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! 

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