The Picture Book Buzz - February Interview with STEAM Team Books Members
Today I have the pleasure to introduce you to eight authors from the STEAM Team Books group whose books release in February.
STEAM Team Books is a group of authors who have Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math books, including fiction & nonfiction, trade or educational books, which "bring the spirit of inquiry, discovery, and creative problem-solving to learners while engaging them in rich literacy experiences."
Follow #STEAMTeamBooks to catch all the info on the new STEAM/STEM children's books heading your way.
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?...)
Kelly LaFarge – Herbaria: A Guide for Young People (Missouri Botanic Gardens Press 2/2/2021) - I worked in advertising, copy writing, and illustrating many years ago. I have been a teacher of reading, and art. Now I am transitioning to children’s writing. I am a biography lover, a woman, and I grew up in farming country, so those are the topics I have chosen to focus on. STEAM Team books are exactly the kind of books I loved to read as a girl.
Rajani LaRocca – Red, White, and Whole (Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins 2/2/2021) - Hi! I’m a physician and author in the Boston area. I write middle grade and picture books. 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 13 books, including Seven Golden Rings: A Tale Of Music And Math (2020), Midsummer’s Mayhem (2019) , and ten more upcoming books between 2021 and 2023.]
Laura Chamberlain Gehl - Brilliant Baby Plays Music and Brilliant Baby Does Math (little bee books 2/2/2021) - I write board books, picture books, and early readers, both fiction and nonfiction. Picking a favorite type of book to write would be like picking a favorite one of my four kids—I love writing different kinds of books for different reasons. I also like working on both fiction and nonfiction at the same time, because when one project starts getting frustrating, I can hop over to another one. For example, if I can’t think of the perfect ending for a fiction picture book, I can switch to doing research for a nonfiction picture book. Definitely beats staring into space for hours on end!
I’ve always loved both writing and science. In third grade, I thought I was going to be a chemist, and I tried to memorize the periodic table…but I also worked on my first picture book. Flash forward almost twenty years, and I wrote my first published picture book, One Big Pair of Underwear, while working in a neurobiology lab. Many of my books have STEAM themes—not just my nonfiction books, but my fiction books as well.
[Author of 8 Board Books, including Baby Paleontologist (2020), Baby Botanist (2020), Baby Oceanographer (2019), & Baby Astronaut (2019). 19 Picture Books, including The Ninja Club Sleepover (2020), May Saves the Day (2020), Happy Llamakkah (2020), Juniper Kai: Super Spy (2019), Always Looking Up: Nancy Grace Roman, Astronomer (She Made History) (2019) and 2 early readers Goat Wants to Eat (July 2021) and Cat Has a Plan (2020).]
Meeg Pincus – Cougar Crossing (S&S/Beach Lane 2/2/2021) – I’ve been writing in one way or another my whole life, from working as a journalist in my twenties to being a children’s book author today. My children’s books are true stories of “solutionaries” who help people, animals and the planet. Solutionaries is a term from humane education, which I’ve also taught in schools, and the animals and planet part put several of my books in the STEAM category. I write in the nooks and crannies of my life as a homeschooling mom, at various hours of day or night. My writing time is a pleasure for me, using my creativity and curiosity (and having some quiet!).
[Author of 24 books including, Ocean Soup: A Recipe for You, Me & a Cleaner Sea (3/2021), Winged Wonders: Solving the Monarch Migration Mystery (2020), Miep and the Most Famous Diary (2019), and 19 books with Educational Publishers.]
Darcy Pattison – A Little Bit of Dinosaur (Mims House 2/9/2021) - 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 time line 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 26 books, including two award winning science series. Moments in Science titles include A.I. How Patterns Helped Artificial Intelligence Defeat World Champion Lee Sedol (June, 2021), Erosion: How Hugh Bennett Saved America's Soil and Stopped the Dust Bowl (2020), Eclipse: How the 1919 Solar Eclipse Proved Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity (2019), Pollen: Darwin’s 130-Year Prediction (NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book 2019), Clang! Ernst Chladni’s Sound Experiments (NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book 2018), and Burn: Michael Faraday’s Candle (2016).
The Another Extraordinary Animal series includes Rosie the Ribeter: The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (2019), Nefertiti, the Spidernaut: How a Jumping Spider Learned to Hunt in Space (NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book 2016), Abayomi, the Brazilian Puma: The True Story of an Orphaned Cub (NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book 2014), and Wisdom, the Midway Albatross: Surviving the Japanese Tsunami and Other Disasters for Over 60 Years (2013).]
Heather Lang – The Leaf Detective: How Margaret Lowman Uncovered Secrets in the Rainforest (Calkins Creek 2/9/2021) - For as long as I can remember I’ve loved books and stories and creating things. When I started writing for children 18 years ago, I was also a full-time mom of 5-year-old triplets and a 7-year-old, so I learned quickly to write anywhere and everywhere.
