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/