I’ve always loved the idea of being a writer! What kind of writer I had no idea about, but the thought of that lifestyle seemed very appealing to me – probably the movies making it seem more glamorous than it actually is. Maybe some of you out there can give me some clarity on this?
But my love of writing and my love of science lives on – hence the science blog 🙂 ! But how about writing an actual science book! Not a boring textbook full of lists of scientific facts but more of a story book still with the aim of teaching some science but in a much more fun and engaging way compared to your boring old textbooks! Now this is something I would love to do! But my ideas at the moment are a bit limited, but if anyone wants to collaborate please get in touch 🙂
But before I jumped into this new adventure, I wanted to see if there was anyone out there who had done it before so I could get some advice and some ideas as I would have no idea about where to even start! But I have managed to find TWO people who have actually published a series of science books aimed at kids.
So, to celebrate World Book Day on 2nd March (yes I know I’m a day late, but it’s never too late to find a new book you want to start reading!) I thought I would ask these two lovely ladies about how they wrote a science book for kids and some of their top tips for getting your science book published and more and share that interview with you guys in case that is something you were thinking about but, like me, had no idea about where to start!
So, I am thrilled to introduce to you Margot A, The Baby Biochemist and Thomai D, The Science Mom.
So let’s start off my telling everyone a little bit about yourselves and your science backgrounds.
Thomai: My name is Thomai and I am a pharmacist, write, artist, entrepreneur and mom! I always enjoyed science growing up and can recall memories as a child studying old chemistry textbooks at home. I remember snooping around my basement as a 7 year old and emptying bins of old medical textbooks so I could read them all! Although a little out-of-the-box, these books were awe-inspiring to me at the time. I always knew I wanted to do something with science as a ‘grown up’ although I wasn’t exactly sure what that would be. I’ve always loved other areas of creativity as well like art, music and writing, and so while deciding what to study and where to college many years ago I unfortunately believed I had found myself at an impasse – should I pursue science? Or should I pursue art? I chose the former and studied pharmacy – a profession involving a variety of sciences including biology, chemistry, anatomy, medicine and more! I received a doctorate and always enjoyed my work as a medical profession teaching and helping others. It wasn’t until I became a mother several years ago though that I discovered a way to combine all of my previous and current passions into what I do today – creatively educate through science and art!
Margot: Like Thomai, I have always had an interest in science. I loved dinosaurs, space and ancient Egypt when I was little and my favourite class in high school was Chemistry. I always imagined myself doing research dealing with space and in college, I was lucky enough to land a research project studying the atmospheric composition of Mars. We collected and analysed data from a telescope in Hawaii (that’s right – a free trip to Hawaii!). I also interned at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre one summer studying the composition of comets using infrared spectroscopy, and although I loved my time there, I learnt that this was not what I wanted to do as a career. I wanted to be more hands-on and creative as most of the astrobiology work I was doing was in silico! Sitting at a desk for most of the day just wasn’t for me! My next semester I signed up for a biochemistry class. I knew absolutely nothing about biochemistry, but my ignorance of the subject always kind of bothered me. I ended up loving the class and biochemistry really brought together everything I loved about science. I decided to apply to grad school studying biochemistry after only a couple of months doing that class, It was a bit of a risk since I had never done any biochemical research, but I just loved it so much! I ended up doing my PhD on catalytic RNA. The day to day work was perfect for the way my brain works. After my PhD, I got a job at a biotech start up, working again with RNA. I loved it! I eventually had my first child after going into labour at work on a Saturday, had six weeks of maternity leave and went back to work! Despite how accommodating my colleagues were, this was not how I wanted to spend my child’s formative years. I felt like I never saw her. I always say leaving was the hardest and easiest decision of my life. But even after years of scientific immersion, I still feel the same awe about science as I did in college and as a child.
You are both highly-skilled and well-trained scientists then, so why the sudden change to being an author and writing a children’s science book?
Margot: In a similar way to Thomai, it was becoming a mother who was a scientist and wanted my daughter to learn about science that triggered the idea. I originally wanted to write a children’s science book since I couldn’t find any biochemistry books to share with my daughter. There were plenty of children’s books about organs, physics, space, biology and maths, but none for biochemistry. So, I saw my opportunity!
