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The Picture Book Buzz

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

Today I have the pleasure to introduce you to four authors from the STEAM Team Books – a group of authors who joined together to celebrate and help promote their STEAM books. I promise, it's not too long a post. I do hope you enjoy this peek at these great books and fascinating creatives.

"STEAM Team Books is a group of authors who have a STEM/STEAM book releasing in 2021. It includes fiction & nonfiction, trade or educational books.”

*[NOTE: Christine Van Zandt – A Brief History of Underpants (Quarto Kids/becker&mayer! Kids) was delayed to 6/1/2021. Please go to the April STEAM Team Books post to read about Christine and her super humorous book!]*

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 Layla & The Bots: Cupcake Fix (Scholastic 6/1/2021) and Friendbots: Blink and Block Make a Wish (Harper Alley 6/22/2021) - 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 7 books, including I Can Code: If/Then (2020), I Can Code: And/Or (2020), Layla & The Bots: Built for Speed (2020), Invent-A-Pet (2020), Layla & The Bots: Happy Paws (2020).]

Darcy Pattison – A.I.: How Patterns Helped Artificial Intelligence Defeat World Champion Lee Sedol (Moments in Science)(Mims House 6/8/2021) – 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 27 books, including The Leaf Detective: How Margaret Lowman Uncovered Secrets in the Rainforest (2/9/2021), Erosion: How Hugh Bennett Saved America's Soil and Stopped the Dust Bowl (2020), Nefertiti, the Spidernaut: How a Jumping Spider Learned to Hunt in Space (2016), Liberty (2016), Rowdy: The Pirate Who Could Not Sleep (2016), Burn: Michael Faraday’s Candle (2016), Longing for Normal (2015), The Read and Write Series​ (2015), Vagabonds (2014), The Girl, the Gypsy and the Gargoyle (2014), Saucy and Bubba (2014), The Aliens Inc. Series – short chapter books (2014), Abayomi, the Brazilian Puma: The True Story of an Orphaned Cub (2014), Wisdom, the Midway Albatross: Surviving the Japanese Tsunami and Other Disasters for Over 60 Years (2013).]

Rajani LaRoccaMuch Ado About Baseball (Yellow Jacket 6/22/2021) - 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 14 books, including - Bracelets for Bina’s Brothers (2021), Red, White, and Whole (2021), Seven Golden Rings: A Tale Of Music And Math (2020), Midsummer’s Mayhem (2019) , and ten more upcoming books between 2021 and 2023.]

Annette WhippleWoof: The Truth About Dogs (Reycraft 6/30/2021) – I didn’t grow up loving writing assignments from teachers. It wasn’t until 2009 that I realized how much I loved to write about things I’m passionate about. I began blogging and took some writing courses. Now I love to teach other writers—especially kidlit writers. By the end of this year I’ll have ten informational books out. My goal is to celebrate curiosity while inspiring children to love science and history because facts are fun.

[Author of 10 books including, The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion: A Chapter-by-Chapter Guide (Chicago Press Review 2020), Whooo Knew? The Truth about Owls (2020), and The Story of the Wright Brothers (2020).]

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!

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

Rajani LaRocca - I have visited forty-nine out of the fifty U.S. states!

Annette Whipple – I can’t swim. Actually, I can doggie paddle, but that’s it!

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

Vicky Fang – Layla & The Bots: Cupcake Fix (6/1/2022) - The Layla and the Bots series is inspired by my time as a product designer creating fantastic experiences for kids and families at Google and Intel. For each book, I tried to pick something that excited me as a designer! I was probably also watching the Great British Baking show at the time. When I started doing research and found some of the wildly innovative things people are doing with confections, I was hooked on the idea of writing about a super sweet invention!

Friendbots: Blink and Block Make a Wish (6/22/2021) - Friendbots is inspired by my son. He had just started elementary school, and was navigating friendships for the first time. I wanted to write something that showcased some of the challenges but also the sweetness of new friendships. And I wanted it to be funny!

Darcy Pattison - A.I.: How Patterns Helped Artificial Intelligence Defeat World Champion Lee Sedol (Moments in Science) (6/8/2021)– Artificial intelligence has become widespread in the last few years. It’s based on complicated math that I’ll likely never understand. But the underlying principles of how it works are simple. When I discovered this amazing story of an A.I. playing against a world champion Go player, it was exciting. The teams were aware that this was an important competition, so they filmed a compelling documentary. ( I watched that film over and over to distill the story to the size of a picture book.

