The Picture Book Buzz - October 2023 Interview with STEAM Team Books Members (Part 1)
Whether you're here to support the STEAM Team authors, curiosity, or because you love nonfiction books, I hope you read to the end because you'll discover some amazing authors and super spectacular books!
Today I have the pleasure to introduce you to five authors from the STEAM Team Books – a group of authors who joined together to celebrate and help promote their STEAM books. I hope you enjoy this peek at these delightful books and fascinating creatives.
"STEAM Team Books is a group of authors who have a STEM/STEAM book releasing in 2023. It includes fiction & nonfiction, trade or educational books.”
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?...)
Jessica Fries-Gather – Nature's Rule Breakers: Creatures That Don't Fit (Lerner/Millbrook Press 10/3/2023) – I am a science teacher by day and a writer by early morning/night/weekend/whenever I can fit it in. It makes my life busy, but I really can’t imagine doing one without the other. Teaching inspires my writing, and writing makes my classroom much bigger than it ever could be in person. My first picture book, Notable Notebooks, was even read aloud from the International Space Station by astronaut Joseph Acaba in the Storytime from Space program! So far, I’ve published six books: three for teachers and three picture books for students. Nonfiction, especially science nonfiction, is my happy place. I love to read fiction but that’s just not how my curiosity and creativity work.
[Author of 6 books, including Science Notebooks in Student-Centered Classrooms (2022), Exemplary Evidence: Scientists and Their Data (2019), and Notable Notebooks: Scientists and Their Writings (2017).]
Leslie Barnard Booth – A Stone Is a Story (Simon & Schuster/McElderry Books 10/3/2023) – I have been writing since childhood, so the release of my first book is a dream come true. I write in my basement where it’s quiet and calm, and my mind can let go of chores and to-dos, and I can focus on what I love best—playing with words and building stories.
Science and nature fascinate me, so my books all center around STEAM. My debut, A Stone is a Story, is about rocks and geology; my next book, One Day This Tree Will Fall (2024), is about the ecological importance of old, wounded, and dead trees; and my third book, I Am We (2025), is about crows and why they roost together by the thousands in winter. Nature carries an emotional pull for me—I feel an incredible sense of peace and belonging when I’m immersed in nature. I’m pulled out of my worries and into a state of wonder. My senses are heightened. I notice so much more. I think children are the experts at observing nature. They can so readily slip into that state of deep observation. So, I try to learn from them, and bring their aptitude for wonder into my work.
Buffy Silverman – On a Flake-Flying Day: Watching Winter's Wonders (Millbrook Press/Lerner 10/3/2023) – I started writing for children when my offspring (now in their thirties!) were book-loving toddlers. In the past thirty years I’ve written about many, many different science topics, but am drawn most to writing about the natural world. I usually write in my basement office, which has a view of the swamp and lake that border our home. In addition to writing, I enjoy outdoor time with my dog and watching and photographing nature. In the past I’ve been a naturalist and environmental educator, and taught biology to college students.
[Author of over 90 nonfiction books, including On a Gold Blooming Day: Finding Fall Treasures (2022), On a Snow-Melting Day: Seeking Signs of Spring (2020), Cutting-Edge Medicine (2020), Surviving a Shipwreck: The Titanic (2019), Can an Old Dog Learn New Tricks?: And Other Questions about Animals (2019), The World of Gaming: Pokémon (2018), Little Pets Series (2018), Mars Missions: A Space Discovery Guide (2017), Shark World Series (2017), and How Vehicles Work Series (2016), as well as numerous poems.]
Lisa Varchol Perron – Tell Me About Space (Simon Schuster 10/3/2023) – I’ve been writing poetry and songs for most of my life, but my kid-lit journey started in earnest about five years ago, when I started drafting my first middle grade novel. Then I began writing picture books and children’s poems for magazines and anthologies. If I need a break from longer-form writing, I’ll work on a poem or two. Or if I’m feeling stuck with a poem, I’ll turn to a longer project. Most days of the week, I write at my dining room table, and I squeeze in extra time while waiting to pick up my kids from various activities. I’m often drawn to STEAM and nonfiction because I like following my curiosity when writing.