I especially enjoy researching and writing picture book biographies about brave women from history. Since science topics fascinate me and women pursuing STEM careers have faced incredible challenges, I’m really drawn to their stories. The women I write about inspire me every day to push myself and step out of my comfort zone. They’ve taught me important life lessons, transformed fear into passion, and helped me grow in so many ways. And my ultimate hope is always to pass that inspiration on to my readers.
[Author of 6 books, including Anybody's Game: Kathryn Johnston, the First Girl to Play Little League Baseball (2018), Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark (2016), Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine (2016), The Original Cowgirl: The Wild Adventures of Lucille Mulhall (2015), Queen of the Track: Alice Coachman, Olympic High-Jump Champion (2012). And contributor to Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-Winning Children’s Book Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing (2020).]
Sue Heavenrich – 13 Ways to Eat a Fly (Charlesbridge 2/16/2021) – I write because I am curious. Writing is how I figure out what I want to know more about, and a way to share cool stuff I learn. I have a writing space with a nice window that lets in plenty of light, but in warm weather I like to sit outside with a notebook. Some of my best ideas – and writing – happen in my garden or while I’m walking in the woods, so I tuck a pencil and index card into my pocket.
My background in biology may have pushed my writing in a STEM direction… my first article for kids grew out of an ant invasion in our kitchen. I wanted to know what they were after and, if I took it away, what the ants would do.
[Author of 6 books, including Super Science Sky Spies (2019), Super Science Are Ants Like Plants? (2019), Food as Fuel (The Human Machine) (2019), How Muscles Work (The Human Machine) (2019), and Diet for a Changing Climate, with Christy Mihaly (2018).]
Ruth Bernstein Spiro – Maxine and the Greatest Garden Ever! (Dial 2/16/2021) - I started writing about twenty years ago when my two daughters were very young. It was something I squeezed in when time allowed, so my career didn’t start to pick up until they were older and I had the time and mental energy to really focus. Now, one works full-time and lives in her own apartment and the other is off to graduate school, so as an empty-nester I’m thankful to have my work to keep me busy!
I guess I’m writing the kind of books I wish were available when they were little. We’re a reading family and I’m happy to say that as young adults my daughters still enjoy reading. STEM/STEAM wasn’t really a “thing” back then, though I’m glad it is now.
[Author of 26 books, including - Baby Loves Political Science: Congress! (Baby Loves Science) (2021),
Baby Loves Political Science: The Presidency! (Baby Loves Science) (2021), Baby Loves Taste! (The Five Senses) (8/18/20), Baby Loves Smell! (The Five Senses) (8/18/20), Baby Loves Touch! (The Five Senses) (8/18/20), Baby Loves Political Science: Democracy! (Baby Loves Science) (2020), Baby Loves the Five Senses: Hearing! (Baby Loves Science) (2019), Baby Loves the Five Senses: Sight! (Baby Loves Science) (2019), Baby Loves Scientists (Baby Loves Science) (2019), Baby Loves Green Energy! (Baby Loves Science) (2018), Baby Loves Structural Engineering! (Baby Loves Science) (2018), Made by Maxine (2018), Baby Loves Coding! (Baby Loves Science) (2018), Baby Loves Gravity! (Baby Loves Science) (2018), Baby Loves Thermodynamics! (Baby Loves Science) (2017), and Baby Loves Quantum Physics! (Baby Loves Science) (2017), Baby Loves Aerospace Engineering!! (Baby Loves Science) (2016), and Baby Loves Quarks! (Baby Loves Science) (2016).]
What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
Kelly LaFarge – I had an epiphany when I was 4 ½ years old. In Sunday school we were to draw the changing of the seasons. I drew four trees and the next thing I knew everybody was bringing their papers to me, asking me to help them draw trees. That is when I knew what I was, an artist.
Rajani LaRocca - I have visited forty-nine out of the fifty U.S. states!
Laura Chamberlain Gehl - I seriously considered becoming a professional musician. My childhood friends know this, but most of my kidlit friends, and other friends I’ve made as an adult, don’t. I’m so happy I was finally able to write a book about the joy of music!
Meeg Pincus- I worked for a few years in my youth working as a character at Disneyland, though as a grownup I can’t stand the crowds at Disneyland!
Darcy Pattison – Growing up, I wanted to be an astronaut. Even today, I love to read science fiction stories about space travel.
Heather Lang – I majored in psychology in college, but I took STEM classes like cell biology, calculus, computer science, and oceanography “for fun.”
Sue Heavenrich – My favorite rock might be pseudomorphic limonite because it is such a fun word to say!
Ruth Bernstein Spiro - Many people who know me for my current work don’t know about my first book, Lester Fizz, Bubble Gum Artist. It was the first manuscript I ever wrote, the first I submitted and was acquired by the first editor who read it. (I don’t share this story often because it’s a rare occurrence!) I sold it as a result of a manuscript critique at the 2003 SCBWI Annual Conference. I patiently waited five years for it to come out in 2008, just as the bottom dropped out of the publishing industry. Needless to say, sales were disappointing. It’s since gone out of print but still has a bit of a cult following among educators and librarians.
Now that we know a little more about all of you, what inspired you to write your story?
