Getting to Know: Alison Pearce Stevens

 

This year I’m banding with a cool group of authors at SteamTeam Books to talk about and share our STEAM titles for kids releasing this year. As an animal lover who’s also worried about what we can do about climate change, I was super excited to discover Dr. Alison Pearce Stevens’ book ANIMAL CLIMATE HEROES (Godwin Books, March 2024, illustrated by Jason Ford). I caught up with Alison to learn more:

Me: I love how your book tackles environmental awareness by highlighting the role animals play in their own ecosystems. It’s a fresh and fun take on an important subject, which also includes helpful tips for kids. What inspired you to write this book?

Alison: During the COVID shutdown I attended a lot of webinars, and during one, the speaker, an editor at Scholastic, was talking about finding ideas. She mentioned that she loves National Geographic Kids magazine and that she’d found her favorite fact there: Sea otters help fight climate change. That was all it took to make me decide to write a book about animals fighting climate change.

Me: How did you do your research? Were there any big surprises?

Alison: My research always involves lots of reading. I write about science, so I read a lot of scientific papers before deciding which ones fit best into the project I’m working on. Then I reach out to the authors and do interviews. I get out in the field for research when I can, but I wasn’t able to do that for this book, since everyone was stuck at home. The good news: everyone was stuck at home, including scientists who would normally be out in the field doing research, so it was easy to talk with them.

Me: Okay, “Poo-nados”. What an image! But is it the accurate scientific term? Where did you get it?

Alison: Haha! No. I think the official term is “whale excreta,” which doesn’t have the same ring. I’ve also seen “fecal plumes” which is a bit more interesting but still doesn’t have the superhero punch I needed for the book. I didn’t come up with poo-nado, though. It’s one of a couple of terms invented by the media to describe these huge clouds of whale poop. It may have come from this BBC video recounting a sperm whale fanning its waste around a photographer in what appeared to be an evasive maneuver similar to a squid squirting ink.

Me: How did you get into writing for kids?

Alison: Once upon a time, I was a biologist and college professor. When my husband got a job as a research scientist in Germany, we moved with our young son to Berlin, and that was the end of my academic career (which was fine, I didn’t love the job I left).

We had a second child in Berlin and I read to my kids a lot. After a while I realized that I not only knew a lot of interesting things about animals, I knew a lot of fascinating people who studied equally fascinating animals. I started writing for magazines, setting my sights on Highlights. I submitted maybe six nonfiction articles before they acquired my first one. That was back in 2011. I still write the occasional story for them; “Polar Opposites?” came out in the January 2024 issue.

My career expanded from there. I started writing for Science News Explores in 2012 (and still do), along with other children’s magazines. I also do web content for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and write text for museum exhibits. One of my editors at Science News Explores was editing a book for National Geographic Kids Books and needed a writer. She asked if I’d be interested in working on it. I said yes, of course! That led to four books with NGK and the start of my career as an author of children’s books.

Me: Can you share what you’re working on next?

Alison: I can tell you about the books I have coming out over the next two years. Two are part of Holiday House’s Books for a Better Earth collection. Detective Dogs are on the Case (out in September) showcases conservation dogs working to protect our ecosystems from invasive species. The Wild Mile (2025) features efforts to bring nature back to the heart of Chicago by installing floating islands along the river’s steel-reinforced banks. The islands provide habitat for animals and places for people to access the water. And in 2026, When Beavers Move In, illustrated by Métis illustrator Natasha Donovan, will introduce readers to the extraordinary work being done by the Tulalip Tribes as they reintroduce beavers to the Cascade Mountains to heal their ancestral lands.

Thanks so much for having me!

Me: Thank you! Wishing your book much success! To learn more, visit Alison Pearce Stevens – Adventures in nature and science

 

Getting to Know: Leah Henderson

 

There are many important journeys in literature. But up until Leah Henderson’s new picture book YOUR VOICE, YOUR VOTE (releasing on Dec. 19 from HarperCollins), I’d never read about a child’s journey to a polling place. It’s an uplifting journey, filled with community and purpose; but also obstacles, which mirror the very real obstacles many face in their own journeys to fulfill the most important task of any democracy. I caught up with Leah to learn more:

Me: Congratulations on your inspiring new picture book, YOUR VOICE, YOUR VOTE! And just in time for what’s sure to be another crucial election year. Casting a ballot is not the usual picture book quest. What inspired you to write this story?

