Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Astronaut Aquanaut - A Stellar Science Book and Mentor Text for Nonfiction Writers, Too by Kathy Halsey

I can honesty say that most of what I know about science comes from children's authors like today's featured guest, Jen Swanson. Had science books been as much fun as those she's written for National Geographic Kids, I may have been something more "science-y" than an English teacher. 

Recommended for Teachers, Librarians and Homeschoolers
I highly recommend ASTRONAUT AQUANAUT: HOW SPACE SCIENCE AND SEA SCIENCE INTERACT for school libraries, science classrooms grades 3-8. This book services a multitude of multimodal lessons.

  • Teachers and parents have ready-made experiments/activities that are easy to replicate in almost every chapter. 
  • The comparison/contrast structure of astronauts and aquanauts' training and experiences will get kids wondering and English/Language Arts teachers cheering. (Students at multiple grade levels need to write comparison/contrast compositions, and Jen's book lays out a fine example of the format.) 
  • Science and E/LA teachers could easily expand on the chapter "Space and Deep Sea: More Alike Than You Imagine" for an interdisciplinary project including research.
  • Additionally, web sites, a glossary, and astronaut/aquanaut biographies are added features that librarians and student researches will appreciate.

Recommended Mentor Text for Nonfiction Writers
Nonfiction folks, delve into an author study of Jen Swanson's books to see in-depth how she breaks down complex topics and makes them factual and kid-friendly. (Click here.) I've reviewed several of her books for the GROG.  Here are a few techniques that nonfiction writers will want to emulate. 
  • When tackling dense topics such as space vs. oceans or nanotechnology, write simply and use a cohesive style/structure throughout the text. Predictive text structure help readers relax and concentrate on new material. Every chapter in this book is set up in a similar format with questions, interesting ancillary material in sidebars, an "explorer's notebook," and activities with questions to expand the reader's thoughts after the experiments.
  • Drop definitions into the text deftly and think about alliterative titles, too. Here are some title examples that kids will appreciate: "Darkness Descents," "What Goes Up Must Come Down," and "Expanding Our Horizons." 
  • Look at this example of a quick definition that doesn't stop the reader with an information dump. " 'Micro' is another way of saying 'very small,' so microgravity refers to extremely small gravitational forces."
  • Think about you point of view. Ask questions to entice readers. Jen uses second person POV and as you'll see from our interview (Q & A below), National Geographic prefers this option also.  
  • How you use comparisons matters. Jen creates her own concrete comparisons using ideas kids already know. In describing how pressure feels in the deepest ocean she says, "...the pressure is great than 15,7000 psi. That is a thousand times the amount of pressure you feel when standing on the ground." In a further comparison she states that amount of pressure is like "... one person holding up 50 jumbo airplanes."
Q & A with Jen Swanson

There have been several good blog interviews with Jen on ASTRONAUT AQUANAUT, so I chose to focus on questions nonfiction writers might find instructive. 

K: Do you outline/propose your books now to NatGeo or do you have specific editor w/whom you work?
Jen:  I have been lucky enough to work with one editor at  NGKids on several projects. We have a great, collaborative relationship which makes it really fun to work on books together. Because of this, my submission process is more relaxed. I may not create a full-blown proposal with completely outlined chapters, but more of a “this is what I want to do” sort of thing. It takes awhile to get to that point, and works well for the two of us, since we are also friends. But my agent is involved in the process and still handles all of the contract negotiations.
K: What informed your choice of 2nd person POV? 
J:  That is NGKids style. They love the 2nd person, informal type of language. This allows the reader to feel as if they are going on the journey with the book as they read it. The goal is for them to experience life up in space and down in the ocean, just like the experts did!

K: Do you decide what information is in sidebars?  If not, who does that?

 J:  Everything you see in the book pretty much started with me. Of course, my editor may make suggestions for areas that might need more expansion or ways to improve the book, which I definitely pay attention to, but I wrote all the sidebars. Specifically, it was my idea to approach experts (astronauts and aquanauts) and ask them questions that I thought my readers might want to know. It took a lot of effort and a great deal of persistence to catch up with some of them. But I think it is well worth it.  

K: Where do you find those cool comparisons? On a web site? 

J:  Nope. I just come up with this all on my own. I’m trying to get the reader to understand how big or little something is and the best way is to compare it to something they already know. This is a great tool for writing science books for kids; one I use in all of my books. 

K: What “in-person” research did you do for the book?

J:  Unfortunately, traveling to these amazing environments was not a part of my research. Maybe someday. I did, however, travel to NYC to meet Aquanaut Fabien Cousteau in person. A thrill of a lifetime and the picture of us together with Liz Bentley-Magee, a female aquanaut featured in the book made it into the back page.

K: Your writing tips for tackling science for kids…

J: Think like a kid! Make your writing FUN and EXCITING! Science is best when it’s hands-on because kids can see it happening right in front of them. While you can’t always do that with a book, you can make them feel the excitement of trying it if your words are active and engaging.

K: What are you working on now? 

J: I’m so very excited about this book with Peachtree Publishers coming out next April. It’s called Save The Crash-Test Dummies and it’s a book about ENGINEERING and car safety. I write engineering in all caps, because it is really a big thing for an engineering book to be published by a trade publisher. This book is an out-of-the box and fun look at the history of car safety engineering.  It even has a snarky, talking crash-test dummy as your guide through the ages. I have see the initial layouts and they are stunning. I am REALLY looking forward to this book! Go Engineering!

Finally Jen and Miranda Paul will be teaching their "Nuts and Bolts of science Writing" at Highlights again this summer Attendees will learn the ins and outs of writing fiction and nonfiction science books and will be able to submit to 5 different trade editors. Check out more information here


  1. great post, Kathy - and wonderful interview with Jen.

  2. Ty, Sue. As a science fan, I knew you'd like it.

  3. Terrific review and interview about Jen and her amazing books. Thank you!

  4. I love Jen's writing. Can't wait for the crash test dummies book! Thanks for a great post, Kathy!

    1. Yes, Jilanne - CRASH TEST DUMMIES sounds really good. TY for coming over to the GROG.

  5. There are numerous currently published nonfiction picture books that encourage children of all ages to explore science.

    As a kid, I, too, feel I would have expressed more interest in science if there were books written like Jen Swanson's ASTRONAUT AQUANAUT.

    Thank you, Kathy, for sharing an excellent interview.

    1. Agreed, Garden Girl. so many great science titles these days!

  6. Kathy, this is a great post about a super science writer. I think she has changed science for kids into something they can't get enough of. Thank you for giving us more info about her and her process.

    1. Yes, I 'd love to write such engaging g text about complex topics. We keep learning, right, Sherri?

  7. I feel so exuberant, reading this visit with Jen.
    Appreciations to Jen & to book-explorer Kathy.

    I am fortunate to own a manuscript mark-up critique from Jen, given kindly & with so much enthusiasm at an SCBWI conference. It is still a guide, Jen, on my poodle at sea story, inspired by a real life incident.

    If you have the opportunity to meet Jen, take advantage of it, at HIGHLIGHTS or elsewhere. And of course, read her books. I happen to love her book explaining hybrid cars. It's going to be a guide for us when we buy another car, down the road.

    Congratulations to Jen on the new book & the ENGINEERING book, due out later. We look forward to all your titles.

    1. Yes, I 've met Jen IRL. too. She is so kind and generous w/her time. Lucky you w/that feedback, Jan.

  8. Wonderful interview and question/answers, Kathy & Jen!