STEM Tuesday

STEM Tuesday –Planes, Trains, Automobiles, and More! — Interview with Author Jennifer Swanson

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 Jennifer Swanson, author of Save the Crash Test Dummies.  Booklist gave it a starred review, calling it an “innovative blend of history, technology, and engineering…insightful fun. STEM at its best.”

Mary Kay Carson: Tell us a bit about your new book.

Watch the book trailer on YouTube!

Jennifer Swanson: The idea for this book came when I was writing another book — about electrical engineering. I did a section on the self-driving car and I was hooked. I wanted to ride in one, very badly. I sent email after email to Google asking if I could ride in one. Of course, I got no response. But that didn’t stop my interest. After all, I survived three teenage drivers, surely I could survive a self-driving car. 🙂  Anyway, I began to think, practically everyone rides in a car every day. I bet they don’t even think about how safe it is– OR how it got that way. Enter the crash-test dummies. We couldn’t live without them. Literally. Having them has helped engineers to save many, many lives. I knew then that I had to find a way to introduce the crash-test dummies to kids.

MKC: Any fun finds while researching the book?

Jennifer: I read a lot of car manuals and watched a LOT of videos of crashes. It was pretty cool. I do have to say my favorite moment, though, might have been when I came across the old crash-test dummy commercials that I remember watching as a kid. They are so fun! Here is a YouTube link to one of them if you want to check it out.

MKC: Do you choose to specifically write STEM books?

Jennifer: I have loved science my whole life. After all, I started a science club in my garage when I was 7 years old. My mom gave me a microscope and I used to collect leaves and flowers to look at under it. Gradually, my interests grew and I spent hours in the creek behind my house, making compounds with my multiple chemistry sets, and began dreaming of becoming a doctor one day. While that didn’t happen, I did get my B.S. in chemistry from the U.S. Naval Academy and my M.S. Ed in K-8 science education. Now I’m not just a science author, but also a middle school science teacher for Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.

MKC: What approach or angle did you take to writing this book?

Jennifer Swanson is the award-winning author of over 35 nonfiction books for children. Her passion for science resonates in in all her books but especially, BRAIN GAMES (NGKids) and SUPER GEAR: Nanotechnology and Sports Team Up (Charlesbridge) which was named an NSTA Best STEM book of 2017. She has presented at multiple SCBWI conferences, National NSTA conferences, the Highlights Foundation, the World Science Festival and the Atlanta Science Festival. Visit her at jenniferswansonbooks.com.

Jennifer: When I write about technology and engineering I try to find a unique entry point, one that is FUN and unexpected. For this book, I really wanted to write a book about self-driving cars, but that seemed a bit, well, blah. I mean I find the engineering and technology that makes a self-driving car exciting and interesting, but not everyone does. So I asked myself how I could make this book interesting to people who maybe wouldn’t normally pick it up to read. The idea came to me after watching an old-time crash-test dummy commercial on TV. While on a walk with my husband, I made the comment that if we all went to self-driving cars, we wouldn’t need any more crash-test dummies. He responded by agreeing, saying you’d probably save alot of crash-test dummies. then. WHAM! That was it! Save the Crash-test Dummies, the history of car safety engineering. What a unique way to tell this story. Not only that, when I tell people the title, they usually smile (always a good sign). You see, finding a way to make engineering intriguing and complex topics easy to understand in my goal in my books.

Who did I write this book for? The kid who has TONS of questions about how the world works. That’s who I write all my books to. After all, I still am that 9-year-old kid that was full of curiosity and spent many hours devouring encyclopedias and nonfiction books at the library. Research ROCKS!

MKC: Could you give us a peek into your process?

Jennifer: My writing process is to find the hook for the book first. Usually that is in my title. For example, I wanted to write a book about nanotechnology and sports, so I titled my book SUPER GEAR: Nanotechnology and Sports Team Up. For my book comparing Astronauts and Aquanauts, I titled it (of course) Astronaut-Aquanaut: How Space Science and Sea Science Interact. When the hook to your book is in your title, people understand what the book is about right away. The second part of making a book is to find the structure. I ask myself, “what is the best way for this information to be presented?”. Then I read widely and look at a lot of mentor texts. Eventually I set on a structure. After I have those two things, I dive in into the research and write.

Win a FREE copy of Save the Crash Test Dummies!

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

STEM Tuesday –Planes, Trains, Automobiles, and More! — Writing Crafts & Resources

 

Getting into Character

Planes, trains, automobiles, and more – this month’s look at transportation books might seem a bit impersonal, characterless, emotionless. When I looked closer, though, I found all kinds of characters. Let’s spend a few minutes examining how authors infuse character in these books about more technical topics.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgBiography is an obvious approach, one taken in Elon Musk: And the Quest for a Fantastic Future. Following one individual’s life, author Ashley Vance shows us the development of his passion, the technical challenges he conquered, as well as the human challenges he dealt with. The results are an in-depth look at the skills needed to develop advanced transportation systems such as spaceships and electric cars.Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

When tackling a topic such as the Titanic, which incorporate so much human tragedy, utilizing character is a natural fit. In Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, author Deborah Hopkinson interweaves individual’s stories to convey the magnitude of this event.