Leah: Hi, Jonathan and thank you. You’re right, casting a ballot isn’t the usual picture book quest, but more and more I feel talking about the importance of voting in every election is vital. So why not start with the very young?

As far as inspiration goes, this story actually started with my editor. But soon, Quetta, her mom and grandma were on their way to the polls in my head as well!

 

Me: Since I first met you around your middle grade debut, ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL, you’ve published an impressive array of picture books and novels. How do you choose your projects?

Leah: I’m someone that is all about feelings. If I don’t feel something about the topic or characters, I have a hard time finding my way into the story or experience. Now granted, I “feel something” about LOTS of stories, but it’s the ones that won’t leave me alone—the characters that won’t stop talking, the places I can’t stop seeing, and the experiences I have a million and one questions about—that usually gain my attention and time.

Me: The illustrations by Keisha Morris are very vivid, textural and warm – with nice attention to detail: I had to go back myself to hunt for the (spoiler alert!) lost ID. What was your involvement, if any, in the illustration process?

Leah: I truly love Keisha’s illustrations. I feel like they bring Quetta’s community to life in the best possible ways. With picture books, there is often a lot of trust involved in sharing your words with an illustrator and letting them do their thing (if you aren’t blessed with art skills). I was given a few illustrators to consider and Keisha was my first choice and she definitely came through! Once her early sketches came in there were only a few small request changes on my part.

 

Me: I make sure to vote in absolutely every election, big and small. Luckily the county where I live instituted early voting years ago, and since the pandemic has readily adopted mail-in ballots. But there was also a sense of community and camaraderie in the long lines I remember from certain past elections that your book captures so well (as well as the opportunity to bring future voters to observe). By which method do you vote these days? And do you have any tips on how as citizens we can help eliminate voting barriers that exist in counties and states not our own?

Leah: Because I am often traveling around election day, I usually vote by mail. But when I am able, I will go to my local polling station. There is definitely something to be said for truly seeing the process at work. I just wish there weren’t so many hurdles for some to take part in the process. One of the main things those of voting age can do is vote! Vote for leaders who understand the need for fair elections and equal access to voting. For future votes, getting involved in our communities is often the best way to start. I know that’s not an original answer, but it is the truth. Getting involved in your community, helps your community and those who live within and around it.

Me: Can you share what you’re working on now?

Leah: I am always working on something. But right now I am fiddling with a couple picture books and another novel, none of which look like either of those things right now. But hopefully one day they will.

Me: Go Quetta and all future voters! Wishing your book much success! See you at Books of Funder…

Leah: Hahaha! Thanks! And thank you again for asking me to stop by and for sharing my work with your readers.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Me: And thank you, Leah! Everyone can learn more at Home – Leah Henderson (leahhendersonbooks.com)

 

Getting to Know: Helen Taylor

 

Although, as you may have noticed, I set a lot of books in space, I have absolutely no desire to travel beyond Earth’s thin, life sustaining atmosphere. No Mr. Right Stuff here (until maybe they invent transporters, c’mon Scotty). That said, I do love to learn about the brave souls who do make such journeys, who get to see our beautiful planet as, well…a planet. I find the details fascinating. So when I learned that author Helen Taylor had a debut picture book coming out called HOW TO EAT IN SPACE (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2023), I knew I had to learn more.

Me: Congratulations on your awesome picture book debut! HOW TO EAT IN SPACE is a fun way to look at the challenges of living in an environment such as the International Space Station. What inspired you to write this book?

Helen: Thank you so much, Jonathan! This book was so fun to research. I had never thought much about astronaut food until I came across an article about some plant-growing experiments happening on the International Space Station. NASA astronauts were growing lettuce in a chamber appropriately named “Veggie” and the details were fascinating! I started outlining a picture book about that, but quickly came to realize just how many other interesting aspects there are to astronaut nutrition. So the scope of the book expanded from how to grow salad in space to how to eat in space.

 

Me: What’s your background? Did you always want to write for children?