[Author of 5 books, including My Love for You (2023) and Patterns Everywhere (2023) ), and featured in numerous poetry anthologies.]
Kelly Rice Schmitt - I Ship: A Container Ship's Colossal Journey (Lerner/Millbrook Press 10/3/2023) – I have always loved writing, but I started focusing seriously on Kidlit in 2016. I love to write stories that weave imagination and truth together. Finding interesting ways to convey facts or true stories is so much fun! I think that is part of why I am drawn to STEAM subject matter. I work in energy supply and trading, a field that is very male dominated. As one of the only females in my training program, I felt compelled to inspire more kids, especially girls, to get excited about STEM. And I’m also a big advocate for the “A” of steam, Arts! I’m a singer and performer and believe the performing arts provide numerous benefits to the growing minds and spirits of kids. As for the “how” of my writing, I write anywhere I can! As a mom of 3 who also has another job, I squeeze my writing time in—early mornings, after the kids are in bed, and waiting in car lines. I try to think through my stories throughout each day and let them work in my subconscious. On manuscripts I’m editing or drafting, I often work on a small section at a time on the go, either in the notes on my phone, or on a print-out copy. There is so much in-between time that I try to harness.
What is the most fun or unusual place where you’ve written a manuscript?
Jessica Fries-Gather – Most of my writing happens at my house—either in my office with my dogs at my feet or on the couch with one of my dogs in my lap. In the summer, I love to take my writing out to the deck in my backyard. And I do have a weekly coffee shop date with another writing friend, which helps us both stay accountable. But the most wonderful place I’ve written is at the Highlights Retreat Center in Pennsylvania. I’m always wanting to go back – there’s magic in the air that makes the words come more easily!
Leslie Barnard Booth – Hmmm, in the basement at my desk (where I write every day). When it comes to a writing space, I like to keep things boring and consistent—consistently boring, in fact! I like writing in boring places because then it’s easier for me to become entirely absorbed in my imagination. If things are going well, I don’t notice time passing, and my surroundings completely disappear.
Buffy Silverman – Every summer my critique group has a four-day retreat at a house near Lake Michigan. The retreat is always a very productive and enjoyable time! I also occasionally write in the middle of the night when I awaken with the solution to a writing problem. I scribble a few words in a notepad that I hope I will be able to decipher in the morning.
Lisa Varchol Perron – I work on manuscripts anywhere and everywhere. I’ve even revised some lines in my head while getting my teeth cleaned! But my favorite writing location is at my in-laws’ house in Vermont, looking out at the mountain.
Kelly Rice Schmitt – I wrote I Ship almost entirely on my phone in bed while nursing my second child, who was only a few months old! I used Google doc vs Word for drafting this story mostly because I could switch easily between my phone and computer and find a way to work on this story in every in-between moment I had.
Now that we know a little more about all of you, what inspired you to write your book?
Jessica Fries-Gather – Nature's Rule Breakers: Creatures That Don't Fit (10/3/2023) – Believe it or not, my inspiration for this book came from a Tweet that read “Biology isn’t binary.” It got me thinking about how nature is much more complex than the categories we use to classify living things – and also made me realize that I was guilty of presenting living things in a binary way to my students. I knew I needed to write a book to introduce the complexity and the grey in an accessible way.
Leslie Barnard Booth – A Stone Is a Story (10/3/2023) – This book was inspired by a question my daughter asked me at dinner: “Where do rocks come from?” I thought this question was so cool and interesting, and was probably something other kids were wondering about, too. I’ve always loved rocks and the way they connect us to deep time, and I couldn’t let go of my daughter’s question. I started researching the rock cycle, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to know! That’s when I knew this had to be a book.
Buffy Silverman – On a Flake-Flying Day: Watching Winter's Wonders (10/3/2023) – On A Flake-Flying Day follows the pattern of rhyme and wordplay of two previous books of mine: On A Snow-Melting Day and On A Gold-Blooming Day. It encourages young readers to explore nature in the winter, and to discover how plants and animals survive a season of cold weather and scarcity.
