Botany

Middle Grade Author Michele Weber Hurwitz tackles an environmental mystery in her latest book, Hello from Renn Lake

I’m so thrilled to interview MUF contributor Michele Weber Hurwitz about her newest middle grade book, Hello from Renn Lake (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House Children’s, May 26 2020). The book centers on 12-year old Annalise Oliver whose family owns and runs a lakeside cabins in Renn Lake, Wisconsin. As a young child Annalise discovered she could communicate with the lake. However, when an algal bloom threatens the lake, she can no longer hear Renn. Annalise and her friends desperately search for a way to save their beloved lake and their community.

Michele, I just love how you alternate between 12-year-old Annalise Oliver, and centuries old Renn, the lake. And then Renn’s cousin, Tru, the river, also has a voice. How did you come up with making the lake and river actual characters in the book? (Also, I was so happy you included Violet, a small quiet lake.)

In my first draft, I didn’t have the lake and river narrating. In fact, it was a quite different story early on, but there still was a main character who had been abandoned as an infant. I had such a strong visual scene in my mind. One moonless night, a baby girl was left near the back garden of a store in a small Wisconsin town, and across the street, an ancient lake that had been part of people’s lives for eons, was the only witness. Because of the unique and mystical bond that develops between the girl and the lake, I realized at some point the only way to fully tell this story was to include the lake’s perspective. I loved that Ivan narrated his own story in The One and Only Ivan, but I wasn’t sure if an element of nature could do the same. But the idea took hold and wouldn’t let go, so I took a leap of faith. Once I gave Renn a voice, the story flowed (pun intended) from there. Tru’s point of view and Violet’s experience are vital pieces of the narrative as well. Also, I decided that all of the nature elements would not have a gender.

When did you discover that Annalise can communicate with the lake?

I always knew there would be a magical realism aspect where Annalise is able to sense what Renn is thinking and feeling, partially due to events that occurred the night she was abandoned. There’s a poignant backstory scene when she’s three years old and first discovers her connection with the lake. To her, it’s the most natural thing, and she’s surprised to later learn that not everyone can “hear” a lake. When I was writing, I kept thinking about the phrase “body of water” – that lakes, rivers, and oceans are living beings as much as plants and animals. Throughout history, people have lived near water – it’s an essential ingredient of life. Even our bodies are made up of mostly water – more than sixty percent.

I wasn’t that familiar with the potential toxicity of algal blooms in lakes. How did you first get interested in them? What sort of research did you do?

A crisis with the lake was going to be a cornerstone of the plot, I just wasn’t sure what the problem would be. But around the same time I was drafting, I read about harmful algal blooms (HABs) and how they’ve been increasing in all bodies of water in recent years. It’s another effect of climate change, and also polluted stormwater runoff that causes algae to grow out of control. HABs steal precious oxygen and also produce toxins that can kill fish, mammals, birds, and even dogs. Three dogs died last summer after swimming in a lake with a toxic bloom. This unsettled me so much that I knew I had to write about this issue. I did a ton of research online and also worked with amazingly helpful people at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Division of Public Health to make sure the info was accurate, even though this is fiction.

In your book, you have a Thought Wall, where anyone can write anything with sharpies. I truly appreciate the idea of encouraging free expression. Is something you have done yourself?

One of my favorite pizza places growing up allowed and encouraged patrons to scribble on the wood tables. I also heard about a coffee shop where people could put Post-it notes on a bulletin board. I think that’s such a fun idea. Of course, because I love words, but also that it’s so random – you can read someone’s silly, humorous, or thought-provoking message, and they can read yours. I also love that it’s not online but something more tangible and present. That the office for the cabins along Renn Lake would have a Thought Wall for guests just delighted me, and this goes along with the plot because the messages change when the lake is in trouble.

I love that Annalise’s friend Maya is trying to bring back Yiddish. Is Yiddish a language that you know?

My grandparents, two of whom were immigrants from Poland and Lithuania, spoke Yiddish. It’s interesting to me that the language was spoken by Jews in many linked geographical areas, unlike a language that’s a country’s official dialect. I fondly remember my grandparents uttering words like “chutzpah” and “mishegas” that didn’t have an exact English translation. As I’m getting older, I find myself using several Yiddish words, and now my kids are too! Maya starts saying some Yiddish words because her aunt is trying to bring back the language. The phrases aptly describe several situations in the story and might encourage readers to look up their meanings!

