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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - October Interview with STEAM Team Books Members

Today I have the pleasure to introduce you to five authors from the STEAM Team Books group with books releasing throughout October.

[Note that STEAMTeam 2020 has changed their name to STEAMTeam Books.]

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?...)

Vicky Fang - I Can Code: And/Or and I Can Code: If/Then (10/6/20) - 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!

[Author of five books releasing this year - Layla & The Bots: Built for Speed (8/4), Invent-A-Pet (6/2), and Layla & The Bots: Happy Paws (5/5).]

Laurel Neme – The Elephant’s New Shoe (10/6/20) - Ever since I was a girl, I was passionate about animals. After getting my PhD, I worked in the policy arena—on the environmental and social impacts of big development projects—and was dismayed to see how little people cared about animals. At least, until they learned more. When my first book, Animal Investigators (narrative non-fiction about wildlife forensics) came out in 2009, it had a big impact in exposing the issue of wildlife trafficking and opened my eyes to how stories can have a big impact. That’s when I started writing full time. I always write about wildlife. I often write features for and National Geographic. That keeps me up to date and gives me ideas for books. My favorite part about writing is research—because the more I talk to people, the more fascinated I become and the more crazy stories I discover.

[Author of Orangutan Houdini (2014), and Animal Investigators (2009).]

Aneta CruzJuan Has the Jitters (10/6/20) – I’m a debut PB author with a book about Juan, a boy who has Autism, loves Math, and has a great day at school. I hold a BA in English Literature, MFA in Creative Writing, and a Credential in Early Childhood Special Education. For many years, I’ve been teaching preschoolers diagnosed with Autism and Speech/Language Impairment how to love books (among other things) as much as do. While I ​enjoy PBs and fairytales, I will ready any GOOD book. Reading good books is what inspires me to write.

[Author of 13 adult books and the forthcoming Astronaut Training (2021).]

Heather Montgomery Who Gives A Poop: Surprising Science from One End to the Other (10/13/20) - Inquiry is my life. I can’t seem to stop asking questions, so my favorite books to write are ones in which I’m exploring deep questions. Because research is writing for me, and questions come to me every day, I’m always writing. Sometimes, I have to work hard to not follow them, to find time in my life for other things.

Officially though, I began writing with the intention of publishing books for kids in 2005. I do my research were ever questions lead me (a gassy garbage dump, a wild land within sight of New York City, the insides of a bobcat’s intestines, . . .). I do my typing in my home office on the Tennessee/Alabama border with the companionship of a snoozing canine and a purring feline.

[Author of 16 books, including - Little Monsters of the Ocean: Metamorphosis under the Waves (2019), Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill (2018), Bugs Don’t Hug: Six – Legged Parents and Their Kids (2018), How Rude! 10 Real Bugs Who Won’t Mind Their Manners (2015), and Wild Discoveries: Wacky New Animals (2013).]

Rajani LaRocca - Seven Golden Rings: A Tale Of Music And Math (10/20/20) - Hi! I’m a physician and author in the Boston area. I write middle grade and picture books, and Seven Golden Rings is my debut picture book. I write a mix of fiction and nonfiction, prose and poetry. I’ve always loved books, but I took a long hiatus from creative writing when I went to medical school and residency. I picked it back up again about nine years ago when I started taking online and then in-person classes and forming critique groups with fellow writers. As a working mom, I’ve learned to write in my living room, my bedroom, my kitchen, waiting for kids at piano lessons, in school parking lots, and dictating ideas on my phone in the car! As a doctor, STEM topics—especially science—are very dear to my heart.

[Author of Midsummer’s Mayhem (2019) with 9 forthcoming books between 2021 and 2023.]

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

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 luck!]

Laurel Neme – I’m fascinated by dung beetles. While I love elephants, most friends already know that. What they probably don’t realize is my secret passion for dung beetles. I first heard about them while living in Botswana doing my dissertation research. My husband and I played on a local softball team called the Dung Beetles (our logo was a dung beetle pushing a baseball), so I had to find out what they were. The more I learned, the more amazed I became. I even wrote a few articles about them over the years. Not only are they nature’s garbage collectors, but they have amazing armor, and live on all continents except Antarctica! [This is unusual and cool!]