In the U.S., we don’t play Go much, but in Asian countries, it’s hugely popular. It’s one of the most complicated board games because there are so many different possible plays. To play chess, a computer might plan an entire game at once. But with Go, it can only look a few moves ahead. Traditional computer programing couldn’t handle the task, but A.I. was able to learn it over time.

Basically, A.I. looks for patterns. For example, how would A.I. look at a photograph and be able to say that the image is of a cat? First, scientists give the A.I. lots of photographs, each labeled, CAT or NOTCAT. The A.I. analyzes each photo and develops a mathematical model of CAT. When it’s given a new photograph, it can recognize if it’s a cat. Of course, it’s much more complicated, and there are layers of complex mathematical formulas. But that’s the basic idea.

If kids can grasp the basic idea of A.I., it will help them understand the world around them as the technology is added to new areas of business and education.

Rajani LaRoccaMuch Ado About Baseball (6/22/2021)I knew I wanted to write this book about the “other side” of the magical competition from Midsummer’s Mayhem, which was inspired by my daughter, who loves to bake. I have a math-loving, baseball-playing son, so I wanted to incorporate both these things into Much Ado About Baseball. Much Ado About Nothing is another Shakespearean favorite of mine, and so in my book I explored the idea of two main characters who have so much in common but who can’t seem to get along without a little help (shove) from their friends.

Annette WhippleWoof: The Truth About Dogs 6/30/2021) As the second book in The Truth About animal series, I wanted to write about a topic I wanted to know more about AND that kids would love. Dogs was the natural choice!

I love how this group shows the diversity within STEAM books. 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.

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

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! Raskin also wrote two other books I loved: The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) and The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues.

Annette Whipple – Our family didn’t have a lot of books, but I did collect The Baby-Sitters Club books by Ann M. Martin from our Scholastic book flyers back when they were new.

Is there anything special you want your readers to know about your book ?

Text © Vicky Fang, 2021. Image © Christine Nishiyama, 2021.

Vicky Fang – Layla & The Bots: Cupcake Fix (6/1/2022) - For readers who have read other Layla and the Bots books, you may start to recognize the design thinking steps that the band goes through in every book! I love introducing this problem-solving strategy to kids. I also try to introduce different tools within the process—in Cupcake Fix, the band uses a survey as a research tool!

© Vicky Fang, 2021.

Blink and Block Make a Wish (6/22/2021) - In the back of each Friendbots book, there is a funny one-page comic with a little information about robots!

Text © Darcy Pattison, 2021. Image © Peter Willis, 2021.

Darcy Pattison - A.I.: How Patterns Helped Artificial Intelligence Defeat World Champion Lee Sedol (Moments in Science) (6/8/2021) Artificial intelligence is a technology that is integrated into our lives. An explanation of the technology will help students understand their world.

Text © Rajani LaRocca, 2021. Image © Chloe Dijon, 2021.

Rajani LaRoccaMuch Ado About Baseball (6/22/2021)– Much Ado About Baseball involves baseball and math puzzles. But it’s also about friendship and family, fitting in, and forgiveness. There’s a mathematical metaphor at the heart of the story, and it’s about what it means to be on a team, or in a family.

Text © Annette Whipple, 2021. Image © Juanbjuan Oliver & Reycraft Books, 2021.

Annette WhippleWoof: The Truth About Dogs (6/30/2021) This book, like Whooo Knew? The Truth About Owls, is a question-and-answer book illustrated primarily with photographs! Art-illustrated sidebars add a bit of humor. The hardcover books include posters for dog lovers.

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

Vicky Fang – Layla & The Bots: Cupcake Fix (6/1/2022) - The logic of this book was tricky to figure out! I needed something to go wrong with their machine, and I tried several different ideas before my editor and I were able to figure it out. Very observant fans of the series will notice that the book used to be called Chocolate Fix—but we had to change it when we finally nailed down the plot and realized there wasn’t really any chocolate in the story any more!

Friendbots: Blink and Block Make a Wish (6/22/2021) - The most challenging part was illustrating a book for the first time! Because I had never illustrated a book before, I had no idea how much time I needed to leave myself for each spread. I kind of just agreed to a timeline and then hustled to get it all done! It’s a lot of work, but a satisfying end!

