Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the last Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!
Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Patricia Newman, award winning author of the newly released Planet Ocean. Combined with Annie Crawley’s stunning photography, Patricia’s research provides an immersive experience for readers of all ages. You’ll also meet some of the people fighting to maintain the ocean’s vital role in sustaining life on our planet.
Before you start, check out this fascinating trailer featuring video shot on location and fascinating facts about the ocean ecosystems: “Why your library needs Planet Ocean”
“Planet Ocean is a beautiful book. It explains the subject material in a beautiful way and the photographs are incredible. A must read with your children.”
–Jeff Bridges, Academy Award winning actor and environmentalist
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Christine Taylor-Butler: Patricia, in a past life you have been a teacher, a computer programmer, and an Assistant Director for Cornell University’s regional office. In those capacities, you’ve traveled all over the world, including Kenya with a geneticist as a volunteer for the San Diego Zoo. Do you ever slow down?
Patricia Newman: My husband asks the same question, Christine. I confess I have a hard time sitting still and I enjoy working on multiple projects simultaneously. That said, I relish quiet time, too, to read, soak up nature, and allow my brain to make the connections that ultimately inspire book ideas.
CTB: You received the Sibert Honor award for your book Sea Otter Heroes. You mention that a teacher once described fiction as “heart” and nonfiction as “facts.” You said it hurt your feelings. Could you elaborate?
Patricia: The conference speaker was asked to define fiction and nonfiction. She said, “Fiction is the heart and nonfiction is the facts.” And you’re right, Christine. That bland, watered down definition hurt my feelings because she implied nonfiction authors don’t add heart to their work. What about children’s biographies profiling people that empower children to reach for the stars? What about the scientists in books such as Sea Otter Heroes who inspire the next generation of scientists? What about books on focused topics, such as sharks, bugs, or space, that feed the curiosity of young readers? Nonfiction authors write from personal experience and passion. Our topics come from who we are as people and light fires within us. And we want to share that passion with young readers – both as they read our work and as they write. I’d advise teachers out there to pick up a copy of Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep edited by Melissa Stewart. Share with students the essays from 50 nonfiction authors and try to mimic our pre-writing process to add heart to student work.
CTB: Your body of work is such a joyful exploration of both science and the human spirit that seeks to explore and improve the environment. Where did that passion come from?
Patricia: When I was young, I watched bugs. I grew vegetables. I scoured tidepools. I compared the shapes of leaves. Like all children, I was a natural scientist, and my questions led my “investigations.” I guess I’m one of the lucky ones because I never lost that desire to question. I still spend as much time outdoors as I can. Because of my love of science, I understand our connection to our natural world – how it feeds our souls, how it supports life on our planet. Whenever I hear about an amazing scientist working to help others understand this connection, I look for the story.
I often hear librarians say that history is people. What I’d like to hear more of is history AND science is people. The scientific skills of observation, investigation, and analysis form the bedrock of the discovery process in any discipline, whether history, language, culture, or mathematics.
CTB: Let’s talk about Planet Ocean. It’s an amazing work. You collaborated with Annie Crawley, a professional diver and photographer who explores oceans all over the world with a dive team. How did you first meet?
Patricia: Planet Ocean is my third book with the amazing Annie Crawley. We first met while I was working on Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. After the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (SEAPLEX) returned to dry land, I contacted the scientists I wanted to interview for the book. I also contacted Annie because she was the expedition photographer, and I knew no one would have the kind of images she had. At the time, not too many people were willing to talk trash, and Annie was thrilled to showcase the expedition’s disturbing findings in a book for kids. Plastic, Ahoy! was one of the first children’s books about marine debris and it has inspired more children than I can count. One middle school reader later wrote her college essay about how Plastic, Ahoy! inspired her to study ocean plastic.
CTB: When Annie traveled to take location shots, she uploaded audio and video so you could stay connected with the source material. Was it hard to live the adventures vicariously?
Patricia: I was fortunate to travel to Seattle where Annie and I began our research for the Salish Sea chapter of Planet Ocean. We interviewed several scientists and experts by phone and in person. I also spoke to Annie’s Dive Team about communicating science through writing.
Annie already had science expeditions planned for Indonesia and the Arctic, so I knew early on that I would have to live vicariously. (One interesting note: Publishers rarely fund nonfiction research expenses.) Annie recorded and, in many cases, videoed the interviews, she traveled with my questions in hand and frequently added her own, and often included messages to me from our experts. When Annie and composer Stella Sung met for a performance of Oceana, they called me from the car to celebrate!
Note: Find out more about Annie Crawley at: www.anniecrawley.com and www.ouroceanandyou.com
CTB: The book is a wonderful marriage of science and profiles in courage. I was taken with the enormous diversity of people featured who are active in their local communities combating activities that threaten the health of our oceans. Who stands out the most to you? Is there one particular story that stayed with you after the book was finished?
Patricia: I feel like you’re asking me to pick my favorite child, Christine! I love all the stories – Aji Piper who’s not fighting for climate change, but human change; Eben Hopson who makes films to give his Iñupiat people a voice; Helen Pananggung and her indomitable group of children who clean their Indonesian beach every week; Nicole Helgason who replants coral; Dana Wlson who mourns the lack of salmon in his native waters; the kids and teens from Annie’s Dive Team who lobby the state legislature and made two inspiring films for Planet Ocean.
These people and their stories are connected by their love of and their dependence on the ocean And they are working as hard as they can to make sure we all understand that connection.
The stories also demonstrate how readers can take action in their own lives and become a voice for the sea. Annie and I ultimately want readers to love the ocean because we protect what we love.
