Getting to Know: Jennifer Swanson

 

While my first non-fiction book comes out this year, some authors are masters at bringing true stories and facts to kids. It’s especially exciting when a book covers a topic that hasn’t yet been covered before! I caught up with Jennifer Swanson to learn more about her new book, THE LOST FOREST:

Me: Congratulations on your fascinating new book, THE LOST FOREST: AN UNEXPECTED DISCOVERY BENEATH THE WAVES (Millbrook Press, April 2024)! What an interesting subject, I had no idea. And about a secret location too (kids will love that)! What inspired you to write this book?

Jennifer: I happen to know one of the scientists at Nahant Marine Science Center. His name is Dr. Brian Helmuth, and he was one of the experts on my Astronaut-Aquanaut book. When he learned that his team was getting a grant from NOAA to be the only team to conduct a research dive on a secret underwater forest off the coast in Alabama, he called me. Brian wanted to share his exciting news and also ask if I was interested in writing a book about this.

Was I? Absolutely!

Me: How did you research this topic and get to know the team? Have you been to the site?

Jennifer: So, I was invited to go on one of their research trips into the Gulf, but those were postponed due to covid. So, instead, I got to participate in several of the online team meetings they had. They gave me access to all of their reports, the photos, and the videos. It was so exciting to get an inside look at how scientists conduct research in the field. Unfortunately, I have not been to visit the site, yet. I’m hoping to do so maybe one day.

 

Me: One of my most profound experiences is diving down along The Wall (part of the Puerto Rico Trench) off St. Croix. Are you a diver?

Jennifer: I snorkel. I wish I could scuba dive, but I have a condition with one of my ears that prevents me from going deeper than 10 feet. I love watching videos, movies, and looking at pictures of dives. The closest I got was “diving” near Aquarius (the underwater research lab off the coast of Florida) through VR – virtual reality—goggles. It was AMAZING!

 

Me: How did you get into writing for kids?

Jennifer: I am a huge reader! I’ve always loved reading stories and writing ones of my own. About sixteen years ago, I thought it might be fun to take a writing class. For me, writing for kids was the best choice because the writing voice “in my head” is about 9 years old. It’s fun, it’s mischievous and very, very curious. I have also loved science my whole life. It seemed the perfect connection to write science books for kids. And it is! I really love sharing my curiosity about the world with kids of all ages.

I got started writing for kids by doing work-for-hire books for various educational publishers. My first break into trade came with the offer to write a book about the hugely popular National Geographic TV show, BRAIN GAMES.

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

Jennifer: I am in final edits on the next Atlas Obscura book for kids that comes out summer 2025. I’m SO excited for this one! It’s called The Atlas Obscura Explorers Guide to Inventing the World, and I’m the coauthor. This is going to be such a cool book!!

Me: Can’t wait to see it! Thank you so much for being here. Wishing your book much success!

To learn more, please go to Jennifer Swanson – Author, Speaker, Teacher – Science Rocks – Jennifer Swanson (jenniferswansonbooks.com)

Getting to Know: Katy Tanis

 

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. Next up is the stunning board book, LOVE UNDER THE STARS (Mudpuppy, March 19 2024) by Katy Tanis. I caught up with Katy to learn more:

Me: Congratulations on your beautiful new book, LOVE UNDER THE STARS! I love how it combines animals at night with ways animals care for each other. What inspired you to write this book?

Katy: The first book in the series, Love in the Wild, came to be after I researched animals that exhibited LGBTQ+ behaviors, so I could paint a coming out gift for my cousin. There are so many heart-warming animal love stories I thought deserved to be highlighted and they didn’t all fit in the first book! I’ve always been fascinated by nocturnal animals, so I already knew some good love stories for that group. Whenever I travel, I take at least one nighttime forest walk (usually with guides because I am fascinated but also scared of the dark forests). I also love the way rainbow colors pop off black backgrounds, so I thought that would make a nice cover.

 

Me: How did you pick the animals? And how did you choose who got an entire spread or page vs. the forest scene at the end?

Katy: I wanted animals that had interesting love stories, but also wanted to make sure I had some diversity in the animals I chose. I LOVE nocturnal primates, so it was a battle with myself to not make the entire book about them! Animals who got their own spreads had unique behaviors I wanted to highlight, could make interesting illustrations, and worked in the rhyme scheme. That last spread was where a lot of the animals I didn’t get to feature elsewhere lived. I also specifically chose animals that sleep in tree holes for that spread.

 

Me: How did you get into creating books for kids?

Katy: I have answered this question quite a few times now in different interviews. And I doubt I have given the same answer every time. Because it seemed the many career paths I was exploring all eventually led to creating children’s books. In short, it’s a good mix of art, science, curiosity, and storytelling.

Me: The illustrations are stunning; I’m sure you’ll get a lot of love for the colors. What’s your illustration process?

Katy: I often use local library and bookstore art shows to explore a concept in images before I write any text. So quite a few of these illustrations started as pieces for art shows or personal art pieces before the book ever came together. I then adapt them for the size and format of the book. So many of these artworks start as real paintings and are redrawn digitally. Digital is clean and graphic which is nice for young readers. These days I mostly work on my iPad but I love layers so it’s a lot of back and forth between the ArtStudioPro on my iPad and Photoshop on my desktop.

 

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

Katy: I am currently working on the third book in this series, Love Under the Sea.

Me: Can’t wait to see it! Thank you so much, Katy. Wishing your book much success!

To learn more, please go to Katy’s site, Daughter Earth.

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)