The Ocean of Research in Children’s Literature: An Interview with Author Emmy Kastner
Emmy Kastner is the author of the Nerdy Babies (Roaring Brook Press) series that always encourages readers to “Stay Curious!” on science topics that range from the ocean, to rocks, to rain forests (forthcoming with Insects in August). Kastner began her career as a science and English teacher in the Bay Area, then returned to Michigan to cofound Read and Write Kalamazoo, a youth writing center, while also beginning her career as an author. Kastner serves on the Board of Advisors for the International Alliance of Youth Writing Centers, and regularly contributes to Illustoria, with her artwork also appearing in magazines such as Bravery.
The Nerdy Babies series was released simultaneously by Roaring Brook Press as a board book and paper picture book, serving as a way to grow with readers in their scientific pursuits. With this dual format and her engaging artwork, Kastner proves science can be fun, appeal to any age, and be accurate. In the entire Nerdy Babies series, Kastner demonstrates how good questions are the basis of science, and in Nerdy Babies: Ocean she covers several points in the Ocean Literacy Framework, including: (5) The ocean supports a great diversity of life and (6) The ocean is a major influence on weather and climate.
As a teacher myself, I was impressed with how well thought-out and researched Kastner’s series was, and how she didn’t shy away from real science, even if her audience at times may be toddlers. I was able to have a conversation with Kastner about the research process when writing children’s literature, and from the start, her joy in learning was transparent.
(Emmy Kastner/Roaring Brook Press)
Q: What inspired you in the first place to write for this age group and to incorporate science?
EK: It was a very organic way into the series for me. I have always loved both writing and art and science. As a kid, I loved PBS, Nova, Jaques Cousteau … And I loved books. I always thought, “I want to grow up and make books. That’s what I want to do.”
Flash forward to future me: I taught high school English and science. One of my favorite things to do with my science classes was to bring in picture books. I would have my students thinking about essentials as I did as an English teacher: you’re thinking about audience, you’re thinking about format, but they’re also thinking about concepts we just learned (Plate tectonics! Photosynthesis!) and wrapping their heads around how that information is conveyed for a young audience. Being able to marry all that information felt like a more creative approach to really learning the information than filling in the blanks and memorizing the information in a more traditional way. If you can relay information creatively, I feel like that is the best demonstration of knowledge.
If you can relay information creatively, I feel like that is the best demonstration of knowledge.
I was always making books alongside my students, too, and sharing them with my coworkers, and I’d often hear, “You should make books!” And I’d laugh and respond with an emphatic, “I want to someday!” About a year after we had our first baby we left San Francisco and moved back to Michigan. My friend, Anne Hensley, and I started a youth writing center here in Kalamazoo called Read and Write Kalamazoo. We modeled after 826 National, a constellation of youth writing centers around the country started by Dave Eggers and Nínive Calegari in San Francisco.
I promise this is all is part of my journey of inspiration for these books! Meanwhile, our family was growing. As a parent, we have this magnifying glass on how kids are taking in information and how they are learning to read, engage, and to ask questions. I just loved that curiosity and being able to witness that first hand; that is one of my favorite things of being a parent. And I love the way that kids memorize books. My daughter, Mabel, would memorize Elephant and Piggie books. She would pick up the book and start reading it. The page turns were not correct, but she would go through and proudly recite it to me.
It was a lightbulb moment book idea, for sure, and I immediately put the fictional picture book manuscripts I was working on aside. I thought that it would be very cute for little ones to have a baby science book where kids could then go around reciting science facts. How cute would it be to hear a kid say, “There’s no sound in space”? It’s like that kid from Jerry Maguire who is just walking around reciting facts. So maybe that is also in my Venn diagram of influence. It’s like: kids reciting books, my science teacher background, my love for books, and the kid from Jerry Maguire. In the center lives Nerdy Babies.
Q: How did you go about researching and creating art for your first Nerdy Babies books?
EK: Once I had the seedling of Nerdy Babies in my head, I decided to start with space. I do love space and the ocean, and that’s where a lot of my knowledge and interest lies. I started with what I know.
From the beginning I wanted to approach it with the notion that both kids and adults would learn something from these books. I made a list of fun space facts and concepts I wanted to include and wrote a list. I looked at some text books and reference material and National Geographic to source some facts, and to double check that my facts were still accurate. I was approaching it as a potential series, so when I got to writing I thought about an intro, an outro and a bit of a framework that could be repeated.
