STEM Tuesday

STEM Tuesday– Symbiotic Relationships– Author Interview

STEM Tuesday–Symbiosis– Interview with co-authors Jenn Dlugos and Charlie Hatton

 

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

Today we’re interviewing authors Jenn Dlugos and Charlie Hatton, co-authors of Odd Couples, part of their “Things That Make You Go Yuck” series. Although busy with lots of projects–Jenn writes and illustrates science text books, and Charlie is a computational biologist–they say they collaborate on their books to meet a “fundamental ‘need’ to be creative.” Self-proclaimed science nerds who met through stand-up comedy, they bring humor to their books. In a time when basic biology has revealed its scary side, it’s a relief to be able to laugh a little while enjoying the fascinating tales of interrelationships in this book.

(*I had a lot of questions and Jenn and Charlie had a lot to share. This interview has been edited for brevity.–CCD)

 

Pictuer of the cover of Odd couples.

Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano: What’s Odd Couples about—and what was most important to you in deciding to write it?

CH: Odd Couples is part of a series of “Things That Make You Go Yuck!” books, all about interesting and unusual critters and plants. This book explores some of the cooperative – and competitive and completely bonkers – relationships between organisms. With Odd Couples and all the Yuck! Books, we wanted to show young readers that even the “yucky” bits of nature can be fascinating, inspiring and sometimes oddly beautiful.

JD: Every second is life or death in the wild, and sometimes organisms have to work together to survive. Odd Couples covers everything from weird mating habits to strange friendships (and  frenemy-ships). From a crab that waves sea anemones around like pom poms to ward off predators to sloths that have strange friendships moths that lays eggs in sloth poop, Odd Couples covers the oddest of the odd.

CCD: You are two co-authors of a book named Odd Couples, so of course I have to ask: What kind of an odd couple are you? How would you describe your creative partnership?

CH: Oh, we’re odd. We met around fifteen years ago doing amateur standup comedy around the Boston area among a crowd of fellow misfits. We began collaborating on creative projects a few years ago, which has turned out to be much more productive than telling jokes at a coffee shop at midnight on a Tuesday. We’ve taken a “sure, let’s try it” approach to projects, leading to working together on writing books as well as short plays, producing a web series and short films, and various other oddities-in-progress.

JD:  In biological terms, we’re in a parasitic relationship. The parasite is whomever is not paying the tab that week.

CCD: What’s one of your favorite organism relationships from the book? Why is it a favorite?

CH: We researched a number of parasites for Odd Couples, which is a really… interesting way to spend your Saturday afternoons. My favorite is a flatworm called Ribeiroia that infects frogs during one phase of its life cycle. The worms’ next stage of development occurs in birds. To improve their odds of getting there, the worms affect infected frogs’ development, causing them to grow extra, gangly useless legs that hinder their hopping. These frogs are less likely to escape birds trying to eat them, which is good for the worms – though not as much for the Franken-frogs. It’s basically a Bond movie villain strategy for getting ahead.

JD: My favorite animals are spiders. (Yes, really. I had pet tarantulas when I was younger.) So, I have to go with the peacock spider. It’s an adorable little arachnid who basically does the Y.M.C.A. dance to attract a mate. Scientists recently discovered a new species of peacock spider that has markings that resemble a skeleton. You know, because spiders need to double-down on their creepy reputation.

CCD: Can you say a little about how your writing partnership works? For example, who does what when?

CH: On most projects, we discuss an outline and detailed plans for writing. I promptly forget most of it, and Jenn reminds me of the parts she says that we both liked the best. It’s not the most efficient process, but it works. While writing, we generally pass material back and forth – in the case of Odd Couples, we agreed on a format and researched the organisms we wanted to include, then split them up to each write about our favorites. Sort of like a fantasy sports draft, only with more spiders and parasites.

JD: Nothing happens until food and drinks arrive. It’s very possible that our waiter/waitress is our muse. Several hours later, we have something that resembles an outline typed out in Jenn-ese on my phone. I translate it to something that resembles English, and from there it’s a 50/50 split. We’ve been writing together for so long that we’ve developed a joint voice, and we sometimes forget which part each of us wrote. There have been more than a few times we have seen/heard a joke in something we’ve written and wondered which one of us was responsible for that nonsense.

CCD: What’s next for you as authors?

JD: Another infographics book (is) waiting in the wings after Awesome Space Tech.

