Known as the “Star Lady,” thanks to her interest in astronomy and outer space, Joan Marie Galat is an award winning and bestselling author of more than 25 books for kids, including the Dot to Dot in the Sky series, which combines the science of the night sky with the ancient myths that give the constellations, planets, and other night sky phenomena their names.
Joan has also written extensively on such topics as light pollution, ecology, volcanoes, nature and wildlife, printmaking, cultural traditions and history as well as a middle-grade novel, Mortimer: Rat Race to Space, and a biography on human rights activist Malala Yousafzai. Her latest book, Make Your Mark, Make A Difference: A Kid’s Guide to Standing Up for People, Animals, and the Planet, is a Junior Literary Guild selection and has been lauded by Kirkus as “a hands-on, practical, wide-ranging and information-packed handbook for budding activists.” It launches on February 13, 2024 from Beyond Words/Aladdin.
And now, without further ado…
Joan Marie Galat: The Interview
MR: Hi, Joan! Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files. We’re so happy to have you with us!
JMG: I’m delighted to spend this time with you!
MR: As stated in the intro, Make Your Mark, Make A Difference is a practical guide for kids who want to promote and stand up for issues that matter to them, whether it’s the environment, human rights, animal welfare, gun violence, and more. What inspired you to write this book, and why is the subject of social activism important to you?
JMG: The inspiration for this book came from my daughter after she became aware of the plight of child soldiers. She was ten years old when she learned that children in war-torn countries–her age and even younger–were being forced to carry and use guns. She wanted to help kids escape this tragedy, but it was difficult to determine how to help faraway children trapped in such a complicated situation. Since then, I became drawn to news about the many ways children, as well as adults, can find ways to tackle the causes they believe in. You might say this was early research for a book I didn’t yet know I’d write!
Fair Is Fair
JMG: Social activism is important to me because I value fairness. Activism delivers the opportunity to live one’s principles. It is not enough to hold beliefs for a better world; we must live our convictions and demonstrate the courage to lead change. Engaging this way inspires others to demonstrate their values and participate, too. My experience with my daughter showed me that while kids want to help, working out the best way can be tricky. I hope to make it easier for the compassionate kids who also care about people, animals, and the planet.
Support for the Reluctant Activist
MR: As you alluded to, engaging in social activism can feel daunting, particularly for kids who typically have limited access to power and resources. With this in mind, what would you say to a child who wants to get involved in a specific cause but feels reluctant or anxious to do so?
JMG: Reluctance sometimes stems from the belief that a problem must be fully solved, or change must be monumental, for it to matter. In fact, small steps can lead to meaningful and significant change. My advice for the child who feels reluctant or anxious is to look at the problem and find a way to make one part of it smaller. For example, you might find it difficult to make sure every child in your community has school supplies, but you might be able to make sure every student in your class has what is needed.
One of the best ways to reduce the anxiety that can come from doing things you’ve never done before is to set goals that are specific and achievable. Small or large, a success is a success, and making a difference in a smaller way will build the confidence and expertise needed to widen that circle of helping.
(For a list of MG books from the Mixed-Up archives that delve into the issues of activism, protest, and reform, click here.)
Social Activism: Let’s Get Started
MR: As a follow-up, what are five simple things a budding activist can do to get started?
- Make a poster that highlights a few key points about an issue and includes a specific request for action. Place the poster where your audience will see it.
- Volunteer with a nonprofit organization, such as a shelter that needs help caring for animals, or take part in an event, such as a roadside cleanup. Bring a friend and double your impact!
- Help victims of bullying feel less isolated. Greet them by name when you cross paths. Issue an invitation to join you in an activity.
- Help the climate by preventing food waste. Take only the portion you will eat, and let others know how reducing the energy needed to produce and transport food helps the environment.
- Use recycling to create a sculpture that makes a statement about a cause that is important to you. Include a card with a title and explanation. Ask your school or public library to display your masterpiece.
Issues that Matter Most
MR: While researching the book, which social issues resonated most deeply with kids? On the flip side, which issues seem to be getting the short end of the stick?
JMG: Kids truly care about a diverse swath of problems. They are taking action to tackle everything from poverty, education, and gun violence to equality, the environment, and climate change. Social issues relating to animals, however, particularly resonate. Whether the issue is puppy mills, endangered species, habitat loss, wildlife in captivity, or other topic, children and teens want to see animals treated better.
Some concerns, however, are not on the average child’s radar. I’m thinking of outer-space issues—the threat of space becoming militarized, the risk of asteroids striking Earth, and the hazards of space junk. Make Your Mark, Make a Difference includes a full chapter on concerns about space. I hope it will help grow the understanding that the world above is an extension of our environment, and that it must be protected, managed, and explored for the benefit of all humankind, as promoted by the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).
Profiles in Courage
MR: Profiles of young social activists are included in the book, including Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani Nobel Prize-winner who stood up to the Taliban to defend girls’ education (and whose biography you wrote in 2020); Bana Alabed, a Syrian girl who wrote about the horrors she witnessed in war-torn Aleppo; and Alex Scott, who was diagnosed with cancer and started a lemonade stand to raise money for childhood cancer. (Sadly, Alex died in 2004, but Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, the non-profit that continues the work Alex started, has raised more than $250 million.) Besides finding inspiration in other kids’ stories, what are you hoping readers will take away from these profiles?
JMG: Along with providing inspiration, I wanted young readers to know that age need not deter them from tackling issues they care about. I also hope readers will discover that there are countless approaches to making a difference, and that they should choose the style that best fits with their personalities, interests, and circumstances. Activism can be loud, but it can also be quiet. Soft approaches, such as illuminating a cause through art, can be meaningful and effective. My wish is that readers grow comfortable with the idea that they can be themselves as they explore the best ways to make change.
MR: Speaking of activism, which issues matter most to you on a personal level?
JMG: Thanks for asking! I do have a few fixations. Literacy and the environment are two big ones. The abilities to read and write are tied to so many issues including poverty, gender equality, employability, health, and safety. Reading makes it easier to solve problems, manage finances, and get job training. It builds responsibility, empathy, and creativity. It also enriches quality of life. My own experience reflects this. The nonfiction books I read as a child reflect the interests I still enjoy today, as well as the subjects I explore in my own writing. I want everyone to experience the benefits and pleasures!
And Now, the Environment…
JMG: I love to spend time outdoors and appreciate natural landscapes. I’ve been interested in wildlife and conservation since childhood, and I often use my writing to promote science, especially my love of nature and the night sky. Writing Make Your Mark, Make a Difference allowed me to spotlight concerns for animal welfare and the environment.
Author visits at schools, libraries, and other venues give me the opportunity to promote literacy and science. My message to kids is that there is a special book for every child, and that it is not enough to know how to read; you must actually do it. And if you do, you might find that reading leads to new interests and even adventure.
Joan’s Personal Shout-outs
JMG: My shout-outs are for Room to Read, which promotes literacy and gender equality, DarkSky International, which works to restore the night environment and protect people and animals from the negative effects of light pollution, and Plant-for-the-Planet, which leads a movement to plant trees and fight the climate crisis. You can learn more about their work in Make Your Mark, Make a Difference.
Secret to Success
MR: You’re an incredibly prolific writer, Joan, with more than 25 books under your belt. What’s the secret sauce to your success? Also, what are the biggest challenges when it comes to writing? The greatest rewards?
JMG: My secret recipe is to write about topics I’m passionate about. If I’m going to spend months or longer on a project, my heart and attention must be fully engaged. When I discover amazing people, compelling facts, and irresistible stories, I want others to feel the same interest and excitement I feel. Writing about talking about books gives me the opportunity to engage with others on the themes that compel me.
The biggest challenge is that it’s necessary to spend time on the administration of life—like paying bills and buying socks—when I’d rather be writing. The greatest reward is learning how my books impact readers. I also appreciate the new places I’ve been able to visit to share my book from Canada’s Arctic Circle to South Korea and Australia. Great perks!
Writing Process: It’s for the Birds
MR: What is your writing process like? Do you have a daily routine or does it vary from day to day? Also, do you have any special pre-writing rituals?
JMG: My pre-writing ritual is to feed Peekaboo and Lollipop, the two budgies sharing my office. If I delay, they land on my computer screen or my head, which is as distracting as you might imagine. (Note: I’ve not yet needed to wash my hair as a result of serving as a landing pad.) Once everyone is fed, my daily routine is to turn to yesterday’s writing and revise it. It’s a relaxing warm-up that eases me toward getting creative with the new content I want to produce.
I set specific word-count goals. If a book is meant to be “x” number of words and I’m writing to a deadline, I’ll calculate how long that should take and add a healthy buffer to allow for life’s interruptions, as well as multiple passes. No decent book was ever written just once! When a day’s writing is going well, I continue beyond my goal. This helps me meet my weekly quota early and frees up time for my end-of-week reward—an afternoon swim and visit with my author buddies.