Kelly LaFarge – Herbaria: A Guide for Young People (2/2/2021) - Curiosity. I did not know my city, Fort Worth, had one of the 10th largest herbarium in the world. I consider myself a nature lover, but when I learned this fact, I was disturbed I did not know about the herbarium. After a few visits to satisfy my curiosity, I searched book listings (WorldCat, etc.) and I could not find a single book on the topic for kids.
Rajani LaRocca – Red, White, and Whole (2/2/2021) - The idea for this book came to me as a metaphor: blood, and all that it means in terms of biology, heredity, and family bonds. The title refers to: red and white blood cells and whole blood; the colors red and white and their connotations in Indian and American culture; and the colors of the American flag.
Red, White, and Whole is set in 1983 and is about Reha, the child of Indian immigrants, who is torn between her worlds at home and at school. But then her mother becomes ill with leukemia, and Reha is torn in a different way. Reha wants to be a doctor, but because of her mother’s illness, she also recognizes that the world of medicine can be terrifying. Because this story is very interior-oriented and involves deep emotions, I felt that verse was the right way to write it. The book features the interplay between heritage and fitting in, science and poetry, 80s pop music and Hindu mythology. It’s about being caught between here and there, before and after, and finding a way to be whole.
Laura Chamberlain Gehl - Brilliant Baby Plays Music and Brilliant Baby Does Math (l2/2/2021) - As I mentioned above, I actually considered becoming a professional musician. Growing up, I played the oboe in many different orchestras and bands (I actually met my husband in one of them!). Since music was a huge part of my life as a kid, I wanted to write a book about music for the littlest readers to get families thinking about playing different types of music for and with their kids. Whether that means pulling out pots and pans to bang on, or blasting pop music through the speakers, or taking a picnic to an outdoor concert in the summer…I hope Brilliant Baby Plays Music will inspire families to do lots of playing and listening together.
While Brilliant Baby Plays Music was inspired by my love of music, Brilliant Baby Plays Math was not inspired by a love of math. Instead, it was inspired by my frustration with seeing math flash cards for babies, and other baby and toddler products designed to produce future math superstars. I wanted to remind caregivers that the foundation for future math success isn’t flash cards or talking toys that spout math facts. Math is truly EVERYWHERE—in games, in books, in blocks, and in nature, and I wanted to write a book with that message. Exposing kids to math at early ages is as simple (and fun!) as building with Legos, baking cookies, or making bracelets in different patterns. No flash cards required! Actually, I think one important point of the Brilliant Baby books in general is that babies are ALREADY brilliant. They are natural scientists, mathematicians, and musicians. You don’t need to buy any special products to make your baby smarter or more talented—you just need to play with them, read to them, and let them follow their interests and curiosity wherever they may lead.
Meeg Pincus – Cougar Crossing (2/2/2021) – Since I write stories about “solutionaries,” I was fascinated when I learned about how many people worked together over years to come up with a solution for the major threat to the cougar population in Los Angeles. I was drawn to both the story of this single cougar, named P-22, who unknowingly became a solutionary by bringing people’s attention to the problem and the victory of so many scientists and citizens working together to get the world’s largest wildlife crossing built in L.A.
Darcy Pattison - A Little Bit of Dinosaur (Mims House 2/9/2021) –★ “…entertaining tale… A science-centric winner, especially for young dinosaur lovers.” Kirkus starred review
This book is co-authored with my sister, Elleen Hutcheson, who has taught high school biology and been director of local Audubon camps. Once at a camp, she heard someone talking about the classic conservation book, A Sand Almanac by Aldo Leopoldo. He discusses how man and nature are interconnected. Elleen and I talked about how the concept of the circle of life—or the conservation of mass—might work in a children’s book. Adding dinosaurs to the story made it come alive in a kid-friendly way.
Heather Lang – The Leaf Detective: How Margaret Lowman Uncovered Secrets in the Rainforest (Calkins Creek 2/9/2021) - We have caused enormous harm to our planet over the last few centuries. I’m deeply concerned about our natural world, especially our rainforests. I knew I wanted to write a biography that was also a science book about the rainforest. When I read about Meg’s pioneering work and deep passion for trees, I was hooked. I couldn’t wait to find out how this shy, nature-loving child, who didn’t know women could be scientists, became a world-class scientist and conservationist.
Sue Heavenrich – 13 Ways to Eat a Fly (2/16/2021) – I was reading something and jotted down “how to eat a fly.” Most people don’t know how diverse flies are, so I originally I thought I might make a sort of “guide to flies. Then I figured a book about animals and their “fly food” might be fun. A lot of books include a dozen of this or ten of that, so I wanted a different number. Thirteen is a prime number, it’s part of the Fibonacci series, and my kids once challenged each other to count by 13 to 100. I got as far as 26… they got all the way to 104.
Ruth Bernstein Spiro – Maxine and the Greatest Garden Ever! (2/16/2021) - For those who haven’t read the first Maxine book, Made by Maxine, she’s a girl who loves to make things, but not in the crafty sense. She’s a true Maker at heart who uses her tinkering and coding skills to build things that solve problems around the house. Her motto is, “If I can dream it, I can build it!”
