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
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
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/