(For a video of Joan’s best writing tips, click here.)
Author on Stilts!
MR: Rumor has it that you have another talent besides writing: walking on stilts. Care to elaborate?
JMG: It all started with reading Juggling for the Complete Klutz, which led to taking my children to the annual Edmonton International Street Performers Festival. The stiltwalkers amazed me. How could they stay balanced on those tiny points? Years later, I read a story about the National Stiltwalkers of Canada in the Edmonton Journal. It said anyone could come and try it out. That’s all I needed to know. I found my balance and became a costumed stiltwalker at festivals and events, including a young authors conference. Upon request, I bring my stilts to author visits, and put them on for the Q & A portion. I make sure my student audience knows that I never would have acquired the skills of juggling and stiltwalking if I didn’t read. This is how I make my point: reading leads to new adventure!
MR: What are you working on now, Joan? Enquiring Mixed-Up readers want to know!
JMG: I’m immersed in writing captions and alternate text for the photos in my next middle grade release—Wildlife Crossings: Giving Animals the Right of Way (Orca Book Publishers). Roads provide essential human benefits, but they have a negative impact on animals, particularly those that need to cross roads to reach habitat. This book explores how roads impact wildlife, and shares innovative solutions from smart roads that can help reduce roadkill to landscaped overpasses and underpasses that help reconnect animal populations and boost biodiversity. Wildlife Crossings will be in bookstores October 15, 2024.
And finally, no MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…
Preferred snack? Chocolate! My current love is chili-flavored chocolate.
Favorite planet? I’m torn between Jupiter and Saturn. I love how I can see four of Jupiter’s moons with binoculars, but Saturn’s rings make me gasp in awe.
Favorite book? I couldn’t possibly pick!
Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Nope, not worried.
Superpower? I can zip through a crowd without touching anyone.
Favorite place on earth? On or near water. Give me waves.
If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be? A dictionary, a solar refrigerator that self-replenishes with chocolate and other necessities, and a satellite telephone.
MR: Thank you for chatting with us, Joan. It was a pleasure, and I’m sure MUF readerswill agree!
JMG: Thanks for all the great questions. I might need to think more about that desert island.
Although she started making books at the age of nine, Joan Marie Galat wasn’t published until she was 12 years old, when she became a paid weekly newspaper columnist. Today she is the award-winning author of more than 25 books, with translations in eight languages. Recent titles include Mortimer: Rat Race to Space (DCB), Absolute Expert: Space (National Geographic Kids), Stars (Scholastic), and The Story of Malala Yousafzai (Rockridge Press).
Joan shares her love of the stars in the Dot to Dot in the Sky series which combines the science of the night sky with the ancient myths that give constellations and planets their names. Her first title, Dot to Dot in the Sky, Stories in the Stars, became a best seller within six weeks of its release. As well as astronomy and mythology, Joan’s books for children explore light pollution, ecology, nature, volcanoes, wildlife, engineering, printmaking, cultural traditions, and history. Her titles include both fiction and non-fiction, often with a focus on STEM or STEAM topics.
A prolific writer and relentless promoter of reading, Joan loves to use storytelling to connect with audiences. Speaking engagements have taken Joan across Canada, as well as to international events such as the United Nations Environment Programme in Seoul, South Korea (2016); the International Dark-Sky Conference in Snowbird, USA (2018), and an international book fair in Seoul (2005), where she presented Korean translations of her books. In Australia (2019), Joan spoke to child, family, and adult audiences. Closer to home, she has been part of the Jasper Dark Sky Festival (2015) and toured at schools and libraries across Canada. She is the 2018 recipient of the Martha Weston Grant, awarded annually to one member (worldwide) of the USA based Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).
Joan operates MoonDot Media, a communications business offering writing and editing solutions in broadcast, print, and multi-media. Her freelance jobs have encompassed writing radio and video scripts, a cartoon, magazine articles, exhibit text, speechwriting, grant applications, annual reports, and other projects. She also provides corporate training and public workshops, as well as consults for writers on query letters, manuscripts, and the submission process. Follow Joan on Facebook, Instagram, Bluesky, and X, and find her on Moondotmedia and on her website. Oh, and if you’d like to follow Joan’s budgies, Peekaboo and Lollipop, they’re on X, too! (But only because it was formerly called Twitter! 😀)