New Releases

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




Big Questions for Leslie Connor

I’ve been a big fan of Leslie Connor’s middle grade books since I first met resourceful, upbeat Addie Schmeeter, the star of her award-winning book Waiting for Normal.Then I fell in love with wise-beyond-his-years Perry, of  All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook. Now, big-hearted, lonely Mason has stolen my heart in his poignant story, The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle.Connor’s books are known for characters that have readers rooting for their triumph over situations that are truly heartbreaking. This writer is wondering how she does it, over and over again. I’m so pleased that she’s agreed to this interview.

A.F.  Hi Leslie!  Your characters are your trademark, recognizable for the way they absorb life’s meanness without becoming mean themselves. Their outsider status doesn’t make them unable to accept love or to give it. And in spite of the abuse they receive for being different, they don’t change who they are inside. They remain kind, caring kids who accept the differences in others. So, your family of character-kids are the people we want our children, our students, and our young readers to become.

Two of my favorite characters in your books have learning disabilities. Addie Schmeeter of Waiting for Normal, has serious reading problems. I so admired the vocabulary notebook she kept on her own, writing down the definitions of words she didn’t know. And Mason Buttle, the hero of The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle, may not be able to write much at all, which is why he opens his heart to the Dragon, a computer in his school social worker’s office, that ‘writes’ for him. This is how readers get to hear Mason’s story, a combination of heartache, honesty, absolution, and triumph.

A.F. Finally, my question!  I’m wondering if you have a special connection to kids with learning disabilities. Why did you choose to give your characters these challenges in addition to the other problems in their lives? What do you hope young readers will take away from reading about them?

L.C.  First, thanks so much for inviting me in! It is a treat to have this visit with another author.

Yes, learning disabilities and I share some personal and family history! I know what that struggle feels like. I’m being genuine when I say that I don’t so much choose the challenges my characters face as discover them. First I see how the character is being affected, then I research and try to diagnose them. I aim to present academic underdogs as multifaceted humans. That’s not hard because every one of them is so much more than that disability. I hope readers will see themselves or their classmates in these characters and take away some patience, tolerance, and understanding.

 A.F.  Another question I have is about voice in your books. Your characters, Addie, Perry, and Mason, all have very distinctive ones, but they also have one big, beautiful thing in common–optimism.

How do you find your characters’ voices? Are they voices you’ve heard in children you’ve loved? Do you craft them during a first draft, as you learn who your characters are? Or do their voices come to you right away, in that dream stage before you begin your first draft?

L.C. I always say, “I write by ear.” Voice is there early on for me so I think it is truest to say that it comes in the daydreamingstage. I’m sure that I am conjuring voice from people I have met or read or heard about. My imagination creates a composite.

A.F.  Each of your books has a sensitive, adult hero who watches out for your child protagonist whether he or she knows it or not. Ms. Blinny is Mason’s hero, and mine. She doesn’t solve his problems for him, but gives him a voice—the Dragon—which allows Mason to tell his story and think about it in an organized way. Addie’s stepfather does what he can to make Addie safe and comfortable. He never gives up trying to get custody, so that she can return to the little sisters she loves. And Warden Daugherty, who runs the prison where Perry T. Cook’s mother lives, risks her career to help Perry’s mom get the parole she deserves.

Are there hero/mentors in your life on whom you’ve based these adults characters? Please tell us about them.

L.C.  I had a stable enough childhood that I didn’t need heroes in the same way that these characters do. However, I have had great teachers, neighbors, friends and employers in my life, many of whom I am still in touch with many decades later. I can imagine all of them in these roles. Ms. Blinny, for one, was inspired by a school social worker. I observed her in action and was hooked by my heart!

A.F.  As we write, so many of our childhood memories get reimagined in ways that make people, places, and things only recognizable to us. Addie lives upstate New York in a little bitty trailer home. Perry’s home is a private room inside a prison full of mostly well-meaning, child-friendly people.  Mason lives in a run-down apple orchard.

Could you tell us whether you reimagined a place in your childhood community into a home for Mason, Addie, or Perry? In what surprising ways did this place change?

L.C. First, I love this thought, so thanks for asking! An actual street corner in Schenectady, New York inspired Addie’s home and her story. For years I drove by a trailer home at that intersection (an unusual sight in the city) and wondered, who walks out that door? What circumstances brought them there? I turned an ordinary Hess station at the same location into the mini mart and “greenhouse apartment” that Addie’s friend Soula lived in.

