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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - June 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 (mostly) in June. 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?...)

Darcy PattisonErosion: How Hugh Bennett Saved America's Soil and Stopped the Dust Bowl (6/9/2020) - I write both fiction and nonfiction for kids. The nonfiction is fun because I like doing the research, ferreting out bits of information, verifying facts and especially setting the timeline into a context.

I look for ideas that present a “big idea” about science. For example, CLANG! is the story of the Father of Acoustics, Ernst Chladni (KLOD-nee). A German scientist, he was a traveling science entertainer, similar to Bill Nye, the Science Guy. This story takes place in Paris, where he met Emperor Napoleon, who eventually funded some of his research. One of the big ideas from this story is that scientists have traditionally cooperated across international borders. The scientist’s nationality isn’t as important as their understanding of a science topic.

Other big ideas include the importance of backup experiments, the longevity of simple ideas, how long it can take to find answers (130 years!), and the role of governments in finding scientific answers.

[Author of 25 books, including - Pollen: Darwin's 130 Year Prediction (2019); Rosie the Ribeter: The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (2019); Clang!: Ernst Chladni's Sound Experiments (2018); Nefertiti, the Spidernaut: How a Jumping Spider Learned to Hunt in Space (2016), Liberty (2016), Rowdy: The Pirate Who Could Not Sleep (2016), Burn: Michael Faraday’s Candle (2016), Longing for Normal (2015), The Read and Write Series​ (2015), Vagabonds (2014), The Girl, the Gypsy and the Gargoyle (2014), Saucy and Bubba (2014), The Aliens Inc. Series – short chapter books (2014), Abayomi, the Brazilian Puma: The True Story of an Orphaned Cub (2014), Wisdom, the Midway Albatross: Surviving the Japanese Tsunami and Other Disasters for Over 60 Years (2013).]

Melissa Stewart - Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses (6/23/2020) – Many writers know what they want to do from a very young age, but I never considered writing as a career option until a college professor suggested it. Up until then, I didn’t even know writing was a job. No one I knew was a writer, and my school didn’t host author visits. I’ll always be very grateful to that professor for seeing a talent in me and letting me know.​​

I do most of my writing in a spare bedroom in my house. My husband leaves for work at 5:45 a.m., so that’s when I start to write. When I get stuck, I stop to take a shower. Something about the steam and running water frees my mind, and I usually solve the problem. After lunch, I switch my focus to researching, planning school visits, and taking care of business tasks. I stop working at 4:30 p.m., so I can start making dinner.

Rachel Carson once said, “Science gives me something to write about,” and I couldn’t agree more. I enjoy writing at a variety of different levels, from board books to books for adults, but grade 3 is really my sweet spot.

[Author of more than 180 books, including: Seashells: More than a Home (2019); A Place for Turtles, Second Edition (2019); Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs (2018); Can an Aardvark Bark? (2018) ; A Place for Fish, Second Edition (2018); A Seed Is the Start (2017); Wolverines, National Geographic Readers (2017); Droughts, Let’s Read and Find Out Science (2017); Pinocchio Rex and Other Tyrannosaurs, Let’s Read and Find Out Science (2017); A Place for Bats, Second Edition (2017); Predator Face-Off (2017); Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science (2016); A Place for Frogs, Second Edition (2016); Caterpillar to Butterfly (2016); Feathers: Not Just for Flying (2014); and No Monkeys, No Chocolate (2013).]

Vicky Fang – Layla & The Bots: Happy Paws (5/5/2020) and Invent-A-Pet (6/2/2020) - Hello! I am a debut author with five STEAM books publishing this year. I am also a product designer who spent five years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology.

I began writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. My goal is for my books to inspire computer literacy for a wide range of kids—while letting their imaginations run wild with the possibilities of technology!

[Debut Author - w/ FIVE books releasing this year. The other three are: Layla & The Bots: Built for Speed (8/4); I Can Code: If/Then; & I Can Code: And/Or (board books, 10/1)]

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

Darcy Pattison – I’m also a quilter. This is my self-portrait quilt.

[Wow - that's impressive!]

Melissa Stewart – Even when I was a child, I wrote about science whenever I had a chance. I wrote my first two reports in sixth grade. One was about air pollution, and the other was about the human heart. [Seems you had a destiny to be a NF science writer.]

Vicky Fang – I'm a terrible bike rider. But I have a lovely red bicycle that my husband and friends bought me, so I'm going to get better! [Good for you!]

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

Darcy PattisonErosion: How Hugh Bennett Saved America's Soil and Stopped the Dust Bowl (6/9/2020) - Erosion is the story of a natural disaster and the man who knew how to respond to that disaster. But he needed government help—and a little help from Mother Nature.

