Bringing STEM/STEAM to Life

We asked a number of authors and illustrators known for their STEM and STEAM biographies to tell us more about how they work on these books. What follows are some of the highlights.

The creators:

Helaine Becker, author of Emmy Noether: The Most Important Mathematician You’ve Never Heard Of; Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13

Janice Harrington, author of Rooting for Plants

Jessie Hartland, author-illustrator of Bon Appetit!: The Delicious Life of Julia Child; Steve Jobs: Insanely Great

Heather Lang, author of The Leaf Detective; Fearless Flyer

Tracy Nelson Maurer, author of John Deere, That’s Who!; Lady Bird Johnson, That’s Who!

Marissa Moss, author-illustrator of Boardwalk Babies

Carole Boston Weatherford, author of RESPECT: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul

How do you choose your subjects?

Helaine Becker: The most important consideration for me when choosing a subject is feeling a sense of connection. Is this a person I like? Do I relate to their trials and tribulations? Writing about someone means you spend a lot of time with them, so I think long and hard about how much I want to hang out with them.

I also seek out stories that have not been told before, especially those of women’s accomplishments. I live in a state of permanent pissed-off-ness because I grew up not knowing about the female pirate Zheng Yi Sao, whose fleet included 3,000 ships and 70,000 pirates. Yeah, you read that right.

And my childhood would have been much more pleasant if I could have zinged those jerky boys who crowed, “Girls can’t do math,” by retorting, “Oh yeah? Tell that to Emmy Noether and Katherine Johnson and….”

Discovering a new subject is like making a new friend: you can meet them in all kinds of ways. For example, my son introduced me to Katherine Johnson [Counting on Katherine]. He was acting as my research assistant on a book about space, and his mission was to make a list of under-celebrated minorities and women to include in a section on space pioneers. At that time, Johnson was not well known. So when he sent me a short clip about her, he commented, “You are going to looooooove Katherine Johnson!” He was right.

Emmy Noether, the subject of Emmy Noether: The Most Important Mathematician You Never Heard Of, came knocking thanks to Lisa Lyons, the president and publisher of Kids Can Press. Lisa’s on the Emmy Noether Council at the Perimeter Institute, charged with finding ways to encourage more women into physics research.

And sometimes, it’s serendipity. I bumped into Wendy Sloboda, the amazing Canadian “fossil whisperer,” on an Air Canada flight (via the in-flight entertainment system—in a CBC documentary). Kids Can Press will publish The Fossil Whisperer: How Wendy Sloboda Discovered a Dinosaur next spring.

Janice Harrington: Buzzing with Questions grew out of my work as a children’s librarian. Evaluating books in my science collection, I discovered Bug Watching with Charles Henry Turner by Michael E. Ross. I had never heard of the amazing entomologist Charles H. Turner. Years later, after starting my own writing career, I recalled Dr. Turner. My research began with curiosity—I wanted to know more—but also with a belief that more children should know about Turner’s life and work as a scientist. Black scientists and artists who have overcome great odds to practice their science or art fascinate me. I am captivated by their passion. My latest book, Rooting for Plants, investigates the work of the botanist Charles S. Stewart. Stewart researched fungi, collected plants, and contributed specimen mounts to numerous herbaria. So, a key criterium for me is to find individuals who have an inspiring obsession. And, of course, is this someone that child readers would want to know?

Tracy Nelson Mauer: One question leads to another when I’m choosing a subject for a biography. For example, I was researching for my book Noah Webster’s Fighting Words and I noticed the most famous painted portrait of Noah was signed by Samuel F. B. Morse—and I wondered if it was the same Morse of the Morse Code (it was!). When I finished the Noah Webster book, I had to go back and learn more about Morse.

Choosing a subject for the That’s Who! series depends on several criteria. The person must have changed America, which incidentally makes a STEM/STEAM curriculum connection. John Deere, That’s Who! explains how John used the engineering design process to create a steel plow that eventually allowed Westward expansion, for example. There also needs to be a surprising fact. In Lady Bird Johnson, That’s Who, readers learn that the First Lady and environmentalist was exceptionally shy, yet she became a prominent leader. Also, it’s important to me that the person or the legacy offers a modern connection for young readers. Samuel Morse’s work essentially gave us our first instant messaging—kids relate to that and his coding.

