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