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Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Researching STEM Kidlit - Welcome Guest Blogger - Jennifer Swanson

When Primary Research Isn't Available

     If you were to ask a bunch of nonfiction authors who write for kids what the most important part of writing is, many would say accurate research. Yes! Everything we put in our books MUST be true. The easiest way to get the best research is to visit the places you are writing about. Go to the museum, the laboratory, the forests, and see what is there with your own eyes. Listen to the scientists talk about things. Perhaps even participate in some of the discussions. Sounds like a great plan.
     It is…when that opportunity is available to you. The thing is, I write a lot of books about science and technology. (STEM and STEAM is what I LOVE!)  But these topics don’t always lend themselves to primary research opportunities. Take for example, my book, Astronaut-Aquanaut: How Space Science and Sea Science Interact by National Geographic Kids. 

      This book takes the reader on an amazing journey from the deepest trenches in the oceans to the farthest humans reaches of space. Readers experience the same thrills and dangers that both deep-sea and space explorers worry about: extremes in pressure, temperature, climate, and most importantly, how to survive in a remote and hostile environment. 
     Visit the International Space Station (ISS)? Or dive down to visit Aquarius, the only underwater research lab in the world? Count me in! 
     Well, (of course) that didn’t happen. I didn’t have a couple of years in the publishing timeline to go to astronaut training. Nor, did I have time to get scuba-qualified. So, since I couldn’t go up in space or down in the ocean, I looked to the next best thing—people who actually did. 
     Normally, tracking down experts is something that is not that difficult. You just have to find their emails and email them. Typically, if you tell them you are writing a book for kids, they are happy to  help. The problem this time was finding astronaut emails. Not as easy as you would think. The astronauts that are still active duty are not allowed to be interviewed unless you go through the NASA PR office. That is a hurdle in an of itself because they may not get back to you quickly enough for the deadline. What’s a writer to do?
    Never give up! The first place I started was Aquarius. I went through page after page of the specs of the underwater research lab, then through article after article of people who went down there. Finally, I tracked down a real-live aquanaut, Dr. Brian Helmuth. Bonus! He is a professor at Northeastern University so he had a “real” email. I contacted him. He was happy to help, AND he knew others who would be, too.
     That’s the thing. Once you get a foot in the door, don’t hesitate to ask the expert if they know of anyone else you should interview. If they do, most likely they will give you an introduction and/or their email and you are IN! Brian just happened to know Liz Magee (a female aquanaut) and Fabien Cousteau, head of the Mission 31 program and also the grandson of Jacques Cousteau (my childhood hero). Liz was onboard right away. Fabien, well, that took six months of polite emails asking for him to participate. Brian, for his part, was reminding Fabien, too. Just when I was about to give up, Fabien’s assistant emailed me to set up a phone call with him. Yes. I was going to speak to Fabien Cousteau! Talk about a fan-girl moment. Fabien was really wonderful. We spoke twice and I actually got to meet him in person, too. 

Me with Fabien Cousteau and Liz Magee 

     Back to NASA. How did I get a few astronauts? I googled everything I could think of about how to find astronauts. Along the way, I found two NASA engineers who were working on the Mars mission. I had found two more experts – one who agreed to be the content expert. My husband had been in an MBA program with an astronaut, I contacted him. Then, I was able to get another astronaut’s email address from a colleague. Finally, I had all my astronauts. 
     The best part was, in the end, I was able to not just add the real-life experiences of these amazing pioneers, but also added in a foreward by Fabien Cousteau and Kathryn Sullivan (the first U.S. woman to walk in space).  Since this wasn’t in the original proposal, my editor was thrilled with all my extra work. 
     I feel that this definitely added to the accuracy of the book, and also, hopefully piqued the interest of the readers to see what real people have done in the world. I encourage all writers to get primary sources and do primary research when you can. If you can’t, IMPROVISE! 😊
    Do I work this hard on all of my books to get experts? Absolutely! But I do have to say, in one of my upcoming books, I did have things a little bit easier. I was lucky enough to do a primary research visit to CERN. This is me, in the ALICE detector. Pretty cool, huh? 

