STEM Tuesday

STEM Tuesday–Dinosaurs/Paleontology– Interview with Author Karen Bush Gibson

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 Karen Bush Gibson. She’s the author of Gutsy Girls Go For Science: Paleontologists. The book features the lives of five women paleontologists—Mary Anning, Mignon Talbot, Tilly Edinger, Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska, and Mary Leakey—who overcame obstacles to make breakthrough discoveries about ancient life.

Mary Kay Carson: What’s the book about—and why did you chose to write it?

Karen Bush Gibson: Imagine how cool it must be to discover something no one has seen for over 145 million years? Even more exciting is if your discovery is a puzzle piece in the history of living things. Gutsy Girls Go for Science: Paleontologists highlights some of the women who have accomplished this. I’ve always been fascinated by women who achieve great things, particularly in male-dominated fields. One of those fields is paleontology, in which many women have been discriminated against. Although females make up nearly half of the student members in professional paleontology organizations, less than 25% become professional members.

MKC: Could you share an especially interesting tidbit from your research? 

Karen: I’m ashamed to say that except for Mary Leakey, I knew little of the other women featured before I started research. Now, as is often the case, I see references to these women everywhere. Particularly Mary Anning, who began making great discoveries when she was just 12 years old. Due to her circumstances, she had to educate herself, but became the best fossil finder of the early nineteenth century when the science of paleontology was just starting. She made the first discoveries of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. Anning instinctively knew where to find fossils and to what prehistoric family and groups they belonged to. Great male paleontologist of the day came to see Anning, and it’s said that many of them struggled to keep up with her on the cliffs of Lyme Regis.

MKC: Did your investigations into the lives of these five accomplished women reveal any commonalities? 

Karen: All five women were driven by curiosity and the need to know more. Two succeeded despite being caught up in the events of World War II. Another lived in poverty. All experienced societal restrictions in education or their profession at some point. Yet none of them allowed these hardships to dissuade them from their chosen path. They never gave up.

MKC: Why do you choose to specifically write STEM books?

Karen Bush Gibson loves exploring history and the world through writing. She is particularly fascinated by interesting women, so she’s bouncing off the wall about the 100th anniversary of the women’s vote this year. When not writing about awesome women or travel, Gibson works as an instructional-curriculum designer. • kbgibson.net  • www.facebook.com/Books4CuriousKids  • @Gibson4writing

Karen: I do not have a STEM background, but since writing a book on female aviators in 2013, I have heard repeatedly about females being discouraged or at least not encouraged in science and math in the classroom. When I was a child, I was good at math. I found sciences like genetics and archaeology fascinating. But I don’t recall anyone encouraging me. My father was an engineer, but it never occurred to me to explore engineering. However, as a writer of STEM books, I get to explore my own curiosity and immerse myself in subjects like aeronautics, marine biology, meteorology, cell science, programming, and paleontology. And one of my children is studying to be an astrophysicist, so I get to pick his brain a lot.

MKC: Who did you write this book for?

Karen: I believe nonfiction books—including STEM books about female paleontologists—should be every bit as interesting as fiction. I always tried to start a chapter with a paleontologist doing or discovering something exciting. And I wanted the reader to feel as if he or she were there. Yes, Gutsy Girls Go for Science includes STEM, but it’s also about girls with dreams. And that’s who I’m writing for, young people with dreams and interests in STEM. I hope books like this help young people believe they can be anything they want to be, especially a paleontologist.

Win a FREE copy of Gutsy Girls Go For Science: Paleontologists

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 The Tornado Scientist, Alexander Graham Bell for Kids, Mission to Pluto, Weird Animals, and other nonfiction books for kids. @marykaycarson

When Life Gets in the Way: Writing through Tough Times

Four months after my debut novel, Kat Greene Comes Clean, was published, my father went missing. It was late December, bitterly cold, and he left without a coat. And his cane. At 95, my dad was extremely frail, and he suffered from dementia. I called 911 in a panic.

Within minutes, NYPD detectives flooded my parents’ Manhattan apartment, asking questions and taking notes. They issued a Silver Alert, and promised to find my dad. “The old guys never get far,” the lead detective assured me. “Don’t worry.”

My mom wasn’t worried because, like my dad, she has dementia and had no idea what was going on. But I was a nervous wreck. New York is a big place, and my dad was probably confused, hungry, and cold. I feared the worst.

Afternoon turned into evening, and then into night. Finally, my father was located at the Empire Hotel, two blocks from Lincoln Center. He had taken a cab, the fare paid in coins from a velvet Alexander McQueen makeup bag. If I found this detail confounding, imagine my surprise when the hotel manager informed me that my dad had checked himself into a room, raided the minibar, and owed $685 plus tax. I would have paid anything, of course. My dad was safe.