But even in a book with a much more technical focus, such as Who Built That? Bridges by Didier Cornille, space is given to including character. A single paragraph at the beginning of each chapter presents a brief expository bio before the chapter dives into the history and a step-by-step look at how each specific bridge was constructed.Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgUse of character isn’t limited to actual human characters. Take a look at Save the Crash-test Dummies by Jennifer Swanson and you’ll see how inanimate dummy characters play a role in conveying the mechanical and historical content.

Why did each of these authors use character? I’m thinking deeper than the obvious answer: to draw the reader in. I’m comparing and contrasting how they presented these characters. The placement in the sequence of the text, the words used to describe the characters, the impact of character development, or lack of it. In analyzing this, I’m considering how I’ll use character in future writing to present topics that appeal to a wide variety of readers.

 

Try It Yourself:

  • Compare the first two pages of the first chapter of two books. Titanic and Elon Musk work well. Highlight every word or passage that characterizes the humans. Which techniques do these authors use? How similar or different are they? Consider why.
  • Now focus on a single book, Save the Crash-test Dummies, is ideal for this exercise. Scan the book for places where the nonhuman characters are characterized. Where is that in the sequence of the book? Can you find examples of characterization in places other than the main text?
  • Think about characterization in expository versus narrative text. Look for examples of each in this collection of books. Find an example of expository characterization (as in Who Built That? Bridges) and rewrite that is narrative. Yes you probably have to make it up; that’s okay for an exercise. Find an example of narrative characterization and rewrite that as expository. Which was harder? Why? How would making that change to the text impact the larger piece of writing?


Heather L. Montgomery writes books for kids are wild about animals; she’s learned to bring characterization into her works. Her recent Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill follows an inquisitive narrator who visits scientists who use roadkill bodies to make discoveries. Her Little Monsters of the Ocean: Metamorphosis under the Waves characterizes juvenile marine creatures to tell the story of how they each grow up.


THE O.O.L.F. FILES

Podcasts are great forgetting your regular dose of science. Here are some great ones for kids and adults:

  • Science Friday: In-depth looks at current science research. These stories dive deep into questions that are at the forefront of our minds. Their website has episodes sorted by topic (health, math, energy) as well as further reading and resources for each episode.
  • Brains On! Science Podcasts for Kids: From American Public Media, this podcast is perfect for kids and curious adults. Each week it focuses on a different fascinating question such as: How do elevators work? What is dyslexia? How do ants and spiders walk on walls?
  • WOW in the World: in this high-energy podcasts produced by NPR, the hosts take you on an imaginative trip, a journey into the wonders of the world. Inside brains, deep into the ocean, or far out in space. Perfect for the whole family.
  • Tumble Science Podcast for Kids: Hosted by a science reporter and an educator who are also parents, this podcast asks questions, shares mysteries, and interviews real scientists. Episodes include: The Secret Senses of Plants, Earth Rangers, and What Would Happen if There Was No Moon?

Taking Stock of Writerly Weaknesses and How to Avoid Overwhelm

One of my graduate students once told me that as she was reading a craft book on writing, she suddenly felt that everything she read about was a technique that she had failed to apply to her work-in-progress.

I laughed with recognition. It’s like a medical student who thinks she has every disease in her textbook.

This can feel a bit dire, even scary, as well as a little overwhelming.

However, just like a solid protagonist, you must comfort your flaws in order to achieve growth.

Today, my musings will be posting on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews. And I will sit in synagogue and take stock of my behaviors, actions, and habits. This is a designated period of forgiveness as well as renewal.

As a writer, I try to also take stock of my areas of weaknesses and consider practices I might like to change. It is one of the greatest joys in writing—this idea that we can always grow, always learn.

But how to stop the overwhelm of it all?

Once when I was in graduate school, I visited my professor and I was really upset. She had read my submission, and I felt she had been too easy on me. “But what about setting?” I said. “I’m horrible with exposition. And my characterization and my rhythm and… and… and…”

She told me to take a deep breath and realize that it’s crazy making to try to fix everything all at once. Read a chapter for just one or two issues. For example, you could look at it to see if the dialogue sounds naturalistic and then edit with that in mind. Then you could examine how you’re dealing with tertiary characters, for example.

But after you’ve looked at a few craft areas, she recommended putting the piece down for a bit.

Although I didn’t believe her at the time, I do now.

There is be wisdom in putting your WIP on pause. You might, after a few months, have fresh eyes on your writing project. This does not mean to give up. Sometimes a little vacation can be healthy. You might even keep a notebook and, as you get an idea for revision, write it down, but not actually apply it right away. The WIP can be something you can attack when you feel ready and excited about it.

So, I guess, what I’m saying is take stock of what you want to fix in life, and in writing, but don’t feel like you need to remedy it all at once.

Tomorrow, PG&E will shut off my power for two to five days (I live in a wildfire area of California). It feels appropriate to me, on this day of awe, to take a pause, a break.

Although it seems a bit daunting, I’m actually looking forward to it.

Hillary Homzie is the author of Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2-18), 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. 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.