Find out more about Jennifer and her books at

And discover her latest -- Save The Crash-test Dummies !


Nancy Castaldo has been writing about the planet for over 20 years. Learn more about her award-winning books at

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Researching STEM Kidlit - Guest Blogger - Mary Kay Carson

Mission to Write a Book About Pluto

Kids love Pluto. When I’m giving an author visit presentation about the solar system at schools and question time comes around—half of those hands in the air are attached to students asking something about Pluto.

So when the first-ever spacecraft to Pluto finally launched in 2006, I knew I wanted to write a book about it. Fortunately, I had 9½ years to figure it out. Pluto is 3 billion miles away. The robotic probe spacecraft New Horizons wouldn’t reach the (then) farthest planet until mid 2015. 

Full disclosure, I’m a bit of space geek. Space stuff is all just so cool—spacecraft dodging the rings of Saturn, telescopes that see back in time, lakes of methane on Titan, etc. And I’ve been writing about space for kids since (gulp!) 1991 when I worked at Scholastic’s SuperScience magazine.

But back to Pluto. By the time New Horizons was closing in on its target, I’d written a few books in Houghton Mifflin’s Scientists in the Field series. So, I successfully pitched a Pluto book to my editor there. Late in 2013 myself and my photographer husband Tom Uhlman had contracts. Now all we had to do was make it happen. 

Writing about real time stuff can be tricky. The manuscript deadline was August of 2015, a month after the July 2015 scheduled arrival of New Horizons at Pluto. The plan was to get the book out as soon after the (hopefully successful) mission happened as possible. What that meant in practical terms was that I needed to write most of the book before a spacecraft actually visited Pluto.

New Horizons’ is headed up by planetary scientist Alan Stern. He’s Pluto’s #1 fan, one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in The World, and a very busy person. When I contacted him about the book project, he suggested focusing on the team of scientists, instead of just himself. That seemed great as it’d give some depth to the book to have women and people from other nations featured. Plus, in truth, I’ve gotten burned on book projects that rely on a single person, so was happy to have eggs in multiple baskets.

There was a complication, however. “Team New Horizons” doesn’t live in one place. The (ongoing) mission is based out of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHAPL) in Laurel, Maryland. That’s where the engineers and operations people are. But Alan Stern and some of the other planetary scientists are at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Others are at the University of Colorado as well as the SETI Institute in Silicon Valley, California. And some of the press conferences surrounding the Pluto flyby would be held at NASA in Washington, D.C. Can you say logistics?

The team would be together in Maryland at JHAPL for the Pluto Flyby event in July of 2015, of course. But that would be too late to get interviews and photos of folks at work, a requirement of Scientists in the Field books. Plus we weren’t even sure early on whether we’d get press passes to the flyby event. Thankfully, we were able to crash a meeting of the New Horizons science team in Boulder in the fall of 2014. We got great photos of scientists explaining their research. (Check.) And I got some facetime with scientists. 

In early 2015 I traveled to JHAPL in Maryland to meet with some operations people and have a tour of mission control. (Check.) Between then and the Pluto Flyby in the summer, I followed up with telephone interviews with the individual team members. All this added up to getting credentialed for the Pluto flyby event! (Check!) Plus now that the team members featured in the book knew us, we had a bit more access to them than we would have had otherwise. 

Being at the New Horizons Pluto Flyby event made all the logistics and hard work worthwhile. The press pass still hangs on my bulletin board! It was so exciting to be in the auditorium with scientists and reporters from around the world as the very first ever images of Pluto’s surface came in. Wow! 

And the book got written, too. (Check!!) It’s called MISSION to PLUTO: The First Visit to an Ice Dwarf and the Kuiper Belt.

Mary Kay Carson is an author of nonfiction books for young people and a STEM Tuesday blogger. Her book Alexander Graham Bell for Kids received a 2019 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize. 
     She’s written six titles in HMH’s acclaimed Scientists in the Field series,including The Tornado Scientist(2019).