Lisa Varchol Perron – Tell Me About Space (10/3/2023) – I wrote this book at the suggestion of an editor, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to write about space for a board book audience. I started by brainstorming questions a young child might have about our solar system (including questions my own kids asked) and worked to thread those together into a conversation between a curious child and their caregiver. Growing up, I spent a lot of time gazing through the telescope with my dad, so I was especially excited when I learned that Tell Me About Space would officially come out on my dad’s birthday!
Kelly Rice Schmitt - I Ship: A Container Ship's Colossal Journey (10/3/2023) – My first two trading & supply jobs had “ship tracker” in the title. I used special technology to follow ships’ movements and estimate U.S. imports and their impact on global supply balances. In my third role, I planned logistics for barge movements along the Great Lakes and Mississippi River. I gave orders to vessel captains to take actions according to the terms of a trade. Although I never physically worked on a ship, these jobs gave me a window into this fascinating world. I knew kids would love to learn about it too!
I love all the various ways books start. What do you like to do outdoors by yourself or with your family and friends?
Jessica Fries-Gather – I’m lucky enough to teach at a school that has an outdoor campus – 100 acres of forest, meadow, and creek. I get to take my students out a few times a year and we have a ball hiking, looking for salamanders, frogs, and other animals, and just enjoying the beauty of the changing seasons. Outside of school, I love walks in parks, picnics, and reading.
Leslie Barnard Booth – I like hiking, biking, swimming in lakes, wading in rivers, paddleboarding, and camping. But I also just love walking slowly and taking in everything around me with all five senses. I love how in those moments the pressures of time fall away. I enjoy nature most when I experience it with my children. Their responses to nature help me see it all for the first time, again.
Buffy Silverman – I love to hike and observe nature in all seasons. I’m especially drawn to photographing insects and other small critters in the woods, prairies, and lakes near my home. I also spend a lot of time gardening around my house and have been trying to convert more and more lawn into native plantings. My spouse and hound often accompany me on outdoor adventures!
Lisa Varchol Perron – I love going for walks in the woods with friends and coastal hikes with my husband and daughters. I’ve also done a lot of backpacking and camping. My most memorable backpacking trip was along the Kalalau Trail on the Nāpali Coast of Kauai.
Kelly Rice Schmitt – I love getting my whole family outside as much as possible. We eat and play in our backyard frequently (we also try to keep a vegetable garden alive) and love to visit forest preserves and state parks. Even just in the backyard, we love investigating nature’s wonders—there are pollinators in the flowers, bugs in the dirt, birds in the trees, and unique things changing in the sky!
There's nothing like spending time outside to rejuvenate one's soul. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about your book?
Text © Jessica Fries-Gather, 2023.
Jessica Fries-Gather – Nature's Rule Breakers: Creatures That Don't Fit (10/3/2023) – Even though the book focuses on categories we use to define animals, I hope readers apply the idea of standing out to people as well. Most of us have felt at times like we don’t fit into the categories other people impose on us, and we’d all be better off if we could appreciate that complexity in our fellow humans as well as nature.
Text © Leslie Barnard-Booth, 2023. Image © Marc Martin, 2023.
Leslie Barnard Booth – A Stone Is a Story (10/3/2023) – This book is about rocks and rock formation, but it’s also about our place, as humans, in the vast sweep of time. I love the way the illustrator, Marc Martin, shows how Earth transforms over hundreds of millions of years.
Text © Leslie Barnard-Booth, 2023.
Buffy Silverman – On a Flake-Flying Day: Watching Winter's Wonders (10/3/2023) – When you go outside in winter, you see trees with bare branches and fields that have turned brown. You might think that there’s little to discover. But with close observation you can discover many winter wonders! On a Flake-Flying Day encourages kids to look closely and love the natural world in any season.
Text © Lisa Varchol Perron, 2023. Image © Jennifer Falkner, 2023.
