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 Bridget Heos, author of Stronger Than Steel. It’s a fascinating look at biologist Randy Lewis’s work to create spider silk from genetically modified goats. Heo’s research combined with Andy Comin’s photography makes for compelling reading. Could we one day build stronger bullet proof vests? Are we one step away from duplicating the feats of Spiderman?
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Christine Taylor-Butler: Bridget, I met you before you published your first book. Now you have 100 children’s books under your belt. That’s a huge accomplishment in this industry. But you didn’t start out as a writer. Can you tell me a bit about what you were doing before you dove into children’s literature?
Bridget Heos: I was an English major in college. Before I changed careers, I taught English, reading and religion at a Catholic school. I’d also been a social worker. But I’ve loved reading and writing since I was a child and eventually moved into freelance writing.
Christine: Your background in teaching helped with your transition to children’s publishing but it’s unusual to see people gravitate to science in nonfiction. Where did that come from?
Bridget: The science part came from my son’s love of nonfiction. I read to my children all the time, but fiction didn’t engage him. At first I thought he was a non-reader. But at the library he would immediately go the nonfiction section. He loved that world. So I thought, how can I support that? Plus, I’m curious. One day I thought, “We live on a planet that has everything we need.” I would see an insect and think “ugh!” But then I started reading about them and it made me see the world in a different way. So I began writing. It changed my life and I began to relive the magic of stories. I was already writing for newspapers and magazines, but now I was passionate about writing books that would engage children.
Christine: So what was your first book?
Bridget: My first book was a middle grade biography on rapper Jay-Z (Shawn Carter). That was was back in 2009. I saw an email inviting local authors to write for an editor at Rosen. I applied and was hired. Shawn Carter has such a great story. I remember spending a lot of time on it because it was my first book. I’m a journalist so I knew it had to be right. After that, I wrote more biographies. But when I had a choice, I preferred to write science books. Those were the types of books my son liked to have read to him. Even so, writing about a famous person as a first book is a show-stopper.
Christine: And then your career took off!
Bridget: I think it was partly luck and good fortune. I spent a lot of time trying to understand the business and how to make money at it. I loved writing so much I was willing to write anything. Children’s literature felt like a good fit and I began writing a lot of nonfiction. I emailed 20 publishers trying to be a good sales person. Workman hired me to write workbooks.
Christine: You also wrote: What to Expect When You’re Expecting Larvae. I remember thinking that was such a clever homage to the human series for expectant mothers and packed with so many facts. Of the sequel on marsupials, Kirkus Reviews said, “Never once dropping the pretense that this is written for pouched mammals, this manages to be both entertaining and informative.“
Bridget: Yes! That was first book I sold that paid royalties. I went to the library at University of Missouri – Kansas City and checked out huge books. When I write about science I have to learn it first. I do a lot of research. It makes up for me not being the best science student when I was younger. I chose the topic because my son loved insects. But as with all things, by the time the book came out he’d moved on World War II. The book was followed by What to Expect When You’re Expecting Hatchlings (Crocodiles) and What to Expect When You’re Expecting Joeys (Marsupials).
Christine: The series is out of print now, but maybe a saavy editor will bring it back into print for eager readers now that engaging STEM and nonfiction are increasing in popularity. And especially since Kirkus loved them. They’re a hard reviewer to please.
Bridget: Yes. The books came out ten years ago and the timing might have been early for the information trend we see now.
Christine: Before we get to Stronger Than Steel, I’m going to take some artistic liberties and stray over to fiction for a minute. Can you tell us how Mustache Baby came about? It has so many good reviews and it was the winner of the 2017 Colorado’s Childrens Book Award.
Bridget: Mustache Baby was my first fiction book. I had wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid. I had put the dream aside until, one day, I found a box in the attic. I realized that I’d had that dream but didn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t live with the idea that I didn’t at least try to do something about it. but my true dream was to write fiction. I had no idea on how to proceed. People have this impression that to be a writer you have to be this beautiful serious writer, but that’s not how I am. When children were younger, I began telling them a story that had been in my head about baby who was born with a mustache that showed if he was a good guy or a villain. It made the kids laugh so I decided to write it down.
“Occasional badness has never been so good.”
You never know what you’ll get in the delivery room, and something isn’t quite right with this new baby. . . . Heos’s offbeat tale muses on the possibilities, playing off parental hope and panicky nightmares.”
—New York Times Book Review
The book’s sole purpose was for kids to have fun. I wrote several drafts and agonized over them. Then I mentioned it who gave me ideas then sold to Daniel Nayeri who was at Houghton Mifflin at the time. Daniel brought on the illustrator Joy Ang. Her illustrations brought a new dimension to the story. There are now 5 books in the series. By the way, Daniel just won the 2021 Printz for his own book: Everything Sad is Untrue.
Christine: So tell me about Stronger Than Steel. I am fascinated by golden orb spiders and use them as one of the plot points in my series. I had not met anyone else in kidlit that researched them until this book so I was riveted.
Bridget: I’d seen an article about spider goats and the scientist researching them. My former agent had another client who was doing a scientist in the field book and walked her through the process of proposing a book. It book was acquired by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. That series is fun because the publisher also commissions a photographer. Andy Cumin and I traveled to Wyoming to meet with the scientist, Randy Lewis . Then Andy and I traveled to Utah State where the project was moving. It was good that we had that time to do the research. It involves learning about molecular biology. The team walked me through the process.
Christine: The goats are genetically altered to carry a gene from golden orb spiders.
Bridget: The science is fascinating. Spider silk is stronger than the Kevlar in a bullet proof vest. But you can’t farm spiders. They’re territorial. So the solution was to use goats. Randy took the gene from the spider and combined it with the DNA that creates milk in goats. I got to see the process first hand, how the team works with the goat’s milk to get to the spider silk protein. The scientists filter the milk and get it down to the protein which is a powder, then they combine the powder with a chemical. I watched the silk emerge from the process.
Christine: So what are the scientists doing with the silk?
Bridget: They’re interested in it because of its toughness. In a technical sense, it’s hard to break (compression strength) and it’s stretchy (tensile strength). They’re hoping it would be a fit for fly fishing lines. The appeal is that the silk is stronger than most man made materials. But for some projects, the stretchiness is still a problem – like for bullet proof vests and parachutes. One of the other fascinating things, though, is that the spider silk can be used in the human body to repair ligaments and bones.
The book was so much work and I did so much agonizing over it. As a former journalist I wondered, “Did I get it right?” Randy read it to make sure I had not made any factual errors. I do a lot of school visits so I talk to students about the science I learned. Kids are amazing and absorb the information. They wonder if there could be a Spiderman just like there are spider goats.
Christine: So could there be a real Spiderman one day?
Bridget: You never know. The scientist isn’t raising the goats any more, Now he’s focused on comb jellies and the sticky stuff they use to catch their prey. But writing the book was a great experience. Children’s books have taken me to many states I’d never been before.
Christine: So what’s up next for you? Any books coming out we should be watching for?
Bridget: I have several books coming out in 2021: Triceratopposites, illustrated by T.L. McBeth. It’s about a dinosaur that does the opposite of what his parents say. It’s a sequel to Stegathesaurus. There’s also Treemendous: The diary of a not yet mighty oak illustrated by Mike Ciccotello. It’s the story of an oak tree from acorn to tree. Santa Jaws comes out next. It’s a rhyming book about a Christmas shark. And, or course, the next installment in the Mustache Baby series: Goodnight Mustache Baby.
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Bridget Heos is the prolific author of more than 100 books for children. Most are nonfiction. A former teacher and journalist, she lives in Kansas with her three sons, daughter, a basset hound and a cat.