Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Researching STEM Kidlit - Welcome Guest Blogger - Carrie Pearson

I grew up climbing trees. If I was nowhere to be found, my family knew to look for me in the sugar maple in our backyard. I hauled up my knobby kneed self by grabbing a limb close to the ground, then pulled, pushed, and shimmed higher and higher until I’d found the perfect crook in which to read my book of choice. Ah, bliss.
So it was no surprise I was drawn to a special tree -- this time, a coast redwood -- as the subject for my third nature book. 

But this ecosystem is a bit different.  
Coast redwood branches begin growing far off the ground so it’s impossible to grab a limb and haul oneself up into a tree. Instead, tall tree researchers stand at the base of a coast redwood and shoot an arrow with a line attached toward the lowest branch. Hopefully the line loops over the limb, falls to the ground and can be leveraged with mountain climbing carabiners to haul the researcher up, up, up. 
However, I’m not a tall tree researcher. And, as I’ve, um, matured, I’m less fond of heights. To make matters more difficult, I knew I would not be allowed to visit the main character in my manuscript -- the tallest tree on earth.  
To guard it from even well-meaning people like me, this is tree is protected and its location is kept secret. Even if it wasn’t, finding it in the midst of the 131,983 acres of Redwood National and State Park would be an extreme undertaking at the very least. But I was smitten with the life story of this tree. 
So, here we are at the title for this blog post. How does a writer of true stories research that which she cannot see and never will? 

Step One: choose a topic for which your passion knows few bounds. Somewhere inside, I knew I’d get there. Don’t ask me how I knew this but my need to create this book for children was as big as the tree itself.
Step Two: Begin with inquiry. I drew up list of questions that I felt I would need to answer before I knew enough to write the book. The who, how, when, where and why’s would guide my research. 
Step Three: Find the experts. I searched for people who had experienced the tree firsthand. I read and watched everything these people had shared in every format possible. Thankfully, the secondary research troves were deep. When I began to find the same answers for my questions, even though I approached the questions differently, I was ready for the next research step.
Step Four: Ask for help. I wrote and was awarded an SCBWI research grant to visit the Park because I knew other’s experiences could take me only so far. Even though I wouldn’t see “my” tree, I’d enlist all my senses to get as close a feel for it as I could. Fortuitously, the Park paired me with a guide, Park Ranger James Wheeler, who had spent 30 plus years in that world. 

Step Five: Stop researching and listen for the story. Mr. Wheeler’s insights, other experts’ knowledge, combined with my redwood forest immersion, allowed me to begin to hear the narrative for STRETCH TO THE SUN: FROM A TINY SPROUT TO THE TALLEST TREE ON EARTH
Even though I’d never seen the tree and knew I never would, in a way, I had. 

Carrie A. Pearson is a children’s book author, consultant, speaker, and former teacher. She is a Regional Advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, a member of several literacy-focused organizations, and the recipient of the Gwen Frostic Award for Literacy given by the Michigan Reading Association. She is the author of two informational fiction picture books, A Warm Winter Tail and A Cool Summer Tail (Arbordale Publishing) and a narrative nonfiction picture book, Stretch to the Sun: From a Tiny Sprout to the Tallest Tree on Earth (Charlesbridge), a Eureka! Award recipient for outstanding nonfiction given by the California Reading Association. A picture book biography about medical trailblazer, Dr. Virginia Apgar, launches fall 2020 with Norton Young Readers. A picture book anthology about unexpected women who are changing the world will be announced soon. Carrie would love to connect with you on Twitter @carrieapearson, Pinterest carrieapearson, and through her website
For more about STRETCH TO THE SUN and the path to its publication, visit this page on her website:


Nancy Castaldo has been writing about the planet for over 20 years. Learn more about her award-winning books at Purchase and pre-order autographed copies of Nancy's books here

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!

Good News and Bad News ---For Wolves

There was good news and bad news recently for our country's gray wolf population, as you see below. While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser...