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