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The acclaimed picture-book author discusses the STEM focus in her work and how she thinks her characters, who are used to hands-on learning, would weather a remote classroom experience.
“Everyone has the power to solve problems in their families, schools, towns, cities, states, nations, and planet. . . . But without social will to enact solutions, we are lost. Understanding how to get people to pay attention, learn some basic climate science, comprehend how they are affected by the problem and what they can do to fix it is now part of science education!”
A celebrated picture-book author, Andrea Beaty is perhaps best known for her Questioneers series, a set of interlinked picture books that, so far, has featured four kids from the same classroom. Iggy Peck (an architect!), Rosie Revere (an engineer!), Ada Twist (a scientist!), and Sofia Valdez (the future prez!) all explore their different, often very STEM-friendly interests in Miss Greer’s second-grade classroom, expanding their skills and flitting in and out of each other’s stories.
Recently, we caught up with Beaty to talk about her experience writing these books, collaborating with an illustrator, and how the Questioneers could contribute to distance learning.
Vander Pluym: When you first began this journey with Iggy Peck, Architect, were you already planning a series of picture books? How did the concept of The Questioneers as a diverse class of talented students take shape?Beaty: I wrote Iggy Peck, Architect as a single picture book based on my son’s love of building things from whatever was handy. David Roberts was chosen as the illustrator by our publisher, and he created the world we now know as Blue River Creek simply from the text of the story where it says there were “seventeen smiling young faces.” He drew those kids as the marvelous students in Miss Lila Greer’s diverse class. The subsequent books all come from my trying to figure out who those kids are, based on David’s illustrations and the clues he leaves about their personalities. I add some story, and David creates a whole new set of illustrations with clues, and we rinse and repeat. It’s really an ongoing treasure hunt!
Vander Pluym: What inspired you to focus the first three Questioneers stories around STEM themes?Beaty: Although I have a background in biology and computer science and STEM has always been a big part of my world, I didn’t set out to write books about STEM. The books are, to me, about bigger themes. I wrote Iggy about architecture because I loved the idea of a kid building great structures from funny things, but the story is really about passion. I made Rosie an engineer to see what kind of terrific illustrations David might come up with, but the story is about perseverance. Ada is a scientist because she stands to one side tapping her chin, deep in thought, while Iggy and the other students build his shoestring / fruit roll-up bridge—it’s a tale of curiosity. Even Sofia Valdez, Future Prez, which is about solving environmental problems through civic engagement, is, to me, about bravery. The reason the books connect to people is that everyone experiences these emotions in their lives. Even kids feel these things, and they can connect to the characters because of this.
Vander Pluym: Though Sofia is more focused on civic action in her community, are there ways in which her journey also touches on the STEM-related themes of her classmates?Beaty: Absolutely! Sofia’s adventure starts when her abuelo is accidentally hurt at a trash heap. Sofia recognizes that this environmentally unfriendly situation could be changed in a way to help her family and her community. That’s a real-world problem in many, many, many places.
Everyone has the power to solve problems in their families, schools, towns, cities, states, nations, and planet. There is no bigger problem than the looming catastrophe of climate change. Solving that requires scientific know-how. But without social will to enact solutions, we are lost. Understanding how to get people to pay attention, learn some basic climate science, comprehend how they are affected by the problem and what they can do to fix it is now part of science education!
Vander Pluym: During the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual/distance learning has become the mode of the day. How can teachers use the Questioneers to guide virtual STEM and civic learning?Beaty: I can’t begin to express my admiration for educators and the incredible fortitude they have shown during the pandemic. So much creativity, too! There are lots of ways to use the Questioneers in classrooms and virtually. I’ve been delighted to see so many videos of people sharing the books with their students and having kids do activities at home, such as building structures for Iggy Peck using whatever the kids have at home. There are lots of activities at Questioneers.com for educators and parents. Also, there are links to some great videos on my website (AndreaBeaty.com), including two videos that David Roberts created teaching kids how to draw the characters. Also, there are links to videos of Ada and Rosie being read by astronauts on the International Space Station through a program called Story Time from Space! It’s out of this world. I have links to videos about the launch that took Rosie to the ISS and what it’s like to be an astronaut as well. I hope that some of these resources will make this hard time a little easier!
Vander Pluym: How do you think Miss Greer would handle this unique moment in education? Do you (or Miss Greer) have any advice for educators transitioning to virtual learning? Beaty: One of the things I have enjoyed most about writing our newest book, Sofia Valdez and the Vanishing Vote, which released in October, is learning more about Miss Lila Greer. I have learned that while Miss Greer is a little anxious about trying new things—as we all can be—she takes heart from the example her students set for her, and she pulls it together and barrels through with good cheer and kindness. I think she would offer the same advice I would have: be kind to yourself. This is an overwhelming time for everyone, and nothing is going to go as planned. Ten years from now, or twenty or thirty, these kids are not going to remember that you taught them fractions or verbs. But they will remember that you were kind and made them feel a little braver when they needed it.
Vander Pluym: How do you think our four beloved Questioneers characters would adapt to the “new normal” of distance learning? What interesting ideas or advice might they have for today’s students?Beaty: I’ve thought a lot about this, actually!
Iggy would raid the pantry and use what he finds to make his computer screen part of a historic building of some kind—maybe a glorious movie theater from the 1930s. It would be awesome, and he would enjoy watching videos all day like he was in that art deco space watching a movie. In other words, Iggy would just be doing his Iggy thing in a new location.