Lisa Varchol Perron – Tell Me About Space (10/3/2023) – This book has layered text, meaning the main text can be read on its own, but there are also sidebars that provide more detailed information. We inherently have options when we read a book with kids. We can pause to ask questions, change our tone to emphasize certain phrases, slow down to point out details in the art, and so on. Sidebars just offer an additional option for those who want to delve deeper into the subject matter (including older siblings).
Text © Kelly Rice Schmitt, 2023. Image © Jam Dong, 2023.
Kelly Rice Schmitt - I Ship: A Container Ship's Colossal Journey (10/3/2023) – There are two cool surprises we planned in I Ship. First, the end papers feature items that are a search to find throughout the book. Second, all the ship names were chosen by the creators of the book— the illustrator, me, our accuracy consultant, and also members of the art, editorial, and design departments! Everyone chose their special names differently!
And what was the hardest, or most challenging, part of writing or researching your book? Was there a bit of your research you didn’t get to include?
Jessica Fries-Gather – Nature's Rule Breakers: Creatures That Don't Fit (10/3/2023) – Explaining complex science in an accessible way without oversimplifying or misstating is a real challenge, both as a teacher and a writer. So there were some passages, like the one about animals that aren’t warm-blooded or cold-blooded, that required revision after revision to make it clear. And there were other examples and categories that just ended up being too difficult to include in the book, no matter how much I wanted to. And finally, I ended up challenging some misconceptions of my own as I researched, wrote, and revised!
Leslie Barnard Booth – A Stone Is a Story (10/3/2023) – Whittling down the backmatter is hard for me. There are always things I have to cut that I wish I could include. To console myself I say, well, maybe those cuts will make their way into another book someday.
Buffy Silverman – On a Flake-Flying Day: Watching Winter's Wonders (10/3/2023) – Each two-word sentence in this book has an entry in the back matter that runs about 50 words. I aim to briefly explain the why of what is shown in the main text and photographs in the back matter. For example, the entry that accompanies “Bees crowd” explains how honeybees keep warm in their hive in winter. My challenge is to condense scientific research into short, accurate, and engaging descriptions.
Lisa Varchol Perron – Tell Me About Space (10/3/2023) – I always want to share as much information as possible when writing nonfiction, and I have to remind myself that my job is to pique a child’s interest and not write an entire textbook! Initially, I had some content on exoplanets and planetary cores that my editor thought was interesting but probably beyond the scope of this book. She was absolutely right! But I was thrilled we were able to keep some other material I find intriguing, including information about the likely origins of Saturn’s rings.
Kelly Rice Schmitt - I Ship: A Container Ship's Colossal Journey (10/3/2023) – I Ship is informational fiction because it has a ship as the narrator, and of course they can’t really talk! However, we chose to make the book’s plot and art as close to nonfiction as possible to honor those that work in shipping. This meant working with a consultant who lives and works on these vessels and making numerous text and art changes to make the book realistic. Jam did a fantastic job making things accurate while maintaining her fabulous playful style. We’ve already heard some excitement from readers with connections to this field about how much it resonates with them, and to me, that is really special. It made the hard work worth it!
I'm sensing a theme here. Are there any upcoming projects that you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
Jessica Fries-Gather – I’ve got a few picture book manuscripts out on submission, so hopefully I’ll have more good news to share soon. I’m also working on a proposal for a middle grade nonfiction book that has involved going out in the field with a scientist, and that has been so fun and interesting. At this point, that’s probably all I should share!
Leslie Barnard Booth – My next book, One Day This Tree Will Fall, releases March 26, 2024, and it’s all about the importance of wounded, dead, and decaying trees to the forest ecosystem. It’s easy to take jagged snags and rotting logs for granted, but through my research I learned just how important these structures are for so many forest creatures, and for the future of the forest itself.
Buffy Silverman – I am currently working on a novel-in-verse, which is a new challenge for me!
Lisa Varchol Perron – My next book is Tell Me About Oceans (April 16, 2024). It’s a companion title to Tell Me About Space and is also illustrated by Jennifer Falkner, who brings such a deep sense of wonder to these books! I’m also excited about All the Rocks We Love, which comes out next summer. It’s a nonfiction picture book about rocks co-authored with my husband, Taylor Perron, and beautifully illustrated by David Scheirer.