Nancy Castaldo has been writing about the planet for over 20 years. Learn more about her award-winning books at

Coming this spring! Pre-order now! 

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Researching STEM Kidlit -- Welcome Guest Blogger Heather Montgomery

STORY STRONG: Real Research

“Stop! Don’t do it!” I shout.
Head down into the wind, I race along the edge of the interstate. A turtle is lumbering up and out of the grass towards the pavement. A tractor trailer is barreling towards us.
Spooked, he moves away from me and towards the road.

There’s nothing to do but grab him. A SNAPPER. No way I’m getting my hands near that mouth. The only other option is his tail — a tail that looks like that of a stegosaurus. Can he whack me with that? No time to waste. I just grab it.  
Oomph. He’s heavy. I waddle across the grass and high-step over the guard rail. 
At the edge of the woods I set him down as gently as I can, only to watch him start back up towards the road. 
 “I’m trying to save your life,” I growl.
His tail pop-pop-pops as I heft him again and before I can spend any time wondering if that’s like our knuckles popping, his neck is craning and his jaws are headed toward my leg. 
Snap. SNAP.
The thought of hours in the emergency room with a snapping turtle clamped to my calf have me setting him right back down again.
“Hey! I’m trying to save your life here!”
Between the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of cars, there’s a trickling sound. A creek! If I can get just him down there, maybe he will stay there. 
I try using a stick to convince him to move. Snap! Bye-bye stick. Finally I stretch my hand out as far as I can, grab the tail and up he goes again. His pink paws swim through the air, claws reaching for my flesh. I can’t stop and think about the danger; I have to just move.
Stepping around the briars and poison ivy—all while trying to keep his jaws pointed away from my knees—I wade into the weeds. He has the audacity to hiss at me. I spot a gap in the old chain link fence below us and head for it. It is getting steep—and tangle-y.
I stumble. 
The turtle tumbles in front of me. Bump, bop, bounce. 
A concrete ledge. Coming too fast.
He summersaults right over it.
I grab a giant pine. Wedge my fingers in deep furrows of bark. Wrench my shoulder as I come to a halt.
My eyes drop down, down, down to the bottom of a 30-foot wall. My hands are empty. My legs are shaking. 
At the bottom, a shallow stream gurgles over a jumble of rocks. Through the leafy trees I can’t see the turtle but I can see enough rocks to know there’s no way he could have made it.  
That’s research. Real research that I conducted as I was writing Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill.

That snapping turtle story has emotional power,but, for me, an emotional narrative isn’t enough, so I dig deeper. Research also takes me into books, onto the Internet, and seeking out experts. 
Research turned up these facts:
·     The common snapping turtles’ neck is so long and flexible they were given the scientific name serpentina= snake-like. 
·     This turtle’s jaws can clamp down with 656 Newtons of force.[i]
·     Sometimes a snapping turtle farts when it is picked up.[ii]
·     If you pick up a turtle up by the tail you can dislocate its backbone. Pop, pop, pop.
·     To move a snapping turtle safely, slide it onto a shovel or car mat.[iii]
·     Most snapping turtles hit by cars are pregnant females.
·     A mother snapper can have 30 eggs inside her body.[iv]
Integrating phenomenal facts into real research experiences can bring power to your writing. How would you use those facts make the story stronger? Try it. Don’t be shy, copy and paste the words above, then start revising it. Feel free to fictionalize. Do whatever you need. Make it story strong. 
Curious to see how I used those facts? Visit and click on “The Chapter that Didn’t Make It.”

[i]Mancini, Mark. “10 Biting Facts about Snapping Turtles.” Mental Floss, 23 May 2018,
[ii]Ernst, Carl H., and Jeffrey E. Lovich. Turtles of the United States and Canada. Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2009.
[iii]“Turtle in the Road - What Should I Do?” Turtle Rescue League, Accessed 17 July 2017.
[iv]Montgomery, Heather L., and David Laurencio. “Auburn University Museum of Natural History.” 1 Apr. 2016. Collections Manager, Tetrapods, Auburn University Museum of Natural History

Learn more about Heather Montgomery and her books at


Nancy Castaldo has been writing about the planet for over 20 years. Learn more about her award-winning books at

DK LifeStories ADA LOVELACE is now available at your local bookstore!