My idea for Maxine and the Greatest Garden Ever came from a challenge I experienced in my own garden. Like many gardeners, I’ve had my share of frustration when critters nibbled on the fruits of my beloved tomato plants. Nothing seemed to deter them, until a master gardener gave me some surprising advice. She said the animals were taking bites of my tomatoes because they were thirsty – they only wanted to drink the liquid inside. So, I set out a pan of water for them near the vegetable plants. And it worked! Without revealing too much more bout the story, Maxine and the Greatest Garden Ever is about friendship, persistence and being kind to one another.
Fascination, frustration, and passion - so many different ways to be inspired to write a story. Who was a favorite/special author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
Kelly LaFarge – It was not so much I had a favorite author/illustrator, but what the books showed me. I would study the artists’ illustrations, the artists’ style they used to interpret the words of the story. I even studied the endpapers. I loved the How & Why books by Grosset & Dunlap.
Rajani LaRocca - 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! I also loved everything that Madeleine L’Engle wrote, and my favorite book of hers was The Arm of the Starfish, which involves a lot of science.
Laura Chamberlain Gehl - I absolutely loved Richard Scarry’s books, and also the Frances books by Russell and Lillian Hoban—especially A Birthday for Frances!
Meeg Pincus - I absolutely loved Richard Scarry books and he is the one author I ever wrote a letter to, when I was maybe 5 years old. I remember my excitement when I received a letter back from him from Switzerland, with a picture of a police pig in it, which I still have! [WOW, that's cool!]
Darcy Pattison – In fifth grade, my oldest brother came home from college where he was studying literature. He’d just finished a Science Fiction and Fantasy class and introduced me to Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, and Dune by Frank Herbert. They started a lifelong love of the sci-fi and fantasy genres. Sci-fi relies heavily upon a proper understanding of science, so it gave me an appreciation for great science writing, too.
Heather Lang – Choosing one book is impossible, but Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh was definitely a favorite, because as a child I dreamed about becoming a detective. Judy Blume was my favorite author. Her books were all so honest. They were the first books I read that spoke to me, and they made me laugh out loud!
Sue Heavenrich – So many books! I loved reading fairy tales, Jules Verne, any book from the How and Why series… but one that sticks with me is My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George. I even made a fish hook the way she described and caught my first trout that summer.
Ruth Bernstein Spiro – I was a big fan of Judy Blume. I regularly checked the shelf at my school library every week, just hoping to find a new book had been added to the collection! For Hanukkah, my family gave me a Master Class membership and Judy’s class was first on my list.
All of these are such great authors and books. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about your book ?
© Kelly LaFarge, 2021
Kelly LaFarge – Herbaria: A Guide for Young People (2/2/2021) -Young readers who love nature will receive even more information about what botanists do and what herbariums are used for. Education leaders in schools, museums, and nature programs will have a vibrant, informative support resource for their nature programs and curriculums.
Rajani LaRocca – Red, White, and Whole (2/2/2021) -There are many references to 80s pop music in the book, and many of the poem titles are the titles of 80s songs! I listened to a lot of music from 1983 and 1984 while writing this book, and you can find some of my musical inspiration for Red, White and Whole here: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLukL07PFxukPEStAGGRYKWGxCOabmlAl7
Text © Laura Gehl, 2021. Image © Jean Claude, 2021.
Laura Chamberlain Gehl - Brilliant Baby Plays Music and Brilliant Baby Does Math (l2/2/2021) - Both of my Brilliant Baby books are written in rhyme! I’ve written rhyming picture books before, but these are my first rhyming board books. I hope they will be joyful for families to read aloud again and again. Also, stay tuned for two more Brilliant Baby books coming soon—one about science, and one about fighting germs (inspired by the pandemic? Yep, you bet.).
Text © Meeg Pincus, 2021. Image © Alexander Vidal, 2021.
Meeg Pincus – Cougar Crossing (2/2/2021) – This book was such a team effort! The two wildlife biologists featured in the book (making commentary in little side bubbles) were so patient to answer my questions all along the way, and to review the book several times, along with the California Regional Director of the National Wildlife Federation. This is really their story, and I wanted to be sure it was told accurately and in a way they can feel proud of.
Text © Darcy Pattison, 2021. Image © John Joven, 2021.
Darcy Pattison - A Little Bit of Dinosaur (Mims House 2/9/2021) - Writing this book, we were careful to stick with the facts about dinosaur fossils. My house is about a mile from the Arkansas River as it goes through Little Rock, Arkansas. I’ve traveled to the headwaters of the river in the Rockies. But that’s not why the story is set here. Instead, T-Rex skeletons have been found in Colorado, so the “little bit of dinosaur” (a calcium atom) could easily have eroded away and been washed into the Arkansas River. It’s plausible because of the facts.
Text © Heather Lang, 2021. Image © Jana Christy, 2021.
