Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the last Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!
Today we’re interviewing Carla Mooney, author of the upcoming book: The Physics of Fun, by Nomad Press. Known for the depth and breadth of her body of work for middle grade and young adult readers, Carla took five popular youth activities and explored some of the science principles behind them. The book includes hands on science experiments to help readers make long-lasting connections to the material and practical applications in the real world.
Christine Taylor-Butler: Before we get into your books and writing, tell me a bit about yourself. What were you like as a child?
Carla Mooney: When I was younger, I loved reading. It was a big thing for me. I was also into music. I was the kid who played the piano and sang in the choir. I wasn’t super coordinated so I wasn’t into sports, but I was really supportive of my friends who did. I was an only child so I played a lot of board games. Every night after dinner I’d play Family Feud with my parents. We also played cards. Have you heard of Hearts? Dad and I would band together and gang up on my mother and we’d laugh. I have fond memories of those evenings. Now I’m married and have three children. My oldest, a girl, is a senior at Bucknell University. One son is a sophomore at James Madison University. My youngest son is a junior in high school. They’re fun.
CTB: When I first read your bio I was expecting your background to be in science. But you earned a Bachelors degree in Economics. So many of our readers don’t realize the unusual path many authors take to arrive at their careers. Why Economics?
Carla: It’s kind of ironic. The reason I got into accounting was because I hated my high school physics class. I really loved science especially chemistry and biology. But my physics class was taught in an old fashioned way with a super dry teacher. I would go to class and he’d play black and white movies made in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I came out of that class thinking, “What can I do that doesn’t involve Physics?” When I went to college I studied business and majored in Economics.
CTB: So that lead you to look at a different field?
Carla: Yes. After I graduated from University of Pennsylvania, I worked in public accounting until I was married. Then I worked in finance at a private company until my second son was born. After that I did financial consulting for start-up companies. Consulting is actually how I segued into writing. Many of the start-ups were so small they didn’t have their own finance departments. They were trying to raise money from venture capitalists and were pitching great ideas but couldn’t explain those ideas in language the funders could understand. So I would interview the scientists and the CEO’s to gather the relevant information and then I’d turn it into explanations the venture capitalists could digest.
CTB: So very much like what we as authors do with children’s literature. Take complex information and translate it into concepts and explanations young readers can understand. My alma mater, MIT, required a class in writing for all incoming freshman. They realized they were graduating gifted scientists and engineers who struggled to explain the results of their work to non-technical people.
Carla Exactly! My father-in-law is a former aerospace engineer. He had a similar observation when teaching at Tufts University graduate school. Students were smart but couldn’t write.
CTB: You’re known for writing a wide variety of non-fiction. You cover everything from the human genome, globalization and even getting a job and paying taxes. There’s even a book on forensic science and crime scene investigation. I’m curious. What was your first book?
Carla: Surprisingly, my first assignment was not technical. I was hired to write a biography on Vanessa Hudgens, the actress. At the time, she was the star of High School Musical. My kids really loved the show so it was a fun book to research. The book was published in 2009.
CTB: In 2014, you wrote Isaac Newton: Genius Mathematician and Physicist. A review in School and Library Journal read: “Strong writing is peppered with dramatic details that will bring scientific discoveries to life. ” Did that book pique a renewed interest in Physics?
Carla: It did. I didn’t know much about him before writing the book beyond his connection to gravity and the laws of Physics. That’s why I love writing nonfiction. I like learning new things. My favorite part of the job is research. Not knowing about a subject beforehand doesn’t deter me. It’s actually kind of fun to dive in.
CTB: It might surprise students that authors write a lot more in their drafts than what finally appears in the final book. Is that the same for you?
Carla: Yes. We lay the tracks down to see what we have. I tell my kids, “Get it all down, then you can move pieces during the revision.” I noticed that my kids will sit there and have a few words on a page when working on homework. It’s because they’re trying to get a perfect sentence or a perfect paragraph at the start. I helped them understand that getting it all down is part of the drafting process. Once everything gets flowing you get more than you would if you’d waited for everything to be perfect on the first draft. Just put it all down and fix it afterwards.
CTB: You went on to write over seventy books over the course of your career. And now you’ve circled back to Physics again!
Carla: Oh, I love it now! The publisher, Nomad Press, pitched the topic to me. I’d been writing for them for years. I love that they are pretty open after giving me a topic. They’ll say, “Hey, we have an idea,” and I pretty much got into a science track. They leave it to me to decide how to develop the contents. I do research then generate an outline and chapter headings for their approval. The relationship has worked very well. When Nomad Press asked me to create The Physics of Fun, it was like going into a puzzle.
CTB: So what’s the concept behind the book?
Carla: I take common activities that kids do, skateboarding for example, and explore the science behind them. The publisher suggested possible activities they wanted to see. I chose skateboarding, snowboarding, trampolining, singing in a band, and video games. So not just sports. One of the challenges in writing the book is that when you’re talking about similar activities in separate chapters, the science concepts are similar. Skateboarding and snowboarding have similar principles. I didn’t want the book to be repetitive. So for each, I tried to focus on a particular area of physics. For example, with skateboarding I talked about how forces acting on the objects, combining forces, and the laws of motion impact the sport. For snowboarding I focused on energy, air resistance, speed and acceleration as science concepts to explore, With trampolining I look at how springs work.
CTB: You didn’t limit the chapters to sports. You use music and video games.
Carla; Yes. I discuss music and playing in a band. The science concepts I explore are sound and light waves and how those might impact you if you were at a concert. The last chapter focuses on video games and the science of electricity. Music and video games were easier to differentiate than the other three topics.
CTB: One of the advantages of The Physics of Fun is that it encourages experimentation. You introduce the science then provide hands-on activities to allow the students to immerse in the subject area.
Carla: That’s the intent. We included activities at the end of each chapter that reinforce concepts of that topic. It allows students to immerse in activities they relate to the best. For example, in the first chapter, I discuss friction. Readers are then encouraged to explore friction on a ramp they create. They can then add different surfaces to change the friction when a toy car is used. This allows them to observe and think about the results. How does changing the surface affect how the car rolls? How does physics explain what they are seeing. I’ve done most of the activities myself. My kids, when they were younger, did activities and experiments with me. I once wrote a forensic book and have picture of my kid on the floor with tape. I try to do the projects myself because I want to make sure they work before asking students to try them. But I also want to make sure the experiment is clearly explained and that we didn’t miss any steps.
CTB: This particular series is aimed at upper middle grade, early high school?
Carla: It’s part of Nomad’s Inquire and Investigate series. The projects are left a little more open ended to give the reader the freedom to design things themselves and think, “What would happen if I did this?”
CTB: You have such a breadth of knowledge. I wanted to talk a bit about some of your upcoming work before we close out. I was particularly interested in your book Collateral Damage: Mental Health Effects of the Pandemic. That topic seems so timely. Kirkus Reviews was complimentary about the level of research and called it, “A useful guide to counter feelings of helplessness.” Can you tell us a bit about the subject?
Carla: The book touched on experiences very close to home. My three children were home during the lockdown. Each have different personalities and were in different stages of their lives when the pandemic changed things. So they were handling the stress differently, some better than others. Most of this book was written last fall. What made the writing difficult is that the information was changing constantly. Every day there were different studies looking at different aspects of the virus and the impact on mental health. I was constantly reading research reports from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). So I worked hard to make sure the information was up to date before we went to press.
CTB: What are some of the concepts you want to share with readers?
Carla: People, especially young people, need to know that if you are struggling – reach out to someone. There are a lot of resources available. No one should suffer through anxiety or panic attacks or depression alone. There are resources such as family, friends, doctors, even virtual ones, and hotlines. Don’t sit there and think there’s nothing you can do and things are hopeless. Do what you need to do to keep your mind and body healthy. I’ll give you an example. During the strictest part of the lockdown my children couldn’t go outside. School was closed. So my youngest and his friends would put on headsets and play video games. My husband worried about how much time he was spending gaming, but it was my son’s lifeline. He and his friends were able to maintain their social connections that way. So I would encourage everyone to find their support systems and reach out in order to get through this.
CTB: So what are you working on next? Anything we should keep our eyes out for?
Carla: There are several things coming out. One is Historic Battles of World War II for kids. It’s published by Rock Bridge Press which is also known as Callisto. I love history even though I’m known for science. I especially love reading about military history and going to the historic sites.
I wrote the Chemistry of Food. It’s delayed but will be coming out this fall. I explore how different food ingredients react when you combine them, or heat them. Chemical reactions happen so the book is about the science of turning ingredients into food. Here’s a fun fact I didn’t know: when you bake bread, the outside of the bread dough turns a golden brown because of a chemical reaction in the dough. The ingredients caramelize to create the color.
Lastly, I’m finishing up a book now on the climate crisis. April 2022 is the tentative release date. The focus is on the human impact on climate change. How does it relate to you as the reader? Why should the reader care. That’s another subject where I feel as if I’m constantly reading more stories that should be included. Think about it. There’s the recent flooding in Tennessee, and the massive wildfires. I often think, maybe I have room to add more.
CTB: Carla, thank you for giving us a peek into your writing life. I love your enthusiasm for your work and the young readers we write for. Looking forward to reading your books in the future.
Win a FREE copy of The Physics of Fun.
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.
Carla Mooney is the award winning author of more than 70 books for children and young adults, and a regular contributor for STEM Tuesday. In addition, her work has appeared in many magazines including Highlights, Faces, and Learning Through History. When not writing, Carla is a chapter director for Flashes of Hope, a nonprofit organization that provides professional portraits of kids with cancer and other life-threatening conditions and raises money for childhood cancer research. Carla lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. To learn more about Carla and her work, please visit www.carlamooney.com . You can follow her on Twitter at: @Carlawrites.
Your host is Christine Taylor-Butler, MIT nerd and author of more than 80 books for children including Think Like a Scientist, Sacred Mountain: Everest, Genetics, and many other nonfiction books for kids. She is also the author of the STEM-infused middle grade sci-fi series The Lost Tribes. Follow @ChristineTB on Twitter and/or @ChristineTaylorButler on Instagram. Or see her website at: www.ChristineTaylorButler.com