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The Picture Book Buzz

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

Today I have the pleasure to introduce you to two authors from the STEAM Team Books group with books releasing in November.

I hope you enjoy this look at some great books and fascinating creatives. "STEAM Team Books is a group of authors who have Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math books releasing in 2020. It includes fiction & nonfiction, trade or educational books.”

Welcome Sarah Albee & Alexis O'Neil,

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?...)

Sarah Albee - Accidental Archaeologists: True Stories of Unexpected Discoveries (Scholastic 11/10/20) - I’m a mostly middle-grade writer, and a good many of my books tend to be a mash-up of science and history, with a special interest in the history of ordinary, everyday people. My latest, Accidental Archaeologists features (true) stories about chance discoveries made by ordinary people that changed what we thought we knew about the past.

[Author of over 100 books, including: North America: A Fold-out Graphic History (10/1/19), Albert Einstein: A Curious Mind (I Can Read Level 2) (8/4/20), Dog Days of History: The Incredible Story of Our Best Friends (3/27/18), Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines (9/5/17), Why'd They Wear That?: Fashion as the Mirror of History (2/10/15), Bugged: How Insects Changed History (4/15/14), and Poop Happened!: A History of the World from the Bottom Up (5/11/10.]

Alexis O’Neill – The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey (Calkins Creek, Boyds Mills & Kane 11/10/2020) - My sweet spot for writing is at a desk in the corner of my office surrounded by reference books, paper, and art supplies (even though I’m not an illustrator, I’m crazy for colors and designs.) Creative sparks fly best for me in the morning and late afternoon. I’ve been a teacher of kids and teachers, and a museum educator, and love writing in any genre. As it turns out, my latest three books are nonfiction that have STEAM connections -- one connects to kites & engineering, one to flash photography, and one to mathematics.

[Author of - Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children (5/2020), The Kite that Bridged Two Nations: Homan Walsh and the First Niagara Suspension Bridge (2013), Three Irish Tales (2011), The Worst Best Friend (2009), Estela's Swap (2007), The Recess Queen (2002), and Loud Emily (2001).]

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

Sarah Albee – I worked at Sesame Street for nine years when I was just starting my career. In my twenties, I was also a part-time, freelance illustrator, mostly for newspapers, including the Washington Post’s Book World. Having a background in art comes in handy when you write for kids, as it’s really helpful to be able to think visually. [Both sound like so much fun.]

Alexis O’Neill – I won an honorable mention medal in my junior high school’s science fair for my project on mollusks. [Even then you were interested in NF.]

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

Sarah Albee - Accidental Archaeologists: True Stories of Unexpected Discoveries (11/10/20)

The idea for this book occurred to me (as so often ideas do) while I was researching a different book. While researching my book about North America, I stumbled across a story about a Mexican utility worker who made a chance discovery while digging fifteen feet beneath the streets of Mexico City. He uncovered a huge, circular, carved stone, which turned out to be part of the ruins of an Aztec temple. And I thought hmmm. I could write an entire book about accidental archaeological discoveries made by ordinary people. I already knew about some of the famous ones, such as the Terra Cotta Army, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Lascaux cave paintings, but I found oh-so-many more cool (and less well-known) discoveries!

Alexis O’Neill – The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey (11/10/2020) - In 2010, a librarian friend sent me a funny video about the Dewey Decimal Classification system. I realized I didn’t know anything about the guy who invented the DDC. So that’s what started it all.

It's so interesting to see all the different ways that writers find their stories. Who was a favorite/special author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

Sarah Albee – I read widely and fairly indiscriminately as a kid, from fairy tales to the World Book Encyclopedia. I loved mysteries and detective stories,and was especially drawn to the stories about poisons in Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes mysteries. I wanted to know how real life poisons worked at the molecular level, so I wrote a whole book about that. [Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines]

Alexis O’Neill – The Secret Pencil by Patricia Ward was amazing – and prophetic. The main character finds a pencil on the beach which turns out to be magic. When she attempts to use it for a school assignment, the words write themselves in the voice of a sea captain. To me, it’s very much like writing a story: sometimes the words that hop onto the page feel as if they appear by magic.

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

Text © Sarah Albee, 2020. Image © Nathan Hackett, 2020.

Sarah Albee - Accidental Archaeologists: True Stories of Unexpected Discoveries (11/10/20) -

Each of the 18 chapters features a different accidental discovery, and I’m excited about every single one. It was torture trying to narrow down which discoveries to include in the book, and which ones we ultimately didn’t have space for. I am not a trained archaeologist, so I want to be sure readers don’t expect a how-to about archaeological techniques. The book focuses much more on the history behind what was discovered and how the discoveries helped us reframe what we thought we knew about the past.

Also, when I began the project, I had this idea that the archaeological record is the ultimate in objective research, but I quickly learned that archaeologists bring their own biases to interpreting artifacts from the past. To get as close as we can to the truth, historians (including kid researchers) need to triangulate their sources and use a combination of the written record, oral histories, and archaeological evidence.

Text © Alexis O'Neill 2020. Image © Edwin Fotheringham, 2020.

Alexis O’Neill – The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey (11/10/2020) - Writing the Dewey book made me think of how you’re never too young to have big ideas. Dewey was driven from a very young age to do something that could make a real difference in the world. When he grew up, not only did he create the Dewey Decimal Classification system which organized books for easier public access and, consequently, a free public education, but he established a school for librarians and invented many tools to make their jobs more efficient. He wasn’t a one-and-done kind of creative person. I hope kids get insight into how we create systems to organize information so that it can be accessed easily and consistently in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and also in their everyday life at home or in school.

You both will definitely be spurring curiosity with your books. What was the hardest, or most challenging, part of writing, or researching, your book?