Heather Lang – The Leaf Detective: How Margaret Lowman Uncovered Secrets in the Rainforest (2/9/2021) - The Leaf Detective is a biography and a science book about the rainforest all wrapped up in one! Relevant rainforest facts are displayed on leaves and sprinkled throughout the book. In the back matter, we created a full spread illustration showing a cross-section of the Amazon rainforest with labeled animals and plants, as well as a description of the different layers and how they function. We also included a CAN YOU FIND section which highlights some plants that Indigenous people use for shelter, food, and medicine.
Text © Sue Heavenrich, 2021. Image © David Clark, 2021.
Sue Heavenrich –13 Ways to Eat a Fly (2/16/2021) - one of the delectable flies was inspired by fly zombies I discovered in my garden perched at the top of onion greens.
Text © Ruth Spiro, 2021. Image © Holly Hatam, 2021.
Ruth Bernstein Spiro – Maxine and the Greatest Garden Ever! (2/16/2021) - I hope young readers will enjoy this fun story, but on a deeper level see the value of persistence. Most importantly, I hope they’ll understand there are often multiple solutions to a problem, and sometimes a problem isn’t really a problem at all, but an opportunity to grow.
What was the hardest, or most challenging, part of writing, or researching, your book?
Kelly LaFarge – Herbaria: A Guide for Young People (2/2/2021) - It was distilling the botany classifying system into a level children could understand.
Rajani LaRocca – Red, White, and Whole (2/2/2021) - I had never written a novel in verse before, and I didn’t know if I knew how to do it. But I felt strongly that this story had to be written in verse. So I read and researched every verse novel I could get my hands on. This is also the most personal novel I’ve ever written—although Reha’s life is different from mine, many of the emotions she experiences are based on my own feelings. I felt very vulnerable putting things so close to my heart into the pages of this novel, but I think it made the book more powerful.
Laura Chamberlain Gehl - Brilliant Baby Plays Music and Brilliant Baby Does Math (l2/2/2021) - Writing in rhyme is always challenging, because you have to think about rhythm and meter and word choice even more than you do when writing in prose. At one point, my editor asked if I wanted to change a near rhyme in Brilliant Baby Does Math. I thought about it for a while, and then told him no, I didn’t want to change it, because I like showing kids that near rhymes (also called slant rhymes) can be a valid choice when writing poetry.
Meeg Pincus – Cougar Crossing (2/2/2021) – The biggest challenge (though also a joy) was working with those three wildlife experts all along the way, as it meant comparing all of their comments and trying to make the best choices for each line and illustration, as they didn’t always 100% agree! I spent hours making a spreadsheet of their comments on the illustrated draft, to make sure we addressed every concern each one of them had.
Darcy Pattison - A Little Bit of Dinosaur (Mims House 2/9/2021) - Part of the challenge of this book was working with my sister, Elleen Hutcheson. A scientist and a teacher, she brought strengths to the book that were exciting. My role as a science writer was to help shape the story into a picture book. There was a fun give and take as we worked to create a story that would delight kids.
Heather Lang – My greatest challenge for this book was figuring out my way into the story and how to focus it. Meg has done so many impressive things. She invented a way to get up to the tree canopy and was one of the first scientists to discover the incredible biodiversity in the treetops. She discovered new organisms, pioneered new ways to explore the treetops, and became a mom, an educator, a mentor, a conservationist. When I interviewed Meg in person and experienced first-hand her love and respect for trees, I found my way into her story. I set out to show that deep connection by writing a lyrical tribute to trees and the story of how they shaped her and gave her a voice.
Sue Heavenrich – 13 Ways to Eat a Fly (2/16/2021) – Because I wanted to introduce Diptera diversity, I made a spreadsheet and began listing all the kinds of fly-eaters in one column and the types of flies they ate in the next. I ended up emailing naturalists and scientists to make the lists. Then came the work of pairing flies from different families (crane flies, long-legged flies, mosquitoes) with the animals – and plants – that ate them. It ended up being more challenging than I expected.
Ruth Bernstein Spiro – Maxine and the Greatest Garden Ever! (2/16/2021) - Because this book is the second in the series, the challenge was to create a whole new story while keeping my character, as well as other elements, consistent. I also wanted to introduce Maxine’s friend but had to do that in a way that seemed organic – no pun intended! Writing a follow-up book presented unique challenges because there were more constraints, but in some ways it was easier because I already knew my character and how she would move through the
You all rose to the challenge and created some great STEAM books. How are you staying creative? What things are you doing to “prime” the well?
Kelly LaFarge – As you research a project you come across other related topics you want to peruse. The saying “one thing leads to another” is true for me.
Rajani LaRocca - I try to exercise regularly and take a little time each day to enjoy the company of loved ones. Although we haven’t travelled far in months, we still enjoy walks with our little dog, and I try to pay attention and appreciate nature. I’ve also allowed myself to write what feels good, and to try different projects in different forms to create without expectations.