Tuesday, October 29, 2019


I am so very excited to share with you the cover of my upcoming picture book --
THE FARM THAT FEEDS US: Follow A Family Farm Through All Four Seasons

Younger readers who are not quite ready for my older award-winning THE STORY OF SEEDS will discover how farmers grow the food that sustains us. They'll find out where our food comes from, the role of farms, and what it's like to be a farmer.

Ginnie Hsu has done a fantastic job of capturing life on a farm in her adorable illustrations. I know you'll love her illustrations of heritage sheep and other livestock as much as I do. Like me, Ginnie's work is often inspired by everyday life and nature. And she "loves mixing new and traditional media to create magic."

THE FARM THAT FEEDS US is now available for preorder from your favorite bookstore. Shop indie! It's published by Quarto under the imprint words & pictures.

Drumroll please...

I can't wait to share this with you this spring!

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Researching STEM Kidlit - Welcome Guest Blogger Anita Silvey

The problem of the unreliable narrator – in primary sources ~~~
For the past six years, I have been working on a nonfiction trilogy for National Geographic about the “ape ladies” or trimates. With breakthrough field research, Jane Goodall (Untamed), Birute Galdikas (Undaunted) and Dian Fossey (Unforgotten) radically altered our understanding of our closest biological cousins -- the chimpanzees, orangutans, and mountain gorillas who share 97%+ of our DNA.

From the beginning, when I was asked by editor Kate Hale if I would be interested in a book on Jane Goodall, the project had everything I could desire – lots of primary sources, their own first-hand accounts, videos of them working in the field, people to interview who knew them, and foundations or the subjects themselves who could review the manuscript for any inaccuracies and misrepresentations. I should one day adorn my car with a bumper sticker “I brake for Primary Sources!” 
Then a year ago, I began researching the last of the three women for a biography of Dian Fossey, to be published in 2020. Within a couple of months, I realized I had a massive problem on my hands. After Dian Fossey was tragically murdered in her research camp, many who knew her provided interviews or wrote their own accounts of the incidents. I first picked up John Fowler’s A Forest in the Clouds, a fascinating adult biography. Then I read and reread Gorillas in the Mist, Dian’s account of her own journey. At that point, I realized I had a terrible problem in terms of telling the truth about Dian’s life. Like many creative people, Dian loved to tell a good story. But in her case, much of what she conveyed probably did not happen as she wrote or told it. We love to talk about the unreliable narrators in fiction, like Holden Caufield in The Catcher in the Rye or Nick and Amy in Gone Girl. For fiction, such an untruth teller can provide narrative tension, because the reader slowly begins to realize they cannot trust the point of view of the protagonist. But I am creating nonfiction; Dian’s willingness to bend the truth both in her book and in her letters led me into a research swamp, trying to check facts again and again.
Some of the final decisions were easier than others. For instance, when Dian was forced to flee her first research station in DRC, she told so many versions of the story and changed the details so many times, that I realized I could only convey the basics, leaving out some of her more dramatic, and less verifiable, claims. But what about the morning when she met with Louis Leakey after his lecture in Louisville, Kentucky? He told her he would find money to finance her study of mountain gorillas. In this case, I had only her account of events. Fortunately, I had already written about the pivotal meetings of Jane Goodall and Birute Galdikas with Leakey. Dian’s version of what happened that day matched their recollections down to small details. So I felt confident that I could rely on what she had said. Basically, I had to weigh everything she had said or written, understanding that I could not trust her own words.
Every book presents its own challenges; I can only hope that I have done Dian justice while attempting to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. But the whole experience makes me think I should redo that bumper sticker: “I brake for Primary Sources! Please tell the truth.”