Marissa Moss: There are all kinds of ways I stumble on the people I write about. Sometimes I read a mention in another book or a newspaper article and I want to know more. Sometimes I’m doing research on something else and find a completely new person that way (which happened when I was doing research on Alan Pinkerton for the story about how he foiled the first assassination attempt on president-elect Lincoln, and I found out about Kate Warne, the first woman detective). Sometimes it’s through a radio story (like the NPR story on the Coney Island incubator babies). And sometimes a friend will tell me about someone I should know about but don’t (my youngest son led me to Lise Meitner, the physicist who discovered the splitting of the atom). That book comes out with Abrams next spring. I have a file full of story ideas for my next books.

Heather Lang: Writing a picture book biography is a personal journey as well as a writing journey, so I always begin with a strong connection to my topic. That connection can come from a passion, curiosity, or even a fear. For example, my passion for our natural world and concern for our rainforests led me to write The Leaf Detective about tree canopy scientist Meg Lowman. A list of my personal fears inspired me to write about early aviator Ruth Law (Fearless Flyer) and shark scientist Eugenie Clark (Swimming with Sharks).

Most often I’ll start with a topic and then look for someone to write about, preferably a lesser-known person whose story deserves to be told. I search for them by reading books, science articles, and online material. I might also listen to podcasts, watch documentaries, and reach out to related nonprofits for suggestions.

I don’t have a formal list of criteria that must be met before proceeding with a book, but generally the person must face substantial obstacles, show courage and determination, and make a difference in the world.

Carole Boston Weatherford: I paid tribute to Aretha Franklin because my father was a fan, and her song “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” resonated with me when I was a girl. That led me to open each stanza of the rhyming text with a spelled-out, hyphenated word that serves as a signpost on her journey.

Can you offer an example or two of some of the most interesting research you’ve done?

Maurer: Before Covid-19, I traveled a lot to see where my subjects lived and worked. One fascinating trip was to the John Deere Historic Site in Grand Detour, Ill., where one of America’s top blacksmiths gave me loads of insights about John Deere and his work in the 1800s. He even showed me which tools John would have likely packed for his trip west from Vermont—something I would not have learned any other way.

Moss: The research for Sarah Emma Edmonds, the woman who dressed as a man to fight for the Union in the Civil War, was especially rich (so rich I ended up writing two books about her, a picture book biography and a YA title). She wrote her own book about her time in the army, from enlisting as a battlefield nurse, being a general’s adjutant, and a spy. So you have her experiences directly from her mouth. The only thing she omits in her story is that she’s a woman—she writes it like a soldier’s journal of war, because that’s what mattered to her.

Besides what she wrote, I could read the journals of other soldiers she served with, including the fellow nurse, Jerome, whom she fell in love with. He has an entry in his diary where Frank (Sarah’s male name) has told him something deeply disturbing. We know from other sources that was when she confessed that she was a woman and in love with him. He writes there’s something upsetting about Frank, but then quickly moves on, trying to completely ignore it on paper as he did in life.

Another fascinating source of material for my books was the Library of Congress photo collection. They have thousands of photos that Civil War soldiers had taken during the war—it was the first highly photographed war, with roaming photographers following troops to get them to send mementos home to their families. I looked through many, many, many photos and stumbled on some that seem like women. We know of 400 women who dressed as men to fight on one side of the war or the other, but those are the only names we have—there are surely others. Anyway, looking through these images, I found one that looks very much like a young pregnant woman (except with short hair in a uniform). There were indeed women who enlisted with their husbands and nobody suspected they were pregnant until they actually gave birth. Because people see what they expect to see and nobody expected women could possibly be soldiers. The Library of Congress has broadsheets asking men to enlist in the war effort; there are newspapers you can read from the 1800s, personal journals, as well as photographs of Civil War battlefields—just a wealth of information.

Jessie Hartland: In the end, the teetering stack of material I accumulated to write and illustrate Insanely Great! was over four feet tall! In the pile were books, DVDs, photographs, maps, clippings, printouts, and magazines, including old copies of Popular Electronics, Popular Mechanics, and Mechanix Illustrated from the 1960s and 1970s.

To further research this book, and especially for the pictures, I visited Silicon Valley and drove on the 101 Freeway and along El Camino Real. I visited the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, and Palo Alto and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. I saw where Xerox PARC once was, and I got a glimpse of the suburban garage in Los Altos where Apple Computer was born, as well as the Jobs’ family house in Palo Alto. Back up north in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was given a tour of Pixar.