Aneta Cruz - I read the last sentence of the book first. [Oh, no!]

Heather Montgomery – One of my favorite places to be is in a tree. Reading, writing, or thinking, when I am nestled amongst the branches with leaves clapping all around me, I am at peace. [I'd join you; I adore sitting in a tree!]

Rajani La Rocca - I am five feet tall and yet somehow played on my middle school basketball team. I didn’t play much, but I was on it. [Nice!]

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

Vicky Fang - I Can Code: And/Or and I Can Code: If/Then (Sourcebooks Explore 10/6/20) - At Google and Intel, I spent a lot of time working on coding efforts for kids. The goal was to inspire all kids to understand the basic building blocks of coding, which are often just simple logical constructs. I spent years trying to turn this into a picture book, until I saw a board book presentation at an SCBWI conference, and my critique partner, Christine Evans, turned to me and said, “That’s what you should do with if/then!” Thank goodness for critique partners! [Critique partners rock!]

Laurel Neme – The Elephant’s New Shoe (Orchard Books 10/6/20) - I first learned about Chhouk, a baby elephant with an injured leg and the main character of The Elephant's New Shoe, from his rescuer, Nick Marx, and was immediately captivated. I was especially impressed by Chhouk’s fighting spirit and also by Nick’s creative thinking and how he never gives up on helping an animal in need. I also connected to Chhouk’s story on a personal level. When I was 17, I had a terrible accident and spent months in the hospital not knowing if I would walk again. Thankfully, I had people who helped me, like Nick did for Chhouk. I also like to think I had a dash of Chhouk’s fighting spirit inside me, which also helped me get through the experience and come out better for it. [That's quite a connection! I'm glad you got better.]

Aneta CruzJuan Has the Jitters (Penguin Random House 10/6/20) – My students were the inspiration for my story. My drive is to help them grow not only academically but as a whole and to see them participate, engage, and actually have fun doing activities no thought they could do. [*smiling*]

Heather Montgomery Who Gives A Poop: Surprising Science from One End to the Other (Bloomsbury Children's Books 10/13/2020) - I wasn’t always crazy about writing, but I’ve always been curious. When I figured out how to turn that curiosity into a career — it changed my life. Earlier in life, I didn’t “get it” that all of my stirring in scat, mucking in mud, tunneling through intestines could count as research. I thought this was a book about awesome animal facts (and it is), but when I realized that it was much more than that — that it was a serious searching of my own mind and heart — that’s when this story grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go until I figured out how to share it with readers. [Interesting!]

Rajani LaRocca - Seven Golden Rings: A Tale Of Music And Math (Lee & Low 10/20/20) - When I was a kid, and then again when I had my own kids, I’ve loved posing and solving puzzles with my family. And my son in particular loved math from a very young age: I remember pushing him in a stroller and him asking me to count by twenty-sixes! He’s also a wonderfully talented musician who sings and plays piano and trumpet. So, I wrote a story with a math puzzle at its heart involving a boy who loves music. Seven Golden Rings was one of the first picture book manuscripts I ever wrote, and it took many, many, many revisions to get it ready to send to agents and editors. But it was worth the wait! [What fun!]

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

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

Laurel Neme – I adored The Story of Doctor Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting, probably because I always imagined myself talking with the animals. I also gobbled up James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small series, because I dreamed of becoming a large animal veterinarian.

Aneta Cruz - I was born and raised in the then Czechoslovakia and had a soft spot for monsters from a very young age (my MFA Thesis was on Monstrosity). It is no surprise, ​then, that my favorite book is Kytice by Karel Jaromír Erben, a collection of dark folk legends in the form of ballads.

Heather Montgomery – The Monster at the End of this Book is a book that I read over and over and over. Such delicious anticipation and participation in that book.

Rajani La Rocca – My favorite book as a child was The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. I still can’t resist a fun story about smart kids solving puzzles!

This is a great collection of books. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about your book ?

