Friday, October 23, 2015

Interview with Educational Writer: Mary Kay Carson by Tina Cho

Welcome to Mary Kay Carson, educational writer extraordinaire! She's an Ohio writer and has written around 75 books. Her husband Tom Uhlman, a professional photographer, has been on assignment with her on many of the books. I've gotten to know Mary Kay this past summer through a critique group. 

Mary Kay's book Inside Biosphere 2 debuts this month from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. A description of the book from her website:

In the Arizona desert, scientists conduct studies and experiments aimed to help us better understand our environment and what sort of things are happening to it due to climate change. The location is Biosphere 2, an immense structure that contains a replica ocean, savannah, and rainforest, among many other Earth biomes. It’s a unique take on the Scientists in the Field mission statement — in this case, the lab is a replica that allows the scientists to conduct large-scale experiments that would otherwise be impossible.

I invited her to share her expertise with us.

You studied biology in college. So how did you become a writer?

Most writers I know started as kids—writing stories, keeping a journal, working on a school newspaper. But I actually didn’t do any of those things and am now embarrassed to admit that I only took the minimum required English courses in college! I didn't really become interested in writing until I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in my early 20s. When letter writing is the only way to communicate and rainy season traps you in a thatch-roofed shack for weeks, writing becomes an essential outlet. After returning to the US, I entered a science-writing program at New York University in an attempt to merge writing with my interest in science. 

How did you land your first book contract? How did you get into educational writing?

I actually started off in educational writing. My first writing job was on an elementary classroom magazine called SuperScience at Scholastic in NYC.

    How many books have you written to date? Which one is your favorite?

Somewhere in the 50-75 range. It depends on whether you count books for teachers and leveled readers. Emi and the Rhino Scientist holds a very special place in my heart. It's the story of Terri Roth's work at the Cincinnati Zoo to help a very rare Sumatran rhino named Emi have a calf. Emi has since passed away, so the book means a lot. Plus it was the first book I ever got published "out of the slush pile;" the first that my husband and I both got contracts for; the first for Houghton Mifflin; and I got my first starred reviews with it. 

Do you pitch ideas to editors you’ve worked with, or do they approach you and your husband with ideas? Or do you submit like the rest of us do?

No publisher has ever approached my husband and I about a book idea, unfortunately! How book contracts are obtained varies by publisher and project. A lot of nonfiction series titles are assigned. The editors come up with a list of book topics and hire writers to write them. Some examples of assigned titles from my books include all nine of the Good Question! books published by Sterling, like What Sank the World’s Biggest Ship? (Titanic) as well as Magic School Bus readers. The Houghton Mifflin Harcourt books I’ve written are “author-driven” titles. I submit a proposal to an editor and if a contract is offered and accepted, then I write the full manuscript. Sometimes it’s a bit of both. An example is the Inside books, like Inside Tornadoes. An editor at Sterling who I’d worked with invited myself and fellow writer Melissa Stewart to work up a proposal for a nonfiction book series that included manipulatives. Once it was hammered out, the contracts were divided up.

Biosphere 2 looks like a fascinating book. Do you always visit the places you write about?  

Inside Biosphere 2 was a lot of fun to write. It’s an amazing and completely unique place to visit! The Scientists in the Field books are about scientists working, so seeing what they do and how they do it is important. Plus Tom needs to be there for photos. I don’t always visit places I write about, but I try to. My preferred writing style is a series of scenes (like a movie) punctuated with information and background. Being there makes writing scenes a lot easier! It’s part of why I choose to write about some topics. For example, I knew I’d be able to visit all the Wright Brothers sites up in Dayton when I signed on to write The Wright Brothers for Kids. Likewise with the books I’ve written about the Underground Railroad, since I live five miles from the Ohio River where so many crossed into a free state from Kentucky. 

What’s it like to work with your husband on a book? Do you write text to accompany his photos, or does he take photos to accompany your writing?

In general, there’s a lot of back and forth. Most of the photos are taken during research trips, so there is no text yet. That being said, I do have an outline with experts identified and usually some potential photo ideas. But we kind of stay out of each other’s way. Tom Uhlman is a fantastic photographer, so when we're on site together and he's taking pictures and I'm perhaps interviewing someone, I don't even think about what he's photographing. I'm 100% certain he'll find and capture the perfect images to go with the text. We’ve been very fortunate to be able to work on books and travel together. Since we’re both self-employed and work out of our home, we get on each other's nerves at times, but I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Mary Kay and husband Tom

 A lot of our readership is interested in nonfiction writing. What tips could you share on getting that first contract?

Nonfiction magazine work is probably the easiest to break into if you’ve not been published. If you want to get into writing nonfiction books, my suggestion would be to try to plug into a series. Research what’s been written and then write a query letter suggesting some additional titles along with your credentials and clips. If you’ve an idea for a more author-driven book, research different trade publishers and follow their submission guidelines to submit a proposal. Nonfiction picture books are like any picture book, the entire manuscript needs to be written and polished before submitting. 