Thomai: Yes! It was initially becoming a mother combined with my passion for art that triggered me becoming an author. When my toddler was born, I decided to leave a corporate healthcare business strategy role and become a stay at home mom. Only until I was home with my son did I learn how exciting it was to witness his curiosity about the world around him. Everything was new to him and at times a seemingly magical experience. As he grew from baby to 3-year old his questions become more fascinating – to both he and I! – including but not limited to ‘How do my eyes see?’, ‘How do my ears hear?’ and ‘Why do my toys fall when I drop them?’. These questions evolved into daily discussions between us both about everything within our surroundings – from why the grass is green, to why night happens and how plants grow. Given my background and combining that with my child’s inquiries, our discussions were primarily science orientated. One day I decided I would put the discussions we had onto paper, and those papers eventually became a book. I thought since I am making a book available for my son and my family, I may as well make it available for everyone and so I started my ‘Think-A-Lot-Tots’ collection of educational science books for babies, toddlers and kids.
Tell us a bit more about your set of books and your ideas behind them.
Margot: My books introduce basic concepts of biochemistry with simple language and fun and informative illustrations. There are three that are available right now which are about DNA, RNA and enzymes. Again, like Thomai, I originally wrote them for my daughter, so she could be aware of these concepts. but I thought I could make them available for purchase since I thought some people would buy them as gag gifts for new babies in their life which I had done in the past, but I got a lot of good feedback with respect to the content that I began marketing them more as a learning tool that as a silly thing to read to your newborn. Biochemistry is already so important in peoples’ lives, even if they haven’t chosen it as a career. GMOs, vaccines, gene editing and pharmaceuticals, to name a few biochemistry derived concepts, are in the news constantly and there is a lot of misinformation out there. The products of biotech are only going to become more pervasive in our lives in the future and I don’t want people to feel scared, intimidated, or helpless about new technologies. I want them to be able to make informed decisions. I want them to know they are totally capable of grasping the concepts needed to make more informed decisions and think critically about what they read. I don’t know how I can reach out to adults at this stage in my life, but I know kids are sponges for knowledge, and I hope that by exposing them to biochemistry early on, that when they encounter it later in their lives, they won’t feel intimidated because they’ve seen it before. Education is all about layers- you learn it once, then you learn it again plus a little more, then you learn all that again plus a little more, and over and over. I hope that one day, biochemistry is offered in high schools everywhere and a kid who had The Baby Biochemist series growing up takes the class and says “Oh, I can handle this. I love this stuff, I had a baby book about it.”
Thomai: My books focus primarily on science although their goal is to promote overall S.T.E.M. education (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). I started the “Think-A-Lot-Tots” series for my son who was 3-years-old at the time, although I have had children throughout elementary / primary school enjoy them, so up to age 11 or so. As a pharmacist, my own professional focus and interests have been in areas such as biology and chemistry, and so my books thus far have revolved around biology-related concepts such as the cell, the neuron, and the classification of microorganisms. I find these topics to also have broader-reaching implications as they not only teach about our own bodies but about life on earth in general. I also created a notebook outlining the scientific method and discussing items such as materials, hypothesis, etc. when approaching a question. I find that learning about a certain topic is important, but learning how to approach said topic is paramount. My books strive to not only spark a love of learning but also teach critical thinking skills and, of course, build upon scientific vocabulary.
How did you know what to write about?
Thomai: It has all probably stemmed from my son’s curiosity and his want to learn began to bloom, so I started to wonder what else I could teach him. Did it really just need to be numbers and colours? Why is teaching the word ‘ball’ any different than teaching the word ‘nucleus’? I mentioned previously that I decided to put the discussions my son and I had onto paper, but I did not include the reason why I decided to write these things down. One day after he and I had finished one of our typical educational talks, I thought to myself ‘Hmm… I think I’d like to teach my son about the cell’. I actually wanted to find a microscope for him so that he could learn more about concepts and topics not readily ‘seen’ and I figured this would be a good start to teaching him all about the cell. Before I introduce a new hands-on learning activity though, I like to read with my son about it first. And so I began searching for a book geared towards his age group about the cell. And I searched and searched and I couldn’t find anything. Having come from an innovation and strategy-focused career, the next step in order to educate my child was to create my own book, and so I started to write down what we talked about. So, basically, the ideas for my books are something that evolved organically as a result of my family’s interests.
Margot: I think catalysts are awesome, so I started with a book about enzymes. I also thought it was a good piece of knowledge for kids to have since it helps lay the foundation for so many other concepts of biochemistry and molecular biology, plus I think it is a concept children can grasp. Once I decided to write more books, I figured I’d cover the main components of the central dogma of biochemistry first which is DNA to RNA to proteins. So, I guess I write about things I like and that can be easily grasped by the kids.
So you have got your idea and written the draft of your book. But how was your publishing experience?
