Monday, October 26, 2020

Sky Gazing with Meg Thacher

 


My guest today is Meg Thacher https://megthacher.com/, author of Sky Gazing, a brand-spanking new, bright and beautiful introduction to all things astronomy. Its chapters invite the reader to step into the sky, moon, sun, planets, and stars with clear explanations, tidbits from history, legends from diverse cultures, and hands-on activities. This comprehensive book is the perfect introduction to the universe for kids, and for adults. It even includes a star map you can cut out to use for your own night sky explorations. I can’t wait to try it.

Meg Thacher has also written over thirty science articles for kids on topics ranging from coral reef critters to chemotherapy. She is a Senior Laboratory Instructor for the Astronomy Department at Smith College. She’s also the Academic Director for Smith College’s Summer Science and Engineering Program for high school girls. She’s an advocate for women and underrepresented minorities in science.

Sky Gazing is your first book. What was it like opening your box of author copies?

Fantastic! It really hit home that Sky Gazing is now a real thing that I made that exists in the world. My book designer and illustrator made it look so much better than I ever could have imagined.

What do you love most about writing nonfiction?


Everything. I love writing an outline (I’m a plotter), getting lost in research, and even revising my work. I love learning new things. But the thing I love the very most is explaining cool science so that kids can understand it and also think it’s cool. I want kids to understand their world and be excited about everything we haven’t discovered yet.

Were you interested in science as a child? What got you hooked on the field of astronomy?

Yes and no. My dad used to take us on “nature walks”, and I was always interested in why and how things worked. But I didn’t really think about science as a career until college, when I took introductory physics and astronomy from two amazing professors. I love the hands-on nature of science and the way that math helps us explain natural phenomena.

Where has your career as an astronomer taken you? Do you have any science adventures to share with us?

I visited Kitt Peak National Observatory (outside Tucson, AZ) several times while I was in graduate school, to do research. It was amazing being around all those giant telescopes and hanging out with other astronomers. One morning, after a 13-hour night of observing, I ran into a coati (“co-WATT-ee”, a racoon-like desert critter) in the entryway of my telescope building. It had somehow gotten in and knocked over a trashcan to retrieve a Snickers bar. When it saw me, it didn’t know whether to eat or run. It finally gave a little snarl in my direction, grabbed the Snickers, and ran for the back door. *

You are an advocate for women and minorities in science. Have you faced any difficulties as a woman in science?

Author at Kitt Peak: 


I’ve had a high school teacher tell me and other girls that we should be in home economics class instead of physics, and I’ve been mistaken for a secretary while making copies in my department office. Only about 20% of astronomers are women, so I do feel underrepresented at professional meetings. But because I’m a middle-class, straight, cisgender white woman, no one has ever truly questioned my right to be in those spaces. The culture of physics and astronomy is much less welcoming to intersectional folks—people who differ from the majority in more than one way, like BIPOC or LGBTQ+ women. It’s past time for us to change the culture of astronomy and physics into one that is comfortable for everyone. Otherwise, we’re losing a lot of talent to fields that have already figured this out!

During the school year, you teach college students, and in the summer your students are teens. Yet your writing for middle grade readers is pitch perfect, clear, lively, and engaging. Was writing for this younger audience a challenge for you? How did you manage it?

Thanks very much! Most of what I know about writing for kids I learned writing for magazines. My first article in Ask (for ages 7-10) needed a ton of help from an extremely patient editor, but I’ve improved with each article. Magazines require an engaging voice and concise style. The first draft of Sky Gazing was really a series of articles, though it became much more coherent through my dozens of revisions.

Your articles have appeared in noteworthy magazines such as Highlights, Ask, and Muse. Most have been about astronomy, but you’ve also tackled other topics: the history of the text message, chemotherapy, ocean reefs, and wastewater treatment, to name a few. You even wrote a reader’s theater for an old Welsh tale. Where do you find your subjects, and how do you approach your research?

Subjects are pretty easy to find: most nonfiction magazines list either their monthly themes or a wish list of article topics. I check out their submission webpages and then let my mind wander. The chemotherapy article was for an issue on poison, and the wastewater article was for an issue on trash.

Honestly, the way I approach initial research is Google and Wikipedia! I also check out books from my local library about the topic—for both adults and kids. I look for articles about current research by professional scientists. I can read scholarly articles in astronomy and physics, but for subjects I wasn’t trained for, I stick to magazines written for popular audiences—like Discover, Scientific American, and Science News—and the News section of university and lab websites. These are very good sources of people to interview, too.

