Posts Tagged writing tips

STEM Tuesday — Polar Ecology — Interview with Author Rebecca Barone

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 Rebecca Barone, author of RACE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE EARTH: Surviving Antarctica, a thrilling narrative nonfiction tale that chronicles two different centuries’ treacherous expeditions to the South Pole and the men who raced to be first. The newly released book has received multiple starred reviews, including one from Booklist that says:  “Readers will be caught up in the real-time action sequences and should end up rooting for everybody as these determined individuals face unimaginable physical and mental hardships.”

Mary Kay Carson: Tell us a bit about Race to the Bottom of the Earth and how you came to write it.

Rebecca Barone: First off – thank you Mary Kay Carson and the team at STEM Tuesday for hosting me today! It’s an honor to be featured here! Race to the Bottom of the Earth is the story of two races through Antarctica: one in 1912 to be the first to reach the South Pole and one in 2018 to be the first to cross Antarctica solo, unsupported, and unassisted.

Antarctica has always captured my imagination! There’s something about how entirely inhospitable it is to life, and yet humans go there! I’ve always been mesmerized by the contrast. When I saw a New York Times headline in November, 2018 that two men were attempting a “first” in Antarctica – right as I was sitting at home eating lunch – I rushed to read the article. As luck would have it, I had read a Wikipedia article about the 1912 race to the South Pole not too long before. So that adventure was fresh in my mind as I was reading about the 2018 race.

It was like a lightning bolt hit. Before I had even finished the NYTimes article, I knew that I had to put these two races together into a story. What really sealed it for me was finding out that neither race was intended to be a race. That the two adventures could parallel each other, entirely inadvertently, more than a century apart, was like a story-telling gift. I had to write this book!

MKC: The book goes back and forth in time, in alternating chapters, between the two races. Why did you choose this structure? Did you write it in that order?

Rebecca: From the start, I was struck by the parallels between the two races. By placing the two stories so directly side-by-side, I wanted my readers to draw history forward into the present. It’s so easy to place 1912 as nothing more than static, black-and-white pictures in a textbook, but they’re really men with personalities and characters like people we know and love today.  I did an in-depth outline in the book’s order, but I drafted it with each timeline separately. Even more so, I went through and wrote all of Amundsen’s story, then I went and wrote all of Scott’s, then O’Brady’s, and finally Rudd’s. It wasn’t in the book’s order at all!

MKC: How was your research process different for the 1912 and the 2018 race?

Rebecca: I could talk with people involved in the 2018 race! (Not so much with the men who were around in 1912…) Both involved a ton of reading to research. But it was wonderful to talk with some of the Antarctica expedition experts involved in setting up both O’Brady’s and Rudd’s journeys. And I shouldn’t be glib about the 1912 race; talking to experts in 2018 was certainly helpful with the Amundsen/Scott race, too. Even today, it seems like anyone who is interested in Antarctica comes down heavily as either Team Amundsen or Team Scott. It kept me on my toes to talk with people so heavily invested with Antarctic history!

Rebecca E. F. Barone is an engineer who has worked on a diverse array of projects: NFL injury analysis, development of gait biometrics, and engine calibration of hybrid cars. Realizing her love for books in addition to numbers, she now describes the world with words rather than equations. Race to the Bottom of the Earth is now available, and her second book, about breaking the Enigma cipher of WWII, will launch in the fall of 2022. Visit her at or follow her on Twitter @rebeccaefbarone.

MKC: To whom did you imagine yourself writing to while drafting the book?

Rebecca: I always write for myself. If I don’t like it, if I can’t get excited about it, then I figure no one else will.

MKC: Why do you choose to write STEM books? Do you have a STEM background?

Rebecca: I do have a STEM background! I’m a mechanical engineer! I love knowing how the world works, and STEM has taken me to some pretty amazing places: hot testing development cars in Death Valley, learning about car crash biomechanics in Spain, and even developing injury criteria on the sidelines of an NFL game. I don’t see STEM and books as all that different – both describe our environment, both are ways of explaining and making sense of the world around us. They’re both ways of telling stories. If I ever do write fiction (who knows?!), I imagine even those stories would have some STEM elements to them as well. I can’t imagine divorcing any story from technical subjects – for me, the narrative and the STEM inform and support one another.

MKC: For readers who loved Race to the Bottom of the Earth, what other middle-grade books would you suggest?