Laura Chamberlain Gehl - During the pandemic, I’m having trouble writing every day the way I used to. My four kids are all home all the time (they haven’t been in in-person school since last March), and they have a lot of breaks, during which they want and need my attention. But I’m still jotting down story ideas, even if I don’t have time to pursue them right now, and I’m still READING as much as I can, because reading great books now will help me write great books later. I am also walking in the woods every chance I get—which is essential for my creativity and sanity and health.
Meeg Pincus - I listen to a lot of music (and sing a lot!) and love watching highly creative shows or films to spark other parts of my creative brain, which helps me write more creatively when I sit down to do it.
Darcy Pattison – Reading! I cast a wide net to read about science events, ideas and people. A casual mention of something in an article can send me into a flurry of research. Sometimes the ideas go nowhere, but they sure are fun to follow!
Heather Lang – In the beginning of the pandemic, I found myself working furiously on my books—maybe because I was home so much and it was something productive to do when I was feeling so helpless. A few months into it, I hit a wall. There were no research adventures to inspire my writing. I wasn’t taking time to fuel my creativity. Now, every day I make sure to walk or exercise (outside whenever possible). I also make time for other creative activities, like baking or knitting or crafting. Spending time visiting virtually with students, friends, and my critique group and reading lots of books also energizes me tremendously.
Sue Heavenrich – I take my camera with me on walks and look for “one cool thing”. I tape photos and illustrations from magazines to the wall next to my desk. I read a lot, and listen to music. And sometimes I pull out paper and glue and create collage art. I also participate in things like StoryStorm and ReFoReMo and NF Fest. When I get stuck I do jumping jacks – that’s a good way to shake ideas loose.
Ruth Bernstein Spiro – Honestly, I don’t have the luxury of not being creative! I have three new books under contract that still need to be researched and written. While I’d rather be out in the world at conferences,
book festivals and vacations, I feel blessed to have my work keeping me busy while I stay at home.
Are there any upcoming projects that you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
Kelly LaFarge – I have a couple of book scripts done and I am finishing up illustration samples for them: Alice Eastwood: A Family From Plants, And Women Who Love Plants: American Female Botanist And Plant Scientist.
Rajani LaRocca - I have four more books coming in 2021! 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 on April 14.
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 on June 15. 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.
My STEM picture book, The Secret Code Inside You, will publish with Little Bee Books on September 14 and explains the basics of DNA to kids! It also touches on the limits of our genes and how our choices also make us who we are.
And my picture book, Where Three Oceans Meet, will be published by Abrams in 2021. It’s a story about a girl who takes a trip with her mother and grandmother to the very tip of India and discovers the strength and love that mothers and daughters share across distance and time.
Laura Chamberlain Gehl - I am finishing up final edits on a STEAM picture book that comes out later this year, called Who Is a Scientist? (Lerner, 10/5/2021). I’m extremely excited about this book, my first photo-illustrated nonfiction picture book. The book will introduce readers to fourteen diverse scientists working today in different disciplines. The idea of the book is to show kids that scientists are just like them…that scientists like dancing and art and playing sports and eating junk food, and that anyone who is curious and wants to learn a lot about an interesting topic CAN grow up to be a scientist.
Meeg Pincus - Also in 2021, I have Ocean Soup: A Recipe for You, Me and a Cleaner Sea coming out, which is a book written in rhyme for younger kids, introducing them to the problem of microplastics in the world’s oceans—how they are created and what we can do about it. Then I have two books coming out in 2022: Make Way For Animals!: The Wonderful World of Wildlife Crossings about wildlife crossings around the world (an extension of my Cougar Crossing research!) and So Much More To Helen: The Many Sides of Helen Keller, which introduces kids to Helen Keller as social justice activist, author, traveler, dog lover, performer, romantic, and more—”so much more” than kids often learn about her beyond her childhood.
Darcy Pattison – A.I. How Patterns Helped Artificial Intelligence Defeat World Champion Lee Sedol (June, 2021). The stage was set for a showdown: Man v. Machine. On March 9, 2016, the AlphaGo artificial intelligence computer program played the board game, GO, against the world champion, Lee Sedol.
The Game: Go is the oldest board game in the world. Games are perfect tests for A.I because they keep score. It’s easy to see when the A.I. is improving.
The Man: Korean Lee Sedol was the world’s top Go player. He expected to win all five games of the match. Could the A.I. teach him anything?
The Machine: Developed in 2014, AlphaGo was a computer artificial intelligence program designed to play Go by using deep learning to recognize patterns in the game. It had already beaten the European champion. Could it defeat Sedol?
The exciting historic meeting of minds unfolded across five difficult games. This story introduces concepts of artificial intelligence and helps kids understand the challenges and the promise of working with A.I.
Heather Lang – I’m having a blast working on a new informational picture book series about extraordinary animals for Candlewick Press with my co-author/illustrator and close friend Jamie Harper. The first book, Supermoms!, features cool nonfiction facts about 18 amazing animal moms in a graphic format with humorous callouts.
I’m also working on a collective biography for readers in grades 4-7. More to come on that soon!
Sue Heavenrich – I’m working on a new project about fungi with Alisha Gabriel, an amazing critique partner and curious naturalist. We met at a Highlights Foundation workshop on science writing where we discovered a cool puffball during a nature walk.