CTB: Planet Ocean features QR codes that link to videos of Annie and the dive team on location. It really brings the book alive and puts the reader in the middle of the action. I found myself stopping to explore beyond the text. How did that idea come about?
Patricia: I’m so happy you watched them! When I wrote Eavesdropping on Elephants, my editor loved the idea of including QR codes to hear the elephants talking just as the scientists did in the forest. The QR codes are a popular feature of that book.
When Annie and I partnered again for Planet Ocean, her filmmaking skills seemed like a natural fit for QR codes. We wrote and designed Planet Ocean with an underwater perspective. The QR codes give readers the opportunity to dive below the surface to witness what happens for themselves.
CTB: To help you get up close and personal with the material, Annie and her team taught you how to scuba dive. What was that like?
Patricia: Annie began with a classroom lesson that included how to breathe through a regulator, how to read my portable computer to keep track of my air supply, how to clear my mask, and the science of diving.
Then I dressed in my wet suit, flippers, mask, snorkel, buoyancy vest, and air tank. The air tank is astonishingly heavy on land! We dove in an indoor pool – the water in the Salish Sea hovers around 45 degrees and requires a dry suit and more diving skills than I currently possess. I learned how to breathe slowly, remain neutrally buoyant, and maneuver in the water with all the equipment. We also practiced safety techniques, such as communicating with our buddy. Of course, the Dive Team swam circles around me.
The real challenge was the underwater photo – holding my end of Annie’s camera housing steady while maintaining neutral buoyancy – not sinking too deep or floating to the surface.
CTB: You’ve written a wide range of nonfiction topics. Many people don’t know that books often start with an idea and a pitch to an editor. It’s a lot of research to conduct for a project that may not find a home. How do you find the right balance?
Patricia: Longer form nonfiction usually begins with a proposal or sales document that provides an overview of the concept, a chapter outline, and a list of the experts I plan to interview. And you’re right, Christine, balance is key.
Before beginning the proposal, I contact the scientists I’d like to feature to get their buy-in. I explain the time commitment involved after the book sells. If they are interested in working with me, I read to acquaint myself with the topic and develop a list of questions. I then set up a 20- to 30-minute interview with the scientist(s) to get at the highlights and dig deep enough to discover a possible narrative thread but not take advantage of the scientists’ time. I must be extremely efficient. If you’re interested in proposal writing, explore this article I wrote for Melissa Stewart’s Celebrate Science blog.
CTB: You’ve done a number of articles and interviews about your passion for writing. But the one that stuck out was your call to action in Publisher’s Weekly about conventions where publishers and vendors give away thousands of plastic items and tote bags in the quest to sell books. You make some sensible suggestions for sustainable options. Could you give a few here?
Patricia: All my environmental titles include a call to action because we must be grateful for nature and begin giving back. Page 53 of Planet Ocean includes several concrete suggestions. In addition, please consider the following:
- Eat sustainably. Buy organic when possible and purchase seafood caught using sustainable fishing methods (Seafood Watch publishes handy guides to help you). Consider eating one plant-based meal per week.
- Use your purchasing power to change corporate practices. Refuse goods packaged with too much plastic or produced by companies that pollute the planet. Some of my favorite alternatives, include:
- Bamboo utensils for to-go meals instead of single-use plastic. Use a refillable coffee mug for your designer coffee and skip the plastic cup/lid/stirrer.
- Bites Toothpaste Bits to refuse the plastic toothpaste tube, plastic dental floss box, and plastic toothbrush. Ask you dentist to stop giving out plastic toothbrushes.
- Etee reusable beeswax food wraps instead of plastic wrap.
- Who Gives a Crap sustainable toilet paper, paper towels, and tissues. They also donate 50% of their profits “to build toilets because we believe access to a safe, dignified loo is a basic human right.”
- Ten Tree for clothing made with sustainable materials. And for every item you purchase, Ten Tree plants ten trees.
- Email corporations who continue to flaunt environmental guidelines. I have emails ready for Amazon and Target for unsustainable shipping practices that include loads of single-use plastic.
- Research electric or hybrid vehicles as a family. What are the pluses and minuses of switching?
- Take your political leaders to task at the local, state, and federal levels. Our health, clean air, clean water, and adequate food supplies start with a healthy ocean and sustainable habits.
CTB: You describe writing these books as “meeting the emotional need in me.” So now I’m intrigued. Is there a project you are dying to write about?
Patricia: One idea in particular tickles me, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, the time is not yet right. Hopefully in the not-too-distant future…
CTB: You’ve been amazing asset to children’s publishing. Do you have any books on the horizon we should keep an eye out for?
Patricia: I have a nonfiction picture book releasing in the fall of 2022 illustrated by Natasha Donovan. All I can say right now is that it’s a conservation story with a happy ending.
Win a FREE copy of “Planet Ocean.”
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.
Patricia Newman studied child development at Cornell University. While there, she also studied French, Italian and Childen’s Literature. Patricia’s books encourage readers to use their imaginations to solve real‑world problems and act on behalf of their communities. A Robert F. Sibert Honor recipient for Sea Otter Heroes, Her books have received starred reviews, Green Earth Book Awards, a Parents’ Choice Award, and Bank Street College’s Best Books honors. Patricia speaks at schools and conferences to share how children of any age can affect change.
Your host is Christine Taylor-Butler, MIT engineering nerd and author of Bathroom Science, Sacred Mountain: Everest, Genetics, and more than 70 other nonfiction books for kids. She is also the author of the middle grade sci-fi series The Lost Tribes. Follow @ChristineTB on Twitter and/or @ChristineTaylorButler on Instagram
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.
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.
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.