Tuesday, November 27, 2018

An Interview with Writer & STEM Advocate Suzie Olsen

I'm so pleased to bring you this special feature, an interview with author Suzie Olsen. I met her through the 12 x 12 Picture Book Challenge, an awesome community for picture book writers that I've been part of for several years now. I love that she's an engineer who is trying to encourage children to explore STEM, especially since one of my daughters is also an engineer. There are lots of great resources on her site!

How long have you been writing and what inspired you to get started?

I’ve kept a journal off and on since the 4th grade, but I didn’t start writing children’s books until 2016.  I gave birth to my son in 2014, and then in 2015 started blogging about my life as a mom, engineer, and Rheumatoid Arthritis patient.  Having my son made me realize I wanted a new outlet outside of engineering to continue to create things. Engineering can be creative (pending what you work on), but I wanted to explore a new path with writing. In exploring my voice as a writer, I’ve reflected upon my experience as a female engineer (in a male dominated profession) and the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) educational outreach I do through the Society of Women Engineers, which lead me to write children’s books with female characters who loved STEM in order to encourage children, especially girls, to explore STEM.

That is so cool, Suzie. I wonder if you could share with us a little bit about your writing process.

For my book manuscripts and blog posts, I keep a journal with me everywhere I go, and when an idea comes to me, I write it down in the journal.  Sometimes I forget my journal and use my phone’s note app to jot the idea down.  Then if it’s an idea I’m really excited about, I’ll go draft the post or manuscript as soon as I can.   Other times I like to think about the idea for a while, such as in the car on the ride home from work or while walking the dog, and then days, weeks, months later, I finally write the draft.  Once I have a draft, I send it to my most trusted editor (who just happens to be my husband).  Some of my best blog posts have come from the input and suggestions he provides.  For my book manuscripts, I have a critique group who gives me feedback, and I’ve found it to be incredibly helpful in the children’s book industry to have a critique group—I’ve yet to meet another children’s author who doesn’t have a critique group!  For blog posts, there’s usually a few revisions, but for books, there’s so many revisions that I lose count (I’m awful at numbering and keeping each revision).  I didn’t realize how methodical my writing process was until you asked, mostly because my journals are so filled with bad handwriting and half-baked ideas, but that’s part of the fun of writing—you develop your own way of doing it!

So true. As writers we kind of discover our own writing process along the way. What can you tell us about the idea that gave you the spark for your book?

In engineering, only 13% of us are female in the US (research.swe.org)!  I do believe one day there will be gender parity in engineering, but until that day, I decided that to encourage more girls (and all kids) I was going to write a children’s book that featured a female character who loved STEM, as well as were named after real life female STEM professionals.  So, there are three female STEM role models when a child reads one of my books: the main character, the person the character is named after, and then the author.   Studies have shown that early engagement is key in getting women and minorities to pursue careers in STEM fields, so my books engage kids in the earliest stages of learning STEM, all facilitated by a female lead character.  And although I’ve drafted a couple of children’s book stories not centered around STEM, my spark is to encourage students, especially girls and minorities, to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

I'm so excited to hear that! So what was your biggest challenge in writing your book?

I think my biggest challenge in writing books is finding the time!  I think a lot of authors feel that way because many of us balance jobs, writing, family, and so many other obligations.  I’m also not a morning person, so I like to write in the evenings, but evenings are also family time.  So it’s about squeezing in a hour here and there; usually when my child is asleep and before I pass out on the couch watching The Simpsons.  I also need to remember to do some revisions for manuscripts I wrote over a year ago—I so easily get distracted working on a new idea or story that I often forget to go back and incorporate changes.  But if it’s a story I’m passionate about, I make the time and actually do the revisions.  That’s another great thing about writing is that you get to pick what you like/what you want to write about!

I love all the STEM ideas on your blog. What a great resource! Do you have some favorite STEM related books you could recommend to teachers or parents?

Thanks, Andrea, for saying such a nice thing about my blog! I’m so excited by the influx in children’s books in the market that are focusing on STEM, and I hope to review many of them on my blog.  For preschool age, I like the ABCs of Science by Chris Ferrie and Hello World! Solar System by Jill McDonald.  For young elementary age, I am totally biased and love Rosie Revere, Engineer (it’s got engineer in the title!) by Andrea Beaty (Andrea’s a retired tech professional!).  I also like Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed, The Diamond and The Boy by Hannah Holt (also former engineer!), and What Do You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada.   Then for middle school age, the Goldie Blox series by Stacy McAnulty and the Enginerd series by Jarrett Lerner. For more STEM related books, one can browse the children’s science or math through Amazon/Barnes and Nobles/ local library/bookstore, or I also have Pinterest boards specifically for STEM books.

I find that young children are naturally curious and I love how different activities can encourage that curiosity. Do you have a favorite activity you can tell us about?