There are several mysteries going on this book. Annalise is a foundling and we also don’t know exactly how the bloom got started and what will happen. How did you come up with this idea of Annalise’s abandonment and tying that into the themes of the novel?

In my initial draft, Annalise focused on searching for her origins, but that direction didn’t feel fresh or original. That story had been told before. But I started thinking, what if you choose not to or can’t find the answer to your most troubling question? How do you come to terms with that and move forward? That shift led to a much stronger theme of roots. Instead of searching for where she came from, Annalise decides to put down roots in the place she was found. Roots also tie into the theme as Annalise and her friend Zach discover a possible way to help Renn. So Annalise’s abandonment and the crisis with the lake are woven together, and the river, Tru, plays an essential role in orchestrating this.

I really enjoyed Zach’s science knowledge (his magnifying glass) and the fact that his father is a novelist who isn’t always getting to his work. I have to ask you—who did you base that dad on?

Ha! The frustrated writer part is absolutely based on me! I’ve never sequestered myself in a lakeside cabin in order to write like Zach’s dad does, but I’ve definitely experienced many a time when I couldn’t concentrate and displayed hermit-like behavior – staying in pajamas all day, forgetting to brush my teeth, not leaving the house, talking to the walls. 😊

This novel does end up supplying reasons for the bloom—how it all starts on land—fertilizers, detergent, cleaning products, and pesticides that all end up in our waterways. In addition to the environmental devastation, you don’t shrink from the economic consequences of the toxicity. Is this something you have first-hand knowledge of?

While this is fiction, I referred to my research constantly during the writing process. My editor also asked me numerous questions, as we both wanted to be as factual as possible and offer accurate details that helped shape the narrative. I met with a technician who cleans up polluted lakes and when he said the problem starts on land, not the water, it really struck me how everything we do – pouring something down the sink or washing our car in the driveway – can negatively affect a nearby body of water.

In this text, you play with who has a voice and who is voiceless. Can you talk a little bit about that?

It makes me incredibly sad to see the harm people have done and are doing to nature. Our actions are tipping everything on this planet out of balance. I have this weird sense that nature is reacting, almost lashing out in a way, with the climate disruptions we’re seeing – fires and floods and hurricanes. But water, trees, land – they’re silent. I think it really deepened this story to know how a lake would feel if it was covered with a toxic algal bloom and couldn’t breathe. There are a few chilling last sentences from Zach that make me tear up every time I read them.

Annalise’s younger sister JessiKa (her creative spelling) is such an intriguing character. At times, she’s pretty annoying to her older sister, yet you can’t help but admire her determination to become an actress. At times, she reminded me of Amy in Little Women. I’d love to know a little bit about your process for creating her?

My younger daughter inspired Jess’s character. As a kid, my daughter always had something on her agenda and pursued it doggedly, like ten-year old Jess does with her desire to become an actress. At one point my daughter wanted our family to move to L.A. (we live in Chicago) so she could get on a TV show. 😊 While Jess’s relentless nagging tries her parents’ patience and certainly annoys Annalise, her tenacity proves to be worthwhile in the end, of course!

I love Jess’ line— “Just because something’s small doesn’t mean it can’t do big things.”

Definitely! Jess is small but tough as nails. I was the shortest kid in my kindergarten class. When we were doing a production of Jack and the Beanstalk, I was cast as the giant! I learned to speak up when I needed to, and so does spunky Jess.

Without giving anything away, did you know that it would be kids and specifically Annalise and her friends who would try to save the lake?

Absolutely. I knew the kids wouldn’t be satisfied when the town authorities take a “wait and see” approach with the algal bloom issue. Kids possess an urgency and passion that adults sometimes lack. I am in awe of the kids who have been marching, protesting, and speaking out on the climate crisis. There are some amazing things that happen in this story because of the kids’ determination.

In a post script to the novel, I truly loved how the information about lakes, rivers and algal blooms was from Zach’s point of view!

I find that sometimes the informational back matter of a book can be dull and boring, and I didn’t want it to be! Zach, adorable science nerd that he is, was the perfect character to share info for readers who are interested in learning more about lakes, rivers, and algal blooms. All the links are also on my website.

