STEM Tuesday– Author Interview: Gae Polisner

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 Gae Polisner, author of Consider The Octopus, proof positive that STEM related topics don’t have to be restricted to nonfiction texts. Co-written with Nora Raleigh Baskin, this engaging book employs humor and mistaken identity to explore the impact of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch on our environment as told through the eyes of two twelve-year olds.

“Superlative writing and character development uplift this timely story . . . An inspiring tale of friendship and conservation.”Kirkus Reviews, starred review


Christine Taylor-Butler: Before we get into the book, can you tell me a bit about yourself? For instance, many people think writers have always been writers but are surprised to learn many have professional non-writing jobs. What is yours?

Gae Polisner: I’m a lawyer by profession. I graduated from law school at the height of the 1991 depression when there weren’t a lot of job openings. My family law professor hired me. I started as a litigator but then I trained in family mediation. It uses a different side of my brain and I love it.

CTB: Law was your graduate degree. What was your undergraduate?

Gae: Marketing. Believe it or not that degree has helped me survive in publishing. It gave me the skills to put myself out there and make connections with readers and book buyers.

CTB: So how did you make the leap to writing?

Gae: I wrote all the time as a kid. When I was younger I was praised by teachers for my writing in elementary school and middle school. I got compliments in creative writing classes in college. But it was outside the scope of professional jobs. I planned to go to law school or medical school. My father was a surgeon so in my family, having a profession was a given. After graduating I practiced law and started a family. I was fulfilled in my life, but I missed being creative.

When I had my second son I started writing women’s fiction and got an agent. By the time my kids were eight and ten I was reading aloud to them every night. My agent was submitting and I was getting great feedback but lots of rejections. That’s when I decided I was going to write a book for my kids. I wanted to write the books I liked to read when I was younger. I loved Judy Blume and Madeleine L’Engle. I loved the Mixed Up Files.  I wrote The Pull of Gravity which was published by Frances Foster (FSG). It was two more years before I sold my next book, Summer of Letting Go (Workman/Algonquin). I’m most known for The Memory of Things which is about 9/11.

CTB: You have seven books in print now?

Gae: Yes. But that’s seven books out of twenty-two manuscripts. It’s been an interesting journey.

CTB: So let’s dig into your latest book: Consider the Octopus. This book caught me off guard. It’s not often I find such fun storytelling which is simultaneously covering a real science topic. Could you tell me how the idea came about?

Gae Polisner: I say it was a bit of synchronicity. I was headed for a swim and listening to NPR in the car when Norah called and said “Turn on NPR! They’re talking about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”

Note: Here’s the WYNC link for readers:

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Worse Than You Think.”

CTB: So you were both listening to the same broadcast when she called and you both had the same idea about creating a book using that as the basis for the adventure.

Gae: Yes. Nora and I had already collaborated on several manuscripts including a novel: Seven Clues To Home. So when she called I said, “Okay, let’s write this but the only requirement is that we write a funny book.” Neither one of us wanted the book to be solely an “issue” book. We wanted something that covered environmental pollution but wasn’t “heavy.”

CTB: Even so, you wanted to make sure the science was real.

Microplastics noaaGae: The garbage patch is often described as an island so initially I thought people could stand on it. When we were thinking of ideas for the book I wanted to put a research station there. Then I did research and realized the idea of it being an island was a misnomer. In photos you often see large groups of plastic trash floating in the ocean. There is quite a lot of that floating on the surface of the water and the “islands” are formed by the currents of ocean water. But most of the patch is composed of particles of plastics called microplastics. Some are microscopic which means they’re so small that you can’t see them. But they’re still dangerous to wildlife and the environment. According to the EPA it’s now found in every ecosystem on the planet.

CTB: To bring home the importance of this problem, the story is written in the points of view of two twelve-year old kids who form an unlikely friendship: Sydney Miller, who is invited to join the research ship after being mistaken for a famous scientist of the same name, and Jeremy Barnes, who is responsible for issuing that invitation. Did you and Nora write both voices together?