Darcy Pattison - A.I.: How Patterns Helped Artificial Intelligence Defeat World Champion Lee Sedol (Moments in Science) (6/8/2021) – Artificial intelligence involves complicate math. The challenge was to explain A.I. clearly, but without the math.

Rajani LaRoccaMuch Ado About Baseball (6/22/2021)This was the second novel I wrote, and it took me a long time to figure it out. It was my first time writing a dual POV story, and I wanted to make sure the two characters balanced out and were both likeable. It took me FOREVER to figure out what the magical people in the story wanted, and in order to do so I turned to my old nemesis, the synopsis. Once the story made sense in synopsis form, I knew it would hold together. Now I write synopsis early on with every novel.

Annette WhippleWoof: The Truth About Dogs (6/30/2021) Much of my research was at the beginning of the pandemic when libraries and bookstores were closed. Thankfully I had about ten books, the internet, and an expert to guide me along the way!

Speaking of the pandemic, how are you all staying creative? What things are you doing to “prime” the well?

Vicky Fang – It’s been so hard! I’m lucky because I do have in-laws nearby who can take the kids sometimes. Otherwise, I try to talk to my fellow writers when I have a chance - that always re-inspires me!

Darcy Pattison – Read! I read widely from many areas of science, looking at what the curriculum standards require and how to make those standards come alive with new ideas and topics.

Rajani LaRocca – I am trying to practice kindness to myself by letting myself read freely and write what I like. It’s been a difficult year, and I have lots of new ideas, but I’m letting them incubate in my head a bit without putting too much pressure on myself.

Annette Whipple – Readers make the best writers! I love reading informational picture books, MG, and YA books. I even like adult nonfiction. This weekend I’m birding for the first time. I can’t wait to celebrate my curiosity of birds.

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

Vicky Fang – I’m finishing up Friendbots Book 2! It releases this fall, and I think everything I learned in Book 1 makes it an even stronger book.

Darcy Pattison – I'm very excited about Field Notebooks: How Scientists Record and Write About Observations which will be out in August, 2021. Put scientists out in the field—where they observe and learn from their subjects—and exciting things happen. This book delves into the field notebooks of fourteen American scientists as they watch sleeping hippos, avoid cactus thorns, hide snakes under their skirts, make jokes, and draw elephants, termites or squids. [That does sound cool!]

Rajani LaRocca – I have three more books — all picture books — coming this year, including my first pure nonfiction book, THE SECRET CODE INSIDE YOU, which is an introduction to DNA and genetics. It also touches upon the limits of genes, and how our choices also determine who we are. [What a fun cover!]

My next novel, coming in 2022, is about musical twin sisters who grow apart, make a bet to switch places at their music summer camp to settle a disagreement, and then find their way back to each other.

Annette Whipple – Currently, I have contracts for more books in The Truth About animal series. Scurry: The Truth About Spiders releases in the fall. That was a delight to write. It’s been a blast researching and writing about frogs and cats, too. (Did you know wood frogs QUACK?) [Up close with spiders, hmm.]

Those sound like such interesting books - even the one on spiders. 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.

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

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!

Annette Whipple – I’m so grateful to all the authors I’ve been able to meet over the past few years. But if I could go back in time, I think I’d like to have a theological chat with C. S. Lewis or a book chat with Louisa May Alcott or Harper Lee.

That would be a great 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!

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.

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.

Annette Whipple – Oh, my! Just one? How about two? Owls (really, all the species are quite incredible) or the firefly (which you might call a lightning bug). It was a dream come true when I got to hold a Eurasian Eagle Owl during my research about owls! (I can’t say the same when I held a tarantula, but my knowledge through research made me brave because spiders really are amazing creatures.)

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

Synopsis: Layla and the Bots are building a SWEET new invention!

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

Blossom Valley is opening a new community center! But they need to generate buzz for the grand opening. Layla and the Bots know how to help: they will build a cupcake machine for the party! But will their invention be a piece of cake... or a recipe for disaster? With full-color artwork on every page, speech bubbles throughout, and a fun DIY activity that readers can try at home, this early chapter book series brings kid-friendly STEAM topics to young readers!