During the Dust Bowl, did you know that dust storms reached Washington, D.C.? I didn’t. I thought of them as being in the Midwest and plains states. A photograph of Lincoln Memorial in the midst of a dust storm started the research for this book. [Wow! I didn't know that either. Thank you for this poignant picture.]

Melissa Stewart - Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses (6/23/2020) – The story behind Ick! traces back to a three-week research trip I took to Africa in 1996. During the safari, I watched with fascination as a mother black-backed jackal upchucked her partially-digested dinner to feed her three feisty pups. When the little ones had eaten their fill, she scarfed down the mushy leftovers.

The next day, while observing a gerenuk standing on its tippy toes as it ate, our guide told us that it’s one of more than 150 mammals (including cows) that regurgitate their food and re-munch their lunch as many as four times. It’s their way of eking every possible nutrient from the tough plants they eat. Right then and there, I started making a list of animals that vomit their vittles as a survival strategy. Over time, I added more than a dozen insects, birds, and mammals to that list. But why stop there? I also made lists of creatures that use poop, pee, spit, snot, and other bodily substances in the most surprising ways. Many of those examples ended up in Ick! [Why, indeed! Kids are going to love getting grossed out. Thank you for the pictue.]

Vicky Fang Layla & The Bots: Happy Paws (5/5/2020) and Invent-A-Pet (6/2/2020) -

Layla & The Bots: Happy Paws – It was inspired by my experiences as a product designer, working collaboratively with teams to develop awesome technology products! True to my experiences at Google and elsewhere, Layla and her crew must investigate a design problem, brainstorm, prototype, and iterate on their inventions. In this first book, they must create an amusement park for dogs—inspired in part by my local (but not for dogs) amusement park, Happy Hollow! [I really like how each bot and Layla have their own strengths and roles in solving the problem.]

Invent-A-Pet - I actually wrote a whole blog post about this one! But the short answer is that I mixed up two separate ideas I had jotted down in my list: “Mixing machine” and “mixed-up animals”. I had been looking for a fun way to play with the concept of inputs and outputs, which is how this idea was born. (In fact, at one point, this manuscript was called In-put Out-Pet!) [The trial and error process in determining how the machine works is so much fun!]

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

Darcy Pattison – I grew up in a family of seven children. My mother had story times each night when she read books. I remember the first time I was allowed to read, how hard I worked to remember each word. I don’t know the book’s title, but it was about a farm. Agriculture captured my imagination, even as a child!

Melissa Stewart - Mr. Mysterious and Company by Sid Fleischman. I was thrilled to meet Mr. Fleischman at a writers’ conference in New Hampshire and tell him how much his book meant to me.

Vicky Fang – I loved Enid Blyton books - I couldn't get enough of their adventures and snacks.

So, is there anything special you want your readers to know about your book ?

Darcy PattisonErosion: How Hugh Bennett Saved America's Soil and Stopped the Dust Bowl (6/9/2020) - In the midst of a natural disaster, one man—a scientist—knew what to do. Hugh Bennett and his team turned things around and created a successful farming community from the dust. Science finds answers to problems. And that fills me with hope. [We can all use a little hope right now!]

Text © Darcy Pattison, 2020. Image © Peter Willis , 2020.

Melissa Stewart - Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses (6/23/2020) – One of my favorite examples is the bombardier beetle—an insect that blasts enemies with a scalding spray that bursts out its butt. I observed the insect in action during a class I took at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, many years ago.

© Melissa Stewart, 2020.

In March 2018, an article in Science News led me to an amazing video of a Japanese common toad vomiting an African bombardier beetle drenched with gooey mucus. For 88 minutes, the tenacious insect fought for its life by blasting the toad’s insides with nasty, sizzling-hot spray. Finally, the toad couldn’t take it anymore and spewed its supper. After a brief rest, the slime-covered beetle slowly crawled away.

You know you’ve chosen one of the world’s best professions when watching something so weird and wonderful is a legitimate part of your job! [Ha!]

Vicky FangLayla & The Bots: Happy Paws (5/5/2020) and Invent-A-Pet (6/2/2020) -

Layla & The Bots: Happy Paws – Layla and the Bots are creative in all sorts of ways, but each of them brings something special to their inventions. They work together as a team, which makes their creations even better!

Text © Vicky Fang, 2020. Image © Christine Nishiyama, 2020.

Invent-A-Pet – Katie is creative, curious, and courageous! Even though sometimes things don't go the way she wants them to, she doesn't give up. [I love the tenacity of Layla & Katie.]

Text © Vicky Fang, 2020. Image © Tidawan Thaipinnarong, 2020.