Thomai: Fantastic! I am currently looking for traditional publishers to broaden the availability of my work, although the self-publishing experience I had decided to embark on initially has been great. My books are available on Amazon and are created through their self-publishing platform. It allows for the flexibility and creativity that I’d like my books to take on and I am able to craft them however I like. I am both author and illustrator (and editor and marketing!) so although it could be perceived as a lot of work, it really doesn’t feel that way. If anything, it’s been a lot of fun and incredibly rewarding as my own family has benefited from the children’s books that I’ve created.
Margot: I self-published with CreateSpace, a company that works directly with Amazon. They not only print, but they also distribute my books. I toyed around with the idea of getting my books printed by something like Print Ninja and then distributing them myself, but then to get the reach that CreateSpace gives you for free would nearly be impossible for me, as would storing the inventory right now! If you don’t want to go through traditional publishing houses, I highly recommend CreateSpace. The platform was very easy to use and they are transparent with the costs involved. You make around 25% of the price of the book in royalties but that ultimately depends on the size. It sounds too good to be true, but your books are made to order, so CreateSpace has essentially no loss if your books don’t sell and neither do you. For me, it was a win-win situation.
Can you describe more about the process from idea to finished product and how you found it?
Margot: I start off by doing a rough layout of the story in list form then move on to a story board type format to get an idea of the page layout and types of images that will go with what statements. I run that by my husband and sister (and whoever will listen!) to make sure that the story flows, that the concepts are explained clearly and that the children will be able to understand and younger kids at least able to follow the information given. I then move on to making the illustrations. I use a mix of coloured pencils, markers and paint and then touch up or add to the scanned images on ProCreate. I import the images into Word and create the actual pages with text and upload that document to CreateSpace. The process is really straightforward, and if anyone needs help or advice please feel free to contact me. Ideally, I would have InDesign or Illustrator to compile the book since Word isn’t the easiest program to arrange images in, but it’s definitely do-able, so the process is very accessible to people who would just want to give publishing a shot without investing a lot of money into the process, especially as this is not something you’re going to get rich doing!
Thomai: I actually had the flow for my first book ‘Think-A-Lot-Tots: The Animal Cell’ all planned out in my head in terms of what I would address in its pages and how I would illustrate it etc. In terms of logistics, I had to do a lot of research before deciding how to go from idea to reality. I was fortunate enough to inquire with several folks already familiar with publishing books and they suggested self-publishing. Amazon was brought up and was the right fit for my immediate goal at the time, which was to make the materials available to my family while my little one was still a little one! I created a manuscript, obtained copyright, illustrated the pages, formatted all and designed a book cover. After that they were all submitted to the self-publishing service and I reviewed a hard copy of my book to ensure quality. I gave the thumbs up and there it was – my very own book, online and available to anyone who was interested in checking it out. It was very surreal at first and was certainly a ‘wow’ moment for me.
Have you got any new projects and additions to your book series’ that you can give us a sneaky peak at?
Thomai: Yes, several! I’m in the works of finalising my 5th book and have a 6th coming through the pipeline to become available either this month or next. If you’ve taken a peak at my website you’ll see that I’ve been steadily expanding the idea of ‘TD The Science Mom’ to include other STEM inspired items and learning tools for young children. I’d love to keep my focus on kids; for fear of sounding cliche, they literally are our future and are naturally curious about their world. ‘Why’ is one of the first questions asked by a child and that incessantly beautiful word that flows so easily from their little voices should be something heartily encouraged. As a result, I’ve dedicated my collection and future works to promoting and empowering children’s achievements within the STEM field, particularly focusing on encouraging girls to pursue these fields.
Margot: I’ve got some new projects too. I have two books that I’m working on right now. One is ‘The Baby Biochemist: Proteins’ which will be Volume 3 of the series. It highlights proteins such as myosin, rhodopsin and one yet to be decided protein to illustrate the amazing abilities of these molecules – but you’ll have to read the book to find out what they do :P. I’m also working on an ABCs of Biochemistry book which obviously has a biochemistry related word for each letter of the alphabet with a little rhyming verse to go alongside it. I’ve had a lot of fun with this one! The images are more abstract than the cartoons of my other books, and the rhymes were entertaining to make to say the least.
What advice do you have for anyone that wants to make a kids science book?
Thomai: Just do it! Don’t doubt yourself. Your ideas are far more valuable and inspiring than what you give them credit for. If you’re passionate about what you do then you’ve already surmounted the most important requirement in pursuing something like this. Hearing my toddler say ‘mitochondria’ and ‘lipid bilayer’ has made all those late nights writing, illustrating and editing a thousand times worth it.