Vicky Fang - I Can Code: And/Or and I Can Code: If/Then (10/6/20) - The I Can Code board books can work at multiple levels. At the base, there is a simple story that looks at the logic in the world of the toddler. Then, each spread has a sidebar that gives more detail about what the code might look like and how that logic works in coding. I want kids to get a sense of how coding works, but most importantly, to just think a little bit about the simple logic visible in the world around them. [That's so cool! By the way, the "sidebar" is a full-page flap on the right side - IF she says please, THEN Dad gets the ball.]

Laurel Neme – The Elephant’s New Shoe (10/6/20) - While not publicized, Chhouk benefits directly from sales of this book through royalties to Nick Marx. To me, this was vitally important, and I’m both proud and happy to say that Scholastic was totally supportive of this and set this up without any question. [That is amazing! Congrats to both of you.]

Aneta CruzJuan Has the Jitters (10/6/20) – I hope my book will help readers see that even children with disabilities can and want to learn, and it is up to us to provide them with the right tools and opportunities to help them thrive. [Personally, I think you did that.]

Heather Montgomery Who Gives A Poop: Surprising Science from One End to the Other (10/13/2020) - This book was the hardest one I’ve ever written. I didn’t believe in it until I finally found the last chapter. It taught me to trust in the writing process — to keep asking questions, to keep digging deeper, to keep writing from my gut.

[Ha! I'm glad you stuck with it.]

Rajani LaRocca - Seven Golden Rings: A Tale Of Music And Math (10/20/20) - The art by Archana Sreenivasan is so vibrant, so brilliant, and so absolutely perfect for this story! I’m in awe of her stunning work. [I agree with you.]

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

Vicky Fang - I Can Code: And/Or and I Can Code: If/Then (10/6/20) - I rewrote this book so many times! I think it went through four revise and resubmits before it landed at Sourcebooks, where it went through more revisions! I think the most difficult part was pulling a real story arc out of the book, and then finding a parallel arc for the coding sidebars. [I could see where that would be complicated.]

Laurel Neme – The Elephant’s New Shoe (10/6/20) - One of the biggest challenges was probably the long time it took to go from draft to publication. From submission to acceptance and from acceptance to publication all takes time. But I have to say that my impatience vanishes pretty quickly as soon as I hear of a child reading my book and it connects. That’s the reward that keeps me motivated! [Patience with every aspect of publishing is so tough.]

Aneta CruzJuan Has the Jitters (10/6/20) – I’ve always said that PBs are the hardest thing to write. Yet, for some reason, Juan Has the Jitters sort of wrote itself. :o) [Maybe, because it came from your heart.]

Heather Montgomery Who Gives A Poop: Surprising Science from One End to the Other (10/13/2020) - Getting the first draft down on the page! It’s like wrestling an octopus. I always think I’ve got it figured out, until I place my hands on the keyboard and they refused to dance. Once upon a time I thought I’d get better with practice; now I know I have to just deep-breath my way through this part of my process. [That's quite an image. But we're glad you struggle through the 1st draft!]

Rajani LaRocca - Seven Golden Rings: A Tale Of Music And Math (10/20/20) - The biggest challenge was getting the author’s note just right—it explains binary numbers and how they are related to both Bhagat’s story in Seven Golden Rings and the computers we use today. [Yikes! Trying to distill that complexity into accessible bites would be daunting.]

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

Vicky Fang - I’m working on books 3 and 4 of the Layla and the Bots series, AND I am working on my author-illustrator debut! My early graphic novel, Friendbots, will launch with HarperAlley in Summer 2021, featuring two little robots named Blink and Block. Blink is scanning the playground for treasure, but Block is pretty sure there’s no gold to be found. When Blink finds a penny and decides to make a wish, will these two new pals find treasure after all--or maybe something even better?

Laurel Neme – I’m always juggling several projects. In addition to several book manuscripts, I’m also working on a series of articles for, tentatively called wildlife innovations—that will highlight positive stories about solutions to problems affecting wildlife. I’m also looking forward to doing a bunch of virtual school visits! While I prefer to be in person, the magic of Zoom has some advantages—especially in creating the opportunity to meet more kids and teachers around the globe.

Aneta Cruz - I have several PB manuscripts my agent will soon send out on submission, as well as dark fairy tales (yes, there are monsters), and some romcoms for the ladies.