I take notes on my computer, typing them into the appropriate section of my outline. That becomes the an extremely rough first draft of my article. Most magazines require a list of sources; I list them in the draft as I go.

What is the hardest part of translating research into an engaging piece for young readers?

Probably figuring out what is developmentally appropriate. For that, I look to the Next Generation Science Standards, which is like the Common Core for science. It’s got topics arranged by grade level, so I can check if, for example, my target audience understands what atoms and molecules are. If not, I have to find another way to explain the concept, or provide a sidebar (a box with explanatory text) or glossary term. The Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner is another fantastic reference.

Sky Gazing is your debut book, though I’m sure there will be many more. What challenges have you faced in launching a book during a pandemic?

I really think the only thing I’ve missed is a fun, in-person book launch party. A lot of marketing is already done online. I’ve watched plenty of webinars about how to leverage your online presence; the best advice I’ve seen is to do as much as you are comfortable doing and what you have time to do. As long as I do something, I feel fine.

Do you have anything else you’d like to share with our readers? What’s the next project on your horizon?

I’d like to tell every pre-published author to write a few magazine articles. It’s a great way to get published, and it gives you experience working with editors and illustrators that is really valuable going forward. And it’s so satisfying to see your work in print and have your family and friends brag about you!

I’m currently working on a fact-based middle grade novel about a girl who loves astronomy and plans an adventure for her family that doesn’t go as expected. And like all kids’ writers, I’ve got several picture books that I’m slowly submitting to editors and agents.

Thank you so much for being my guest! Readers can find out more about Meg Thacher and her work at https://megthacher.com/

 

*Coati photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MexicanCoati2.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Cameron Kelly Rosenblum and raffle for THE STEPPING OFF PLACE


Lets welcome, Cameron Kelly Rosenblum https://www.cameronrosenblum.com/, author of The Stepping Off Place. Released in July 2020, her book has already earned high praise from Booklist and a starred review in Kirkus. Given the books passion and unforgettable characters, I predict it will receive many more accolades.

The Stepping Off Place deals with shifting friendships and romances, grief and mental health, with profound realism. When Reids inseparable friend Hattie leaves for her familys private island in Maine the summer before their senior year, Reid isnt sure she can navigate the dynamics of her new position in the popular crowd alone. Reid is devastated when, days before Hattie is due to return, she learns Hattie has drowned. As she uncovers the circumstances surrounding her friends death, Reid is forced to reevaluate everything she thought she knew about her friend.

I’ll be raffling off a copy of The Stepping Off Place to one of the lucky people who leave a comment on this post.


The Stepping Off Place is your debut novel, Cameron. Can you tell us about your journey to publication? Did you have mentors along the way?

Mine is the Aesop’s tortoise of publishing journeys. But, like the tortoise, I’ve enjoyed the trip! For eight years I worked (and reworked) the same middle grade novel. I remember speakers at workshops telling us that first novel attempts often end up in a drawer, that they’re a sandbox for honing your craft, and I thought, "Nope, not mine!" But that MG currently resides in a Staples box in a closet.

Through rejections and painfully close calls, I’ve been buoyed by wonderful mentors and writing friends, most of whom I met through SCBWI events in New England. During one Nashua conference, I met a pre-published woman named Lynda Mullaly Hunt at a peer critique roundtable. She read her first page and I remember the whole table going quiet. We all looked at each other, like, “You can go next.” “Oh no, you. I insist.” Lynda and I remain great friends, and she got me hooked on the Whispering Pines Retreat, which inspired me and my writing pal Julie Kingsley to start a small retreat on Squam Lake in NH. 



All along, I gained wisdom from the industry professionals at SCBWI events. Many gave me powerful feedback, and many are just excellent teachers. Laurie Hals Anderson, M.T. Anderson, Cynthia Lord, Jo Knowles, Jennifer Jacobson, editor Christian Trimmer and agent John Cusick left lasting impressions on how I think about writing and my career. SCBWI is a network like no other and I am so glad I joined, lo, those many years ago!

The novels settings of Scofield, CT and a private island in Maine are palpably real. So are the characters who inhabit them. You grew up in Connecticut and now live in Maine. How much of this novel is taken from your own experience?

