STEM Tuesday All About Conservation – Interview with Author Nancy Castaldo

Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!

Today we’re interviewing author Nancy Castaldo who wrote this month’s featured conservation book, Back from the Brink: Saving Animals from Extinction.

Find out how seven different animal species from around the world were saved from extinction by hard-working scientists and environmental activists in this book. Nancy Castaldo has used her experience as an environmental educator to create award-winning books about our planet for over 20 years including her 2016 title, The Story of Seeds: From Mendel’s Garden to Your Plate, and How There’s More of Less To Eat Around The World, which earned the 2017 Green Earth Book Award, Junior Library Guild Selection, and other honors. Nancy’s research has taken her all over the world from the Galapagos to Russia. She loves sharing her excitement about nonfiction with readers and fellow writers. Visit her at, on Twitter at @NCastaldoAuthor, or on Instagram at @naturespeak.

Mary Kay Carson: How did this book come about?

Nancy Castaldo: When I was young I had nightmares of creatures going extinct. I was terrified of losing any endangered species. I still am, but I know that my younger self needed to see hope and learn about the helpers. I wanted to give those stories to my readers. I wanted them to see that we all can make a difference, that every endangered species doesn’t go extinct because of the helpers. And that no matter where you live or how old you are, we all have the ability to join in the bucket brigade. I hope that Back from the Brink does that for my readers.

MKC: Could you share some highlights of doing research for Back from the Brink

Nancy: Every place I visit for research and photography has been life changing for me. This book, like the others for Houghton Mifflin such as Sniffer Dogs and The Story of Seeds, has taken me to places I only dreamed of visiting. I am a herper at heart, meaning I love reptiles and amphibians. Spending time with the tortoises and marine iguanas in the Galapagos was heaven. Another favorite experience was spending time with the dedicated California condor researchers in the Sespe Wilderness area. Part scientist and part adventurer, these biologists work tirelessly to conserve the condor population, despite continued threats to the birds from lead poisoning and micro-trash litter. It was a joy to enter their world.

MKC: Do you have a STEM background?

Nancy: I do have a STEM background. I completed a biology/chemistry double major in college and was president of the science club. At the same time I was also the co-editor of my college’s literary magazine. I was highlighted when I graduated in the college’s view book with the title, Creative Combinations. I’m still combining, having then went on to get a master’s that focused on children’s literature. Science, writing, and photography are all my passions. I love writing STEM books. I was a curious kid and I love writing for curious readers. I strive to inspire, inform, and empower my young readers because I believe they are our hope for the future. Our world needs them now more than ever.

Purchase Back from the Brink!

MKC: Any recommendations for fans of Back from the Brink?

Nancy: I’m hoping that readers will become inspired and empowered with the success stories in Back from the Brink and want to learn more about these creatures and other endangered species. There are many wonderful fiction and nonfiction books that can continue the experience. I’ve included many in the Learn More section of the book, including Dorothy Patent’s The Buffalo and the Indian, Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf, and Jazynka Kitson’s Mission Wolf Rescue. While these books are great reads, I really hope that my readers will step out into the wild and discover some of these creatures first hand. I list places throughout the country for outdoor, natural sightings in my book.

Praise for Back from the Brink:

  • “[Castaldo] offers solid, meaningful suggestions for young readers […] including many, many learning opportunities: things to watch and read, organizations to investigate, websites and parks to explore. Challenging but important reading for the intended audience.”–Kirkus, STARRED review
  • “Readers will be moved by Castaldo’s appreciation for these animals.”–Booklist, STARRED review

Win a FREE copy of Back from the Brink!   Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.

Good luck!

Hosting this week is Mary Kay Carson, fellow animal lover, science nerd, and author of Mission to Pluto and other nonfiction books for kids. @marykaycarson




Trapped in a Video Game! Interview and Giveaway with Author Dustin Brady

Hey Mixed-Up Folks! I’m so excited about today’s interview. As you’re well aware, there’s a great big publishing world out there and that includes independent authors. With tools like Vellum for formatting and distribution channels like IngramSpark, authors have a toolkit at their disposal. There’s also support networks and groups where indie authors share helpful information. And in those groups are some incredible success stories. One such success story is that of Dustin Brady. I’m super excited to chat with him today!

Jesse Rigsby hates video games—and for good reason. You see, a video game character is trying to kill him. After getting sucked into the new game Full Blast with his friend Eric, Jesse starts to see the appeal of vaporizing man-size praying mantis while cruising around by jet pack. But pretty soon, a mysterious figure begins following Eric and Jesse, and they discover they can’t leave the game. If they don’t figure out what’s going on fast, they’ll be trapped for good!

