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 Christy Mihaly, author of Barefoot Books Water: A Deep Dive of Discovery. It’s a fascinating look at the many ways water forms the basis of life on our planet and how climate change impacts that. Kirkus Reviews said, “Oceanic in scope—but clear and refreshing.“
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Christine Taylor-Butler: Christy, you write for children but before that change in career you went to law school and spent several years helping to protect the environment as an environmental lawyer. Those are tough issues. How did you develop the passion for that work?
Christy Mihaly: I’ve always loved being in nature. My grandmother was a serious backyard naturalist who shared her love of birds with me—I remember she had a record (vinyl!) with recordings of bird songs and would play it and listen to the calls and tell me which was which bird. She constantly worried about threats to wildlife and the need to protect wild places; she cared deeply about environmental protection.
In school I loved studying biology, ecology, and natural science, and grew to be a committed environmentalist. I remember collecting trash in a local park on the first Earth Day. I was active in the Girl Scouts, which gave me the opportunity to explore some of Earth’s wild places. As a teen one summer I spent ten challenging days paddling along the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in Maine with a Girl Scout camp. Then, this east coast girl was accepted for a national scout program in Wyoming, and visited Grand Teton National Park. Wow! I was stunned by my first glimpse of the beauty of the west.
My college major was policy studies with a concentration in environmental studies. I remember an ecology course in which we modeled different and related animal populations, demonstrating the interdependence of the species. I learned more about various challenges facing the environmental movement. Then when I took an undergraduate course in environmental law, I was hooked. I was fascinated with the various creative ways that people were using legal theories to defend wilderness and people’s right to a clean and healthy Earth. I realized: This is what I want to do!
CTB: Your family relocated to Spain for a year which was full immersion. What was it like navigating local customs and getting up to speed on the language quickly?
Christy: Yes, that was ten years ago. And oh my gosh, what a pivotal year. It was challenging, stimulating, and inspiring! And exhausting, did I mention exhausting? When we first arrived, I felt like a complete outsider, a bumbling incompetent. I’d taken Spanish in college but I remembered only the basics. So had this horrible sense of being inarticulate. People looked at me as if they thought I wasn’t too bright.
Plus everything – from the traffic circles to the laundry to the supermarket check-outs – was different from what I was used to. I just had to laugh at myself and hope that if I smiled enough, people would be patient with me. I asked questions. I met people. One day as I was riding the metro, a young woman introduced herself to me and we ended up becoming good friends. Slowly, things got better. One day the kind woman at the bakery where I shopped said, as she counted my change, “Your Spanish is getting better.” How exciting was that!
It was a year of bonding for the family as we went through all this together. We leaned on one another as we explored the country. My daughter progressed from knowing basically no Spanish to being the most fluent Spanish speaker in the family. And I loved that she got to live in a new culture, and to realize deeply that just because we do things a certain way in the United States does not mean our way is better.
CTB: While in Spain, you say your head was swimming with ideas for children’s stories and you sold your first story. What was it about?
Christy: I had left my lawyer job with the idea that it was time to get into gear on my long-deferred plans to write for kids. I didn’t know how I would get started, but yes, living in a new place triggered questions about everything. Curiosity is probably one of the most important qualities we bring to our writing – and suddenly I was curious about so many things. And I thought American kids might also find so much of Spain intriguing.
So … that year I published my first piece of writing for kids. It was unpaid and appeared in an online magazine that no longer exists. I was thrilled! It was a short story based on our experiences in Spain. I wrote it as an epistolary tale, in e-mails between a girl in the U.S. and her best friend who moved to Spain.
That year also led to my first paid article. It was in AppleSeeds magazine (also discontinued, is there a pattern here?). I submitted a query, which was accepted, about the Pinzon brothers of southern Spain. As every school child in Spain learns, the Pinzon brothers were a prominent seafaring family in the fifteenth century, and without their expertise and leadership on the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, Christopher Columbus’s explorations wouldn’t have succeeded. I researched the heck out of that 200-word article, traveling to Palos de la Frontera to attend the “Pinzon Days” festival, reading (in Spanish) materials collected in the local library, and studying artifacts in the museum that is the former home of the Pinzon brothers. I also took tons of photos, some of which I submitted for the illustrator’s reference. I was having fun and learning so much.