In this third book, Layla and her band of bots are scheduled to play for the grand opening of the community center. But when only twelve people confirm, the band uses cooking, coding, and STEM to build a solution and make it a grand opening concert. Really run STEAM chapter series!

Synopsis: Introducing I Can Read Comics, a brand-new early reader line that familiarizes children with the world of graphic novel storytelling and encourages visual literacy in emerging readers.

Meet the robots Blink and Block in this STEM-inspired story by debut author-illustrator Vicky Fang. Blink is scanning the playground for treasure, and Block is pretty sure there’s no gold to be found. Will Blink prove that treasure does exist—or will these two new pals find something even better? Friendbots: Blink and Block Make a Wish is a Level Two I Can Read Comic, an engaging story for children starting to read on their own.

With the most adorable orb, Blink, Vicky Fang takes young kids on a fun adventure. Using its sensor, the little robot Blink searches for treasure and finds the best one ever. This is really fun early reader author/illustrator debut.

Synopsis: 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.

Using deep learning, where a computer creates its own model(s) based on experience and exposure, a team developed a computer to challenge the world's top GO player. After three and a half hours, the computer stunned the world and won the first of five games. Exploring the games, creative moves, and ground breaking actions of both man and machine, this book is a great thought provoking introduction to A.I. Short bios of the man, the team, and the machine, a timeline, and an A.I. activity make this a really fascinating STEM picture book.

Synopsis: In this companion novel to Midsummer's Mayhem, math and baseball combine with savory snacks to cause confusion and calamity in the town of Comity.

Twelve-year-old Trish can solve tough math problems and throw a mean fastball. But because of her mom's new job, she's now facing a summer trying to make friends all over again in a new town. That isn't an easy thing to do, and her mom is too busy to notice how miserable she is.

But at her first baseball practice, Trish realizes one of her teammates is Ben, the sixth-grade math prodigy she beat in the spring Math Puzzler Championships. Everyone around them seems to think that with their math talent and love of baseball, it's only logical that Trish and Ben become friends, but Ben makes it clear he still hasn't gotten over that loss and can't stand her. To make matters worse, their team can't win a single game. But then they meet Rob, an older kid who smacks home runs without breaking a sweat. Rob tells them about his family's store, which sells unusual snacks that will make them better ballplayers. Trish is dubious, but she's willing to try almost anything to help the team.

When a mysterious booklet of math puzzles claiming to reveal the "ultimate answer" arrives in her mailbox, Trish and Ben start to get closer and solve the puzzles together. Ben starts getting hits, and their team becomes unstoppable. Trish is happy to keep riding the wave of good luck . . . until they get to a puzzle they can't solve, with tragic consequences. Can they find the answer to this ultimate puzzle, or will they strike out when it counts the most?

When math rivals end up baseball team mates, it falls to them figure out the strange, almost magical, things happening to the team. This is a fun book that weaves together emigration, family issues, friendship, math, and problem solving.

Synopsis: How do dogs communicate? Why do dogs sniff butts? Are dogs just tame wolves? These and other questions are answered by the author, along with some extra information provided by the dogs themselves in this second book in THE TRUTH ABOUT series.

With a bold, photo-illustrated, question & answer format, this books addresses kid-friendly questions about dogs like: “Why are puppies born with closed eyes?” “Do dogs have feelings?” “How do dogs communicate?” “Do dogs sweat?” “How do dogs help people?” and “How can I help?” Using a dose of humor and entertaining sidebars, as well as a comparison of breeds, a how to behave around dogs section, DIY dog toy instructions, and a glossary, it is a fun exploration of dogs.

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:

Vicky Fang Layla & The Bots: Cupcake Fix (Scholastic 6/1/2021) and Friendbots: Blink and Block Make a Wish (Harper Alley 6/22/2021)

Darcy PattisonA.I.: How Patterns Helped Artificial Intelligence Defeat World Champion Lee Sedol (Moments in Science) (Mims House 6/8/2021)

Rajani LaRoccaMuch Ado About Baseball (Yellow Jacket 6/22/2021)

Annette WhippleWoof: The Truth About Dogs (Reycraft 6/30/2021)

Don't forget to checkout:

Christine Van Zandt – A Brief History of Underpants (Quarto Kids/becker&mayer! Kids 6/1/2021)


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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