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The neuroscientist and professor discusses her science-adventure series for early readers and the importance of hands-on learning and diversifying STEM fields.
“Scientists are constantly struggling against the stereotype that we work in isolation. . . . The idea of working together to solve a problem has to be at the center of each book, because I want kids to understand that science is done as a team. And that to be a good scientist, you have to be a good team player.”
Theanne Griffith likes to keep busy, which is a good thing, because as a neuroscientist, professor, and mother, she’s got plenty on her plate. This year, she added yet another credential: she’s also the author of the Magnificent Makers, an early-reader series featuring science-loving friends who are whisked away on magical makerspace adventures and given challenges to complete. Each playfully illustrated book centers on a scientific theme, while built-in lessons and hands-on activities make them fully interactive experiences.
Recently, we caught up with Griffith to discuss her creation of these books, her work as a scientist, and the larger role she sees her characters playing.
Reagan: This is such a fun, interactive, and classroom-friendly series. Each book is kind of a Magic School Bus–like adventure that’s built around a particular science lesson. Could you tell us a little bit about your process for creating each one?Griffith: The general premise of each book is that best friends Violet and Pablo go on an out-of-this-world adventure into a magical laboratory called the Maker Maze. When I’m thinking about creating each story, the first thing that I think about is, what is the science going to be? What are the kids going to be learning about in the book? And I choose the topic through a little bit of a mix of things that I think are cool and that kids might find exciting—but also by some of the learning benchmarks that teachers need to meet for a given school year at a given grade level. I definitely went through the Common Core standards, just to see what kids were learning about in school, and tried to also tie those in. So that’s why the first book is about ecosystems and food chains, because that’s definitely a huge learning unit in second and third grade.
I made book two about the brain, which I do not think is on the Common Core standards. But as a neuroscientist myself, I found that this was a subject I definitely wanted to cover. I didn’t really start learning about the brain in a formal way until I was in AP Bio, and I don’t think that we need to wait that long to introduce kids to the brain.
In addition to choosing a science topic, I then try to figure out a real-life lesson to tie into the science that will help propel the story forward. For book one, I chose managing emotions and dealing with jealousy. Book two is all about working on a team. And then book three is about appreciating differences. After that, I just try to make it fun and fast-paced and exciting, to throw weird scenarios out there and try to activate as many Maker Maze gadgets as I can. There is a whole bunch of fun and crazy stuff in there to get kids engaged and excited.
Reagan: What made you decide to focus on early readers?Griffith: That was a stroke of luck. When I first started my writer’s journey, I was trying to do picture books, because at the time, my daughter was under a year old. We were reading a ton of picture books, and I kind of fell into that genre, but I was having a tough time. The story I was trying to tell, I realized as I was trying to tell it, was too long for a typical picture book nowadays. And I wasn’t quite sure what to do and how to fix it.
And then, out of nowhere, Caroline Abbey at Random House emailed me. She had been following me on Twitter and saw that I was a scientist and a writer, and she asked if I wanted to try my hand at a chapter-book series. And while I was thinking about the idea, I hadn’t pursued it actively. And then I just switched gears completely. We began trying to shape what I was trying to do with this picture book into a chapter-book series, and that’s how it was born. It wasn’t like I decided up front that this is what I should do, but I’m still glad it worked out that way, because the story is perfect. The story I was trying to tell is perfect for a chapter-book format.
Reagan: The characters are so charming. In not a lot of space, you manage to make Pablo and Violet these distinctive, clever kids. It also seems like you use them to subtly explore some of the more social aspects of the science industries: in the first book, Pablo feels really threatened by Deepak’s arrival and wants to compete with him, but then cooperation turns out to be the key to their success. So can you talk a little more about the spirit of collaboration that’s found throughout all of these books?Griffith: I think scientists are constantly struggling against the stereotype that we work in isolation. It is probably the furthest thing from the truth. Historically, there’s such a huge push toward what we call big science, like the team science where you have huge research groups all working together to tackle really big questions that you cannot do as a single small lab, let alone as an individual. So, definitely for me, the idea of working together to solve a problem has to be at the center of each book, because I want kids to understand that science is done as a team. And that to be a good scientist, you have to be a good team player. The people who are going to struggle in a scientific career, that could be something they’re lacking.
These characters are a little bit opposite, even though they’re best friends. Violet is much more of a daredevil and always excited and fearless. And Pablo is not necessarily afraid of anything, but he’s much more pragmatic, a little bit more square, if you will, and is always checking his watch to make sure everyone’s on time and trying to keep the order. I wanted to show how these two different personalities could really match and actually form a good science team. People don’t have to be exactly alike in order to work well together. They just need to complement each other. And I think that Violet’s and Pablo’s personalities complement each other very well.
Reagan: These books are so interactive—Pablo and Violet’s adventures themselves are packed with a lot of really rich information, and then you include activities that will help get kids involved and working together. Can you talk about why hands-on learning is so important, especially for kids at this age?Griffith: Science is like 80 percent hands-on, especially for the majority of your career. Science literally is doing. Often, because of resources or access to different equipment, science can be taught in a very didactic manner. And it’s just not didactic, for the most part. While you’re doing an experiment, you’re learning about the science that you’re conducting. For me, it was really important that I make sure that aspect of science was present in the book. I find science to be this beautiful combination of intellectual curiosity and hands-on discovery. I wanted to demonstrate that curiosity in the characters and then also give readers a way to get their hands dirty. When you do something—and especially when you do something a little bit wrong the first time and need to fix it and do it again—that helps with these activities. Because the kids don’t necessarily get it right the first time, and they have to struggle a little bit, and that is all part of the learning process. Going through those motions, the physical aspects, solidifies the concepts that they’re trying to obtain, understand, and master.