(Awesome Space Tech, also an infographics project, is Jenn and Charlie’s latest book. –CCD)

CCD: Well, I’d bet that your humor and serious science creds have led to yet another book that will inspire, entertain, and fascinate kids. Your symbiosis certainly benefits others! Thanks so much for your time!

Win a FREE copy of Odd Couples

Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below.  (Scroll past the link to the previous post.) 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!

 

 

Snapshot of co-authors Jenn Dlugos and Charlie Hatton in a comic pose.

Boston-based collaborators, Jenn Dlugos and Charlie Hatton are co-authors of Prufrock Press’s series, “Things That Make You Go Yuck!” and, in Charlie’s words, “several other, far more ridiculous projects.”

By day, Jenn writes science textbooks, assessments, and lab manuals for grades K–12. By night, she writes comedy screenplays, stage plays, and other ridiculous things with Charlie Hatton. Her favorite creepy crawlies are spiders.

Charlie is a bioinformatician who slings data for a cancer research hospital–as well as a science fan and humorist. He enjoys working with genetic and other data to support cancer research, learning about new and interesting scientific areas, and referring to himself in the third person in biographical blurbs.

 

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photo of author and STEM Tuesday contribuor Carolyn DeCristofanoCarolyn DeCristofano, a founding team member of STEM Tuesday, is a children’s STEM author and STEM education consultant. She recently co-founded STEM Education Insights, an educational research, program evaluation, and curriculum development firm which complements her independent work as Blue Heron STEM Education. She has authored several acclaimed science books, including Running on Sunshine (HarperCollins Children) and A Black Hole is NOT a Hole (Charlesbridge).

The Most Important Thing About Children’s Books: For Readers and Writers During COVID-19

Last night, my son asked for something extraordinary. He requested I read him a goodnight story. From my shelves, I pulled out a picture book, The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco. At first glance, this might not seem that unusual.

Except my son is a ninth grade, a newly minted 15-year-old, and I couldn’t more proud. He wasn’t afraid to ask for what he needed– the comforting ritual of a bedtime story read aloud by a parent. He wasn’t embarrassed. His ears didn’t pinken. This wouldn’t have happened pre-COVID. Well, it would have but like six or seven years ago.

This was not an isolated incident.

My oldest son, who graduated from college last year and is a software engineer for a celebrated car company, is back home and after reading some non-fiction, picked up The Subtle Knife by Phillip Pullman. My son had first read this very book and the rest of His Dark Materials series when he was ten. He said he relished re-reading it even more because “there was so much that I didn’t understand” the first-time round.

My middle son, a 20-year-old, and college sophomore has been asking for back rubs after sitting in his chair digesting his third Zoom class for the day. He also has been introducing us to some of his favorite board games.

In fact, all three of my sons have asked that we play family games at least once a week. Our favorite is definitely Exploding Kittens, which is silly, involves a little strategy and a lot of luck.

I’m not trying to glorify sheltering-in-place. It’s been, at times, incredibly stressful and full of grief. Two of my students have lost their grandparents. Three of my students have been hospitalized. Childhood friends are struggling to recover from COVID-19. My youngest son may have had COVID-19 for a month in March, but at the time we couldn’t get him tested. But I don’t need to tell you of all this woe. We’ve all experienced heartbreak in one form or another, collective grief and loss in many forms.

So I’m really trying not to be a Pollyanna.

But I do feel like COVID-19 has helped me put priorities and values into sharper focus.

Health. Wow. That’s important.

Friends. Community. Books. All Vital.

And it’s clearer than ever before that children’s books are not just for one particular life period. And reading aloud shouldn’t have to stop when you’ve graduated from the HarperCollins I Can Read Level 4. Nope. The pleasure of children’s books are for every season of life. The idea, for example, that you read middle grade just when you’re 8-12 is merely a state of mind.

And as creators of children’s books, it’s especially imperative to embrace this perspective.

Next month, starting on June 15, I’ll be teaching Middle Grade Mastery, a four-week interactive, remote course for the The Children’s Book Academy with Rosie Ahmed (Penguin Random House/Dial Books) and Mira Reisberg (Clearfork/Spork). It’s a class I’ve taught for several years now, and one that I love. We focus on craft and mentor texts. But this year, I plan to remember what I’ve learned from this sheltering in-place. I want to emphasis more reading aloud at any age. And to remember that no one is ever too old for children’s books; they open hearts and minds, pose and answers questions, as well as (perhaps most importantly right now) mend and delight the spirit.

Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She’s also a contributor to the new Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House 2020). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University and in the summer she teaches in the graduate program in childrens’ literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

STEM Tuesday– Symbiotic Relationships– Writing Tips & Resources

Field of California poppies

Photo by Nils Larson

The Writer’s Walk: Nurturing Creativity in Difficult Times

Every day, as part of my writing process, I take a walk outside among Joshua Trees and, in spring, golden California poppies. Often a writing problem weighs on my mind: an opening that’s not quite right, a subplot that’s stumbling, a structure that’s just not working. As my feet pound the ground, my brain is only partially occupied by the scurrying rabbits and calling quail. My mind wanders just as I do. And in those moments I often have a breakthrough, an “aha moment” that leaves me eager to return to my manuscript.

We are living during a difficult time when so many of us are encouraged to stay indoors to keep ourselves, our friends, and neighbors safe. Yet one thing we are still allowed to do is to go outside for exercise. And we need to. Humans have a symbiotic relationship with nature. We need nature, and it needs us.

Forest Talk by Melissa Koch

Even before I read Melissa Koch’s FOREST TALK, one of the books on this month’s booklist, I knew humans had a symbiotic relationship with trees. We breathe in oxygen released by trees. Trees use the carbon dioxide we exhale for photosynthesis. But here’s what Koch wrote that astonished me: “Trees don’t just make people physically healthier. They also improve our spiritual well-being.” 

Koch goes on to cite several studies that show being among trees or even simply seeing trees out a window helps us heal faster and reduce stress, blood pressure, anxiety, and negative thoughts. The Japanese government even coined the term “forest bathing,” which involves walking in the woods and using all your senses to take in your surroundings as a way to improve mental health. 

I’d argue this symbiotic relationship holds the key not just to our sanity but to our creativity too.

Starting a Writer’s Walk Practice

There’s no time like the present for starting a writer’s walk practice. Before you do, a few ground rules. 

  • First, leave your headphones at home, so your senses are fully engaged with the world around you. 
  • Leave your notebook at home too. The idea is to keep your body and your mind moving. 
  • When you begin, focus your attention on a few deep breaths in and out. Notice the feeling of the ground beneath your feet. 

Eventually, your mind may wander. This is good. When it does, magical things might happen. Things like:

  • Story sparks – As you walk, observe animals, even little insects. What kind of bird did you hear? Why is the sky suddenly filled with butterflies? What makes those wispy, thin clouds?  Back home, that wondering might turn into research and even writing about a new topic. But there’s no pressure if it doesn’t.
  • Storing up sensory details – Use your walk to closely observe your surroundings. Note not only the sights, but also the smells, sounds, and textures. What do things look like and sound like? Can you think of analogies? Now file those details away for future use. One day when you need to capture how the leaves rustled or the birds called, you’ll remember, and these details will reappear in your writing.
  • Poem practice – I love poems for their ability to capture a single moment in exquisite detail. When you observe something interesting on your walk, maybe an autumn leaf floating in a rain puddle, challenge yourself to craft a little poem in your mind. No need to write it down. It’s just an exercise in paying attention and noticing small details, a way to remind yourself to focus on individual moments and concrete details in your writing.
  • Solving problems – I can’t tell you the number of aha moments I’ve had during my daily walks. The key for me is to think about my problem right before I begin. Then I clear my mind and focus on my breath, the feel of my feet, letting my mind wander. If and when my brain is ready, it might wander back to my story and play with the problem.

So, if you are allowed, get outside and take a writer’s walk. Your mind, your body, and your writing will thank you!


O.O.L. F (Out of Left Field)

Can’t get outside right now? Relax by watching a nature webcam here.

Experience California’s golden poppies live on their own webcam:

The app Headspace is offering free meditations during the pandemic, including a 10-minute walking meditation, perfect for a writer’s walk.

ReadWriteThink shares a wonderful Poetry Walk lesson from Patrick Striegel.

Read more about how walking boosts writing with this article from Publication Coach.

The New Yorker reports on how walking helps us think.


Kirsten W. Larson used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. She’s the author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020), THE FIRE OF STARS, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Fall 2021), along with 25 other nonfiction books for kids. Find her at kirsten-w-larson.com or on Twitter/Instagram @KirstenWLarson.