Kelly Rice Schmitt – I’m excited to share that I Ship will be in be the first in a STEM series! The second book will be released in Fall 2024 and should be announced soon. Get ready for another epic journey— but in book 2, the journey takes place over millions of years!
These projects look and sound interesting. Good luck to you all. What’s something you can’t do without either for your writing or for yourself?
Jessica Fries-Gather – This may be surprising to some, but other people. Friends, family, critique partners, experienced authors who are willing to share their expertise, and my agent—I wouldn’t have published a single thing without their help and encouragement!
Leslie Barnard Booth – A critique group. For me, it’s essential to have readers I trust who will give me honest, thorough feedback.
Buffy Silverman – Chocolate? I probably could live without chocolate, but it is something I enjoy. I especially wouldn’t want to do without time spent in nature. It inspires my writing and calms my mind.
Lisa Varchol Perron – The library! Between researching nonfiction projects, getting books for pleasure reading, and keeping my kids entertained, I couldn’t do without it.
Kelly Rice Schmitt – – I’m going to have to echo Lisa and say the library. My librarians are rockstars and know me as the lady with 50-100 books out at a time. (My husband always says, “leave some for the other kids!”) But over here, that’s what picture book author plus mom to 3 kids under 7 looks like! It’s impossible to write great picture books without reading them and/ or sharing them with kids.
I love all these different answers! And perish the thought of a world without chocolate! Okay, last question, what is the best advice you’ve ever gotten - whether it’s regarding writing/ illustrating or not ?
Jessica Fries-Gather – When I get excited about a project, I’m eager and impatient for it to keep moving—sometimes too eager. My agent and several of my writing friends are always ready to remind me that it takes as long as it takes, and as frustrating as that can be, they are totally and completely correct.
Leslie Barnard Booth – Don’t give up! Writing is definitely an endurance sport. And every failed draft has value and is a necessary part of the journey.
Buffy Silverman – Read, read, read! I bring home a stack of picture books from the new books section of the library every couple of weeks. Other people’s writing certainly inspires my own.
Lisa Varchol Perron – I remember a teacher once advising, “Stop looking at the size of the mountain and just start along the trail.” It helps me when I feel stuck or overwhelmed by a writing project, and it helps me approach the dirty dishes on the counter!
Kelly Rice Schmitt – This isn’t advice from someone else- but a favorite quote of mine from Elenor Roosevelt is, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” In writing life, this can apply to:
writing that first draft even if it scares you it’s going to be bad;
cutting lines you love but know need to go;
bringing a story that is far from perfect to critique group;
hitting send on applications, contest entries, and submissions even if you fear rejection; and
By getting out of our comfort zones and sometimes making mistakes or failing, we can really grow.
NOW, let me take a moment to introduce you to these amazing STEAM books!
Nature's Rule Breakers: Creatures That Don't Fit by Jessica Fries-Gather (Lerner/Millbrook Press 10/3/2023) – Featuring amazing photos, this book explores "rules" typically observed in nature - such as nocturnal vs. diurnal, vegetarian vs. carnivore, and highlights animals which break or tweak the rule. Are they rule breakers or animals being themselves? A great book about the uniqueness of nature and a question about whether everything has to be plugged into a category.
Synopsis: Some rules are meant to be broken, even those in the animal kingdom!
You're probably familiar with many of the common categories scientists use for animals: warm-blooded or cold-blooded, nocturnal or diurnal. But what about the animals that don't fit in? Sharks cannot be classified as warm or cold-blooded―they are somewhere in-between. And Eurasian eagle owls don't hunt during the day or night. Instead, they swoop through the trees at dawn and dusk. Author and science educator Jessica Fries-Gaither introduces eight common categories scientists use and the animals that break those rules. Gorgeous, full-color photos will captivate budding scientists with every read!