CTB: Once you returned to Vermont, you kept writing and sending out stories.
Christy: I did. I joined SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). I signed up for conferences. I attended workshops. I wasn’t sure I considered myself a writer yet. I still needed to figure out how to make a living at this writing thing. I needed to learn more about the craft and the trade. Gradually, I did.
CTB: Now you have two books out that include discussions of climate change: Barefoot Books Water: A Deep Dive of Discovery, and Diet for a Changing Climate, which you co-wrote with Sue Heavenrich.
Christy: I’ve found that if I’m writing about environmental topics, I can’t avoid addressing climate change. That was certainly the case in the most recent book, Water. I couldn’t write a comprehensive guide to the planet’s water without touching on both the ocean’s role in climate, and the effects of climate change on the ocean, rainfall patterns, and water supplies.
Sue Heavenrich and I visited STEM Tuesday to talk about DIET with Mary Kay Carson, here: https://fromthemixedupfiles.com/stem-tuesday-sustainable-living-interview-with-author/.
In addition to the two climate-related books you mention, I’ve written about climate change in several books for the educational market. For example, in my series “Shaping the Debate,” one of the titles is “Defining and Discussing Climate Change.” (Rourke Educational Media, 2019.) And in writing series nonfiction about national parks, animals, and renewable energy, I have had to deal with climate change and its impacts.
CTB: Barefoot Books Water: A Deep Dive of Discovery is done in multiple own voices from all over the world. That’s pretty innovative (and much needed perspective). Where did the idea come from? Did you get to travel to any of the places covered in the book?
Christy: The publisher, Barefoot Books, conceived of “Water” and went looking for a qualified author. They publish many multicultural picture books and they’re well known for their beautiful, oversized nonfiction books like Barefoot Books World Atlas and Barefoot Books Solar System. They wanted to add Barefoot Books WATER to this line.
I am so glad that Emma Parkin, the brilliant and delightful editor for the project, got my name. We had a Skype call and immediately hit it off. I was intrigued with her ideas. As Emma explained, although there are many children’s books about the ocean, marine animals, and other water-related topics, Barefoot Books wanted to create something that centered water’s role on Earth.
I shared with Emma my work on water conservation projects from Tahoe to Vermont. My experience meshed well with the notion of a compendium for kids exploring the power and wonder of water. I wanted to write something lyrical and poetic as well as scientifically accurate.
Together we developed a vision for this book to include science and social justice, history and stories. I loved the idea of including tales from global storytellers, traditional stories and legends to highlight the magical, mystical side of water. I also love the “behind the stories” feature included in the book’s back matter, which tells kids the story of each author, their backgrounds, and their thoughts about water.
But no, I couldn’t travel while writing this book. I wrote it entirely during the pandemic, starting in March 2020.
CTB: Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review, calling your approach “intriguing.” They particularly loved your use of alliteration citing the passage “Glaciers are “massive, mountainous mounds of ice..”) Water is such an essential part of life on Earth. What surprised you most when researching this book?
Christy: I was surprised how difficult it was to explain some water basics – its molecular structure and why it’s so good at dissolving things, for example – simply, accurately, and clearly for our target audience. Luckily we had expert reviewers, both in child development and science.
Another surprise: I loved learning how some marine animals can drink salt water without getting dehydrated because their kidneys are adapted to handle the salt.
Sometimes, I knew a general fact (e.g., manufacturing uses a lot of water) but was surprised by some of the specifics (1 cotton t-shirt: 660 gallons; 1 smart phone: 3200 gallons).
And I was surprised and saddened to read recent research about the effects of climate change on the ocean … and how changes in ocean currents (the global conveyor belt) are disrupting weather patterns.
CTB: You include activities for readers to try while explaining conservation and the impact of climate change on water sources. What process did you use for your research that might help young readers understand how authors approach writing nonfiction?