For Bon Appetit! I read all that was written of Julia Child and watched every available episode of The French Chef, her pioneering TV cooking show. Then I traveled to France. I visited Paris and shopped at E. Dehillerin, the cookware store Julia Child frequented. I gorged on soupe au pistou, moules frites, bouillabaisse, and île flotante. I learned some new French words: engraissement (fattening), partager (to share—as in share a dish) and importer (to take out). I visited a fromagerie in Normandy, a confiserie in Provence, a nougat factory in Montéplimar, and went deep sea fishing off Brittany. I visited the famous farmer’s market in Nice as well as many brocante (junk) shops and marches aux puces. And in Provence I visited the tiny town of Plascassier where Julia and Paul Child had a house.

Lang: My most fascinating research often happens when I try to step into the shoes of the person I’m writing about and experience their world.

To understand what it must have been like for Ruth Law to fly in a flimsy flying machine with an open cockpit, I went paragliding. This exhilarating experience connected me to Ruth and led me to weave the theme of freedom into the narrative—the freedom Ruth felt as a pilot and sought as a woman.

While researching The Leaf Detective, I was fortunate to have many conversations with Meg Lowman and ultimately go on a trip with her to the Amazon rainforest. I experienced firsthand the magic of the rainforest and what it’s like to be a rainforest scientist. I also came away with a new understanding of what it means to all be interconnected—from tiny ants to trees to humans. These revelations are part of what I strive to pass on to my readers.

Harrington: In researching Rooting for Plants I had to learn more about herbaria. It was great fun to visit the University of Illinois Herbarium. There, curator Jamie Minnaert gave me a tour of the herbarium and talked to me about the history of plant collecting. I examined specimen mounts and plant collecting equipment, such as a vasculum and a field press. Visiting the herbarium helped me understand the work that taxonomists and plant collectors do. I also gathered prairie plants and made my own specimen mounts. This research gave me a better understanding of Charles S. Parker. Research teaches me about my subject, and in turn the research also enriches my life.

Weatherford: Sometimes I draw personal connections. While researching Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane, I discovered that my great aunt was his third-grade teacher. I also found eerie parallels between Billie Holiday and Marilyn Monroe (subjects of my YA verse biographies). Both were gifted, but exploited entertainers, who survived parental dysfunction and childhood rape, and both also suffered from substance abuse and mental illness.

In writing for young people, are there certain things you choose to leave out when telling a person’s life story?

Maurer: Nonfiction writers always leave something out, particularly in children’s picture books. There simply isn’t enough real estate on the pages for all of the possible information. I once heard someone say (possibly Candace Fleming, but I’m not sure!) that all writers are like sculptors; fiction writers build their sculptures up like a potter at the wheel, adding each detail as if it’s clay to shape their story. Nonfiction writers chip away unnecessary facts to shape their story like sculptors might chisel marble. I focus on my research question to help me know what needs to drop away. Does it matter that Samuel Morse suffered through long bouts of depression? No, it’s not part of this story. For someone else’s book, it might be the central idea.

Moss: If there’s something major that I’m not comfortable sharing with young readers, then I will probably choose not to write about that person. An example is Victoria Woodhull, who was the first woman to run for president, plus the first woman stockbroker, but she used some sleazy tactics in her political efforts, including blackmailing politicians with rumors of sexual affairs. She turned out to be someone I couldn’t admire, despite her work for women’s rights. You have to fall in love with your subjects a little to be able to spend so much time with them.

Lang: I think sometimes we don’t give children enough credit, and we try to shield them from tough but important information. I believe I owe my readers the truth. If content might be difficult for young readers, but it’s integral to the story, then I work to find an appropriate way to present it.

In my current manuscript, I’m writing about animal conservationists, so I show how humans are destroying wildlife through global warming, poaching, and habitat destruction. If we’re going to raise children who have empathy and take action to make our world a better place, I believe they need to understand what life must be like for an animal facing these threats. Those feelings can be uncomfortable, scary, and sad, but they’re important. With the right approach this difficult content can still be hopeful and might even inspire action.

Harrington: The scientists that I have written about are human beings. So they have flaws, but those imperfections also make them intriguing. It is not so much what you leave out, as what you choose to put in the story. Yes, every subject has flaws. Are they concerns appropriate for young readers? Do the flaws connect to the spine of the narrative? Or do the flaws reveal something about the subject’s character or their successes as scientists? The canvas of a picture-book biography requires concision and controlled focus. I try to highlight the person’s passion and scientific practice. Their human flaws are often much smaller by comparison.