Gae: Actually, Nora wrote Sydney’s voice and I wrote Jeremy’s. Sydney’s character is funny but is the more serious of the two kids. Sydney has dreams and can’t believe what we’ve done to the oceans. She’s accompanied by her goldfish Rachel Carson who she smuggles on to the trip.

CTB: You were the voice of Jeremy. One of the fun aspects of this book were the titles for the chapters. Jeremy changes his nickname and the jokes are self-effacing and yet they project what is coming next in the text. For example, Jeremy JB “Not Made of Willpower” Barnes, or “Jeremy JB “Please, No More Puking” Barnes. No wonder kids find this book funny.

Gae: His voice was one of those muse things. I thought about boys I knew. The kids who were a cut-up and so smart but take a long time to recognize they are smart. One of my neighbors was like that and he was at my house all the time.

CTB: We tell readers (and aspiring authors) to spend a lot of time observing people and their behaviors to make their book characters real.

Gae: Yes. I look at how a kid’s brain works. Sometimes they are unintentionally funny. Once I knew who Jeremy was, writing his voice came easier

CTB: The majority of the book was set on a fictional research vessel named the Oceana II. Your details were so vivid I felt as if I were onboard with the Sydney and Jeremy. Have you been on a similar vessel?

Gae: No. It’s incredibly challenging to write that setting when you haven’t been on a research ship yourself. I’d never even been on a cruise ship. But there are plenty of places to get information. For instance, everyone thinks that SEAmester was a clever setting but it’s a real program. My friend’s son was interested in Marine Biology and did the program. Then he blogged about it so I got a sense of what it was like for a young kid to be on a research vessel in the middle of the ocean.

One of the great things about the internet is that I found a virtual tour of an Australian Research Vessel “Solander”. That allowed me to “travel” down into the lower levels and explore. The 3D tour was constantly open while I wrote. I could see how the different rooms worked including the dry room, the galley, etc..

AIMS Research Vessel Solander

RV Solander

CTB: What other resources did you find that readers might enjoy exploring?

The Jenny Ocean cleanupGae: There’s a lot of initiatives working on the problem. I sent you a cool link that follows “The Jenny.” It’s an ocean vacuum system that is having some success cleaning up the patch. It collected more than 30 tons of plastic. Readers can find it here at: The Ocean Cleanup.

I also found a documentary by Jack Johnson. It’s called “Smog of the Sea.” The film allows you to see how every mile of the ocean is filled with microplastics. You’re traveling in it when you’re sailing.

CTB: That’s amazing. You slip in so much science in a seamless way. Even something as simple as the “goldfish” t-shirt is written in scientific notation: “79 AU 196.97”. Seventy-nine is the atomic number for gold on the periodic table, AU in its elemental symbol and 196.97 is its atomic mass. You don’t go out of your way to explain everything, you leave some things for the readers to discover on their own. When writing science topics it always helps to have a second pair of eyes. Once the manuscript was complete did you and Nora reach out to people to read the draft?

Gae: We did. Norah reached out to Karen Romano Young. She’s a fellow writer and scientist who has been on a research ship. She’s also contributor to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. I asked a friend who is a marine biology teacher to read the book and vett the science before it was published.

CTB: One of the hardest parts about the pandemic was so many good books didn’t get the visibility they deserved. I wanted to help readers discover this particular book.  I just completed three books for the “Save The….” (Animals) series with Chelsea Clinton. One of the things that kept popping up what how many animals are endangered by the plastics in our oceans. Which, by extension, means we are also exposed as humans. We wanted, at the end of the book, to provide ways young readers can get involved and have a sense of agency. That you were able to highlight both in a book that uses humor and heart was such a bonus. Thanks for agreeing to be my guest this month.

Gae: You’re welcome!

sample from book

Win a FREE copy of  Consider The Octopus.