Helen: you had asked me ten years ago, I couldn’t have told you that I was heading toward kidlit, and yet I feel like I’ve landed in the right spot. As a kid, I loved to read and write stories, and in high school I developed an interest in science and math. After grad school, I ended up doing communications for a science museum, which was awesome! I got to write about exhibits, events, and all sorts of cool stuff happening behind the scenes. It was only after becoming a parent that I decided to try writing about science specifically for kids.

Me: If offered a chance, would you go to space? What would you include in your ‘bonus box’?

Helen: I think it would be amazing to orbit Earth a few times! But as far as an extended trip to space, I’m not sure I have “the right stuff.” What I do have is enormous respect for all that astronauts sacrifice and endure for their work! If I were to have a bonus box of my own, my top five requests would be sundried tomatoes, crunchy mochi bites, Snickers bars, good balsamic vinegar, and hot sauce.

Me: What vibrant illustrations! What, if any, was your involvement with your illustrator? And what was it like seeing the illustrations come to light?

Helen: Seeing Stevie Lewis’ illustrations come together was amazing—she is incredibly talented! She created a fabulous cast of characters to guide readers through the tips on each spread. (There was really no character-specific material in the manuscript at all, just a few lines of unattributed dialogue.)  I also love how she captured the essence of the space station in a way that is both authentic and inviting, no small feat for such an industrial environment. Stevie and I weren’t in direct contact while she was working on the illustrations, but I did send along some reference material I had gathered while doing my own research. We also communicated through our editor at several points as part of the fact-checking process.

 

Me: Can you share what you’re working on now?

Helen: Sure! I have a photo-illustrated book coming out in 2024 with Tilbury House called Chasing Guano: The Discovery of a Penguin Supercolony. I’m working on revisions for that book right now. Meanwhile, there’s a science-meets-history story in my head that I want to get down on paper, so I’m hoping to find time for that soon!

Me: Thank you, Helen, for chatting. Wishing your book much success!

To learn more, please visit HELEN TAYLOR – Helen Taylor – Home (helenstaylor.com)

 

Getting to Know: Kurtis Scaletta

 

Me: Congratulations on your awesome picture book debut! When I first met you, your middle grade novel MUDVILLE had just come out. Since then you’ve also written a chapter book series, more mg novels and even some non-fiction. Did you always want to add a picture book to the mix? How was GRANNY REX (Abrams/Cameron Kids) born?

Kurtis: I really wanted to add a picture book to my list of credits! And I developed more appreciation for the form when I was reading books to my son, really getting the interactive/dramatic element of reading to a child.

But it took me a long time of trial and error. I had dozens of tries. I think the big difference for this one is that it has a full story – a hero we can cheer for, conflict, and a narrative arc. Most of my ideas were premises, not plots. I dive into middle grade novels with little more than a premise, but have some time to find my way to a plot. With picture books you don’t have time for that, there needs to be a really strong concept that is character-centered and build around it. I should add that I’ve written several not-very-good picture book manuscripts since this one, and nothing has really gelled.

 

Me: I love chickadees, though I see fewer of them at my feeder these days. Why did you pick this bird?

Kurtis: It’s my wife’s favorite bird, so I thought of a chickadee right away. It really works for the book because it’s one of the smallest birds, and because of their call, which becomes a big part of the book. You touch on a sad and serious issue that songbird populations are in decline, but I’ll save that for another blog.

Me: Granny Rex, among other things, “did have feathers.” Can you talk about how our current thinking about dinosaurs may be a little different than when, say, I was a kid?

Kurtis: I think like a lot of people of our generation I learned that birds were evolved from dinosaurs in June, 1993 when I saw Jurassic Parkin the theater. I think it was a pretty recent discovery at the time. At the beginning of the movie Sam Neil is talking about the velociraptor and this truculent child says they were just big chickens. I am not a paleontologist but I do know that therapods, even T Rex, probably had feathers. Birds evolved from a different therapod but they have a common ancestor with T Rex that definitely had feathers; that’s who mama calls Granny Rex.

Me: What, if any, was your involvement with your illustrator Nik Henderson? And what was it like first seeing the illustrations come to light? (They’re very stunning!)

