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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - July 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 around July.

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?...)

Julie Rubini – Psychology: Why We Smile, Strive, and Sing (8/15/2020) - My writing journey began through my love of reading. I grew up in the country, so my summertime access to books was limited to the weekly bookmobile stops a bike ride away. I remember stacking my bike basket with mysteries, biographies, and books with travel adventures. I offer that now I write them and live them!

I’m blessed to have a home office with a view of the serene Maumee River and natural light flooding my personal oasis. My room is filled with reflections of those I love, and my life journey. Music fills the air, and I often take “dance breaks” to celebrate my progress, or simply to move and shake up my thoughts!

I’m naturally curious, love learning about inspiring individuals, and what makes them “tick.” I’ve always been interested in human nature, how and why we respond and react to situations the way we do. Sharing my discoveries through Psychology: Why We Smile, Strive and Sing brought my personal journey full circle.

[Author of 5 books - Eye to Eye: Sports Journalist Christine Brennan (2019), Virginia Hamilton: America’s Storyteller (2017), Missing Millie Benson: The Secret Case of the Nancy Drew Ghostwriter and Journalist (Biographies for Young Readers) (2015), and Hidden Ohio (2009).]

Jennifer Swanson - Beastly Bionics: Rad Robots, Brilliant Biomimicry, and Incredible Inventions Inspired by Nature (6/23/2020) - I have been writing almost all of my life. I started creating books when I was in kindergarten. Throughout my life, I’ve kept journals. Mostly observations of things that have happened to me in my life and things I’ve found interesting. I started writing professionally about 12 years ago.

I typically write on my laptop or my desktop in my office. I feel most at home writing and researching there as that is where I’ve written almost all of my books. My writing day consists of getting up, having breakfast, and being in my office by around 8:30am. I work pretty much all day consistently until 5pm. I may stop to exercise or walk my dogs, but that is how I work for most of the week.

My favorite type of books to write are the ones about engineering and technology. I love learning! I have loved science my whole life. After all, I started a science club in my garage when I was 7 years old. My goal when I’m writing is to find a unique and exciting way to present my topic. Something that is natural, but unusual, like my book Save the Crash-test Dummies, which is the story of car safety engineering told through the lens of a crash-test dummy.

[Author of 43 books, including Spies, Lies, and Disguise: The Daring Tricks and Deeds That Won World War II (2019), Save the Crash Test Dummies! (2019), Absolute Expert: Dolphins (2018), Pearl Harbor (American Girl: Real Stories From My Time)​ (2018), Building With Poop (Power of Poop) (2018), Astronaut Aquanaut (2018), Environmental Activist Wangari Maathai (2018), Dr. E’s Super Stellar Solar System: Massive Mountains, Supersize Storms, Alien Atmospheres, and Other Out-of-This-World Space Science (2018), Explore Bridges!: With 25 Great Projects (2017), Geoengineering Earth’s Climate: Resetting the Thermostat (2017), Zoology: Cool Women Who Work With Animals (2017), Busting Boredom with Experiments (2017), Lewis and Clark: Famed Explorers of the American Frontier (2017), and Everything Robotics: All The Robotics Photos, Facts, & Fun (2016).]

Nancy CastaldoThe Farm That Feeds Us (7/17/2020) - I’ve been writing books about our planet for over 20 years. I studied biology and chemistry in college and later in grad school, children’s literature. I consider myself as an environmental educator who writes. My goal is to inform, inspire, and empower my readers with each book. STEAM subjects allow me to share my passion and who I am -- a nerdy naturalist -- with readers.

[Author of – 22 books, including The Story of Seeds (Jan. 2020), DK Life Stories: Ada Lovelace (2019), Back from the Brink: Saving Animals from Extinction (2018), Sniffer Dogs: How Dogs (and Their Noses) Save the World (2017), Beastly Brains: Exploring How Animals Think, Talk, and Feel (2017), School of Dragons #2: Greatest Inventions (DreamWorks Dragons) (2016), The Race Around the World (Totally True Adventures): How Nellie Bly Chased an Impossible Dream (2015), This or That? 3: Even More Wacky Choices to Reveal the Hidden You (National Geographic Kids) (2015), and National Geographic Kids Mission: Polar Bear Rescue: All About Polar Bears and How to Save Them (2014).]

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

Julie Rabini – My path into writing books for children was born out of tragedy. My husband and I lost our oldest daughter 20 years ago. She was just ten years old when she died at camp, away from home, as a result of a misdiagnosed heart condition.

We felt compelled to honor Claire in a way that was true to her, all the while honoring the relationships we had with each other, both as husband and wife, and as parents to our other two children, daughter Kyle, and son Ian. I’m proud to say that we’ve accomplished our goals, through a special tribute to our daughter no longer with us, and living life to the fullest with those of us left behind. As a family, we’ve traveled to all 50 states together, and have incredibly close relationships. Establishing Claire’s Day, a children’s book festival in her honor, helped us move forward in a positive way through our grief.