Once I had the manuscript I thought, “I’ll just make a visual dummy, just so they get the idea of it, and then someone else will probably illustrate it.” I think I was readying myself for potential rejection? I lacked confidence in my art and didn’t know how anything worked in the industry. But I did send the manuscript with artwork when I’d queried two agents. I honestly was surprised to hear such positive feedback on the art. I found my agent and we sold the series at auction. I quickly decided to make the shift to creating the art digitally since we were going to be publishing the series two books at a time. While I always wanted to make books, my entry to the industry was unexpected: non-fiction and creating art digitally. Everything felt wild and new.
Q: On that note, you obviously did extensive research for your books, and it shows, even though they are picture books with limited space for content. What sort of framework did you use while choosing what elements to include in the book?
EK: With the approach to what I’m including within each title, I always thought of it as a journey. For example, the Space book starts here with the babies on earth, and moves with a spaceship up, up, up … It’s meant to be a sensory-based journey as far as what you are hearing, and how you are feeling. And then the Ocean book, the journey of that book starts on the beach and travels down to the depths of the ocean.
It’s overwhelming when you think about all the information out there. What do you include? What is essential? I would do all this research, which would lead me down these deep rabbit holes. I would feed information in from all different sources–I’m looking at scientific articles, and I’m looking at going to the library and doing research, and I’m looking at National Geographic–and pulling all this information in and filling up so many notebooks of facts and research. Then my job, with the help of my fantastic editors at Roaring Brook, Kate Jacobs and Mekisha Tefler, is just distilling that down to a simple text that’s engaging and meaningful. That whole process is really important to it.
Expanding the series beyond the first few titles, I was in unfamiliar territory, topics I don’t know a lot about. So my research got more serious. The best example of that would be for Dinosaurs. I reached out to paleontologists at the Smithsonian and someone kindly connected me to Steve Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh, who answered my questions about the content and look of the book, and vetted the finished product. Tackling new material is so much fun. I feel like as a parent, that’s my favorite thing, to learn alongside my kids, and for them to know: “I don’t have all the answers, just so you know.”
I feel like as a parent, that’s my favorite thing, to learn alongside my kids, and for them to know: “I don’t have all the answers, just so you know.”
Q: You address some major ocean literacy principles in your book, and prove that your science is sound. How did you go about ensuring the science was accurate?
EK: That is so nice to hear. Thank you! I didn’t look at any curriculum to check concepts that I’ve included, so there’s a bit of what’s included that was intuitive as I went through the research.
I always wanted it to be a series where scientists working in that field would say, “Ooo, this is good. I would want to read this to my kid.” I want that sort of scientific seal of approval. A huge part of the series, too, is representation in the world of science. While reflecting that in our babies and who they grow up to be at the end of each book, I wanted to be able to point to actual scientists in various scientific fields—women, BIPOC folks, gender non-conforming folks. It’s been fun to share about real scientists when I’m presenting the books to young readers and to highlight the work they’re doing, and to share photos when they were curious babies. Doing the work to expand my knowledge of modern day scientists has greatly informed the series.
There is a team of eagle-eyed copywriters who are going through and looking at every single detail under a magnifying glass. They clarify things like: “When you say they live in this, you would actually say they live near it.”
Then, there’s an inevitable fictional element … I mean, we’ve got babies floating in space. And there’s some creative license necessary for the look of the dinosaurs. But every detail is rooted in science. The babies are never with the dinosaurs. The babies are living in the white space of the book. It’d be cute to see them riding dinosaurs, but I couldn’t cross that boundary and insist these books were rooted in sound science.
Q: Connected to the previous question, how did you go about choosing the “flow” of your book to best communicate what you wanted to?
EK: I think science lends a natural order to things, which helps. There’s the geologic time scale in Dinosaurs, and the structure of the Earth from the crust to core in Rocks, and the journey to the bottom of the ocean. Being receptive to all those things helps shape the story.
My job then is to figure out how to visually highlight those details and fact along the journey. One of my favorite things to troubleshoot was the spread about migration in Nerdy Babies: Ocean. I wanted that movement to stand out on the page. The full spreads and vignettes and spot illustrations just didn’t convey those simultaneous migration patterns at different depths of the ocean. I had one spread to hit on this point—of all these different journeys that are happening—so it feels like a true moment of art and story and science colliding to convey meaning. I remember talking with my editor and I just kept doing this with my hands [moving hands across]. As I’m doing this with my arms, I’m mapping it out, and I think, “Oh, that might be fun to have these three banded sections stacked across the full spread to show what’s happening.” And it clicked! It worked! Finding answers is always incredibly satisfying.
(Emmy Kastner/Roaring Brook Press)
If you are looking for resources related to the Nerdy Babies series, Kastner provides several excellent ideas on her Nerdy Babies website. There are coloring pages, an activity kit, and even links to videos, including one about a Leatherback Sea Turtle.