Becker: Knowing what to include and what to leave out is the art at the heart of all writing. It’s painful to uncover all these wowza details, but then leave 99% of them on the cutting room floor!

I slice out the boring bits of “She did this, then that, then this…” first. Then, I chop all the marvelous details that don’t advance the story or theme (ouch!). I include all the difficult math and science concepts. Kids can understand nearly everything if you explain it to them in the right way. I clarify, chunk, and use visuals to help readers understand the main thrust of the STEM accomplishment under discussion.

I don’t shy away from controversial or “bad” stuff either. For example, Emmy Noether had to flee from the Nazis; William Playfair was a fraudster and extortionist. The trick is to tell these parts of their stories accurately, fairly, and tactfully. Turning a real person into a spotless, idealized hero is not biography—it’s fiction, and poor fiction at that.

Weatherford: For impressionistic “un-biographies,” I seek to evoke personae, milestones, or milieu. Thus, I allude to but do not detail some struggles. RESPECT covers Franklin’s parents’ breakup, but sidesteps her teenage pregnancies.

What do you think readers connect with in these books?

Moss: Kids love amazing-but-true stories, about people who seem ordinary and end up doing extraordinary things. I tell them I like to write about exactly these people because history is written by the winners, which in our culture means white men, but history actually consists of lots of other people who have fascinating stories to tell. I have one workshop that I do where students research someone in their own family (the older the better) and they often come back with amazing stories they didn’t know about, making them see this older relative (often a grandparent) in a new light and also seeing themselves as connected to a bigger history.

Hartland: They can discover what careers and lives are out there for them to consider. I loved bios when I was growing up in the 1960s and there weren’t enough back then geared to kids. I remember running out of titles and resorting to reading up on Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle and other baseball stars of the day, sports being a subject I wasn’t particularly interested in. However, I was able to take pro ball player off the career possibility list!

Lang: STEM picture book biographies are often about people who overcome enormous obstacles to follow their passions or accomplish a goal. Kids connect to the narrative by thinking about their own hopes or dreams. They gain inspiration and courage to tackle challenges and persevere through hardship. They learn that embracing failure is an important part of the journey. Of course, readers might also connect to the specific STEM content, and that offers a whole different level of learning.

Harrington: Any child who dreams of being a scientist, who has a secret obsession, or who has an interest in insects or plants will connect with Charles H. Turner in Buzzing with Questions or Charles S. Parker in Rooting for Plants. Yes, picture book biographies offer role models, but even more they tell child readers that they are not alone. The great scientist was once a kid just like you, who was fascinated by spiders or by the outdoors. They might even have been different from other kids, and that’s okay! STEM teachers want books that spark questions and enthusiasm. Science begins with curiosity.

I want Buzzing with Questions and Rooting for Plants to shine a light on other pioneer Black scientists that history has overlooked. And even more, I want the books to inspire readers to see that there are scientific discoveries they can make in their own backyards or homes—just start with a bit of curiosity or an unstoppable question.

Are there educators/librarians who have used your books in innovative or interesting ways with students?

Maurer: I love seeing how librarians and teachers use my books to boost learning! Lady Bird Johnson, That’s Who! has apparently inspired several schoolyard clean-up projects and wildflower-planting expeditions. One class made adorable posters reminding people not to litter. I think kids today understand there’s a big problem with pollution and climate change, but it seems overwhelming for them. Lady Bird Johnson’s story shows them that everyone, including school children, can help protect the environment and make a difference for this world.

Moss: The best was a school that took that research-a-relative start and made it a bigger project, with students writing their own book about this personal history that other students could check out of the library and read about. One student wrote about his grandmother’s experience surviving the Chernobyl nuclear accident, something she’d never talked about. It often happens that grandparents will tell a grandchild something emotionally charged like this that they’ve been unable to talk about with their own kids. And the grandchild learns how to conduct research while learning important family history.

Lang: I’m excited to see what activities educators come up with this school year for The Leaf Detective, which came out this past spring. I’ve been told of plans for activities to teach the carbon cycle, the water cycle, and the rainforest food web. One brilliant food web activity has students take on roles from the book (the sun plus different rainforest plants and animals). Students stand in a circle, and then starting with the sun they pass around a ball of yarn to make a food web, showing how they are all interconnected. It’s so rewarding to see the many creative ways educators extend learning with STEM picture book biographies.

Read more about recent STEM/STEAM biographies for young readers here.