But then, four months and three health-care aides later, my dad went missing… again. This time, he was found wandering the streets of SoHo, with a broken finger and lacerations on his face. He was rushed to the hospital, where I met him in the ER. He wasn’t as lucky this time. He developed a severe kidney infection and, after half a year in hospice care, passed away at home. He was 96 years old.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: This story is depressing! You write funny stuff. BE FUNNY!

I wish I could. But at the time, there was no room in my life for humor—or for writing. I tried, but I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to succeed. I was always on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it did. Again, and again, and again.

I’m still dealing with my fair share of stress (my mom now has advanced dementia), but I’ve found a way to balance life-related responsibilities with my writing. Here’s how you can, too:

Adjust your expectations. If you’re going through tough times—and, like me, juggling a zillion things at once—there’s no way you can be as productive, or as focused, as you were before. Think about it: Your brain has to work overtime just to keep up! Plus, stress has a sneaky way of sapping your emotional and physical energy. So, if you can, cut yourself some slack. Set realistic, manageable writing goals. If you’re used to writing 2,000 words a day, write a thousand. Or five hundred, or 250. Or whatever number your schedule, and emotional energy, allows. If you don’t hit a specific target, that’s okay too. Just write every day, even if it’s for 15 minutes. You’ll feel good for having done it.

Try journaling. Expressing your thoughts and feelings in written form is an excellent stress-management tool. It’s also been shown to be highly therapeutic. So, if you don’t keep a journal already, now would be a good time to start. You don’t have to write pages and pages; just a few lines a day. Or one line, if that’s all you’ve got in you. Just get your thoughts (and more often, your frustrations) down on paper, and see where it leads. There are many ways to journal, but if you find that journaling is not for you, give yourself permission to stop. You can always try again later. Or don’t. Make (or break) the rules as you see fit. This is something you’re doing for you.

 

Limit social media. It’s tempting to mindlessly scroll through social media—or binge-watch Netflix, or spend hours searching YouTube for cute-kitty videos—when you’re stressed and in need of distraction. (When my dad was sick, I played Wordscapes until my vision was blurry.) But the hours you engage in unproductive phone activities are hours you can’t get back. Plus, screen time wreaks havoc on your concentration. Removing apps from your phone is the obvious solution, but it’s unlikely you will do this (I still have Wordscapes on mine). Instead, think of screen time as a reward for writing time. Five hundred words = fifteen minutes of Wordscapes; one thousand words = an episode of 90 Day Fiancé (or pick your poison). The point is, you’re allowed to zone out when the time is right—but don’t make a habit of it. Your time is too valuable to waste. (For advice on how to walk away from social media completely, check out this post from Salon.)

You do YOU. Writers often compare themselves to others. That’s what we do. But as Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” He was right. Knowing that your friend’s debut MG novel sold eight billion copies and has been optioned for a movie starring Kylie Jenner (or Kendall Jenner, if you prefer) while yours is languishing in a bargain bin at Costco is a fact of life—but don’t dwell on it. You have enough on your plate to worry about! By all means celebrate your friends’ achievements, but don’t let their success(es) overshadow your own. Sometimes getting out bed in the morning is enough.

Practice self-care. This should be a given, but if you’re busy looking out for others’ needs, you tend to ignore your own—or put them last. This is understandable (I’m guilty of this, too), but try to put yourself first once in a while. Squeeze in a run, or have coffee with a friend. Get a massage, if that’s your thing, or sneak out to a museum or art gallery. Catch up on your sleep; eat Frito’s Corn Chips. Dance. Whatever it takes to bring you to your happy place, do it!

And finally…

Expect setbacks. It’s important to remember that most things in life are out of your control, like when a parent develops dementia–and dies. When a child is sick or disabled and needs constant care. Unemployment; bankruptcy; a house fire; divorce… You can only do so much to keep afloat emotionally. Sometimes, it will feel like an impossible struggle. You’ll miss deadlines. Bills will go unpaid; birthday cards unsent. For every step forward, you can expect two—or fifty—steps back.

Grieving isn’t linear, and I miss my dad every day. Still, he would have wanted me to keep writing, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I hope you will, too.

STEM Tuesday–Dinosaurs/Paleontology– Writing Tips & Resources

 

Backmatter Matters

Imagine you wake up in a strange place. Although the place does not feel threatening, just being there is jarring because you don’t know why you are there, or how you got there. You don’t know what to do or how to interact. That’s what reading a nonfiction book might be like, if it weren’t for the mighty powers of peritext.

Peritext? What’s that? All of the elements in a book that are not in the main body of text. In STEM nonfiction books, peritext can be paramount.

