Climate Change/Earth Science

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 and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

STEM Tuesday– Taking a Look at Climate Change/Earth Science– Interview with Sneed Collard

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 Sneed Collard, author of HOPPING AHEAD OF CLIMATE CHANGE: Snowshoe Hares, Science, and Survival. The book follows scientists as they study snowshoe hares and other animals that change their coat colors each winter as they adapt to shorter winters brought on by climate change.

Mary Kay Carson: How did Hopping Ahead of Climate Change come about? 

Hopping Ahead of Climate Change: Snowshoe Hares, Science, and Survival was named a Junior Library Guild selection.

Sneed Collard: This book actually has an instructive background in patience and timing. I first got a contract for this book for Houghton Mifflin’s well-known “Scientists in the Field” series, and planned to travel to Bhutan to follow Scott Mills and other scientists as they studied animals that changed their coat colors every year. The year was 2008, the dawn of the Great Recession, and unfortunately I was unable to get the permissions I needed to travel and work in Bhutan so the entire project just fell apart. As it turned out, that was a good thing, because Professor Mills was just beginning his work on coat-color-changing animals and I really wouldn’t have had much to say about his work at the time.

Around 2014, however, I happened to run into Prof. Mills again and asked him what he’d been working on. He enthusiastically shared results of his recent research looking at the impacts of climate change on snowshoe hares, and I thought, “Oh, well now is the time to write this book.” By this time, I’d also started my own publishing company, Bucking Horse Books, and I thought, “Rather than go through the multi-year process of trying to get a contract for this book, I am just going to write and publish it myself.” It was one of the best moves that I’ve made.

MKC: Could you share a favorite research moment? 

Sneed: One of the really fun things about this project was the opportunity to go into the field in Montana with Prof. Mills and visit his research laboratories, then located at North Carolina State in Raleigh. During several trips, I had the opportunity to watch Prof. Mills track radio-collared snowshoe hares as well as take blood samples and tag them. On my last visit with him, we headed into the woods near Seeley Lake, Montana. Scott had set out cages the night before and we hit the jackpot, capturing a number of snowshoe hares. One of the last was a young hare, or leveret. Scott coaxed the leveret into a burlap sack while he took a blood sample and tagged it. Then, I stood a few yards away ready to take a photo as he released the hare back into the wild.

“He’s going to go fast,” Scott warned. When he opened the sack, though, the hare didn’t run away. Instead, it just sat in Dr. Mills’ lap for about twenty seconds. Then, it hopped toward me and posed for another twenty seconds while I fired photo after photo.

“Wow,” Scott said. “They never do that. I think it was doing that just for you.” One of those photos, by the way, ended up on the title page and page 54 of the book.

Sneed B. Collard III has written more than eighty award-winning nonfiction and fiction books for young people including Woodpeckers—Drilling Holes & Bagging Bugs; One Iguana, Two Iguanas: A Story of Accident, Natural Selection, and Evolution, and his newest picture book Birds of Every Color. In 2006, Sneed was awarded the prestigious Washington Post-Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award for his body of work. Learn more about Sneed at his website

MKC: What are you working on now

Sneed: So a passion I have shared with my sixteen-year-old son, Braden, for the past five years is birds. (Follow their birding blog at I am constantly thinking about bird diversity and biology, and the survival issues faced by many birds. This has resulted in a number of recent books including Fire Birds—Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests, Woodpeckers—Drilling Holes and Bagging Bugs, and my newest picture book title, Birds of Every Color, which features photos by both Braden and myself. To study birds, scientists and ordinary citizens spend a huge amount of time counting birds and it was suggested to me that this might make a good topic for a book. Braden and I started our research by participating in recent Christmas Bird Counts in our area, but I also plan to participate in a variety of other bird-counting programs held in various places and at various times of the year. It’s one of those books where I probably won’t know exactly where it’s heading until I’ve completed my research, but I think it will turn into an engaging series of stories about birds and bird studies.

MKC: Do you have a STEM background?