Christy: My first step in this project was reading broadly. As I read, I looked for facts and aspects of water that would be most interesting to kids. What would make kids wonder? What would surprise and intrigue them? And what are the concrete details that really bring the story home?
In deciding what to include and how to present it, we gave a great deal of consideration to the book’s design. The artist, Mariona Cabassa, and the entire team at Barefoot Books deserve credit for this. We had extensive discussions about the most engaging ways to present information.
For example, how to show the quantity of water on the globe: 326 million trillion gallons. We looked at illustrations of buckets, swimming pools, and the like, but finally decided that for a figure that large, just showing it with all those zeroes was effective: 326,000,000,000,000,000,000. We went through a similar process for many aspects of the book. And we created the friendly talking-water-drop character to provide quick fun facts throughout the book. This was one way we sought to make the book accessible to younger kids as well as middle grade readers.
As I researched, I flagged topics that kids could explore through hands-on activities. For example, try dissolving different substances in water; or get outside with a magnifying glass and see what life you can find in a pond or a puddle. In one activity, I asked kids to think about the work involved in carrying a family’s water. The activity suggests filling a water bucket to carry and figuring out how many buckets of water their family would need in a day. Here’s an extension of that activity, for a class or other group of kids, building on information in the book which appeared on author Patricia Newman’s LitLinks blog. This gets more deeply into the social justice theme of the book. (And the inequity of the world’s global water supply is of course exacerbated by the climate crisis.)
Finally, I find that when kids see a problem, often their instinct is to act, so I spent a lot of time thinking about what water-steward steps we could suggest for kids to take. Those are sprinkled throughout the book.
CTB: What do you want readers to come away with after reading this book?
Christy: An appreciation for the magic of water! This ordinary everyday substance is in fact so extraordinary. And how vital it is to all living things. And I hope kids will feel a desire to protect this treasure for everyone. My approach was to focus on how wondrous water is, but without glossing over all the water-related challenges.
This is similar to what Sue Heavenrich and I did in our Diet for a Changing Climate book. We wanted to help young readers think actively about the climate crisis but without overwhelming them. Our approach was to encourage kids to think creatively and notice how their choices about what foods were on their plates could help make real change in the world.
CTB: What’s next on your horizon? Any new books coming out we should watch for?
Christy: Yes! Thank you for this question – I’m expecting three books in 2022. (And one of them relates to climate change.)
The Supreme Court and Us, coming March 1, is a kid-friendly introduction to the U.S. Supreme Court, its history and role. (Illustrated by Neely Daggett, pub. Albert Whitman.)
Patience, Patches shows up in April. This fictional tale, narrated by Patches the dog, follows the disruption (and rewards) when a baby joins the family. (Illustrated by Sheryl Murray, pub. Dial/PRH.)
Ultimate Food Atlas: Maps, Games, Recipes, and More for Hours of Delicious Fun. A Nat Geo Kids book that the talented science writer Nancy Castaldo and I co-wrote, it’s due to release in September. It’s stuffed with fun facts about food, geography, and agriculture … and we talk about climate change, too.
CTB: I want to thank Christy Mihaly for being such a passionate advocate for the environment and for young readers. Enjoy!
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Christy Mihaly is a nature lover, former lawyer, and poet. She has written more than 25 children’s nonfiction titles on topics from hayfields to free speech to food. A graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of California, Berkeley, Christy is passionate about environmental education, has chaired the board of the Vermont River Conservancy, and is a regular volunteer in local elementary schools as an environmental educator and reading mentor. She writes for kids because she believes that our best hope for the future is raising young people who love to read, and giving them the knowledge and skills to lead.
Christy’s books have been included on the Green Earth Book Award shortlist, Bank Street Children’s Best Books, and Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selections. She lives in Vermont, where she enjoys walking her dog in the woods and playing cello (though not simultaneously).
Your host is Christine Taylor-Butler, MIT nerd and author of more than 90 books for children including Save The Tigers part of a new animal conservation series by Chelsea Clinton. She is also the author of the middle grade sci-fi/fantasy series The Lost Tribes. Follow @ChristineTB on Twitter and/or @ChristineTaylorButler on Instagram