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

Darcy PattisonErosion: How Hugh Bennett Saved America's Soil and Stopped the Dust Bowl (6/9/2020) - The hardest thing was to explain why soil is so important to life on Earth. Most people don’t think much about dirt. It’s just there; you walk on it. To elevate it to the right level was important so the story could be put into context of environmental concerns. [I'd say you succeeded!]

Melissa Stewart - Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses (6/23/2020) – Writing on deadline. Most of my recent books have been picture books, which need to be written in their entirety before submission. Of course, there will be some revision after acquisition, but most of the work is done in advance.

Because Ick! is a longer book with a consistent format, I was able to sell it with a proposal that included just three sample spreads. After the book was acquired, I had to write 106 more pages according to the publisher’s deadline. Even though National Geographic gave me plenty of time to complete the work, having a looming deadline was very stressful for me.

Writing a whole picture book in advance is risky because who knows if an editor will like it enough to make an offer, but there’s a downside to submitting a proposal too. I guess it’s all about maintaining the right balance of projects. [Well, I guess there's an upside & downside to everything.]

Vicky FangLayla & The Bots: Happy Paws (5/5/2020) and Invent-A-Pet (6/2/2020) -

Layla & The Bots: Happy Paws – The hardest part of this book was actually finding the right format for it. The idea was vaguely sitting in my head as a picture book, but it just couldn’t fit in 32 pages. Once my agent tipped me on to the world of Scholastic Branches, it suddenly clicked and came pouring out.

Invent-A-Pet – This was actually the first book that I wrote and sold (even though it’s not the first one that released!) It was so hard for me to get the emotional character arc and the pacing of the story right on this one. A few really valuable critiques helped open my eyes to the shortcomings in my craft to get this one just right, and I’ve kept those lessons with me ever since! [Great reminder of the value of critique groups/friends.]

Bonus Sneak Peek: Layla & The Bots: Built for Speed (8/4/2020) - Writing a second book in a series is such a different process. I had to write a full outline, which I had never done. This one was scrapped and re-outlined a couple of times! Thank goodness for my amazing editors for shepherding me through this process.

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

Darcy PattisonErosion! is book five of the Moments in Science Series. This series of nonfiction picture books looks at a moment when something fundamental changed in our understanding of a science topic. Book 6 is being illustrated right now: A.I. : How Patterns Helped Artificial Intelligence Beat a Man will be available in 2021. [That one sounds fascinating. I wonder if it involves chess.]

Melissa Stewart – Due to the pandemic, publishers are postponing quite a few books. It’s hard to say exactly when a particular book will be published with certainty. But here’s a sneak peek at a spread in a book that’s scheduled for publication in Spring 2021.

© Melissa Stewart, 2020.

Summertime Sleepers: Animals that Estivate is illustrated by the uber-talented Sarah S. Brannen and published by Charlesbridge Publishing. I can’t wait for you to see the whole thing! [Wow! This sneak peek is enticing! I love that title!]

Vicky Fang – I have a board book series launching in October called I Can Code, which I’m really proud of. [These look adorable!]

And I am currently working on my author-illustrator debut! It’s an early graphic novel series for HarperAlley called Friendbots. It’s about friendship and robots and I’m so excited about it! [I'll have to keep my eyes open for this one.]

If you could meet anyone (real or literary), who would that be?

Darcy Pattison – C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein would be fascinating to meet because they understood story in deep and moving ways.

Melissa Stewart – Rachel Carson. I think we’d have had a lot to talk about.

Vicky Fang – I keep giving different answers to this question… My last two were Sondheim and Nikola Tesla. I think I’ll say Madonna this time. That trifecta probably gives some insight into my personality. [*smiling*]

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

Darcy Pattison – I keep writing books with cats and dogs. They aren’t glamorous or exotic. But they’re important in our culture, our best friends. My new fiction chapter book looks at the life of a video cat: WHEN KITTENS GO VIRAL. [Aww]

Melissa Stewart – The American pika! For starters, it’s one of the most adorable animals on Earth—but don’t let that fool you. The feisty furball isn't afraid of a fight. It will battle fiercely to defend its den.

A pika lives on rocky mountain slopes in the western United and Canada and spends all summer stockpiling grass and leaves for winter. Hour after hour, it rips plants out of the ground, scurries to a sunny spot, and carefully lays the greens out to dry. Then it piles the plants in a “haystack.” By autumn, the stash could fill nine 1-gallon milk containers.

Like rabbits and guinea pigs, American pikas produce two kinds of droppings—soft pellets and hard poop. Believe it or not, pikas eat the soft pellets because they’re full of partially-digested food. It may seem like a hideous habit, but it helps the mini mammals get the nutrients they need to live and grow. Pretty cool, right? [Nature is amazing.]