Sarah Albee - Accidental Archaeologists: True Stories of Unexpected Discoveries (11/10/20) -

For me, hands down, it’s my usual tendency to pour as much material as I can into a book and forgetting to say “when.” I get so excited about a topic that my challenge is always figuring out what to cut and what to focus on. Thank goodness for editors, is all I have to say.

Alexis O’Neill – The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey (11/10/2020) - I received a contract for this book in 2017, right at the time the Me Too movement exploded in the news. Then, just as I received the 5th pass of sketches to review, the ALA stripped Dewey’s name off the organization’s highest honor. Frankly, when I was doing the research, I was surprised to learn that Dewey was an anti-Semite, a racist, and a harasser of women. These behaviors resulted in his losing prestigious positions as well as his reputation during his lifetime and beyond.

Some critics think that because of this, Dewey should not be the subject of a children’s picture book. But kids deserve to know that people who are put on pedestals by admirers aren’t without faults. They need to know that someone can do good things and not be a good person, or take actions or engage in activities that later mar their accomplishments. (Think, Thomas Jefferson enslaving people, or Coco Chanel being a spy for the Nazis). The decision an author has to make is how to address this in a book for children. I chose to have the main narrative focus on his contributions and to address the rest in the back matter, showing how Dewey’s behavior led to serious consequences.

Both of those are indeed tough challenges. How are you staying creative? What things are you doing to “prime” the well?

Sarah Albee – The past six months have been hard, no doubt about it. I miss visiting schools, and attending conferences, and seeing my writer and teacher friends. I miss spending days at the library researching. But the upside is that I’ve done a LOT of reading, in addition to writing, and that’s always, always a net benefit when it comes to helping my brain generate new ideas.

Alexis O’Neill – I Zoom weekly with my nonfiction writers’ group for lunch. It keeps me going!

Any upcoming projects that you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

Sarah Albee – I have a STEAM book coming out next fall (2021) with Odd Dot/MacMillan, that I’m super excited about. It’s going to be called Fairy Tale Science, and will be chock-a-block with hands-on experiments most kids can do at home, which test many fairy-tale-related questions, such as: Could Rapunzel’s hair support the weight of the prince? And: Could a pair of glass slippers withstand an evening of ballroom dancing? It’s with the illustrator now, and it’s looking pretty amazing.

Alexis O’Neill – I have some new ideas percolating, but it’s too early to talk about them!

We'll be keeping our eyes open. If you could meet anyone (real or literary), who would that be?

Sarah Albee – Hard to pick just one person, but I think I’d choose to spend a day with a master painter, so that I could watch him or her paint a picture. Someone like Caravaggio or Velazquez or Artemesia Gentileschi.

Alexis O’Neill – I’d love to meet earthquake expert, Lucy Jones, a research associate at the Seismological Lab of Caltech – she’s smart, warm, and keeps California calm in the way she delivers facts when the earth starts rocking and rolling!

That would be an interesting afternoon. Last question, what is your favorite animal? Or one you are enamored with right now. Why?

Sarah Albee – individually, I’ll go with gorillas. Collectively, I’d vote for ants, hands down. Ants are SO AMAZING.

Alexis O’Neill – Cats. All kinds. Graceful, funny, mysterious, and fun to cuddle.

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

Synopsis: Secret treasures are buried all around us -- you just have to look for them!

Accidental Archaeologists takes you on an adventure through time to relive some of the coolest surprise discoveries by totally ordinary people all over the world. Meet:

- The cowboy who found an ancient skeleton

- A famous king buried underneath a parking lot

- The team who found New York City's hidden African Burial Ground

- A boy who finds the Dead Sea Scrolls while looking for his lost goat

- And many more.

Packed with incredible stories and expert tips for making your own exciting finds, this is an accessible, action-packed introduction to the world of archaeology.

With an engaging, conversational tone, a number of history changing, accidental discoveries from around the world are examined and explained within their historical and social contexts, without sugar coating numerous ethical considerations. From well-known discoveries, like Vesuvius, Italy, to lesser known discoveries, like a Greek mechanical device (the first computer?). The chapters feature "the discovery," a discussion and images of the item and people involved, an additional fact in a sidebar, and then "back to the present." The included glossary, discussion of dating artifacts, author's note, and places to visit round out a remarkable survey of some fascinating discoveries.

Synopsis: Melvil Dewey’s love of organization and words drove him to develop and implement his Dewey Decimal system, leaving a significant and lasting impact in libraries across the country.

When Melvil Dewey realized every library organized their books differently, he wondered if he could invent a system all libraries could use to organize them efficiently. A rat-a-tat speaker, Melvil was a persistent (and noisy) advocate for free public libraries. And while he made enemies along the way as he pushed for changes–like his battle to establish the first library school with women as students, through it all he was EFFICIENT, INVENTIVE, and often ANNOYING as he made big changes in the world of public libraries–changes still found in the libraries of today!

With a casual feeling, conversational text, this book examines the creative, perhaps obsessive, drive of Melvil Dewey to organize and make a difference. Determined to fix the "hodge-podge" manner in which colleges and libraries organized their collections, Melvil created a Decimal System. The book also examines his push to create a school of librarians, the American Library Association, and other achievements. Both the present tense text and bold illustrations depict how Dewey's manic energy and drive. The author's note briefly discusses the personal and professional censure of Dewey because of his racism, anti-Semitism, and harassment of women. A timeline, a primer on the Dewey Decimal System, and sources round out this book.

Thank you both 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:

Sarah Albee - Accidental Archaeologists: True Stories of Unexpected Discoveries (Scholastic 11/10/20) -

Alexis O’Neill – The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey (Calkins Creek, Boyds Mills & Kane 11/10/2020) -


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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