What began as a one-day book festival has grown into nearly a month-long celebration filled with various festivals, weeks of school visits by our participating authors and illustrators (including the amazing Jennifer Swanson!) and an awesome reading awards program. C.A.R.E. Awards, (Claire’s Awards for Excellence in Reading) are given to children who have been chosen by their schools as being the most improved readers. Each child receives a personalized certificate, as well as a coupon to choose their very own book at the festival. The ceremonies are inspiring, and the look in the children’s eyes as they meet a “real-life author or illustrator” as they have their book signed personally is priceless. Overall, we impact over 20,000 children and their families through our programs annually, with over 1200 children recognized through our C.A.R.E. Awards.

Through Claire’s Day, I befriended many incredible children’s book writers and illustrators, who literally drew me into their world. My first book, a fun, informative book about my home state, was published in 2009. I loved researching and writing about all that I love about Ohio, and as I shared what I learned with school children, I knew I’d discovered who I was meant to be, my purpose. [You are so strong and making such a big difference.]

Jennifer Swanson – I was a cheerleader in grade school and high school. Go Team! [*smile*]

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

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

Julie Rubini Psychology: Why We Smile, Strive, and Sing (8/15/2020) - Every story I write begins with questions. In the case of Psychology, it was from a personal standpoint. I wondered how it came to be that I made the choices I did after losing Claire. How was it possible that during a time where I wanted nothing more than to bury myself with her, both literally and figuratively, that I managed to work through my grief as I have, and still do? Why do people respond to challenges and life tragedies the way they do? And, what, and who should we look for to help us on our journeys as we long to smile, strive, and even sing?

I’m so grateful to Nomad Press for giving me the opportunity to explore the questions and provide some answers for teens on this subject. My hope is that teens may see themselves in the book and will lean on the support they have in their lives, or look for avenues to make positive choices in working through challenges they experience. [Such an important book.]

Jennifer Swanson - Beastly Bionics: Rad Robots, Brilliant Biomimicry, and Incredible Inventions Inspired by Nature (6/23/2020) - Actually, these two fields meld perfectly together. Scientists and engineers have looked at the field of biomimicry -- the design and production of materials, structures, and systems that are modeled on biological entities and processes, specifically animals-- for many years. It is not a new science.

I suppose the thing that caught my attention is that with the advent of soft robotics in the last 10 years or so, the field of biomimicry has exploded. There are so many more things that can be done with robots now that previously were too difficult to accomplish.

The world of robotics, and biomimicry itself, is just beginning to explore its possibilities, and they are endless. For me, this field is the perfect example of amazing technology and engineering and is one that I hope young readers will find as fascinating as I do. [You succeeded! It is so fascinating.]

Nancy Castaldo The Farm That Feeds Us (7/17/2020) - I am blessed to live in an area with many small, family-owned farms growing and producing food from berries to cheese. Having a daughter who worked at one of those farms certainly inspired my interest in food production and food security. I learned about the challenges many farmers are facing and the threats to our food security. In 2016 my young adult book The Story of Seeds addressed those concerns, but I wanted to write something for younger readers to help them discover where their food originated. The Farm That Feeds Us is the result. [Something many of us take for granted.]

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

Julie Rubini – I loved the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories as a child, and it was a thrill to write about Mildred “Millie” Benson, the original ghostwriter of the series, as an adult.

Jennifer Swanson- I was a HUGE fan of the Nancy Drew books. I read every single one of them, probably twice. I also loved Harriet the Spy. If it was a mystery, I read it. I read a lot of nonfiction books, too. I have this huge urge to learn things!

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

All such great books. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about your book ?

Text © Julie Rubini, 2020. Image © Tom Casteel, 2020.

Julie Rubini Psychology: Why We Smile, Strive, and Sing (8/15/2020) - While conducting research for this book, I reached out to Robert Sapolsky, a professor of Biology, Neurology and Neurological Sciences, and Neurosurgery at Stanford University. Dr. Sapolsky is the author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst. Dr. Sapolsky was excited that this topic was being addressed for young adults, as there are few books that do.

Text © Jennifer Swanson, 2020.

Jennifer Swanson - Beastly Bionics: Rad Robots, Brilliant Biomimicry, and Incredible Inventions Inspired by Nature (6/23/2020) - I hope they see this book as an exciting peek into the laboratories of actual science and engineering being created as they “watch”. The book was structured to introduce the readers to the animals, and their unique characteristics that can help humans, and then how the engineers and scientists used that as inspiration to create these robots. This book will hopefully engage readers and get them to think about the world around them and be inspired by what they see. After all, nature is an amazingly wonderful template filled with awesome animals to mimic.