Ada would be darting to her bookshelf and Thinking Wall, researching questions that pop into her brain about the virus and a million other things. I think she would struggle with the virtual classroom because she is such a hands-on learner and is driven by her own curiosity. It would be hard for her to stay focused on the virtual classroom when she has so many experiments to perform and questions to explore at home.
Rosie would build a massive contraption and would mechanize her online learning space into a Rube Goldberg–like classroom space. She could pull a lever and sharpen her pencil. Then she could push a button to turn the pages of her notebook. She would learn a lot of things but probably not the things she was supposed to learn. I think, though, that she would find a way to make it work, more or less.
Sofia would cover her computer screen and tabletop with Post-its of things she needed to remember for the projects she was working on after school. She would be very concerned about all her friends and her teacher and other kids who might not have a computer or other things they need. She’d be organizing ways to help the other kids stay in good spirits and maybe raise money to get books to kids who don’t have any. She would do her best to stay informed about everything going on in the community. I think she would do okay with the virtual learning, but of all the kids, she would miss school the most. She is the most social of all the kids and the isolation of virtual schooling would be very hard for her.
I think Miss Greer would understand all this and find ways for them to share what they are doing at home with the class. That would help them all feel more connected. Also, I hope they would all get to take some time just relaxing every day and thinking about some of the good things around them. Even things as simple as a bird in the tree outside could help them feel better.
Vander Pluym: What role do the concepts of diversity and inclusion play in the Questioneers, both in your own writing process and within Miss Greer’s classroom world? What do you think your young readers can learn about inclusivity from these stories? Beaty: David Roberts has really driven this aspect of the Questioneers through his illustrations. As a picture-book writer, my goal is to tell a story with as few words as possible. As such, I never describe how kids look unless it affects the plot. In fact, Rosie’s hair covering her eye is the only place I describe a physical trait of the kids. David does all the heavy lifting. That lets me explore themes like passion, perseverance, bravery, and curiosity, which are universal. Because every kid has those traits, they can connect with the characters. And because the students in the class are of diverse backgrounds, kids just intuitively understand that all those kids are cool, capable, and share those traits just like them. Empathy for the win! Of course, this is nothing unique to the Questioneers. It’s just the magic of books!
Vander Pluym: How can educators and parents use the Questioneers chapter books to extend learning as their children grow in their reading abilities?Beaty: One really important aspect of the books is that they cover so many different subject areas. I have never liked the way subjects are so siloed in our education system. I don’t think it’s helpful or natural. Every day of every year of my life is a mix of art and science, history, math, music—you name it. That’s true for everyone! In these books, I toss in whatever I am curious about while I’m writing them. That’s everything from poems about plumbing to history about art nouveau to ice-cream recipes to voting rights. It’s all in there!
My hope is that kids who are reading along, enjoying the plot of the book will get their interest piqued about something and want to learn more. That’s why we include nonfiction sections at the end! Also, I hope educators and parents can get more comfortable encouraging kids to explore topics the adults might not be well versed in. Adults always think they have to be experts and shy away from awesome exploration if it’s not a topic in their wheelhouse. I want everyone to just get out there and start asking questions and see where it takes them! I always think the most powerful thing a parent can say when a kid asks a question is, “I don’t know. Let’s find out!”
Vander Pluym: What can young readers, educators, and parents look forward to next from you and the Questioneers?Beaty: So many things! I had two books come out in October. The first is a picture book about the power of books to change the lives of girls around the world. It’s called One Girl and is beautifully illustrated by Dow Phumiruk. Also, the next Questioneers chapter book, Sofia Valdez and the Vanishing Vote, came out the same day! The class is holding an election to pick a class pet, and it’s all good until the deciding vote goes missing. It’s such a fun book with baking, voting, turtles—you name it! There’s lots more information at Questioneers.com, including an election guide for educators and families, plus lots of activities.
In spring 2021, our next project book comes out: Sofia Valdez’s Big Project Book for Awesome Activists. It’s chock full of civics ideas and great activities to help kids understand their communities and how they can make them better places.
Sampling Beaty’s Questioneers
Ada Twist and the Perilous Pants. Illus. by David Roberts. 2019. Abrams/Amulet, $16.99 (9781419734229). Gr. 1–4.Ada Twist, Scientist. Illus. by David Roberts. 2016. Abrams, $17.95 (9781419721373). K–Gr. 2.Iggy Peck and the Mysterious Mansion. Illus. by David Roberts. 2020. Abrams/Amulet, $12.99 (9781419736926). Gr. 1–4.Iggy Peck, Architect. Illus. by David Roberts. 2007. Abrams, $15.95 (9780810911062). K–Gr. 2.Rosie Revere and the Raucous Riveters. Illus. by David Roberts. 2018. Abrams/Amulet, $12.99 (9781419733604). Gr. 1–4.Rosie Revere, Engineer. Illus. by David Roberts. 2013. Abrams, $16.95 (9781419708459). K–Gr. 2.Sofia Valdez, Future Prez. Illus. by David Roberts. 2019. Abrams, $18.99 (9781419737046). PreS–Gr. 2.Sofia Valdez and the Vanishing Vote. Illus. by David Roberts. 2020. Abrams/Amulet, $12.99 (9781419743504). Gr. 1–4.
Lauren Vander Pluym is an Upper School Project-Based Learning Teacher in Chicago, IL.
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