It’s so hard to pick just one, but I’d say we love going to our local science museum.  The science museum has so many great hands on displays and activities to really spark a child’s natural curiosity about how things work or are made.  I think children’s museums and zoos are also great for that, and then any STEAM (STEM with the arts) experiment from websites like the Educators Spin On It, Team Cartwright, or STEM Spark (which is my website to inspire and spark kids in all things STEM). You can check out Suzie's website here: https://www.stemspark.co/

Are you working on any new projects you'd like to tell us about?

I’m currently working to indie/self-publish a second book in my Annie Aardvark series called Annie Aardvark: Adding Ants.  The Annie Aardvark books are about a female aardvark (named Annie Aardvark) who is named after fellow STEM professional Annie Easley and who loves math and who decides to go on math adventures during her daily forage.  This series draws on my passion to encourage kids, especially girls, in math, if you can’t tell what I’m passionate about, haha.

There really can't be too many books about science & math, in my opinion! Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Find your writing tribe!  I’m feel so lucky to be a part of the 12x12 Challenge writing group and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators— SCBWI is how I found my critique partners who then introduced me to 12x12.  And 12x12 introduced me to you, Andrea!  I’m so thankful you let me answer questions for your blog.  Thank you so much!

You're welcome, Suzie. So glad you could stop by the blog and share your "sparks" and wonderful resources.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

I’M SAD by Michael Ian Black & Debbie Ridpath Ohi

A perfect book to help young children understand and deal with difficult feelings! I'm so pleased these books are forming a series – the next to come is I’m Worried (check out the cover reveal on Matthew Winner's blog). I received a review copy of this book from Debbie Ridpath Ohi, who has also been my critique partner for several years now. Debbie is such a kind and generous person in the world of children's publishing and I’m so thrilled to be featuring her book on my blog today!

Summary from the publisher:

Everyone feels sad sometimes—even flamingos.


When Flamingo announces he’s feeling down, the little girl and Potato try to cheer him up, but nothing seems to work. Not even dirt! (Which usually works for Potato.)

Flamingo learns that he will not always feel this way. And his friends learn that sometimes being a friend means you don’t have to cheer someone up. You just have to stick by your pal no matter how they feel.

Even if they’re a potato.

I’m Sad was written by Michael Ian Black and illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi. It was published by Simon & Schuster  Books for Young Readers in 2018.


I’m sad.

Will I always be like this?

My Thoughts as a Writer:

This book has a definite message, but it’s presented in such a fun and matter-of-fact way that it doesn’t come across as didactic. The story connects with readers because of the universal theme of sadness as well as the kid-friendly dialogue and solutions to the problem. It’s so lovely to find a book that doesn’t present an easy solution to wrap up the problem, the way many picture books do, but instead lets the feeling sit with readers.

My Thoughts as an Educator:

I'm so thrilled to have this book as part of my classroom collection. As a kindergarten teacher, I can never have too many books about emotions and this one provides so many opportunities for discussion. It includes a few questions, such as “Why do sad things happen?” and the message that sad feelings are natural and okay. The big, expressive illustrations are perfect for read alouds. Books with a humor that have deeper layers for discussion and thought are always a big hit! 

Ages: 4 - 8

Grades: K – 3

Themes: sadness, emotions, friendship


Share: Draw a picture or tell about a time when you felt sad. Educators could collect the pictures or stories to make a class “Sad Book” or video for students to look at when they are feeling sad.

Design & Build: Could you make a hideout for flamingo and two friends to hang out in when they feel sad? What materials would you use?

Write: Make a list of things that might cheer you up when you’re feeling sad.

For more details about I'm Sad, check out Debbie Ohi's bonus page and this amazing teacher's guide created by Marcie Colleen, which is absolutely packed with great activities.

Monday, November 19, 2018


I couldn’t put this book down! Loved the character and the story. Perfect mix of funny and heart-tugging.

Description from Amazon:

The marshals are looking for the perfect girl to join a mother, father, and son on the run from the nation’s most notorious criminals. After all, the bad guys are searching for a family with one kid, not two, and adding a streetwise girl who knows a little something about hiding things may be just what the marshals need.

Nicki swears she can keep the Trevor family safe, but to do so she’ll have to dodge hitmen, cyberbullies, and the specter of standardized testing, all while maintaining her marshal-mandated B-minus average. As she barely balances the responsibilities of her new identity, Nicki learns that the biggest threats to her family’s security might not lurk on the road from New York to North Carolina, but rather in her own past.

Greetings from Witness Protection, written by Jake Burt, was published by Feiwel and Friends in 2017.

Why you want to read this book… 

It’s a story that delivers everything that’s great about family-oriented middle grade novels –the struggles of making friends and fitting at school, dealing with family issues, having a younger sibling and, oh yeah, the tension of hiding from “the bad guys.”  I really enjoyed Nicki’s process of working to maintain her “secret identity” and solve all the problems that came up along the way, like social media. This story was so much fun!

I actually know more about countersurveillance techniques than I do about algebra now.


I’m working on making a world. I’ve got the mountains and valleys, an ocean and continents. It’s a slow process, though, since I use only my hands. Well, my hands and a couple of tennis balls.