Heather Montgomery – What’s in Your Pocket? Discovering Nature’s Treasures (Charlesbridge, Fall 2021): Young George Washington Carver carried strange seedpods home; they exploded in the parlor. Little Jane Goodall wanted more time with worms; she tried to keep them under her pillow. Young Diego Cisneros-Heredia collected snails and snakes; they escaped throughout the house. This picture book highlights how nature play develops scientific skills in observation, categorizing, and discovery.

Rajani La Rocca – I have five books coming in 2021! My middle grade novel in verse, Red, White, and Whole, publishes with Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins in February 2021. It’s set in 1983 and is about the 13-year-old daughter of Indian immigrants torn between the worlds of her parents and her friends at school. But then her mother falls ill, and she’s torn in a different way. The story involves quite a bit of medical science as well.

My next middle grade, Much Ado About Baseball , is a companion novel to my debut, Midsummer’s Mayhem, and is coming from Yellow Jacket/Little Bee Books in June 2021. It’s ​about girl and boy math competition rivals who find themselves on the same summer baseball team. It’s full of math puzzles, savory snacks, and magic.

Bracelets for Bina’s Brothers is a picture book involving very early math/patterns in which a little girl wants to make special bracelets for her three older brothers to celebrate the Indian holiday Raksha Bandhan. It’s coming from Charlesbridge in April 2021.

And my STEM picture book, The Secret Code Inside You , will publish with Little Bee Books in September 2021 and explains the basics of DNA to kids!

Wow! These all sound fascinating. We'll have to keep our eyes open for your books in 2021. If you could meet anyone (real or literary), who would that be?

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. [Very interesting... *smiling*]

Laurel Neme – Jane Goodall. She’s long been a personal hero for so many different reasons: her work with wildlife, her focus on kids and education through Roots & Shoots, her persistence and ability to overcome adversity, and for her speaking truth despite contrary opinions. [I'd love the chance to meet and talk with her, too!]

Aneta Cruz - Edgar Allan Poe [Ha!]

Heather Montgomery –Jean Craighead George. I absolutely adored (and still do) My Side of the Mountain and many of her other books. She showed me how to combine my love of reading and my love of nature. [I've loved her books, too!!]

Rajani La Rocca – I would love to meet Lin-Manual Miranda. I think Hamilton is one of the greatest contributions to our country in hundreds of years. It has changed the way we view the founding of our country and energized us about our history and civic action in a way that few things have. And the music is just so incredible! [Wouldn't that be a blast!]

This would be such an amazing afternoon party! What is your favorite animal? Or one you are enamored with right now. Why?

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! [*smiling*]

Laurel Neme – Elephants. They are incredibly sensitive and intelligent creatures that care about others, as evidenced by the way they nurture each other and also mourn and experience trauma. Not only do can they communicate over long distances, but they seem to be able to connect in ways that can seem surreal—like a sixth sense. [That's amazing.]

Aneta Cruz - My dog, Poe (see above), is my favorite animal. He’s got the type of face and personality that melts one’s heart. [Aww!]

Heather Montgomery – Dragonflies! Sure, they are the dazzling dancers of the sky, and their aeronautic acrobatics are something we can only aspire to, but beyond all that they package their poop in little casings, kind of like sausage! [Woah!]

Rajani La Rocca – I love my dog Boomer (he’s a Havanese) for his cuteness, his gentle soul, and his boundless affection. He reminds me to enjoy the simple things, like family, walks, and good snacks. [So sweet!]

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

Synopsis: Introduce your little computer scientist to the essential coding basics and turn their everyday world into an extraordinary learning adventure!

Written by an expert, I Can Code: IF/THEN and I Can Code: AND/OR use simple text, colorful illustrations, and interactive flaps to help little ones discover the building blocks of coding all around them! As they follow along with an adorable story about cause and effect, they'll explore fundamental concepts like conditions, rules, and logic―and have fun doing it.

Educators are saying every child needs to know the basics of coding―and this book will get them started as early as possible!

Toddlers regularly face the issues of sharing (or wanting everything) and permanence (out sight = gone). These books offer a basic introduction to the notion of coding cleverly wrapped into these toddler experiences. Beautifully illustrated, these board books that make discovering the consequences of a child's actions fun.