Mason Buttle’s home is loosely based on the development I lived in from fourth grade until I left for college. The land had been a hilly apple orchard, some of which remained. I teleported the crumbledown house the Buttle family lived in from another location. (More daydreaming. More compositing.)

Perry’s home came from researching newer minimum-security prison campuses, and also from my own love of creative space-making and space-altering. Perry ends up sleeping in the closet at his foster home. I loved making sleeping forts inside the homes of my childhood.

L.C. Thanks for the thoughtful questions. This has been so interesting!

A.F.  You’re welcome!

Leslie Connor’s new book, The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle, is published by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.









Interview and Giveaway with Author Karen Kane

I am excited to post my interview with author Karen Kane whose debut novel, Charlie & Frog (Disney-Hyperion), came out April 10. I had the pleasure of previewing this book and getting to hear the backstory.

Hi Karen! Please give us a short summary of the book.

Charlie has been dumped with his TV-obsessed grandparents in the village of Castle-on-the-Hudson. When an old woman disappears after giving Charlie a desperate message in sign language, Charlie is determined to find answers.

Frog, who is Deaf, would rather be solving crimes than working at the Flying Hands Café. When Charlie walks into the café looking for help, Frog jumps at the chance to tackle a real-life case.

Together, Charlie and Frog set out to decipher a series of clues and uncover the truth behind the mysterious message. Charlie needs to learn American Sign Language to keep up with Frog. And Frog needs to gather her detective know-how to break the case before it’s too late.

What two book titles and/or movie titles would you say Charlie & Frog is a cross between? 

My hope is that Charlie & Frog has the heart of Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World and the humor of Matilda.

Why did you choose the setting you did?

I choose to set Charlie & Frog in the Hudson Valley because, for some inexplicable reason, I have a soul connection with that part of New York. Maybe because it’s the home of one of my favorite detectives, Trixie Belden!

Is it based on any real location?

Castle-on-the-Hudson is a part Cold Spring, NY, part Cape May, NJ and part Pittsford, NY, the village where I grew up.

Would you say you’re more like Charlie or Frog? Why?

I am definitely more like Charlie. I have always had a deep-seated longing for connection and community—and like Charlie I had to learn to look inward to find it. Frog is super-confident and knows herself. I am becoming more like Frog, but I will never reach her level of moxie!

I love how Charlie & Frog has a main character who is deaf but that the book isn’t an issues book. And I thoroughly enjoyed how you could show conversations of characters without spoken words. I know you graduated from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and are a sign language interpreter. How did you become interested in working with people who are deaf?

True confession time: the real reason I became a sign language interpreter is because I failed microbiology in my 2nd year of nursing studies. There was no way I was taking that class again, so I changed my major to one that didn’t require microbiology to graduate—interpreting! I wish I had a more profound reason, but it was an intuitive decision. And the right decision because I have truly loved my work. And interpreting was what connected me to the community who inspired Charlie & Frog.

What research did you end up doing for this book that you didn’t realize you’d need to? What are you currently working on?

All the research I did for the book I ended up using—such as the Dewey decimal system, as well as some Deaf history. And I had Deaf readers give me feedback on how I portrayed Deaf characters and culture in Charlie & Frog.

I am currently writing the next Charlie & Frog book, tentatively called The Boney Hand. The second book happens in the fall, my favorite time of year.

After reading a book, I love knowing what was originally pitched when submitted. Do you remember what your elevator pitch was for Charlie & Frog? After editing, would you say your elevator pitch has changed?

I’m lousy at elevator pitches! Thank goodness I didn’t need one this time because I already had an agent, Jennifer Carlson, who had tried to sell my first book, The Hayley Show. Although Jennifer and I both loved it, we couldn’t find an editor who also did. Ten years later (!) I sent Jennifer Charlie & Frog, which I wrote while attending Vermont College of Fine Arts. This time we were lucky to find several editors who loved it as well. Tracey Keevan, at Disney Hyperion, bought it at auction.

If I did have an elevator pitch, it would still be the same pitch even after the editing process, because the heart and soul and humor of Charlie & Frog have never changed—they have only deepened.

Thank you, Karen, for letting me pick your brain! I highly recommend Charlie & Frog for middle grade readers.

A copy of Charlie & Frog will be given away to one lucky winner! Post a comment below for a chance to win a copy of Karen’s book (shipping within the U.S. only). 

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