“A fun read… made me laugh… also has a really powerful message about how we need to save the environment.” Ronak Bhatt, Kid Reporter: TIME for Kids

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!


PolisnerGae Polisner is the author of seven books for young people. Awards and honors include Booklist and Kirkus Starred Reviews, The Wisconsin’s Children’s Choice book award, The Nerdy Book Club Award, the Pennsylvania School Library Association’s list of best fiction and others. Consider the Octopus is her first middle grade novel with a STEM focus.

To learn more about Gae and her books, please visit www.gaepolisner.com. You can follow her on Twitter @gaepol
Christine Taylor-ButlerYour host is Christine Taylor-Butler, MIT nerd and author of three books in Chelsea Clinton’s Save The . . . (Animals) series and many 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

STEM Tuesday– Evolution– Writing Tips & Resources

The Gift of New Writing Approaches

It’s the holiday season, and soon we’ll usher in a whole new year. It’s a time filled with family and friends (hopefully), good food, and gift-giving. This year, as my present to you, I want to discuss the gift of trying new approaches with our writing (CCSS ELA Writing Standard 5).

This month’s book list contains an irresistible assortment of approaches to the same topic of Evolution. Skim the list, and you’ll find:

  • A graphic novel – Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth by Jay Hosler, illustrated by Kevin and Zander Cannon
  • A modernized primary source – Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” adapted by Rebecca Stefoff
  • Evolution told through the lens of a single species (humans) – How to Build a Human by Pamela Turner, illustrated by John Gurche
  • A hands-on book loaded with activities – Evolution: How Life Adapts to a Changing Environment with 25 Projects by Carla Mooney, illustrated by Alexis Cornell
  • A biography – One Beetle Too Many: Candlewick Biographies: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwinby Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Matthew Trueman
  • A narrative focused on a relationship (the Darwin’s marriage) – Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman
  • A narrative focused on an event – The Monkey Trial: John Scopes and the Battle over Teaching Evolution by Anita Sanchez (to be released in March 2023)

As writers, part of the revision process requires us asking if we’ve accomplished the goals we had for our writing.  Did we make the point we wanted to make? Will our readers understand the story we are telling and the information we share? If not, could a new approach help?

Techniques to try

If you’re feeling stuck, try some of these techniques:

  • Flip the format: If you’ve written an informational or narrative piece could you add images and turn it into a comic?
  • Narrow your focus: If you’ve written a broad overview of a topic, what would happen if you rewrote your piece using a different lens focused on a single person, place, or thing?
  • Rethink your main character: Any person, place, thing, or event could be the center of a narrative. If you’ve focused on a person, could you refocus on an event or a relationship instead?

As writers, a flexible approach to our writing is key, especially when something’s not working. So give yourself a gift this holiday season – the freedom to try something new.

One more parting gift

If you’re looking for another way to reenergize your writing as we approach the New Year, you might try Julie Hedlund’s 12 Days of Christmas for Writers, which begins Dec. 26. Teachers, you can sign up for the daily emails here and share the process with your students after break.

Per Julie’s site, the 12 Days of Christmas gives writers:

  • Exercises to evaluate and integrate their previous writing year so they are ready for the new one.
  • Tools to illuminate successes in order to go even further in their writing.
  • Inspriation for how to write through tough times.

I go through this process each and every year and love what it does for my writing life.

Wishing you and yours a safe and healthy holiday season!

STEM Tuesday– Evolution– In the Classroom

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and discovery of natural selection changed the way people viewed themselves and the world around them. The idea that organisms adapt over time to survive in their environment was groundbreaking. It contradicted what people had always assumed to be true. Many incredible books have been written to help students understand the importance of this discovery and how it influences our understanding of the world today. These books can be used as a springboard for classroom discussions and activities.


cover of the book "One Beetle Too Many," featuring an illustration of Charles Darwin peeking through leaves at insects

One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin by Kathryn Lasky and Matthew Trueman

This book does an excellent job of making Charles Darwin relatable to young readers. He was a child who loved all type of creatures, including insects and worms. He loved being outside and took great pride in his collections. Kids may see that they aren’t too different from Darwin, and that will keep them engaged throughout the entire book. The illustrations complement the text perfectly, and students will want to look closely to take in all the details.





Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman

Many biographies of Charles Darwin focus on his research and his time spent on the HMS Beagle. Charles and Emma, however, starts after that adventure is already over, when Charles is trying to decide if he should get married. The relationship between Charles and Emma was a loving one, but she, like many others at the time, had trouble accepting his Theory of Evolution. It completely contradicted peoples’ religious beliefs. This book explores Charles and Emma’s relationship and how that impacted his thinking and his work. Young readers will view Darwin through a different lens.





cover of the book "Evolution" featuring a multicolored chameleon on white background

Evolution: How Life Adapts to a Changing Environment with 25 Projects by Carla Mooney and Alexis Cornell

In this book, STEM Tuesday’s own Carla Mooney makes evolution accessible to middle grade readers. She clearly explains what it is, how we think it works, and how this ongoing process will affect the future of our planet. The thought provoking essential questions and subsequent activities give students hands on opportunities to discover how and why animal adaptations occur.

The following two activities were taken directly from this book and are ones I think students will especially enjoy.



Activity 1 – Create Your Own Animal

In this activity, students will create their own animal with useful adaptations. They will begin by considering the following questions.

  • Where does the animal live?
  • How much water is in the area?
  • What is the climate and weather like in this location?
  • What does the animal eat? What predators threaten the animal?

Using these details, students will create their animal. What does it look like? How does it behave? Have them write a paragraph describing their animal and its behaviors. Draw a picture of the animal. What adaptations does the animal have to help it better survive in its environment?

Now try this: Have students design another environment. Imagine their animal in the new environment. What features are useful for the animal in the new environment? What features are not helpful? If the animal stays in the new environment, what new adaptations do you predict will arise during many generations. Why?


Activity 2 – Darwin’s Finches

In this activity, students will demonstrate how different adaptations can help different birds collect food.

  1. Gather several objects that represent different types of seeds a bird might encounter, including large seeds, small seeds, dried beans, rice. etc.
  2. Find or design several “tools” that they can use to pick up the seeds. Ideas include forks, spoons, knives, chopsticks, tweezers, and straws. Students can also build their own tools.
  3. Using each tool, attempt to pick up each type of seed. Which tool works the best? What type of seed is the easiest to collect? Which tool is the least effective? Which seed is the hardest to collect? Do some tools work better with certain seeds and not others?

Now try this: Students will demonstrate the process of evolution by natural selection using the seeds and the tools. Using only one type of food, assign each of the tools to the students. Set a time limit and see how many they can collect with their assigned tool. After the time has expired, see which tools have collected the most food. Those that did not collect enough food will die out and be replaced by the top-performing tools. Have students repeat this process several times. What happens to the tools in the population? What was the role of natural selection in the outcome?


Peppered Moth Simulation

In this online game, students will see how camouflage protects moths through the eyes of a predator. Click here to access the game.


Speciation Video

Further explore the idea of speciation by having students watch this video from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Click here to access the video.


Hopefully, these books and activities will help students understand the Theory of Evolution and how it influences our understanding of the world today.



Jenna Grodziki

Jenna Grodzicki is the author of more than twenty fiction and nonfiction children’s books. Her books include Wild Style: Amazing Animal Adornments (Millbrook Press 2020) and I See Sea Food: Sea Creatures That Look Like Food (Millbrook Press 2019), the winner of the 2020 Connecticut Book Award in the Young Readers Nonfiction Category. Jenna lives near the beach with her husband and two children. In addition to being a writer, she is also a library media specialist at a K-4 school. To learn more, visit her website at www.jennagrodzicki.com.