A Stone Is a Story by Leslie Barnard Booth, illustrated by Marc Martin (Simon & Schuster/McElderry Books 10/3/2023) - When a kid picks up a stone, it triggers a poetic narration of a journey from magma to the sea floor, squeezed under the surface and thrust up to the sky, and finally crumbled and resting right where it was found. The gorgeous watercolor images blend, bleed, and flow through time, creating a wonderful journey and an invitation to explore the rock cycle.
Synopsis: Embark on a journey across time to see how one stone can change and transform, from magma under Earth’s crust to the sand swept up by a rushing river to the very heart of the tallest mountain. Watch what happens when rain, ice, and wind mold this rock into something new, something you might even hold in your hand—something full of endless possibility.
Complete with additional information about geology and the rock cycle, this lyrical and captivating story invites readers to experience the wonder of the natural world around us, and to see—in every cliff, pebble, and stone—a window into Earth’s deep past.
On a Flake-Flying Day: Watching Winter's Wonders by Buffy Silverman (Millbrook Press/Lerner 10/3/2023) – This stunning photo-illustrated book follows the wonderful format of her former books - using succinct, rhyming, two-word sentences to introduce many amazing things that happen in nature during the winter. The back matter beautifully expands on the rhyming words, explaining their occurrence and science behind them. It's a stunning and fun winter book.
Synopsis: With winter's arrival, plants and animals hunker down for the cold season. Rhyming text and eye-catching photos sparkle in this wonderful read-aloud that encourages kids to closely observe the natural world. Back matter offers more information on the featured animals, plants, and weather conditions.
Tell Me About Space by Lisa Varchol Perron, illustrated by Jennifer Falkner (Simon Schuster 10/3/2023) – Following a tender evening routine from sunset to bedtime, each spread starts with a kid's question about an aspect of space - "Tell me how I stay on Earth and don’t float into space." and is followed by the Mom's simple, rhyming answer - "Gravity exerts its force and keeps us in our place." More in depth sidebars will appeal to older siblings and space-loving kids (and adults). It's a really snuggle-worthy and informative board book.
Synopsis: Why don’t we float into space? How many moons are there? A child asks about outer space, and their grownup answers in rhyming, factual text. Little ones will love learning that the earth is constantly spinning, that Saturn isn’t the only planet with rings, and that most planets have their own moons!
I Ship: A Container Ship's Colossal Journey by Kelly Rice Schmitt, illustrated by Jam Dong (Lerner/Millbrook Press 10/3/2023) – Written in the voice and point of view of a large container ship, the book explores a ship's journey from its initial port and loading of cargo to a backup at a canal, and a big storm until it finally reaches a far point across the globe, bringing "goods to feed, help, and heal." The illustrations include interesting cutaways and a number of fun comparisons to other boats and whales. Back matter offers information on the shipping trade, a helpful glossary, shipping and trading careers, and online resources. It's an interesting look at a cargo ship's journey.
Synopsis: Come aboard a massive container ship as it pulls into port, loads up with cargo, and heads out to the open ocean. The ship’s voyage includes starry skies and stormy seas, swift currents and unforeseen delays. Through it all, the crew keeps working―with goods to keep the world going, they must carry on.
Rhythmic text from Kelly Rice Schmitt and delightfully detailed illustrations from Jam Dong provide a riveting look at the journey of one mighty ship.
Thank you all for giving us a little peek into yourselves and your books. Wishing you all enormous success.
To learn more about these writers, or to contact them:
Jessica Fries-Gather – Nature's Rule Breakers: Creatures That Don't Fit (Lerner/Millbrook Press 10/3/2023) –
Leslie Barnard Booth – A Stone Is a Story (Simon & Schuster/McElderry Books 10/3/2023) -
Buffy Silverman – On a Flake-Flying Day: Watching Winter's Wonders (Millbrook Press/Lerner 10/3/2023) –
Lisa Varchol Perron – Tell Me About Space (Simon Schuster 10/3/2023) –
Kelly Rice Schmitt - I Ship: A Container Ship's Colossal Journey (Lerner/Millbrook Press 10/3/2023) –