Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!
The book takes place on an Icelandic island that’s only decades old. Readers join the scientists studying this new patch of land and the plants and animals that are colonizing it. Loree Griffin Burns earned science degrees from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the University of Massachusetts. Since then she’s been writing books and articles that celebrate our natural world and the people who study it. To research these stories, she’s beachcombed on both coasts, cruised the Pacific Ocean in search of plastic, surveyed birds in Central Park, stung herself with a honey bee, visited the Mexican wintering grounds of the monarch butterfly (on horseback!) and lived on a Costa Rican butterfly farm. Her latest book, Life on Surtsey: Iceland’s Upstart Island was named a 2017 best children’s nonfiction title by both Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal. Loree lives with her husband and three nearly-grown children in central Massachusetts.
Mary Kay Carson: How did this book come about?
Loree Griffin Burns: In the spring of 2014, I had the opportunity to travel with my husband to Iceland. While we were there, we took a day-trip to the island of Heimaey, which is the largest of an archipelago off the southwestern coast of the country. It poured rain the entire time we were on Heimaey, so we toured by bus instead of on foot. At one point, as we rounded the southern end of the island, our bus driver pulled to the side of the road and pointed out to sea. “You see that island?” he asked. “The furthest one out?” We squinted through rain-soaked bus windows to see the rock he was talking about. “That’s Surtsey,” he said, “and I stood on the very spot this bus is parked, when I was a boy, and watched as it was born.” I knew the moment he said this that I’d just heard something incredibly special. I took out a notebook and started taking notes on everything he said from that moment on, including the fact that Surtsey was closed to all but the Icelandic scientists studying its transformation from a seething hunk of lava to an island that supported living, breathing organisms. As soon as I was home again, I began to research Surtsey’s story and became convinced it was the perfect subject for a ‘Scientists in the Field’ book. Once I’d convinced my editor of it too, I wrote to the Surtsey Research Society, the organization that controls access to the island as a research site, and pitched the idea the them. I was thrilled when they sent back an invitation to join an expedition the following summer.
MKC: Would you like to share a favorite part of spending time in the field researching this book?
Loree: I spent one working week, Monday through Friday, on Surtsey, as part of an expedition that included ten other scientists. Eight of those were Icelandic, and one was a Polish botanist who was living and working in Iceland at the time. Our team consisted of three women and seven men. Some of my favorite moments were getting to know the people I was with. As you’ll see when you read the book, I spent the most time with entomologists Erling Ólafsson and Matthais Alfredsson. But I got to know some other fascinating people, too. One of my favorite mornings was the one I spent with Lovisa Ásbjörnsdóttir, a geologist who has spent a lot of time on Surtsey. We hiked Austurbunki and Westurbunki together, mountains formed from Surtsey’s two volcanic cones, and spent several delightful hours sharing our work, our homelands, and what drew us each to Surtsey. Another highlight that didn’t make it into the book was my exploration inside the island. Underneath the hard lava crust of Surtsey is a network of lava tubes—tunnels through which molten lava once flowed but which now snake, empty and exploreable, underground. When botanist Paweł Wąsowicz first mentioned them to me, I didn’t believe him. And once I realized they existed, I was very nervous about checking them out. But I did, and it was an unforgettable experience.
Purchase a copy of Life of Surtsey!
MKC: Do you have a STEM background?
Loree: I do. I spent my twenties in a research lab studying the expression of genes in yeast cells and earning a PhD in biochemistry. So, science has been part of my life for a long time. I tell kids all the time that for me, science is not a subject, or a career, but a way of looking at the world, a way of asking questions about how it works, and then figuring out how to find the answers.
MKC: Could you give us a peek into your process by sharing how you’re tackling a current project?
Loree: I recently finished a picture book manuscript for older readers about fruit flies and how scientists came to realize they are a useful organism for studying DNA. I know. I know. It doesn’t sound like proper picture book material, does it? But it really is! The focus is entirely on the flies themselves, their bodies, their life cycles, their strange and adorable (!) laboratory habits, their easy to manipulate DNA. I think the right illustrator could have a great time with this book. (If you know one, send them my way.) While I try to find the perfect publishing home for the fruit fly book, I am working on another insect book: The Moth Ball. Coming from Charlesbridge in 2020, this book is an invitation into the nighttime exploits of the lesser-loved cousin of the butterfly: the moth. Right now, I’m reading up on moths and moth identification, and sketching out ideas for how best to structure a book that will excite readers about studying the moths in their own neighborhoods. The second spring finally arrives here in New England, photographer Ellen Harasimowicz and I will start calling moths into our own yards, using black lights and special sugar baits, and we’ll begin recording every moment for our book. We’re both pretty excited! What you can see from these two examples is that my bookmaking process involves a lot more than just writing. I spend a lot of time researching my subjects, by reading the words of other writers and by having my own first-hand experiences with the topic. I also spend time getting my finished manuscripts into the hands of publishers who can help me bring them to readers. This variety is one of the things I like about making books.
MKC: Any recommendations for readers who loved Life on Surtsey?
Loree: Nonfiction books are my passion, and titles I’ve loved lately include: Isaac the Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton, Reveal’d by Mary Losure; The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science by Joyce Sidman; Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science by Jeannine Atkins; Seeing into Tomorrow: Haiku by Richard Wright, Illustrated by Nina Crews.
More about Life on Surtsey:
- Read the stellar reviews!
- Teaching resources, including webcam links.
- Download Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Educator’s Guide which includes CCSS standards.
Win a FREE copy of Life of Surtsey! 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 Mary Kay Carson, fellow nature geek, science nerd, and author of Mission to Pluto and other nonfiction books for kids.