I see you have many school visit sessions for educators to choose from. Any tips on school visits or setting up a session?

Because I write nonfiction, my programs are primarily built around the content of my books—bats, rhinos, the solar system, the Wright Brothers, etc. Here are two great tip-filled resources for putting together school visits: Planning Your Author School Visit: 


   What are you working on now?

Tom and I are finishing up our fifth Scientists in the Field book for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The working title is Mission to Pluto and it’s about New Horizons, the first spacecraft to visit the Kuiper Belt and Pluto. We got to go back east for the Pluto flyby event in July, which was super exciting! It will come out in fall of 2016, so we’re editing this and that and adding updates. 
I know you just presented at an OH SCBWI conference. Are you presenting at any others this year?
Yes, that was the Northern Ohio SCBWI annual conference in Cleveland. This year’s American Association of School Librarians National Conference is in Columbus, and I’ve been invited to participate in some sort of Ohio author event at the State Library November 5th, but not presenting. That will be it for 2015.

Just for fun:

Favorite color: purple 

Food: Bourdon isn’t a food, so I’ll go with shrimp, burnt ends, chocolate, or goetta. [Now I’m hungry, Tina!]

Children’s author: Tina Cho, of course! Jean Craighead George is another favorite.

Children’s book: The Giver by Lois Lowry. Love it as a story and admire it as a novel.

Most bizarre topic you’ve researched: The process of how the human body fatally freezes during extreme hypothermia; or maybe Dark Matter.

Thank you so much, Mary Kay. Your writing is fascinating. You can see more of Mary Kay at:
her website  (watch her introductory video!)


  1. Tina & Mary Kay, great interview and what fascinating topics for NF books, Mary Kay. i was lucky enough to be in Mary Kay's intensive at the SCBWI Northern Ohio conference this fall. I love the Scientists in the Field series, too. It gives kids a real sense of what happens for working scientists! TY both.

  2. Great interview! Thanks for sharing these tips, very relevant tips, and how your work progresses. So interesting.

  3. Great interview - thanks Tina & Mary Kay!

  4. Excellent interview, Tina and Mary Kay. Your Q&A provided lots of practical details and an excellent peek into a successful career. Thanks!

  5. What a great interview - it's so fun to see the inner workings of NF writing for kids. My children devour books like yours, Mary Kay! Thanks to you and your husband for making them. It sounds like an incredible career.

  6. Oooooh how wonderful it is to learn so much amazing information about you and your writing career, Mary Kay! Congrats on your new book. And Tina, thanks for putting together such an awesome interview!

  7. What great experiences! And fabulous interview. Thanks for giving us insight into nonfiction writing.

  8. Thank you, Tina and Mary Kay, for this inspiring interview. Thank you, Mary Kay, for sharing tips and websites.

  9. Thank you for your comments! And thanks Mary Kay for being our guest!

  10. Appreciations for this introduction (for me anyway) to NF author Mary Kay Carson & her bookshelf of great titles.
    It's a good look not only inside Biosphere 2, but her process. That SCBWI workshop intensive Kathy took sounds like a winner.
    Glad to know this author, the books & something more about educational writing, Tina.
    You have brought us another stunner in this field.

  11. Very cool! I live in Tucson and have visited the Biosphere with my kids on school field trips. I look forward to reading your newest title!

    1. We will be at the Tucson Festival of Books in March, Lori. Stop on by!

  12. Thank you, Tina, for introducing me to a dynamic husband/wife duo, Mary Kay and Tom. I appreciate a peek inside the writing and publishing journey of this great team.

  13. Thanks Tina for the great interview and thank you Mary Kay for sharing your writing process. It is interesting to learn that you write in scenes punctuated with information and background. I'm going to give that a try with the nonfiction manuscript that I am working on.

    1. Let me know if it helps! Kids are media savvy these days so we need to use their tricks, too.

  14. Hi Tina and Mary Kay, I always enjoy reading about authors. Super interview. :-)

  15. This was fascinating! Thank you, Mary Kay and Tina! I especially enjoyed hearing that you weren't a writer from the early on, Mary Kay. I wasn't either, and I think we tend to be a rare breed in the children's writing community. It's also great that you and your husband team up for your books. (I've co-authored books with two of my kids, but not my husband.)

    1. You're the first I've "met", too Evelyn! So many stories of writers as five year olds making their first book!

  16. What a fascinating interview, Tina! Thank you for introducing us to Mary Kay. My youngest was a huge fan of nonfiction and I so appreciate authors who do it well. Mary Kay, thanks for the tips on breaking into nonfiction via magazines and pitching for a series. Also, the links on school visits are wonderful resources.