Amie:Welcome Dustin! Thanks for coming to the files today. Let’s start with the most important question of all. What do you enjoy most about writing middle-grade books?

Dustin:I love writing middle grade because those are the books that really developed my love of reading. I feel like if you can write something that connects with a 10-year-old, you can create a reader for life. Also, I have a short attention span, and 25,000 words is a lot easier for me to wrap my head around than 100,000.

Amie: Haha! Yeah, I struggle with those longer books, too.  Your books feature a boy trapped in a video game. Some boys (and girls) tend to be reluctant readers, so writing in an area of interest (video games!) is a genius way to engage this demographic. Would you say part of your success can be attributed to fulfilling a need in an under-served, eager audience?

Dustin: Yes! One hundred percent. I’ve had many parents tell me that they bought this book because their child struggles with reading but loves video games, and this is actually the first book the child has read without prodding. I think that’s so cool. That angle wasn’t a conscious decision I made when I wrote the book – I just wanted to write something I would have loved when I was ten.

Amie: I think, as authors, when we write something we love, our readers know it. That makes it even more appealing. So, what made you decide to go indie?

Dustin: First and foremost, I had the resources to make a great cover. My brother is a professional illustrator, and I knew he could absolutely crush the cover. Also, I’d been selling other items on Amazon for a year when I wrote the book, so I was comfortable with marketing on the platform. Finally, this was my first book, and when I started writing, I honestly wasn’t sure if it was going to be that good. I would much rather put it out there, see what happens, and get feedback that way than submit it to a bunch of agents and get crickets.

Amie: So you had a marketing plan in place, or at least some knowledge of it, which is important not just for indie authors but even for trad authors who are expected to do more of their own marketing than in years past. The general consensus seems to tell us that MG readers prefer physical books over e-readers. In your experience, did you find this to be true?

Dustin: Absolutely! I’ve found that the sales ratio for my books is about five physical copies to every one e-book.

Amie: That’s a stark contrast to other genres in the indie market where sales are typically on digital books.  Since parents typically purchase books for their MG kids, what was your marketing strategy to reach these readers?

Dustin:  The only thing I’ve really done to market the book has been Amazon ads. I just chose as many keywords as I could think of to get the book in front of parents of 8-12-year-old boys. Once those keywords started converting, Amazon’s algorithm took it from there and started listing the book in organic search results and adding it to “Customers Also Bought” lists for other titles. I don’t think Amazon ads are a silver bullet because I’ve used the exact same strategy for other titles with much less success, but I think they’re good for accelerating growth for books that would already perform well on their own.

Because almost all my sales start with people seeing the book as a thumbnail, I think the most important “marketing” thing I got right was the cover. I decided to do two things with my cover: make the title say exactly what the book is about and keep the layout simple with a large title and a clear picture of the main character. I just wanted to promise something that a 10-year-old boy would be into, and then write the best possible version of that story.

Amie: Smart! Content is important, but the cover is the very first impression. Your cover (and title) does a great job of conveying that content.

You were quite successful as an indie. In fact, your books did so well, they attracted a publisher. Tell us a bit about your transition from indie to trad and what that’s been like. Do you have an agent? What did you hope to accomplish with a publisher that you couldn’t do as an indie?

Dustin: When Andrews McMeel approached me last year about acquiring the books, I was very skeptical. Obviously it’s flattering to have someone interested in your work, but this series has been so steady for me that giving it up felt like killing the golden goose. A big thing that convinced me to switch was when they showed me the sales breakdown for a few of their comparable titles. I always assumed that Amazon makes up the vast majority of a book’s sales, but physical bookstores still have a big share of the market. Then there are foreign rights, libraries, and audiobooks – all things that I could have pursued while indie but probably was never going to. The publisher has the resources to make those things happen.

In the end, I know that my series connects with reluctant readers. Right now, the vast majority of people introducing reluctant readers to my books are parents desperately searching Amazon for something their kid will read. I think the publisher can help introduce other gatekeepers to my series and get the books into the hands of even more reluctant readers.

Since the publisher approached me, I didn’t hire an agent. I negotiated the contract myself with help from the free legal counsel provided by the Authors Guild, which, by the way, is a fantastic resource.

Amie: Fantastic advice! Your new cover is very similar to your old one. I’m guessing your publisher was also interested in your illustrator.