Did you learn something from this novel that was new in terms of writing?

I learned to trust my instincts more. Deep down, I knew Renn was an essential narrator but I was hesitant to try writing in the voice of a lake. I kept coming up with reasons why it wouldn’t work or readers might not get it. Finally, I just tuned out those negative thoughts and dove in.

Is there anything else you would like readers to know about the book?

I hope readers will feel inspired to do something in their community – no matter how big or small. The climate crisis is such an overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable issue. If we stop using plastic water bottles or recycle every scrap of paper, will these actions really make a difference? And I just want to answer, yes! All of my books end on a hopeful note. I believe in humanity and our inventiveness and adaptability to solve crises. We will find a way forward, and nature can help us come up with solutions.

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 forthcoming Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House). 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 — Let’s Explore Botany!– Interview with Author Sally Walker

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 Sally Walker, author of this month’s featured botany book, CHAMPION: The Comeback Tale of the American Chestnut Tree. Among its favorable reviews is one from Kirkus, calling it, “A compelling, inspiring true story of a species rescued from extinction through decades of determined innovation.” 

 

 

Mary Kay Carson: Why did you write Champion?

Sally Walker: I’ve known part of the American Chestnut tree’s story since I was in high school. My biology teacher assigned a leaf collection project. We could only include trees native to New Jersey, where I lived. Any tree was okay, with the exception of the American Chestnut tree, because, he said, it was extinct. My father, however, knew that wasn’t true. It turned out that American Chestnut tree was my dad’s favorite type of tree.  And he knew they were not extinct: Their roots still survived in New Jersey forests (and in other states) and gave rise to new sprouts. These saplings grew for 10 or so years, and then succumbed to the chestnut blight. Even so, the roots continued to send up more sprouts. My dad and I visited a forest not too far from our home. A half-hour trek into the woods, and we found a chestnut sapling. I was thrilled to be able to add one of its leaves to my leaf collection project.

There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good mystery, and the story of the American Chestnut tree is like a Russian Matryoshka doll: mystery within mystery within mystery. I channeled my inner Nancy Drew and hoped readers would join me as I hunted for clues. Clues that would explain why American Chestnut trees died, and clues that would lead to a solution that would restore the trees to health.  I wrote the story for people, young and old, who, like me, enjoy spending time outdoors. Who like wondering about the natural world. And who listen to the songs that trees sing.

Sally M. Walker has brought science to life in more than 20 books for young readers, including Secrets of a Civil War Submarine and Blizzard of Glass. Her research has seen her corresponding with experts in archaeology, geology, forensic anthropology, and genealogy, interviewing scientists, and touring the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, South Carolina, where she saw the H.L. Hunley and her artifacts. Walker lives in DeKalb, Illinois. sallymwalker.com

MKC: Could you share a memorable moment—or two—from your research for Champion?

Sally: My most thrilling chestnut experience occurred while I was visiting England. Castanea sativa, the European Chestnut, thrives there. The massive trunks of several-hundred-year-old chestnut trees are unbelievable. Seeing them—and hugging one—let me imagine how very majestic the American Chestnut trees growing in our forests had been before the blight killed them.

When I first walked into the American Chestnut Foundation’s orchards, in Virginia, I was astounded to see many hundreds of young chestnut trees. Healthy, lush with leaves. A flash of blue caught my eye—an indigo bunting landed in one of the larger trees.  I felt as though I’d entered a magic kingdom.  AND THEN I LEARNED HORRIBLE NEWS!  The team I was working with would be inoculating the young trees with the fungus that gives American Chestnut trees the blight. Some of the trees we inoculated would have some resistance to the blight, but most of them would die. But I did my job, knowing that the young trees that lived would become parent trees for new blight-resistant generations.

MKC: Did you set out to write a STEM book? 

Sally: I don’t choose to write STEM books. I write about what interests me. Finding fossils and cool rocks. Watching insects, animals, and fish. Understanding how a submarine rises and sinks. When I am gardening, using a stick and a small rock to help me shift a larger rock to a new place. I guess most people would say this is science—the “S” in STEM. But for me it’s simply the way I was raised. My parents encouraged me to ask question, exploring the world to find answers, and experiment. To use my mind and imagination.