Text © Nancy Castaldo, 2020. Image © Ginnie Hsu, 2020.

Nancy CastaldoThe Farm That Feeds Us (7/17/2020) - In the 1930s one American farmer produced enough food to feed a family of four. An American farmer today produces enough food to feed 155 people. We can’t have food without farms. It’s so important to support sustainable agricultural practices so that we maintain our food security and protect our planet at the same time.

Seems you all share a desire to show kids the remarkable facets of our world. What was the hardest, or most challenging, part of writing, or researching, your book?

Julie Rubini – Psychology: Why We Smile, Strive, and Sing (8/15/2020) - The format of the book was to include experiments for students to conduct at the end of each chapter. As psychology is a social science, it was difficult to provide “hands-on” experiments that relate to the topic, and the audience. However, I think between my work and that of my awesome editor, Andi Diehn, we nailed it. [I could see where that could be interesting to develop.]

Jennifer Swanson - Beastly Bionics: Rad Robots, Brilliant Biomimicry, and Incredible Inventions Inspired by Nature (6/23/2020) - For this book, it was finding the most current information about this exciting new technology. That is because many of these projects are still in the process of being created. They may only be at the prototype stage and are still being tested. That is what is exciting to me. To show my readers the process of how biomimetic robots are created. I wanted them to see the engineering and scientific process in action. It’s successes, and failures, too. Because when we fail, sometimes that is when scientists and engineers learn the most. But because all of the technology was changing, I had to keep checking on these projects right to the last minute before the book was sent off for publishing as we wanted to most current information possible. [Yikes!]

Nancy Castaldo The Farm That Feeds Us (7/17/2020) - Showcasing sustainable farming practices while considering global farming methods was challenging. [That is quite a balancing act.]

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

Julie Rubini – All of my works are traditionally published, but I’ve never had a literary agent. I’m so excited to be working with Alec Shane, of Writer’s House. My latest book proposal is about a group of inspiring women in the world of sports. It’s out on submission now, so fingers crossed! It’s an amazing story, and has never been told before.

Jennifer SwansonThe Big Fat Notebooks are going to high school! Published just four years ago, the Big Fat Notebooks—with nearly 4.6 million copies in print and sales escalating every year—revolutionized the study guide for middle schoolers. Now this lifesaving series is ready to graduate. Announcing the first two titles for high school students: Everything You Need to Ace Geometry in One Big Fat Notebook and Everything You Need to Ace Chemistry in One Big Fat Notebook (9/1/2020). Chemistry is one of the most feared subjects in high school, but fortunately National Science Teacher Award-winner Jennifer Swanson is here to break down this daunting subject into accessible and memorable units, from how to conduct an experiment to the Laws of Thermodynamics.

Also, I just started a new STEM podcast called Solve It! for Kids.

Solve It! for Kids - The science podcast for curious & creative kids and their families.

Peek into the world of real-life scientists, engineers, and experts as they solve problems in their everyday jobs. Kids and families are then invited to take on a challenge and solve a problem themselves! Join Jennifer and Jed Doherty as they ask questions, solve problems, and offer challenges that take curiosity and creativity to a whole new level.

Don’t forget to participate in our weekly challenges! If you do, you can be entered to win a free book. (Different book every month!)

Nancy Castaldo – I have a book focused on global food coming out with National Geographic in September. A few more titles about environmental topics are in the works for 2021 and 2022. I can’t wait to share them with readers.

We can't wait to see these books and enjoy your podcast, Jen! If you could meet anyone (real or literary), who would that be?

Julie Rubini – Laura Bush and J.K. Rowling. Sorry...I can’t just choose one. Former First Lady Laura Bush served as an inspiration to me after I lost Claire, after learning about her role in establishing the Texas Book Festival. I have a personal, framed letter on White House stationery from Mrs. Bush hanging in my office, reminding me of how far I’ve come from the earliest stages of my grief.

And, as Claire loved the Harry Potter series, and as J.K. Rowling’s writing journey is inspiring to me as well, I’d love to meet her. And we share the same initials.

Now that I’ve thrown that out into the universe, maybe we’ll have both of them join us for Claire’s Day someday.

Jennifer Swanson – There are so many scientists, engineers, and experts that I’d love to meet, so this is a tough choice, but I would be honored to meet Dr. Sylvia Earle or Dr. Kathy Sullivan. They are hugely inspiring pioneers in both of the fields of ocean and space.

Nancy Castaldo – Rachel Carson.

It is always so interesting to see who people chose. What is your favorite animal? Or one you are enamored with right now. Why?

