Bus, I really enjoyed Seymour Simon’s nonfiction works. I loved being able to dive into a new topic with each book. His books on the weather briefly convinced me that I wanted to be a meteorologist or storm chaser. And those amazing covers were definitely attention grabbing!

I enjoy seeing the variety of books that appealed to author's as kids. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about your book ?

Alexis O’Neill Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children (5/5/2020) - I loved that Jacob Riis, the foremost social photojournalist of the 19th century, was interested in helping the poor as a boy, an interest that endured throughout his life. As an immigrant to New York from Denmark in 1870, he had to scramble just to survive. When he eventually became a crime reporter, he saw problems that needed solving and took action. He was the first to use the new flash powder technology, blitzlicht, to create photographs to prove to health officials that the unhealthy living conditions endured by impoverished people living in New York’s tenements were intolerable. I hope that young readers see that, like Riis, the interests and passions they have right now can be enduring and lead to improving others’ lives in the future.

Stacy McAnultyOcean! Waves for All (5/5/2020) – First, I hope my readers are entertained. That's job one for me. Maybe my readers will learn something (like Ocean is older than air), but I really hope they’re inspired to learn more. I think of my books as gateway books. I like to imagine young readers turning to their librarian and asking for more books about a subject I introduced them to through a picture book.

Theanne Griffith The Magnificent Makers #1 (How to Test a Friendship) & #2 (Brain Trouble) (5/19/2020) - – In addition to the main characters, best friends Pablo and Violet, I’m really excited to introduce readers to Dr. Crisp, the eccentric scientist that runs a magical makerspace called The Maker Maze. She has wild rainbow hair and is always ready with a quirky science-catch phrase. And she has a really cool, Mary Poppins-like backpack full of maker goodies. Readers should definitely get ready for out of this world STEM adventures! And as a bonus, each book has two do-it-yourself maker activities in the back matter. Perfect for making quarantine days go by a little faster.

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

Alexis O’Neill Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children (5/5/2020) - As always, deciding what to leave out was the most challenging part of writing about Riis -- such as his complicated courtship of Elisabeth, his horrendous treatment in the police station shelters, or his close friendship with Theodore Roosevelt. [I'm glad some of it ended up in the fascinating back matter.]

Stacy McAnultyOcean! Waves for All (5/5/2020) - Scientists don’t always agree! As we learn more and technology improves, science updates, and we get new data. When I research, I’m always looking for the latest information, and I like to find concurring answers from multiple sources. [Which can be challenging, if not impossible at times.]

Theanne GriffithThe Magnificent Makers #1 (How to Test a Friendship) & #2 (Brain Trouble) (5/19/2020) - There were two particularly challenging aspects of writing this series. The first was making sure that story came first. As a scientist, and someone who cares about STEM education, I had the tendency when drafting to focus a little too much on the science. But in the end, this is a fictional series about fictional characters, and they need to be the main attraction. I had to learn to weave the science into the world-building in a way that made the books equal parts educational and entertaining. The second hardest part was making sure I accurately presented the science at an age-appropriate level. I really had to re-calibrate what amount of detail was appropriate and digestible for recently independent readers. A huge thank you to my editors Caroline Abbey and Tricia Lin for their help with this! [Simplifying, without being condescending, is almost an art.]

Are there any upcoming projects that you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

Alexis O’Neill - I’m excited about the fall release of my picture book biography, The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey (Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills & Kane). His obsessive behavior fascinated me, especially since it contributed to the creation of the Dewey Decimal Classification System. [I LOVE that Fibonacci staircase!]

Stacy McAnulty – I have a novel hitting shelves in September titled, Millionaires for the Month. It’s full of math. And in 2021, we’re adding Mars! to the Our Universe series of books.

Theanne Griffith – I was recently inspired by my daughter to write a picture book about a little girl who wants to go to the moon. It’s in the early stages, but I’m really excited to see it develop. I’m also working on a Caribbean-themed creative non-fiction picture book inspired by the recent COVID-19 pandemic. My father is from Barbados and I’m excited to write STEM books with a Caribbean twist.

I can't wait for these books to release. If you could meet anyone (real or literary), who would that be?