Rebecca: I’m deep, deep into researching and drafting my next book about breaking the Enigma cipher in WWII (so much fantastic STEM!!), so I’m woefully behind on new MG. But, from 2019/2020, I loved Jennifer Swanson’s Save the Crash Test Dummies. I mentioned it earlier, but I worked in an auto safety lab in grad school where we regularly crashed cars, and I loved revisiting that topic in her book. She did such a great job of weaving information in an accessible, entertaining way! For older readers, I thought Candice Fleming’s The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh was spectacular. She makes the subject and the themes immediately and obviously relevant to readers living through the events of the early 21st century.

Thanks again for inviting me to the STEM Tuesday blog! If any of your readers have more questions about Race to the Bottom of the Earth, I’d love to chat via social media or my website.


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 Wildlife Ranger Action Guide, The Tornado ScientistAlexander Graham Bell for Kids, Mission to Pluto, and other nonfiction books for kids. @marykaycarson

STEM Tuesday — Polar Ecology– Writing Tips and Resources


Squeezing It In

When you spend several years researching a topic, you end up with reams and reams of phenomenal facts. How are you ever supposed to cram it all in to one short book? Well, for starters, you don’t. Instead, you get choosy about what info you use, only opting for facts that support the main point of your book, but also, you get creative with ways to squeeze information in.

Let’s take a look at how writers, illustrators, and design teams use the edges to educate. By edges, I mean all of that extra information frequently found in a nonfiction book. Information in the epitext: backmatter, front matter, cover, footnotes, sidebars. captions, etc. We nonfiction nerds have awesome options that fiction folks don’t often play with. Now, an author or an illustrator is not always in charge (many of those decisions are made on the publisher’s end), but we can be strategic in our use of epitext.

For today, let’s set the front matter and backmatter aside and focus exclusively on matter placed on the main pages of the book.

I whipped out a few books from this month’s STEMTuesday list and will share features that jumped out at me and questions I immediately had. You probably might not have all these books at your disposal, but consider doing the same with a pile of books near you.


Lost in the Antarctic: The Doomed Voyage of the Endurance, by Tod Olson, page 80. Black and white; the title uses the word “fate” which gives an ominous connotation; the legend allows the map to convey a narrative. Questions: What information on the map is also included in the text? What information is left out of the text? Did the inclusion of the map allow the author to trim content from the text? What content is important to include in both the text and the epitext?

Ice Scientist: Careers in the Frozen Antarctic, by Sara L. Latta, page 15. Color illustration; the lack of color within the photo makes it stand out; minimal information provided on the map. Questions: Why does the caption repeat the key information with only minor additions? Does comprehension of the text rely on support from this image?

Polar Explorers for Kids: Historic Expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic with 21 Activities, by Maxine Snowden, page 76. A two-color image; many geographical locations identified; no legend or title; use of bold and italics; located at the beginning of Part II of the book. Questions: Why is there no title or legend? Is this map being used differently than the others which support text on a single page? Do the marked locations match the timeline as follows and/or the content from upcoming chapters ?


The Polar Bear Scientist, Peter Lourie, page 22. Colored regions overlaying a photograph; a long caption; diagram overlays another photograph. Questions: Does the content in the extra long caption offer an aside to the main text or does it directly support the main text? If browsers stop to engage with the diagram, would they be drawn into the main text, and if so, where would they start reading? The top of that page, jumping in mid-story, or would they flip back to the beginning of the section or chapter? How can I use diagrams strategically to suck readers in? Should that be a goal? When writing the text for a caption, should I aim it at the browser or the person reading the full text? What are some strategies I can find for these different approaches?

Frozen Secrets: Antarctica Revealed, Sally M. Walker, page 20. An infographic; caption is integrated into the graphic; labels clarify the components of the graphic; seems to be connected to text which is actually an extended sidebar. Question: Did the author developed the concept for that infographic or find a related image elsewhere and use it for reference? If this infographic were not included, would readers understand the text?

Polar Explorers for Kids: Historic Expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic with 21 Activities, by Maxine Snowden, page 19. Four separate images included; black-and-white; on a page with numbered instructions. Questions: Are these illustrations sequential? If they support the instructions, why aren’t they numbered? When writing a how-to piece, how critical is it to include text to support sequential illustrations?