Trapped in a Video Game Book 2

Dustin: My brother, Jesse Brady (, illustrated all the books. In my initial talks with the publisher, I said that I wanted to keep him on as the illustrator, and they said, “Sure, we’d love that!” I’m not sure how unusual that is, but Andrews McMeel has been great about collaborating rather than “taking over.” Working with them feels like being an indie author, except with a lot more resources.

Trapped in a Video Game Book 3

Amie: I love Jesse’s cover designs! So now that you’ve experienced both publishing worlds and we know the benefits of trad, tell us your favorite part about being an indie author. What was the worst thing? Will you continue to self publish?

Trapped in a Video Game Book 4

Dustin:  Best thing about being an indie author: The ability to bring things to market quickly and experiment. Worst thing about being an indie author: Formatting is the worrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrst.

Yes, I’ll continue self-publishing the other series I’ve already started. Plus, there will always be ideas that are better suited for the indie market than traditional.

Amie: Hahaha! I feel your pain! Formatting (especially when illustrations are involved) is the absolute worst! So anything else you’d like to tell us?

Dustin: It can be tempting to chase trends or write something only because you think there’s a market for it, but I really believe that every author has their own unique thing they can be great at – maybe better than anyone else – and the best path to success is finding that thing. Once you find “your thing” positioning and marketing are important, but what’s even more important is that you now offer something unique to you.

Amie: Yaaasssss. Thank you. So much truth in that. Any other books you’re working on?

Dustin: I just finished the final book in the Trapped in a Video Game series, and now I’m working on the second book in my indie Superhero for a Day series.

Amie: Ohhh! Superheros FTW! Okay, now comes the serious part. Chocolate or vanilla? Boogers or vomit? Legos or troll dolls?

Dustin: #TeamChocolate. Legos. Obviously. I’m trying to think of anything that vomit could beat, and I’m really coming up empty.

Amie: There you have it, folks.Vomit covered chocolate Legos. You heard it here first. Thanks for joining us, Dustin!

If you’d like to win a copy of Dustin’s newly relaunched Trapped in a Video Game (book 1), just fill out the rafflecopter form below for your chance to win!

Dustin Brady writes funny, action-packed books for kids. Although he regularly gets locked out of his own accounts for forgetting passwords, Dustin still remembers the Super Mario Bros. 3 Game Genie code for infinite lives. It’s SLXPLOVS. Dustin lives in Cleveland, Ohio, with his wife, kids, and a small dog named Nugget. You can check out his work at


a Rafflecopter giveaway

South Asian Historical Fiction – Author Interview with Veera Hiranandani, and Giveaway

Historical fiction makes readers feel connected to people and settings from the past. Growing up in India, the time of the Indian subcontinent’s freedom movement, division, and independence was pretty significant in my student life. The heroic stories of the survivors were part of my history lessons. I remember dressing up like freedom fighters for costume shows in cultural events at school. I imagined – through the stories I read – how the experience would affect a child who lived that life.

The Partition of India was the division of British India in 1947 that resulted in the creation of two independent countries – India and Pakistan. It was one of the most important historical moments of South Asia.  More than 14 million people were displaced between the two countries, and nearly two million of them were killed.

I’m thrilled that Veera Hiranandani gave a voice to the children who experienced the life-changing experience in 1947, through her novel, THE NIGHT DIARY.


In this post, author Veera Hiranandani shares her experience of writing THE NIGHT DIARY, a poignant, personal, and hopeful story of India’s partition, and of one girl’s journey to find a new home in a divided country.

The book is called “THE NIGHT DIARY.” Explain what that is. Where did this story begin for you?

THE NIGHT DIARY is a fictional diary, where twelve-year old Nisha writes to her deceased mother about her experiences during the Partition of India in 1947. In some ways, the story began when I was a child, because I grew up hearing about partition from my father. My father was nine when he and his family had to leave his home in Mirpur Khas, Pakistan and travel over the new border of India into Jodhphur. I would hear parts of the story, but I knew they weren’t telling me everything. This ignited my curiosity and when I got older, I started asking more questions and researching on my own. As I learned more about it, I was shocked at the amount of violence and upheaval millions of people experienced. I didn’t know I would grow up to be a writer, but when I did, I knew I had to try and shape a story around this piece of history.

So take us to the year of 1947. We know that more than a million people were killed and many millions displaced by India’s partition. Are there any true stories that moved you to write this book? If so, how did you go about translating the true shocking experiences so that it made sense to young readers?