I have a college degree in geology and archaeology, but that was from before the term STEM was invented.  I studied those areas because they are incredibly fascinating and fun, full of puzzles and mysteries. What I love about STEM is that it shows kids that science, technology, engineering, and math are interrelated. As they learn, students can draw connections among the fields and see how each part affects the other, often in a way that relates directly to some aspect of her or his life. STEM creates a network.

MKC:  Any recommendations for readers who enjoyed Champion

Sally: Deep Roots: How Trees Sustain Our Planet by Nikki Tate and Treecology: 30 Activities and Observations for Exploring the World of Trees and Forests by Monica Russo are nonfiction, while End of the Wild by Nicole Helget and Wishtree by Katherine Applegate are fiction.

Win a FREE copy of CHAMPION: The Comeback Tale of the American Chestnut Tree!

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!

Your host this week is fellow tree freak Mary Kay Carson, author of Mission to Pluto and other nonfiction books for kids. @marykaycarson

 

STEM Tuesday — Let’s Explore Botany!– Writing Craft and Resources

 

Botany?

When I first applied and joined up with the STEM Tuesday team, there was one general subject I secretly wanted to avoid at all cost. A subject which is one of my weakest scientific areas. Botany.

It’s not that I am a complete putz when it comes to botanicals. I cultivate a vegetable garden every year. I enjoy both the gardening process and reaping the benefits of the garden’s production. My paternal grandfather taught us grandkids how to plant petunias in my mother’s flowerbeds not long after we were out of diapers. My maternal grandfather kept a big, spacious garden where he grew tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, horseradish, and all things which could be made into spicy canned deliciousness.

I must confess, however, when it comes to the study of plants, I fall short. I can spend hours studying an animal cell or bacteria or a virus. A plant cell? Not so much. I can make a pretty solid salsa out of the tomatoes, peppers, and onions from my garden; yet can tell you very little about the seed anatomy, the root system, the physiology, or the leaf structure of that tomato plant.

With my relative ignorance out in the open, what can I offer to the STEM Tuesday Botany Craft & Resource game this month?

I can ask a simple question that lies at the core of an inquiring STEM mind:

How can I learn more about _______?  (Which, in this case, is botany.)

I can suggest doing what STEM thinkers have done for centuries and go to work.

  • Observe. “Hey, that thing is pretty awesome.” 
  • Ask why. “Why is that thing as awesome as it is?”
  • Research. “I need to find out what makes that thing awesome.”
  • Go where your interests take you. “This thing is like that thing and it’s also awesome.”
  • Dig deep into those directions that interest you. “Whoa! This thing and that thing are both are part of something bigger.”
  • Be open and willing to learn. 
  • Be willing to do the work to learn.

I cleaned the remaining vegetables off all the plants in my garden this past weekend in front of an early frost and snow shower. The plants were pulled and thrown into the compost pile and the last containers of homemade salsa and pasta sauce were canned and now sit in the pantry. Gardening season 2018 has come to an end. But the learning is just beginning for the gardener. Time to hit the STEM Tuesday Botany book list and see where my plant learning journey takes me over the winter.

As my wife, who teaches first grade, often reminds her rock-headed husband, we are never too old to learn something new.

Finally, never forget that life viewed through the lens of an inquiring STEM mind is a much richer life.

Keep asking questions!

Keep learning!

STEM rocks!

Mike Hays has worked hard from a young age to be a well-rounded individual. A well-rounded, equal opportunity sports enthusiasts, that is. If they keep a score, he’ll either watch it, play it, or coach it. A molecular microbiologist by day, middle-grade author, sports coach, and general good citizen by night, he blogs about sports/training related topics atwww.coachhays.com and writer stuff at www.mikehaysbooks.comTwo of his essays will be included in the Putting the Science in Fiction collection from Writer’s Digest Books release later this month. He can be found roaming around the Twitter-sphere under the guise of @coachhays64.

 


The O.O.L.F Files

The Out Of Left Field files this month focuses on the fun side of botany in an attempt to make up for my shortcomings on the subject as outlined in the above post. And if you find yourself hungry at the end of chasing the links, the final link can easily take care of your appetite, one way or the other.