Ruth Bernstein Spiro – I’m happy to report the Baby Loves Science family will be growing! There are two new titles coming out later this year and two more in 2022.
There are some great books on the horizon. On a fun note, if you could meet anyone (real or literary), who would that be?
Kelly LaFarge – It would probably the turn-of-the-century women plant scientists Alice Eastwood and Agnes Chase. They were brave enough to go against stereotypical women roles, and fearlessly explore plants all around the world.
Rajani LaRocca - 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!
Laura Chamberlain Gehl - I’d love to enter Susan Cooper’s world from The Dark is Rising and meet Merriman Lyon. Or chat with L.M. Montgomery’s Anne Shirley when she was my age, comparing notes about our writing and our kids.
Meeg Pincus- So many people, but since we are talking as the STEAM Team, I’ll say astronaut Mae Jemison, as I’d love to talk with her about what it was like to be in space and to break so many barriers.
Darcy Pattison – C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein would be fascinating to meet because they understood story in deep and moving ways.
Heather Lang – Jane Goodall is one of my biggest heroes! She’s the ultimate example of what can happen if you follow your passions and persevere. She’s more than an incredible scientist—she’s compassionate and insightful and genuine. She opened our eyes to the wonders of our natural world and the obstacles we must confront to save it. And she’s taught us so much about what it means to be human. Her endorsement on the cover of The Leaf Detective was a dream come true. It’s on the top of my bucket list to meet her in person!
Sue Heavenrich – Dorothea Lang and Georgia O'Keeffe. I love how they saw the world, and how they shared their vision.
Ruth Bernstein Spiro – A few years ago I did get to meet someone from my “Literary Bucket List” – Jane Yolen. Because I’ve always been a fan of her work, it still feels surreal to recall that I spent a long weekend at her home while attending her inaugural Picture Book Boot Camp. It was three days of pure magic, as she shared insights about the writing and publication process and gave me personal feedback on some of my work. One of the highlights of my weekend was a late-night excursion into the woods in search of owls with Jane’s daughter Heidi Stemple. Heidi is also an author, as well as the small child in the red coat pictured in Owl Moon!
Last question, what is your favorite animal? Or one you are enamored with right now. Why?
Kelly LaFarge – On my husband’s and my ranch, we have seven horses, a miniature mule, and a miniature donkey. But my closest companion is Wilma Kitty, a little gray stray we took in.
Rajani LaRocca - My little Havanese dog, Boomer, is my favorite animal in the world. But I also love elephants because of their deep love for one another, their beautiful families and social structures, and their incredible memories.
Laura Chamberlain Gehl - Oh, I love this question, because I have a book about weird animals coming out later this year (Odd Beasts, Abrams, 11/2/2021). It’s hard to choose just one, but I think I’ll go with the anglerfish. It lives deep in the ocean, and the female anglerfish has a fishing pole sticking out of its head with a glowing tip to attract prey (the fishing pole is actually a piece of spine, with a luminous piece of flesh at the end). So creepy and so cool.
Meeg Pincus - I have always loved giraffes, since I was a toddler visiting the National Zoo and one leaned over the fence and looked right at me in my stroller. They are plant-eaters like me and have the biggest heart of any land animal!
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.
Heather Lang – These days I’m doing a lot of research on animals for upcoming books, and I’m especially in love with elephants. They show such deep, unconditional love, compassion, and dedication to each other. All the females in the herd chip in to care for and protect the young. They mourn the death of loved ones and celebrate new life, and they have incredible memories.
Sue Heavenrich – Frogs. Also dragonflies and phoebes. And I really love the tiny pseudoscorpions that hang out in my book case. Their personalities are ten times bigger than they are.
Ruth Bernstein Spiro – I have always been fascinated by flamingos. I have fond memories of childhood vacations in Florida, and flamingos remind me of sunshine and warm weather.
NOW, let me take a moment to introduce you to these amazing STEAM books!
Synopsis: What good is a dead plant? A lot! Herbaria, a picture book for grades one through eight, explains why, leading readers on an accessible, engaging exploration of who loves dead plants—and why. In these pages, we learn about famous historical plant collectors and the paths they established investigating plants. Readers join today’s field botanists as they go far and wide to discover new species, and we get to look in the herbarium at how specimens are mounted and organized for everyone to use and enjoy. The book as a whole helps kids to visualize themselves as botanists gathering, preserving, and unlocking the mysteries of plants. In addition to beautiful watercolor illustrations and photos, the book includes interactive features such as lift-a-flaps, overlays, and a foldout.
Synopsis: Reha feels torn between two worlds: school, where she’s the only Indian American student, and home, with her family’s traditions and holidays. But Reha’s parents don’t understand why she’s conflicted—they only notice when Reha doesn’t meet their strict expectations. Reha feels disconnected from her mother, or Amma, although their names are linked—Reha means “star” and Punam means “moon”—but they are a universe apart.