Kurtis: I had very little involvement; I haven’t met him or talked to him and only traded a few greetings after the book was finished. The editor mentioned him from the get go, she knew his work and thought he was a great match for their house style and the book. I had imagined something like the dinosaur scenes in Calvin’s imagination in the comic strip, but I’m not an artist and didn’t have a lot of references to draw from. Nik’s decisions for the book went in a different direction, big and bold. It pops, as they say in the business.

Me: What are you working on now?

Kurtis: I don’t have any other books underway, really. Like I said, I’ve had a few manuscripts since Granny Rex, but none have worked out. I like building stories around animals and science but with a lot of whimsy. I’ve had several trying to make a story out of the fact that dung beetles use stars to navigate; I love that the world’s humblest creature is one of the few besides men that gazes up at the stars. I also feel there’s a story to be told about tortoises because I’m intrigued by their long lifespan. And recently I’ve been wondering what I can do with opossums. I feel that opossums will be the next narwhal as a mini-fad in children’s books. But like I said, a premise isn’t a plot and I haven’t been able to find a strong character like in Granny Rex. To be honest, I don’t really have any middle grade books cooking either. But I’m not retired yet, just taking a needed break (and playing a lot of video games).

Me: I’d like to read the star gazing dung beetle book right now please! Though I’m sure whatever you settle on will be intriguing as always. Thanks so much for joining me!

Please look for GRANNY REX and all of Kurtis’ books wherever books are sold, and learn more at Kurtis Scaletta’s Site | Info about me and my books.

Getting to Know: Meg Eden Kuyatt

 

When I learned that Meg Eden Kuyatt had written a middle grade novel-in-verse about a girl navigating her neurodivergence in middle school, I knew it was going to be special. And I was right! GOOD DIFFERENT just released from Scholastic and I know it’s going to be beloved by many. I caught up with Meg to learn more:

Me: Congratulations on your awesome middle grade debut! GOOD DIFFERENT is an intimate portrait of a middle school girl’s growing awareness and acceptance of how and why her mind works in the ways it does. What inspired you to write this touching story?

Meg: Thanks so much, Jonathan! Selah’s poems came out in the worst of COVID lockdowns, when my autism and anxiety had no more places to hide. I felt so overwhelmed, attacked and scared, and as I wrote, I dug up an old memory of a classmate braiding my hair without my consent. But then the speaker was no longer me but this other girl, Selah. And Selah took action. She hit her classmate! I was in shock, but then also I knew I needed to write a novel to figure out why she hit her classmate and what would happen from there.

Me: When I first met you, you were debuting your YA novel POST-HIGH SCHOOL REALITY QUEST (pictured below), and you’ve also published poetry. Were there any interesting differences or challenges in writing middle grade?

 

Meg: I thought there would be more challenges, but I’ve been finding writing middle grade so freeing! Selah’s story just burst out from me, if I’m honest. In some other MG projects I’ve been playing with, I’ve been having to be careful to not write past what my character understands, sees or perceives of a situation. Sometimes it’s easy to write how I’m seeing the situation now as an adult, but have to remember: would my twelve year old protagonist be that aware yet? What would she see?

Me: Though your book isn’t illustrated, the element of design to a novel-in-verse is very important. Can you tell me a little about how you decide to design a poem or page?

Meg: This is such a great question! My main focus for design is what will reinforce the content. If I want you to slow down, I might have a lot of white space and space between stanzas. If I want you to feel the frantic panic of my character, I might do one big stanza with long lines and no punctuation. There are so many great tools for verse to allow the page to really make us feel what the character is feeling.

Me: I didn’t notice any references to geography, but can you hint if Selah and her family lives in a certain state that you and I may live in? (Rooting for the home state here!)

Meg: Yes, I imagined this set in Maryland!

Me: Can you share what you’re working on now?

Meg: I’m drafting a new middle grade novel in verse, and have a couple things in the pipeline I’d love to see on shelves, but we’ll see. So much of this process is completely out of my control. The main thing I can do is write the next thing and be patient. Stay tuned on my website for any updates!

Me: Can’t wait! In the meantime, wishing your book much success!

Meg: Thanks so much, Jonathan!

To learn more about Meg and her books, please go to Meg Eden (megedenbooks.com).