Pick up a nonfiction book from this month’s list and search out those elements. There’s the cover (front and back) and maybe some flap or cover copy; these introduce you to the book and give you a preview of the author’s “take” on the topic. There’s a copyright page and, most likely, other standard elements such as a table of contents, glossary, and index; these give you context, a map to guide your journey, and help when needed. But there may be more—much, much more.

Consider how different the book would be without all of that. What would the reader miss? What do each of those elements actually do for the book? 

Before I began writing professionally, I essentially ignored peritext. I rarely read any portion of the backmatter (everything after the main body of text). One day, a writer friend told me she reads every word of the endnotes—I was astounded. Who would do that?

Then I tried it with a book I loved and realized just how much I had been missing. These elements are designed for the inquiring mind! As a reader and writer, it is worth studying the peritext and pondering its value. Peritext invites us into the reading experience and launches us into the next one.

Try this:

1. Ask a friend to select a nonfiction book that you have never seen. Have them binder clip together the pages that contain the main text. (Note: peritext includes illustrations and chapter titles, etc, but let’s focus on the frontmatter and backmatter for now.)

2. Study the peritext (no peeking at the main text). Jot down a list of what’s there.

      • Is there a table contents? An index? What about a timeline? Anything interesting about the endpapers?
      • Ask yourself: Who uses each of these elements? Who creates them? Do any serve multiple purposes?
      • Now, read the material. From the peritext, what impression do you get about the book?
      • What questions are sparked in your mind?
      • If these elements are illustrated, jot down notes about them as well.

3. Skim the glossary or index.

      • Do some entries surprise you?
      • What questions do you now have? Are you now more, or less, eager to read the book? To read other material on the topic?
      • Search for clues to the core of the book. Not the topics covered, but the theme, the big ideas, the conclusions. (Don’t forget the covers.)

4. Finally, read the entire book.

      • Consider how well the elements in the peritext support the main text.
      • If you were the author, illustrator, editor, etc. would you have done things differently?
      • What factors might impact what’s included in the backmatter? (FYI, typically the author creates most of the backmatter and other publishing professionals create most of the frontmatter and covers.)

As an author, this is how I look at books. I want to know what is there, why it is there, and how it is used. To help me inquire, I started a running list of the elements in various books. Just off the top of your head, you might remember books with recipes, timelines, acknowledgments, bibliographies, or an author’s note, but you would be amazed at the variety. And think how much each of those elements can vary, not only in content, but also in presentation. In some books, the backmatter was even more interesting to me than the main text. 

Backmatter isn’t limited to nonfiction; however, it seems to be more common and extensive in nonfiction. Why? What types of fiction include extensive backmatter? What if more fiction included backmatter?

Try this:

1. Read a book that has limited backmatter.

2. List at least 3 elements which could have been included.

3. Create 1 of those elements for the book. (You might have to make something up for the sake of the exercise.)

4. Share it with a friend and ask if the added element is valuable.

If you’re not careful, you will now find yourself picking up books and flipping to the backmatter before you read the frontmatter. You’ll be noticing how cool it is that the glossary of Dining With Dinosaurs only includes words not already defined in the main text. (So smart—those are the only ones a reader should need in the glossary!) You might start wishing every historical text included a visual timeline like Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers (Science Comic Series). And when you begin to write your next piece, you might start thinking about the backmatter before the front matter. This is what reading like a writer will do to you!

 

Heather L. Montgomery can’t resist writing backmatter–the ulimate playground for a nonfiction writer. She almost let it take over her upcoming book, Who Gives a Poop? The Surprising Science Behind Scat (Bloomsbury, September 2020). Aren’t you eager to dive into that? For now, you’ll have to be satisfied with the perimatter in her 15 other STEM titles. www.HeatherLMontgomery.com 


The O.O.L.F Files

Just a few more dino books because you can never have too many…

The First Dinosaur: How Science Solved the Greatest Mystery on Earth, written by Ian Lendler, illustrated by C. M. Butzer. In this 220-pager, Lendler carefully lays out how the idea of dinosaurs came to be. Beginning with a bone discovered before the concept of dinosaurs—or even fossils—existed, Lendler walks readers through a wealth of scientific studies to share a story you want to know. This book is likely to blow young minds (and yours).

Dinosaurs By the Numbers (A Book of Infographics), written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins. In classic Jenkins style, this fact-packed book is sure to please dino lovers. Maps, graphs, size-comparisons, all formatted on clean white space do an excellent job of accentuating dinosaur facts and extremes. And, there’s an illustrated table of contents–such tantalizing peritext!

When Sue Found Sue: Sue Hendrickson Discovers Her T. Rex, written by Toni Buzzeo, illustrated by Diana Sudyka. This picture book tells how a curious girl grew to be an inquisitive scientist who discovered the most complete (and likely the most famous) Tyrannasoarus rex fossil ever found (so far). Perfect for kids who are collectors and those who yearn to make their own discoveries.