Julie Rubini – If I offered anything but my lovable yellow Labrador Luna as the answer to this question, she might be offended. Luna is just like her namesake, Luna Lovegood. (Of course, she would be named after a Harry Potter character!) She’s lovable, sweet, and definitely a little quirky. Luna gets me out for a long walk every morning, where I work through life’s challenges and opportunities. I’m so blessed.

Jennifer Swanson – I have always loved koala bears because they seem so soft and furry. And they are from Australia, one place that is definitely on my to-visit list!!

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

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

Synopsis: A fascinating exploration of why we do the things we do, according to science! Dive into the psychology of the human brain with STEM activities and research projects that get readers excited about learning their own minds.

Psychology: Why We Smile, Strive, and Sing introduces students to the science behind behavior. From the developing teenage brain to genetics, psychology, and social environments, readers ages 12 to 15 gain a greater understanding of the complexities behind how we behave. Why does one person react to test anxiety by studying harder while another person gives up? As with all other behavior, the answer depends on many things: genetics, cultural and family expectations, previous behaviors, and a person’s own special blend of attitudes and values. Plenty of text-to-self and text-to-world connections provide a foundation for deeper learning.

• Hands-on STEM activities and research projects such as testing teenage risk-taking thought processes, conformity experiments, and exploring mindfulness and empathy engage readers beyond the text.

• Psychology includes graphic novel style illustrations, fascinating sidebars, and interesting trivia.

• Psychology integrates a digital learning component by providing links to primary sources, videos, and other relevant websites. Text-to-self and text-to-world connections make learning applicable and fundamental.

A very accessible and conversational text for middle graders about the science of psychology. Comic and historic illustrations intermingle with charts and graphics. Side bars, with science facts, QR Codes, biographies, "key questions," "vocabulary activities," and interesting "inquire/investigate activities," make this a very interactive learning experience learning about the brain's role in our actions and emotions.

Synopsis: Discover how the natural world inspires innovation in science and technology to create the latest and greatest breakthroughs and discoveries in this exciting book.

Did you know that scientists have developed a bionic tool shaped like an elephant's trunk that helps lift heavy objects? Or that the needle-like pointed beak of the kingfisher bird encouraged engineers in Japan to change the design of the Shinkansen "bullet trains" to reduce noise? Across multiple fields of study and methods of problem-solving, scientists are turning to biomimicry, or engineering inspired by biology or nature, to make all kinds of cool technological advancements. From robots that protect people and gather information to everyday inventions, like reflectors on the roads and ice-proof coatings for airplanes, to new sources of renewable energy, this book dives into the ways that nature can give us ideas on how to improve our world. Discover more than 40 examples of technology influenced by animals, learn about some of the incredible creatures who have inspired multiple creations, and meet some of the scientists and the stories behind their inventions.

This book explores the different inventions and discoveries that scientists, engineers, and . Examining an invention per spread, each one starts with a story (Design Dilemma), describes how they are creating the robotics (Building Bionics), offers some additional information (Going Further), and contains a "Did you Know," section. The format tying all the various inventions in biomimicry together. It is an entertaning STEM book that should be all libraries and schools.

Synopsis: Explore the workings of a small-scale, organic family farm and experience the rhythm of farm life. In the spring, visit the chicken coop, till the fields, and tour the farm machinery. When summer comes, plant corn, meet the pollinators, and head to the county fair. In the fall, make pies and preserves, harvest pumpkins, and put the fields to sleep. Winter activities include trimming and pruning the orchard, seed shopping, and baking bread.

To conclude your year on the farm, learn what you can do to support the farmers who pick our carrots and raise the cows for our milk. A glossary defines key sustainable farming terms. Through this colorful and intimate look at life on a small-scale farm, children will learn not only how the farm feeds us, but how the farmer must feed and care for the farm.

Where does our food come from? What role do farms play? What’s it like to be a farmer? In this charmingly illustrated book, follow a farm throughout the year to discover how the farmer grows fresh and tasty food for us to eat in a sustainable and natural way.

An informative and captivating upper elementary (grades 2-6) book covering a year's life on a farm. Multiple layers of text allow the book to meet a child at their interest and understanding level. Each of the 2-page spreads, which functions as easily digestible chapters, begin with a simple paragraph and contain two additional layers in sidebars or explanatory text. Great illustrations make the concepts of the older text accessible for the younger readers. It also includes a glossary. [Be sure to check out the companion educator guide at -

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:

Julie Rubini Psychology: Why We Smile, Strive, and Sing (8/15/2020) -

Jennifer Swanson - Beastly Bionics: Rad Robots, Brilliant Biomimicry, and Incredible Inventions Inspired by Nature (6/23/2020) -

[For additional information on Jennifer, check out our earlier interview (here)]

Nancy CastaldoThe Farm That Feeds Us (7/17/2020) -

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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