Alexis O’Neill - I’d love to meet Dolores Huerta - courageous, persistent advocate for fieldworkers, who, though now in her 90s, says she’ll never retire as there is still so much work to do. [Wow, she would be interesting to talk with!]

Stacy McAnulty – Lin-Manuel Miranda. [I agree. I'm kind of surprised he hasn't been mentioned before.]

Theanne Griffith – Hands down Michelle Obama. I’ve always admired her, but after reading her memoir, I have so many follow-up questions! I’d love to be able to meet her one day. [Oh, wouldn't that be amazing.]

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

Alexis O’Neill - Cats. All kinds. Graceful, funny, mysterious, and fun to cuddle.

Stacy McAnulty – I’m a dog lover. We have three, and I’d like to get a fourth, but not all the family is on board with this idea.

Theanne Griffith – I have three cats, so I suppose you could say I’m a crazy cat lady. But I also really like owls. Impressive hunters with impressive necks! I think they’re very cool.

NOW, let me take a moment to introduce you to these amazing STEAM books!

Synopsis: Jacob Riis was familiar with poverty. He did his best to combat it in his hometown of Ribe, Denmark, and he experienced it when he immigrated to the United States in 1870. Jobs for immigrants were hard to get and keep, and Jacob often found himself penniless, sleeping on the streets or in filthy homeless shelters. When he became a journalist, Jacob couldn't stop seeing the poverty in the city around him. He began to photograph overcrowded tenement buildings and their impoverished residents, using newly developed flash powder to illuminate the constantly dark rooms to expose the unacceptable conditions. His photographs inspired the people of New York to take action. Gary Kelley's detailed illustrations perfectly accompany Alexis O'Neill's engaging text in this STEAM title for young readers.

This poignant and honest biography of the social reformer Jacob Riis shows how, when his articles were ignored, he used the new invention of flash photography to illuminate society's shadows and force New York City to face the tenement housing crisis and severe poverty, especially of children during the late 1800s. His words and photographs capture the attention of the president of the police board, Theodore Roosevelt, churches, missions, and charities. The illustrations brilliant show the evolution of the city.

Synopsis: Dude. Ocean is incredible. Atlantic, Pacific, Artic, Indian, Southern―it's all excellent Ocean! Not part of any nation, his waves are for all. And under those waves, man, he holds so many secrets. With characteristic humor and charm, Stacy McAnulty channels the voice of Ocean in this next "autobiography" in the Our Universe series. Rich with kid-friendly facts and beautifully brought to life by David Litchfield, this is an equally charming and irresistible companion to Earth! My First 4.54 Billion Years; Sun! One in a Billion; and Moon! Earth's Best Friend.

Told from the point of view and "surfer" voice of the ocean, this informational fiction picture book is chocked full of facts about the ocean and the earth. It also explores topics such as the creation of land masses, trash islands, and melting ice caps. Back matter offers ideas for individual action to help the ocean. A wonderful introduction to early #STEM units on oceanography and environmental concerns.

This chapter book series teams up three kids with a hilarious and a bit odd scientist as they take "out-of-this-world adventures" which allow them to apply the science concepts they learned in school. This series also explores the personal skills of friendship, teamwork, and courage. It's "a modern-day Magic School Bus for chapter book readers!"

Synopsis: Violet and Pablo are best friends who love science! So when they discover a riddle that opens a magic portal in the Science Space at school, they can't wait to check it out! Along with their new classmate, Deepak, the friends discover a magical makerspace called the Maker Maze. It's a laboratory full of robots, 3D printers, an antigravity chamber, and more. Doors line the walls of the makerspace, with a new science adventure waiting behind each one.

Synopsis: Violet and Pablo are best friends who love science! So when they discover a riddle that opens a magic portal in the brain fair at school, they can't wait to check it out! In this adventure, the friends enter the Maker Maze--a magical makerspace--along with a set of twins who are interested in learning all about the brain. The kids can't wait to solve science puzzles . . . if first, they can learn to work together!

Thank you all for giving us a little peek into yourselves and your books. Wishing you all great success.

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

Alexis O’NeillJacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children (5/5/2020)

Stacy McAnulty Ocean! Waves for All (5/5/2020)

Theanne GriffithThe Magnificent Makers #1 (How to Test a Friendship) & #2 (Brain Trouble) (5/19/2020)

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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