Scofield is an enhanced version of my hometown in Connecticut, because this book is a highly fictionalized tribute to a dear friend of mine from childhood. My friend died by suicide when we were adults, but we were so close in our formative tween/teen years, her loss remains very powerful to me. I wanted to write about that kind of friendship. I also wanted to address mental illness in a nuanced, respectful way that encourages healthy conversations among readers. As for the characters, writing The Stepping Off Place was art therapy for me. I was processing a loss and I wanted to give myself distance. By exaggerating Reid’s dependence on Hattie, and also taking Hattie away from Reid when the girls are still in high school (not adults, as in my personal situation), I was able to tackle my subject with a clearer eye. I imagined totally different backstories for both of them, including adding Reid’s brother, Spencer, who has autism. My son has severe autism, so I felt comfortable imagining how that would shape Reid’s outlook on things. As for Maine, I moved here with my husband in 1999, and I continue to appreciate the bold  beauty of the landscape every day.  In The Stepping Off Place, liked how the dual settings ended up working as metaphor— Reid is groomed rosebushes and clean sidewalks; Hattie is wild sea roses and waves crashing on cliffs.

Love that metaphor!

You didnt write The Stepping Off Place in linear sequence. Instead you shifted back and forth between Reids current experiences and her memories, until sometimes the two seemed to bleed together. Why did you choose this format? What challenges did you face and how did you manage to keep your timeline straight?

In the first draft I wrote by instinct, focusing on alternating emotionally raw scenes with fun, carefree ones. In the process, I found this back-and-forth created its own tension, simply by the juxtaposition. The “before” scenes were built as Reid's memories, which came whether she was ready or not; I wanted the structure to reflect the chaos of a grieving mind. In revision, I nailed down Reid’s character arc. She grows from being a sidekick to a person ready to stand in her own light. As such, Reid’s story starts where Hattie’s life ends. So, for me, this format worked on a bunch of levels.

Challenges? Oh, yes! But mostly during revisions. The trickiest part was moving scenes around. I had to make sure all the details matched where the scene fell in the story. In a linear narrative, that isn’t so hard. Think: Goldilocks can’t sit on Baby Bear’s chair before she sits on Papa Bear’s chair. But without the traditional timeline of events, we needed to triple check all the details. Foreshadowing hints had to be traced through three timelines. It’s the difference between a domino effect and an echo effect. Thankfully, I had wonderful editorial co-agents (Brianne Johnson and Allie Levick of Writers House) guiding me, and later my awesome editor Karen Chaplin at HarperCollins.

Hattie appears to Reid after her death. Is that her ghost?

On a deep level, I was grappling with big questions through writing this story: Why would my friend take her own life? And more universally, what happens to a beautiful soul after its corporeal vessel ceases to exist? For Reid, its simply impossible to believe that Hattie is gone, poof. Maybe Reid is imagining Hatties appearances to cope with the shocking loss. Or maybe the essence of Hattie stays to help Reid. I don’t know the answer myself, but wouldn’t dismiss either possibility.

The Stepping Off Place tackles the topic of mental illness and you provide a number of resources where people can get help in the back of your book and on your website. Can you talk a little about this issue and why it is so important to you?

As I said, this book is a tribute to my friend. It’s true I saw myself as a bit of a sidekick to her superhero in real life; that’s why her loss remains difficult to wrap my mind around. I thought she had it all. But mental illness doesn’t discriminate.

Initially, I shied away from the teen suicide topic— it’s so important to do right. But I very quickly realized that the suicide is the story. And that for suicide loss survivors, there is often no answer to why, other than simply, she or he succumbed to depression or another mental illness. The deeper into the story I got, the clearer my mission became: To stoke constructive conversations about mental illness and its stigma so that we can address the alarming trends in suicide rates.

Originally you thought youd like to write middle grade novels. What made you pivot to writing for young adults? Do you think youll write middle grade books in the future, or have you discovered your true audience in teens?

When I finally surrendered my middle grade novel, it was because I had turned it into a Frankenbook. I made the mistake of listening to everyone’s advice over the years and choosing their ideas over my own. The narrative got all out of whack. It’s definitely important to listen, but I know better now when to trust myself. Our novels are our own, first and foremost! I was a more skilled and informed writer by the time I started The Stepping Off Place, so it may be a coincidence that I executed it better than my previous work. Or maybe I should have been writing YA all along. In any case, I’m staying with it!

Is there anything else youd like to share with our readers? Do you have a new project in the works? I certainly hope so! The world is eager to hear from you again.

I’m working on a second YA for HarperCollins, due out in winter 2022. This time I’m going after sexual assault in a #MeToo aware world, and the boys are coming in for the conversation.

To learn more about Cameron Kelly Rosenblum and The Stepping Off Place, visit her website at https://www.cameronrosenblum.com/

And to be entered in our raffle for a copy of The Stepping Off Place, just leave a comment on this post. Good luck, people!



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