Then Reha finds out that her Amma is sick. Really sick. Reha, who dreams of becoming a doctor even though she can’t stomach the sight of blood, is determined to make her Amma well again. She’ll be the perfect daughter, if it means saving her Amma’s life.
Synopsis: P-22, the famed “Hollywood Cougar,” was born in a national park near Los Angeles, California. When it was time for him to leave home and stake a claim to his own territory, he embarked on a perilous journey—somehow crossing sixteen lanes of the world’s worst traffic—to make his home in LA’s Griffith Park, overlooking the famed Hollywood sign. But Griffith Park is a tiny territory for a mountain lion, and P-22’s life has been filled with struggles.
Residents of Los Angeles have embraced this brave cougar as their own and, along with the scientists monitoring P-22, raised money to build a wildlife bridge across Highway 101 to help cougars and other wildlife safely expand their territories and build new homes—ensuring their survival for years to come.
With caricatures of the scientists facilitating some of the "behind the scenes" and "person" parts of P-22's story, Meeg Pincus created a wonderful nonfiction picture book about the life of a special cougar in LA's Griffith Park and how he woke up the city to the need for wildlife bridges.
Synopsis: Did you know that you have a little bit of dinosaur in you?
And it's your mother's fault. She fed you that cheese sandwich, which had a calcium atom that used to be in the bones of a T. rex.
This humorous story follows a calcium atom as it journeys from dry bones to your jawbone - and beyond! This story is inspired by the classic environmental book, A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopoldo, which beautifully discusses how man and nature are interconnected. This amazing circle of life--or the conservation of mass--is illustrated in this story with humor and a touch of empathy. Sisters Elleen Hutcheson and Darcy Pattison team up to bring Leopoldo's circle of life to kids. Each is shaking her finger at their mother wondering why she fed them that cheese sandwich.
Factually true, but with wonderfully creative illustrations, this fun picture book explains how an atom of a T-rex could have ended you with a child's bones. Very entertaining way to learn how everything is connected and sure to bring on a lot of questions.
Synopsis: Meg Lowman was always fascinated by the natural world above her head. The colors, the branches, and, most of all, the leaves and mysterious organisms living there. As a scientist, Meg set out to climb up and investigate the rain forest tree canopies-- and to be the first scientist to do so. But she encountered challenge after challenge. Male teachers would not let her into their classrooms, the high canopy was difficult to get to, and worst of all, people were logging and clearing the forests. Meg never gave up or gave in. She studied, invented, and persevered, not only creating a future for herself as a scientist, but making sure that the rainforests had a future as well. Working closely with Meg Lowman, author Heather Lang and artist Jana Christy beautifully capture Meg's world in the treetops.
Meg Lowman's love of nature & especially trees comes to life through her direct quotations and Lang's lyricism and fun word play (a "woman in a jungle of men . . . she stuck like sap to her passion."). With a load of persistence and lots of guts, Meg not only accomplished the feat of scaling & studying the overstory of rainforest trees and their amazing hidden world but she created the first canopy walkway and spearheaded numerous community initiatives to protect rainforests. A great nonfiction biography.
Synopsis: Science meets subtraction in this fresh and funny STEM picture book with plenty of ewww factor to please young readers. A swarm of thirteen flies buzzes along, losing one member to each predator along the way. Whether the unfortunate insects are zapped or wrapped, liquefied or zombified, the science is real--and hilariously gross. Includes a guide to eating bugs, complete with nutritional information for a single serving of flies.
Counting down from 13, with a single rhymed word ("Snatched/Hatched"), this book looks at 13 types of flies and 13 ways they are eaten. To facilitate the youngest reader, the line of flies decreases by one, each time as the lead fly is eaten. Sidebars explain a little about the flies and their predators. Cartoon-like images, "Nutrition Facts" of flies, and "edible parts of a fly" play up the humor as kids learn a bit about flies. A very tongue-in-cheek, fun nonfiction.
Synopsis: Best friends Maxine and Leo combine their maker and artistic skills to create (and save!) the ultimate garden in this empowering, STEM-focused picture book
After sketching and plotting and planting, Maxine and Leo know they've made The Greatest Garden Ever! But they're not the only ones who think so. Soon, all sorts of animals make their way in, munching on carrots and knocking over pots. When Leo and Maxine can't agree on a way to get rid of these unwelcome critters, it looks like there's more on the line than saving their garden--they just might need to save their friendship too.
Ruth's summary - "Without revealing too much more, MAXINE AND THE GREATEST GARDEN EVER is about friendship, creativity, persistence, and being kind to one another. Maxine discovers there are often multiple solutions to a problem, and sometimes a problem isn’t really a problem at all, but an opportunity to grow."
Thank you all for giving us a little peek into you and your books. Wishing you both great success.
To learn more about these writers, or to get in touch with them:
Kelly LaFarge – Herbaria: A Guide for Young People (Missouri Botanic Gardens Press 2/2/2021)
Rajani LaRocca - Red, White, and Whole (Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins 2/2/2021)-
Laura Chamberlain Gehl - Brilliant Baby Plays Music and Brilliant Baby Does Math (little bee books 2/2/2021)