Sneed: Science has been a part of my life since my earliest memories. Both of my parents were biologists, and I vividly remember going out catching crickets with my mom or digging through tidepools with my dad while they were still students at U.C. Santa Barbara. I must have gotten the gene because I didn’t hesitate to declare a marine biology major at U.C. Berkeley before going on for a master’s in scientific instrumentation at U.C.S.B. I realized, though, that there were probably enough scientists to save the world. The bigger problem was the immense gulf between what scientists know and what the general public—including politicians—understand. I think it was this gap that helped push me into a writing career.

Win a FREE copy of Hopping Ahead of Climate Change!

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 is Mary Kay Carson, author of Alexander Graham Bell for Kids, Mission to Pluto, Weird Animals, and other nonfiction books for kids. @marykaycarson

STEM Tuesday– Taking a Look at Climate Change/Earth Science– Writing Tips & Resources

The Right Words

There’s a Neil Gaiman quote which is popular around the writing circles.

“Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.”

Find the right word.

And then the next.

And then the next…

That’s where the “magic” of writing comes in, right? Wrong. That’s where the work of writing comes in.

Hard work is the magic.

In nonfiction, finding the right words are just as important as it is in fiction. And in STEM nonfiction, the importance and value of the précise and correct word rises exponentially. The right word can make or break the credibility of the piece. The wrong word can create confusion, misinformation, and spread inaccuracies.

The right word matters.

This month’s topic is Climate Change/Earth Science. While planning the Writing Tips & Resources post this month, I originally planned an optimistic post on the potential solutions to our environmental issues blossoming in some of our young minds. Kids working toward and demanding changes in their institutions and local environments. It’s promising.

But then I heard something last week that made me shelf the original touch-feely post. It was an unfortunate reminder of how important the right words are. One prominent politician making fun of another prominent politician with the classic jab of “global warming? (laugh, laugh, laugh)” as the second politician made a campaign announcement backdropped by snow and cold weather.

Global Warming

One of the most prominent choices of words gone astray has to be “global warming”. The fight against climate change would have been a whole lot better off if “global warming” was never introduced as the lead terminology. What’s hard now to get many to understand is that small changes, like the atmospheric warming over the Earth poles caused by a stark increase in CO2 build up, can cause big problems to the entire system.

The Earth is a system. Changes in portions of a system can resonate throughout the entire system. This is the so-called Butterfly Effect associated with chaos theory (which also suffered from a poor choice of words (A butterfly flaps its wings…) in early explanations of chaos theory). In the system then, even a relatively small increase in temperature can change the weather patterns thousands of miles away. It’s HARD to get people to accept this when they keep reverting to “global warming” mode while they’re standing knee-deep in record snowfall.

Save the Planet

Another problematic choice of words I feel has held back the efforts to promote and advance earth science is, “Save the Planet”. Barring catastrophic internal of external events, the planet will survive humans. Earth will be fine. It may look and act completely different, but it’ll still be here.

What we need to do is reframe the environmental argument in terms of saving ourselves and the flora & fauna currently inhabiting this planet. Reframe environmentalism in terms of long-term economic viability and make it something of value to everyone.

The Right Word

Words are powerful. They carry weight. The right word can forward a way of thought or a new idea while the wrong word can sink the ship before it leaves port. Choose words wisely. Find the right word with the best fit. Make it work for you and work for your ideas.

The world of STEM will appreciate your efforts.

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 at and writer stuff at www.mikehaysbooks.comTwo of his science essays, The Science of Jurassic Park and Zombie Microbiology 101,  are included in the Putting the Science in Fiction collection from Writer’s Digest Books. 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 (O.O.L.F.) Files this month takes a look at earth science, climate science, and some ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

Here are a couple of information packed sites from some heavy hitters on the climate front:

I found this article and Tweeted it out to my fellow STEM Tuesday team member, Patricia Newman, thinking she’d enjoy the article on laboratories working to reduce single-use plastics because of her fantastic book, PLASTICS AHOY!

She liked it but one-upped me by Tweeting me this article about the potential use of plastic bags in cellphones.

Geodesy – I’ve been researching geodesy as a side topic to a story about satellite navigation I’m working on. It’s fascinating science!

(Geodesy definition and information from GIM International, “the independent and high-quality information online source for everything the global geomatics industry has to offer: news, articles, vacancies, company profiles, educators and an event calendar.

And if you just can’t get enough geodesy in your current life, here is a PDF from N.O.A.A.  of the 1985 reprint,