Margot: I totally agree! And I would add -don’t underestimate a child’s ability to learn and don’t be scared of getting too technical. Young kids encounter words they don’t know everyday. They don’t take it as discouragement, they know they are young and that this world is full of new things to learn. Science is viewed as a difficult subject by most high school-ers, but I think that’s because most don’t get a good introduction to science before that. Younger children devour knowledge. It’s fun to spout off dinosaur names when you’re little – so why don’t we give them books on chromosomes or chromophores to talks about? Let’s take advantage of that indomitable spirit and give them a good, useful and accurate foundation for the STEM fields.
Have you had any other opportunities as a result of publishing these books?
Margot: My book’s just went on sale at the end of 2016, so I haven’t done much marketing to get them out there, besides Instagram, at this point. But I did just place an order for my books so I can give them out to our libraries and schools around town. A read-along one day at our local library is in the works, and I’m putting together some activities for the children to do afterwards to hopefully solidify the concepts for them. I also started a blog about early childhood STEM education and activities, and hope to put some lesson plans and other resources for teachers on there in the near future.
Thomai: I have had some other opportunities! I should preface by stating that I cannot say thank you enough to the amazing science communication community I have met while sharing my “Think-A-Lot-Tots” books. I am incredibly grateful for their support and encouragement! Some examples of the opportunities I have experienced since starting my work is that I have connected with individuals who run Little Free Library locations and have donated nearly 100 copies of my “Think-A-Lot-Tots” books across the United States and Canada to promote science education and interest in its many areas of study. I’ve been asked to join podcast sessions (which were extremely fun! I’d love to do more in the future) and have been able to write for several blogs and magazines (I recently had an article inspired by Carl Sagan’s thoughts on children’s education accepted and published!). It’s also broadened my view in terms of what I can do to impact and encourage future generations, which is very exciting to think about and what I’ll be focusing my current and future work on.
What’s next for you personally and professionally?
Thomai: I mentioned this before, but I’m looking to get my work traditionally published to try and make them more available to folks out there who may be interested. And also to broaden the ‘TD The Science Mom’ brand and include more learning tools, books and even kids apparel geared towards empowering learning and achieving whatever children put their minds to.
Margot: Right now, I am actively participating in the attempted synthesis of a new human with my husband (wink wink) and once all my kids are of school age, I plan to go back to the lab bench! In the meantime, to keep my CV growing, I’m working on a scientific collaboration with my best friend, with data collection scheduled for mid-spring.
And finally, where in the world should I visit before I die?
Thomai: You know that favourite place of yours in your home that is incredibly comfortable, especially when it’s a less than desirable time to do anything you would otherwise consider “productive” or outside? Yes. That one. Go there and don’t think about what else you have to do, what you should have done, or what you’ll need to do tomorrow. Go there during whatever quiet moment of the day you decided on and sit. Take that moment to appreciate yourself and all that you’ve accomplished because without your thoughts, ideas or drive, none of those accomplishments could or would have happened. Be kind to yourself and use that quiet moment with nothing else around you other than your own thoughts to say “Yeah… You know, I can do this”
Margot: Southern Sun in Boulder, Colorado. It’s a bar/restaurant with the best beer, frankly ever. Get their “Date Night” burger (poblano, bacon, goat cheese, and dates) or the bison burger (bacon, blue cheese, pickled onions, and some delicious sauce that I don’t remember). My mouth is watering just thinking about them, and I’m on the verge of tears considering I don’t know if I’ll ever taste their beer again. They have a gorgeous view of the Flatirons (huge rock formations on the side of the mountains there), the servers are kind and chill, there are beautiful chalk drawings by a local artist, and the atmosphere encompasses all the good parts of Boulder.
And that’s a wrap on my first double interview on Soph talks Science. It has been great to learn about two different experiences with the same goal. I would like to say a huge thank you to Margot and Thomai for taking time out of their busy schedules to share their tips and advice with us and agreeing to be featured in my blog, and I wish you all the success with your books and any other projects! As someone who had no idea where to start with the whole writing a kid’s science book before this interview, I now feel like I have a plan of attack and genuinely think I will give it a go – I just need to further my idea first.
Is anyone else thinking of writing a science book for children? Or have you already published? – if so please comment and share your experience so others can follow in your footsteps or learn from your mistakes 🙂
Finally, if you want to know more about their books or the in’s and out’s of publishing and marketing etc I’m sure Margot and Thomai will be more than happy for you to contact them and ask them some questions. Follow the links below to see their books and social media accounts:
Margot A, The Baby Biochemist
Website: Baby Biochemist Books
Blog: The Baby Biochemist
Thomai D, The Science Mom
Website: TD The Science Mom