Former Editor of Horn Book Magazine and Publisher of Children’s Books at Houghton Mifflin, Anita Silvey launched the Scientists in the Field series for young readers. Currently teaching at Simmons University, she has been writing a trilogy about the Trimates --  Jane Goodall (Untamed), Birute Galdikas (Undaunted), and Dian Fossey (Unforgotten). 

Watch for Anita's upcoming biography of Dian Fossey, UNFORGOTTEN!  


Nancy Castaldo has been writing about the planet for over 20 years. Learn more about her award-winning books at

DK LifeStories ADA LOVELACE is now available at your local bookstore!

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Researching STEM Stories: Guest Blogger: Heidi E. Y. Stemple

     This is what I knew about animals that stink: Great horned owls like to eat skunks because they have no sense of smell. That’s more of a bird fact (I know lots of those) than a fact about animals that stink, but it’s what I had.
      Then, suddenly, I had to write a whole book about stinking animals!!

     I tell kids in school visits that research is just a fancy word for getting to learn more about stuff that interests me. Often, it’s my favorite part of a project. I’d like to say that it’s always glamorous, I mean, for my book COUNTING BIRDS which is the history of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, part of my research was my time spent actually participating in the Count. But truthfully, much research involves a lot of sitting for long hours with my head in a book holding a highlighter and pack of post-its, or staring at a computer screen, taking copious notes.  Recently in a hybrid project—part fiction, part non-fiction--I filled an entire bin with printed material and books about spies having researched gadgets, codes, double agents, dead drops, and the like. I didn’t get to do any actual spy-work at all. 

     But, in my new book, co-authored by my mom and writing partner Jane Yolen, research took on an interesting role—it changed my mind about a project I wasn’t sure was a viable book, even after signing the contracts. EEK, YOU REEK! is the book about stinky animals. Every project we take on together has a different origin. This one began because my mom thought it was a fun idea. I did not. I thought it was too narrow. Remember, the sum total of what I knew about stinky animals was a bird fact. This project, a poetry collection, just didn’t seem like something that had enough meat on its bones to be interesting. So, I said, “when it sells, I’ll write my half of the poems.” I figured that time would be never. 
Luckily, I was wrong. 

     So, I found myself on a tight deadline needing to finish the book. Tick tock. 
I still thought the subject was too narrow. We had an opening poem and poems about a skunk (and the great horned owl, of course), ferret, wolverine, and a beetle. It needed variety. What else stank? Sometimes Google is a writer’s best friend. I started with “animals that stink” and I created a list. I figured we needed more than mammals. Did you know there is a stink bird? I didn’t. But, there it was—the Hoatzin. And a stink turtle. Several bugs, and  anteater, and the Tasmanian devil stinks, too. I needed not only different types of animals, but also sizes. The musk ox! Once I had a list, I needed to make sure there was a variety of reasons why the animals were odorous—to attract a mate, for protection, because of digestion… Suddenly the book started to take shape. All from a long couple days of research. From there it was a deep dive into each stinker. I like to take notes of every odd detail so I have a lot of material from which to choose when distilling it into what I’m writing. Poems are especially fun since I may take 6 pages of notes to create a 25-word poem.  So, in the case of EEK YOU REEK, there was both science research and word research. Much of what we didn’t use in poems, wound up in the backmatter. 

I love this book. And, it really was through this research that a project I didn’t really believe in became something really fun.

EEK, YOU REEK released yesterday and is now on bookstore shelves. 

Here’s a sneak peek:


In flies the hoatzin
for a crash landing,
not at all graceful—
flying or standing.

Blue face and wing claws,
Mohawk-like crest,
but what makes them odd,
is how they digest.

More bovine than bird,
eating leaves by the ton,
they chew on their cud 
while they laze in the sun.

While supper ferments,
a stench fills the air.
Only the stinkbirds
don’t seem to care.

©2019 Heidi E.Y. Stemple from EEK, YOU REEK! Poems About Animals That Stink, Stank, Stunk by Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple

Find out more about Heidi and her books at


Nancy Castaldo has been writing about the planet for over 20 years. Learn more about her award-winning books at

DK LifeStories ADA LOVELACE is now available at your local bookstore!