Frozen Secrets: Antarctica Revealed, Sally M. Walker, pages 60-61. An extended sidebar that covers a full spread; encapsulates an entire story; because it does not fall between sections of the main text, it creates a fissure in the reading experience (one paragraph is orphaned on the following page). Questions: Are there tricks a writer can use to avoid a sidebar splitting up the main text?

Where Is Antarctica? By Sarah Fabiny, pages 88-89. An extended sidebar; expository timeline; alliteration used in the title. Questions: How frequently does the writing style and or voice of the sidebar differ from that of the main text? In a single book, are the sidebars all expository, all narrative, or a mix? Does this list provide a summary of the main text, provide information not in the main text, or provide something else?

Ice Scientist: Careers in the Frozen Antarctic, by Sara L. Latta, pages 30, 58, 71. Repeated sidebars with similar content; different word lengths; each of these includes parallel information such as definition, education required, and standard income. Questions: Are standardized sidebars more frequently used in certain series? By certain publishers? How frequently is this kind of feature used in trade publications? What impact would it have if this information were provided in chart or list form instead?

Being Intentional with Info

Analyzing the features of these informational texts helps me consider how to strategically use epitext in my manuscripts. My response as a reader to different styles, lengths, and approaches gives me insight into the impact these features have. It helps me understand their effect on reader comprehension and/or enjoyment of STEM books.
What impacts do specific types and styles of these nonfiction features have on you?


Heather L. Montgomery finds crafty ways to cram info into captions, sidebars, and footnotes. To read riotous footnotes full of fun, facts, and fecal forensics, check out her most recent middle grade STEM book Who Gives a Poop? Surprising Science from One End to the Other.

Learn more at 

STEM Tuesday — Polar Ecology– In the Classroom

This STEM Tuesday’s theme is on the ecology of polar regions—from animals and plants that find ways to survive in their extreme environment to deep sea creatures and melting polar ice to the scientists that study these frozen parts of the world. From the Arctic to Antarctica, life may be difficult, but it still thrives and clearly reflects our rapidly changing environment. Here are some books and activities you can use in the classroom to help students learn about this unique environment and why it is so important.

Ice: Chilling Stories From a Disappearing World,  by Laura Buller, Andrea Mills, and John Woodward

A browsable book that ranges from the prehistoric to present. Meet polar plants, frozen frogs, and other wonders of the icy world. Plenty of climate change alerts sprinkled throughout the pages


Classroom activity: Prehistoric animals (like wooly mammoths, wool rhinos, and cave bears) have all been found preserved for thousands of years in polar ice and on cave walls. Show students ice age cave art paintings (such as those in Chauvet–Pont d’Arc) and ask them to make their own cave art images of prehistoric animals using flat rocks and red or black paint. Students should research the animals and depict them doing an activity. Students can then try guessing which prehistoric animal in each person’s piece of cave art.


Climate Change and the Polar Regions, by Michael Burgan.

An introduction shows how scientists study climate. Following chapters focus on the impacts of climate change to the Arctic and Antarctic, from melting ice to changing ocean currents to wildlife.

Classroom activity: Have students do an experiment to understand the greenhouse effect using two thermometers, a jar with a cover, and sunlight. Place one thermometer inside the jar and seal it. Put the jar and the second thermometer in a sunny spot and have students record their temperatures every ten minutes.   Discuss what happened and why the jar affected the temperature. Explain how greenhouse gases act in a similar way to raise Earth’s temperature.


Poles Apart: Why Penguins and Polar Bears Will Never Be Neighbors by Elaine Scott

After exploring the fossil evidence of Pangea, this book offers a look at the unique physical and climactic differences of each pole, the people and animals that reside in each, and the lessons gained from explorers and scientists. It includes a good resource list of books and websites.

Classroom activity: Have students research two other creatures that live at opposite poles and have them create comparison charts listing qualities that make them similar and different. Are they both mammals? Do they both hunt? Do they have thick layers of blubber to keep them warm? Students should find images or create drawings to illustrate their findings and share them with the class.


Further Polar Resources

Here are some websites that students can use to learn more about the polar regions:

  • Ice Stories: Dispatches from Polar Scientists
    Find out about the varied work scientists are doing in the Arctic and Antarctic.
  • PBS Learning Media, Polar Sciences
    Media resources show the importance of studying different kinds of polar sciences, including the atmosphere, ice, land, oceans, and people.