Several weeks after India’s independence and the partitioning of India into two countries, India and Pakistan, my father’s family decided they had to leave their home as the unrest around them grew closer. They packed a few bags, got on a train, and left everything behind. They arrived over the border safely, but lost their home, their friends, their community. They were considered lucky.

As a young girl living growing up in Connecticut, my life seemed pretty secure, and the thought of losing everything so quickly was hard to imagine, but my father felt the same way about his life in Mirpur Khas. He lived on a large piece of property with his parents, brothers and sisters. His father was the head doctor at the Mirpur Khas hospital. They were involved and connected to their community. Yet, things changed overnight for my father’s family as it does for Nisha in the book. How could a peaceful community completely change in a matter of weeks? How does violence and hate spread so quickly? These are the main questions I had about partition that I tried to explore in the book.

My father’s family made it safely, but many others did not. Many lost their lives. I wanted to express these questions honestly and innocently, the way a young person would, yet I needed to communicate the realities of the fear, violence, and divisiveness without making it too difficult for young readers. It was a tricky balance to maintain.

In the novel, the main character is twelve-year-old Nisha who doesn’t know where she belongs, or what her country is anymore. She embarks on a long journey after leaving her home and faces huge challenges in the midst of the Partition of India. What type of research did you have to do to write Nisha’s story?

I had many discussions with my father. I talked to some additional family members, but sadly my grandparents and his older siblings, my three uncles, and aunt, aren’t living anymore.  I also read historical accounts, both political and personal, and watched several documentaries and fictional films on the subject to try to understand several perspectives. Though I was interested in the factual and political history, what I was most interested in was how an ordinary person, and particularly a young person, might have felt during this time, so I read as many personal survivor testimonies as I could.

I also wanted Nisha to be forced to confront her identity and sense of belonging in a more direct way than my father had to. I wanted her travel in the direction that a Hindu family would travel during that time, from Pakistan to India, because that’s the journey my father’s family took, and the one I was most familiar with. But I chose to make her mother Muslim, so when her country is split apart and Hindus and other religious groups such as Sikhs, are supposed to go in one direction and Muslims are supposed to go in another, she has to wonder, in a very personal way, where she belongs. I also come from a mixed background. My father is Hindu and grew up in India. My mother is Jewish and grew up in New York. I’ve had to question my sense of belonging my whole life, though the stakes are much higher for Nisha.

There is this kind of revolutionary spirit sweeping through the country. You tell a fascinating story about how Nisha believes in the possibility of putting her life back together during trying times. Why were you drawn to the time period of 1940s in the story, and how do you think the Partition story is relevant for kids in the present day?

First and foremost, I needed to understand what my father’s family went through, and honor not only their experience, but the millions who were affected by partition. I wanted to tell a partition story for young people who are connected to this history, to see a story about their family’s past. I also wanted to share it with those who don’t know anything about it. There’s so much we can learn from it.

I didn’t quite realize when I started writing about a refugee family traveling in dangerous, divisive times how relevant it would be to the present day global refugee crisis and the divisiveness and xenophobia growing louder in this country. I see many young people all around the world, discovering the strength and a voice they didn’t know they had like Nisha does.

How does Nisha come to terms with her haunting childhood memories and her new life as a refugee?

I think when one goes through such a life-altering crisis, it stays with you forever. You can never go back. You can only move forward through the altered space. Nisha will never be the same. My father also carries these memories with him and knows how fragile the world can be. I believe that understanding how quickly society can change for the worse, either makes a person fearful or more courageous. Imagining Nisha past this book, I think she chooses the later. She learns to rely on the strength of her own voice.

What do you want readers to take away from the book?

I think that Nisha doesn’t know how brave she is, but she finds the strength to keep that sense of hope as she writes in her diary at night and rises each morning to face her world and move forward. Even if one is not dealing with obstacles on the level that Nisha does in the book, we all have obstacles we face every day. I think to be brave enough to keep going, to stay hopeful, loving, and open-minded, is a courageous act. I see that energy all around me, especially in our younger generation, and it gives me a lot of hope.

For more about Veera and her work, visit her website. You can also connect with her on Twitter.

Thanks, Veera! 

Want to own your very own copy of The Night Diary? Enter our giveaway by leaving a comment below! 

You may earn extra entries by blogging/tweeting/facebooking the interview and letting us know. The winner will be announced here on April 21, 2018 and will be contacted  via email and asked to provide a mailing address (US/Canada only) to receive the book.