Vicky Fang – I really just want a kitten, but my mother is scared of cats and will never come visit me again. For some reason, the urge to get a cat has been growing recently… Sorry, Mom!

[Uh oh!]

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

Synopsis: When the dust storms of the 1930s threatened to destroy U.S. farming and agriculture, Hugh Bennett knew what to do. For decades, he had studied the soils in every state, creating maps showing soil composition nationwide. He knew what should be grown in each area, and how to manage the land to conserve the soil. He knew what to do for weathering and erosion.

To do that, he needed the government's help. But how do you convince politicians that the soil needs help?

Hugh Bennett knew what to do. He waited for the wind.

This is the exciting story of a soil scientist confronting politicians to encourage them to pass a law to protect the land, the soil. When the U.S. Congress passed a law establishing the Soil Conservation Service, it was the first government agency in the world dedicated to protecting the land, to protecting the Earth.

Synopsis: Animals--they're cute and fluffy, cuddly, and puffy, and ... sometimes downright disgusting. Get ready to be totally grossed out as you discover the incredibly icky ways animals eat, make their homes, and defend themselves.

From award-winning author Melissa Stewart comes the grossest journey through the animal world you'll ever take. From ants to zebras, get ready to discover some seriously strange animal behaviors. Slurp up soupy insides with houseflies, spit sticky saliva to build nests with birds, and fend off predators with poop-flinging caterpillars and farting snakes. And that's just the tip of the dung pile! These yucky habits may seem surprising to us, but they're totally normal for these animals. In fact, their survival depends on them.

A perfect book for readers fascinated (or grossed out) by the many ways animals eat or protect themselves. Amazing photographs, a glossary, source notes, and an index round out this entertaining STEM book on the unusual things animals do every day.

Synopsis: This series is part of Scholastic's early chapter book line Branches, aimed at newly independent readers. With easy-to-read text, high-interest content, fast-paced plots, and illustrations on every page, these books will boost reading confidence and stamina. Branches books help readers grow!

Layla and the Bots are in an awesome rock band! They also use problem-solving and creativity to build cool inventions. When a local amusement park is in danger of shutting down, Layla knows just how to bring in the crowds... build an amusement park for DOGS! But will cool doggie rides like the Rub-a-Dub Mud Slide and the Tummy Rubbing Machine be enough to keep the park open? With full-color artwork on every page and speech bubbles throughout, this early chapter book series brings kid-friendly STEAM topics to young readers!

Layla and her (merry) band of bots must determine why people have stopped coming to the Happy Days Amusement Park - before they have to cancel their show. There's a little mystery, a little math, a bit of engineering and coding, a dash of research, and a peppering of persistence in this great new STEAM chapter book series.

Synopsis: Bunnies, pandas, and monkeys, oh my! For fans of Ada Twist, Scientist, this picture book about finding your perfect pet introduces basic STEAM and coding concepts—and some ridiculously adorable animals!

Katie is an ordinary girl who longs for an extraordinary pet—something more spectacular than a simple goldfish. Then one day Katie comes home to find a gift from her mother: a mysterious machine designed to help her create that one-of-a-kind creature. Each time she feeds different items into the machine, out comes a marvelously colorful new animal—like a purple monkey, rainbow-spotted horse, and green bunny! But none of them is just right. Through trial and error, Katie figures out the formula for her absolutely perfect SURPRISE pet.

Excited by a machine that can make her perfect pet, Katie must figure out how it works. After her initial enthusiastic attempts yield a green bunny, a golden beaver, and blue & green stripped bee, she uses a bit of trial & error and a bunch of deduction to methodically determine the role of each of the three inputs. But before she can make her extraordinary pet, she has to deal with the ten unusual animals she's already created. A wonderful book on coding, responsibility, deciphering puzzles, and persistence.

"SNEAK PEEK" - Book 2 in this series releases in August.

Layla & The Bots: Built for Speed (8/4/2020) - It was also inspired by my experiences as a product designer. In design, it is so important to understand who you are designing for - and accessibility is a huge factor to consider for any product. Inspired in part by a co-worker of mine, in Built for Speed, Layla and the Bots mod a go-kart for a girl who uses a wheelchair - and of course, they do it in their own fantastic style.

Layla and the Bots always think carefully about who they are designing for to make their inventions just right! That means observing, asking questions, and brainstorming new ideas.

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:

Darcy PattisonErosion: How Hugh Bennett Saved America's Soil and Stopped the Dust Bowl (6/9/2020)

Melissa Stewart - Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses (6/23/2020)

Vicky Fang Layla & The Bots: Happy Paws (5/5/2020) and Invent-A-Pet (6/2/2020)

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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