If you’re a writer… 

This is a wonderful mentor text for studying how to build character. I loved the way we learned more about Nicki as the story went along, her unusual habits that helped to show her emotional side, and her keen sense of observation that helped her so much in solving problems. She has a strong, but loveable personality and a great voice for telling the story. There are also some fun references to other books in this story.

It’s ultimately the flicker of the tiny hallway light coming through my keyhole that forces me into action; someone is definitely out there, definitely sneaking.

If you’re an educator…

Who wouldn’t want to put themselves in Nicki’s place to help save a family from paying the ultimate price? A great read aloud that offers opportunities for discussion about the meaning of family, different kinds of family structure and how to cope with difficult life experiences, with an intriguing premise and lots of humor.

I think sometimes they forget that kids are putting on performances all day, just acting like the people we think we are until, ten years from now, when we figure out who that actually is.


I really enjoyed watching Jake Burt’s response to Colby Sharp’s one question where he talks about balancing teaching and writing, and the resilience of fifth graders:

If you’re looking for more to read, check out the list of fabulous middle grade books over at Marvelous Middle Grade Monday on Greg Pattridge's blog.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

STORM by Sam Usher

This book showcases autumn weather and leaves in a such a fun way! I enjoy these books about a boy and his granddad going on adventures. I’ve also read Sun, and now I’m going to search for Rain and Snow!

Summary from the publisher:

A storm is brewing and the wind is picking up, so a boy and his grandfather decide it’s the perfect weather for kite flying. There’s just one problem: they have to find the kite! Their search brings up many wonderful memories of previous adventures together, and when they finally make it outside, their adventure really takes off!

Storm was written and illustrated by Sam Usher. It was published by Templar Books, an imprint of Candlewick in 2017.


When I woke up
this morning
the wind was rattling
the windows.

I couldn’t wait to
go outside.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

I love the way the opening of this book draws us in! There’s some nice humor in this story as the boy and his granddad search for a kite, and I enjoyed the parallel of their mess inside with mess of leaves outside. Descriptive language that appeals to the senses (“The wind gushed and howled”) helps to create a complete picture of a stormy day.
I really like this illustration style of watercolour and ink, and it works well for this story with its storm clouds.

My Thoughts as an Educator:

I don’t see many books that feature children interacting in a meaningful way with their grandparents, and I love that these two go on adventures together. A great book for opening up discussion about things to do with family members that aren’t parents.

Ages: 4 - 8

Grades: K – 3

Themes: autumn, wind, grandparents


Share: Draw a picture or tell about a time when you did something with one of your grandparents.  If you don’t have a grandparent, draw a picture of something you did with a family member that is not your mom or dad.

Create: Can you make a kite? When you are finished, take it outside on a windy day to see if it can fly.

Write: Make a list of words to describe the wind. Challenge yourself to use the words in a story or poem.

Monday, November 5, 2018

THE SWEETEST SOUND by Sherri Winston

An absorbing novel about a girl with social anxiety who learns to speak up for herself.

a review of a middle grade novel about a girl with social anxiety who learns to speak up
Description from Amazon:

For ten-year-old Cadence Jolly, birthdays are a constant reminder of all that has changed since her mother skipped town with dreams of becoming a singing star. Cadence inherited that musical soul, she can't deny it, but otherwise she couldn't be more different -- she's shy as can be.

She did make a promise last year that she would try to break out of her shell, just a little. And she prayed that she'd get the courage to do it. As her eleventh birthday draws near, she realizes time is running out. And when a secret recording of her singing leaks and catches the attention of her whole church, she needs to decide what's better: deceiving everyone by pretending it belongs to someone else, or finally stepping into the spotlight.

The Sweetest Sound, written by Sherri Winston, was published by Little, Brown and Company in 2017.

Why you want to read this book… 

As an introvert myself, I could emphasize with Cadence’s fear of speaking to others and her anxiety about singing in public. It was interesting how her friends reacted differently after they discovered her singing ability.  I really wanted to read on to find out what happened to their friendships!

A funny thing happens when people are constantly trying to fix you: Eventually you believe you need fixing. Being everyone’s favorite makeover project was simply exhausting.


Birthday s are a problem for me.

If you’re a writer… 

You might want to take a closer look at this book to see how the author used sensory details to help create emotion and build character. Even though I’m not religious, I liked the way the author included references to God and the details of the religious side of Cadence’s life as part of her church. It helped her character to feel like a real person. There are some fun references to other middle grade books that writers may appreciate.

I breathed in air that was cold and tasted like winter, even though the calendar still said fall.

If you’re an educator…

I think this novel has the power to inspire quieter students who may be worried about taking risks to show their inner selves. The thread of Cadence learning to cope with the mom who left her and strengthening her relationships with other adults may strike a chord with some students.

Sometimes when the doorbell rang unexpectedly, for a brief second, I thought she’d be there. Waiting. And I never felt sure if the idea of her showing up made me happy or sad.

For another take on this book, check out Greg Pattridge’s review here.

There’s lots more middle grade fun for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday at Greg Pattridge's blog.