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)
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.
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.
Carolyn 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).
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 Patricia Newman, author of Eavesdropping on Elephants: How Listening Helps Conservation. This fascinating book is a 2019 Outstanding Science Trade Book for Students: K-12 (National Science Teachers Association and the Children’s Book Council) and won a Eureka! Gold Award from the California Reading Association.
Mary Kay Carson: Why did you write Eavesdropping on Elephants?
Patricia Newman: Back in the 1980s I visited Kenya and saw elephants in the wild for the first time. I watched the way they moved, observed their family groups, and experienced how fiercely the matriarch protects her herd when she charged our safari van. One day we took a hike outside the national park and came across a massive elephant skull. Any child who has seen The Lion King understands the circle of life, but it wasn’t at all clear to us how this elephant had died. Natural causes or poaching? The tusks were gone. Did a park official or a poacher take them? The idea that a poacher carried away the tusks under cover of darkness gave me shivers.
I must have passed my interest in elephants on to my daughter Elise, because she worked for Cornell’s Elephant Listening Project as an undergrad. She had daily contact with Katy Payne, Peter Wrege, and Liz Rowland. She explained their research to me and described how she sat in front of the computer cataloguing forest sounds. And she told stories of snatching the headphones off her ears when an elephant trumpeted a very loud alarm call. I knew then I wanted to write about them. Elise handled the introductions, and the rest…well, you know.
MKC: How did you research this book? Did it involve travel?
Patricia: I did not spend time with forest elephants. The scientists were not at their research station in the Central African Republic when I wrote this book, but I did sit in the Elephant Listening Project’s lab and listen to forest sounds. I had headphones on my ears and for hours I watched video and listened to sound files.
You might think listening to sounds is a poor substitute for actually being in the field, but it wasn’t. The sounds were transformative and immersive! I felt elephant rumbles and roars deep in my chest. I heard water sloshing as elephants walked through it. I literally swatted away a mosquito buzzing in my ear. I could imagine the forest mud sucking at my feet. And I learned how to identify the sounds of frogs, buffalo, parrots, gorillas, and chimps.
By allowing my ears to take over, I learned to appreciate the forest in a whole new way. And I wanted my readers to have the same experience. Eavesdropping on Elephants tells the story of field scientists helping an endangered species, but it’s so much more. Through the power of video and audio QR codes, the book allows readers to walk in the scientists’ shoes inside the forest. I always ask kids to tell me what they see in the videos or hear in the audio. Their responses would make Katy and Peter proud.
MKC: To whom did you imagine yourself writing to while writing the book?
Patricia: Throughout, I imagined my daughter at age ten. What would she want to know? Elephant facts, for sure. But she was also interested in the “how” and “why” of the world. This book was a challenge because the narrative unfolded over the course of many years. How would I squeeze in Katy Payne’s early work with infrasound, sprinkle in some Elephant Listening Project history, and still keep the ten-year-old Elise engaged? I decided to use the passage of time to my advantage.
Science is not performed in a vacuum, nor is a long-term investigation quick. I thought the story of how Katy’s work on infrasound at the Oregon zoo morphed into ELP was a great example of real science in action. Questions and observations often lead scientists down unexpected paths and to unexpected conclusions.
Also, scientists sometimes age out of their work. When Katy retired from ELP, Peter carried on her vision but added his own flair. I thought the staff change was a great example of the inclusiveness of science—how different individuals can contribute to and build on the same project.
MKC: For readers who loved Eavesdropping on Elephants, what other middle-grade books would you suggest?
Patricia: A tough question because I don’t know of any other books about forest elephants for children (or for adults for that matter). They are just coming into their own as a species and few people know about them. Young readers interested in elephant research might consider The Elephant Scientist by Caitlin O’Connell and Donna M. Jackson, which features Caitlin’s work with savanna elephants. Also, consider Bravelands #3: Blood and Bone by Erin Hunter, the author of the Warriors series. The third installment of Bravelands is told by the African elephant—but it’s a savanna elephant, not a forest elephant.
Win a FREE copy of Eavesdropping on Elephants!
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.
Your host this week is fellow elephant fan Mary Kay Carson, author of Mission to Pluto and other nonfiction books for kids. @marykaycarson