Synopsis: This sweet true story stars a tiny, orphaned elephant who was given another chance.

When Chhouk, an Asian elephant calf, was found, he was alone, underweight, and had a severe foot injury. Conservationist Nick Marx of Wildlife Alliance rescued the baby elephant. With help from the Cambodian Forestry Administration, the Cambodian School of Prosthetics and Orthotics, and an elephant named Lucky, Nick nursed Chhouk back to health and made him an artificial foot. One of the first animals to ever be fitted with a prosthetic, Chhouk helped pioneer the technology -- and most importantly, was able to walk again!

This true animal rescue story will satisfy animal lovers and capture the hearts of both young readers and their parents.

After winning the trust of injured, orphaned elephant, Nick Marx was determined to help the calf lead a normal elephant life. It was easy to get Chhouk elephant companionship, another orphan, Lucy, lived at the rescue center. But fixing the injured leg would require an artificial foot. This beautifully illustrated book details the STEM elements of biology, engineering, and a lot of trial and error involved in Nick's struggles and triumphs to help Chhouk.

Synopsis: A story about inclusion, diversity, and the power of math to help one boy with autism thrive among his peers.

Juan claps his hands to get his Jitters out. They make his tummy swoosh and swirl. His Jitters happen when there are too many people, too much noise, or too many changes to his day. Juan doesn't like surprises. Tomorrow there is an athletic event planned at school, which makes Juan very nervous. But his teacher has the perfect solution: math--Juan's favorite subject! Counting, sorting, and matching help Juan calm his Jitters. By making math part of the day's athletic games, and by appointing Juan the official judge, his teacher can make sure that Juan will have fun and feel included. The class is calling it the Mathletic Games!

Parents of children 4 to 8 years-old can use this book to help teach kids about neurodiversity, inclusion, and the beauty in what makes every one of us unique. Teachers will find the book meets several Common Core Standards for pre-K through third grade in reading and math, and nurtures multiple domains of scholastic development.

This story not only examines an element of autism but explores a teacher's masterful use of the classes' athletic games to help Juan calm his jitters. By setting Juan up as the judge of 'mathletic' events which use the methods that Juan uses to calm himself (counting, sorting, and matching), the teacher helps Juan and his classmates connect.

Synopsis: Poop is disgusting, but it's also packed with potential. One scientist spent months training a dog to track dung to better understand elephant birthing patterns. Another discovered that mastodon poop years ago is the reason we enjoy pumpkin pie today. And every week, some folks deliver their own poop to medical facilities, where it is swirled, separated, and shipped off to a hospital to be transplanted into another human. There's even a train full of human poop sludge that's stuck without a home in Alabama. This irreverent and engaging book shows that poop isn't just waste-and that dealing with it responsibly is our duty.

This interesting middle grade nonfiction uses a wonderful narrative voice to lead readers through the various ways that scientists use poo to understand the world and assist in make diagnoses. The book takes the reader into science labs, forests, hospitals, and landfills, as it examines the uses of poop.

Synopsis: In ancient India, a boy named Bhagat travels to the rajah's city, hoping to ensure his family's prosperity by winning a place at court as a singer. Includes author's note about binary numbers.

Seeking to become the Rajah's singer, Bhagat sets out with 1 rupee and a chain of seven gold rings. In a creative story of mathematical thinking, Bhagat figures out how to split the seven linked rings, one time, in order to pay for a weeks worth of lodging without ever over paying. Expanding on the fable-like feeling of the story, the author's note examines base ten and binary numbers and their usage throughout history.

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:

Vicky Fang - I Can Code: And/Or and I Can Code: If/Then (Sourcebooks Explore 10/1/20) -

Laurel Neme – The Elephant’s New Shoe (Orchard Books 10/6/20) -

Aneta CruzJuan Has the Jitters (Penguin Random House 10/6/20) –

Heather MontgomeryWho Gives A Poop: Surprising Science from One End to the Other (Bloomsbury Children's Books 10/13/20)





Rajani LaRocca - Seven Golden Rings: A Tale Of Music And Math (Lee & Low10/20/20)

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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