Reagan: In the last few years, I think we’ve really seen this huge push to encourage more girls to pursue STEM careers. Despite this, I think there are a lot of people who still tend to assume that the default person cut out for the STEM fields is a white, cis male. Was it important for you to show Black and Brown kids who are talented at science just having a lot of fun with it?Griffith: It was 100 percent important for me. That was the core of why I wrote these books. As a Black woman growing up in the nineties, I had very few Black women scientist role models in general. We can name a handful, like Mae Jemison. But I wasn’t inundated with those images, let’s say. So what I really wanted to do with this book is show Black and Brown kids, Black girls, that they can be on the cover of the science book, that they can be an excellent, kick-butt scientist who goes on these crazy adventures and learns all of this cool stuff and has fun doing it. And I say this pretty much in every interview I do, too, because I really want to reinforce it, that this is also not just for Black and Brown kids to see. I think it’s equally important for white children to see Black and Brown kids doing these things. There is this underlying feeling, a perception about who is naturally good at science. If we’re in a third-grade classroom, that person would be a little white boy. You just fall into this stereotype cycle, I guess you could call it. I wanted to try and break those stereotypes down, because I was naturally good at science, too. And I think I doubted myself a little bit because I didn’t fit the mold. When I thought of someone who is good at science, I didn’t have an image of someone like myself immediately come to mind. And so I’m hoping that these books, with these Black and Brown kids on the cover, will start to break apart that stereotype and, in the long term, help make science a more inclusive field by attracting a more diverse group of kids earlier on.
Reagan: Can you tell us about some of the STEM education and outreach events that you’ve been involved in? Are you doing any remote or virtual events now?Griffith: I’ve been a proponent of STEM education since I started studying science in college. I would participate in what are called Brain Fairs, where a bunch of college students take over an elementary gym and set up all of the fun learning stations that highlight different aspects of the brain, and kids can go around. It’s literally like a little carnival, except without rides. A brain carnival! I’ve participated in tons of those.
I did a half-day workshop in collaboration with the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago for their Black Creativity series, where I had groups of kids come in. We would do a short presentation, again about the brain, and show them specimens of a human brain, rat brain, cat brain, monkey brain—a comparative thing.
More recently, since we’ve gone virtual, I’ve done a few online activities with Skype a Scientist. You can find a lot of these videos on my web page at theannegriffith.com/videos. But I did a Skype a Scientist where I answered a whole bunch of questions about the brain for kids. I’ve also done an author event, which was really fun, with my bookseller in Montclair, New Jersey. We did a model eardrum. Didn’t quite work out as I had planned, because I was in my office, so I couldn’t make as much noise as I wanted to. But it was still a lot of fun. I think it highlights how sometimes science doesn’t work out perfectly, but you can still have a great time doing it.
Reagan: The second book in the Magnificent Makers series addresses that A in STEAM, which seems like something that’s especially near and dear to you as both a scientist and a more artistic creator. How do you balance all these careers—as a neuroscientist, a professor, and a children’s author?Griffith: It is not trivial. Writing is a process, and I’m learning a new style. The chapter-book series was kind of new. I had to learn that format, learn how to not completely center the science but center the characters and use the science as the world-building backdrop. Learning all of those things was a little bit of a challenge for me, but now I feel like I’ve found my rhythm. Now, writing the books isn’t too bad. It doesn’t take me nearly as long as it took me in the beginning, when I was really being probably too type-A scientist, which was actually crushing my creativity. But now it’s a balancing act. Everything just goes into my calendar, and I allocate time on a daily basis. And I always give myself more room in case things come up. Because, in addition to being a neuroscientist and a writer, I also have two small children, so there’s always something that comes up in that regard. But I think there always comes a point when something has to give for a little bit. There was a moment there where I didn’t do any children’s book writing for several months, because I had a lot of science stuff to get off the ground.
Currently, I’m starting as an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis, but I actually started a new position a year ago, in the same place, where I was really launching something. And that takes a little bit more focus. But the good thing is, when I get tired of science, then I can go to the kids’ books, and I can start writing. And if I get writer’s block, then I can say, “Okay, let’s focus on this other part of my science.” So there’s always something to do. And I like to stay busy. I love to stay busy. So I love bouncing from one thing to the next and then activating different parts of my brain accordingly.
Reagan: The third Magnificent Makers book came out in September. What’s coming up next for you?Griffith: I’m really excited to announce we have also signed up for books four and five. They’re untitled as of yet, but book four in the series is going to be all about germs, which I think is a very important topic, and people will be excited to be able to have conversations with their kids about germs. And we also talk a little bit about spreading germs and how to avoid that. The kind of personal life lesson of this book is why it’s really important to not spread germs to people, because not everyone has a perfect, in-shape immune system. We kind of touch on that in the book, I think, in a really fun, nice way, so kids will understand why we want to contain germs and not spread them. That’s tentatively set to be released, I believe, in the fall of 2021. And then book five is going to be about outer space and our solar system. That will tentatively be coming out in early spring, late winter of 2022. I’m so happy to keep writing these. I just love diving into the series, and I want to also shout out to the series illustrator, Reggie Brown, who is amazing, does beautiful drawings, and brings such life to the books. And also the way he illustrates the experiments in the back matter, I think, really gets kids excited about digging into those.
Sampling GriffithThe Magnificent Makers #1: How to Test a Friendship. Illus. by Reggie Brown. 2020. Random/Stepping Stone, $5.99 (9780593122983). Gr. 1–3.The Magnificent Makers #2: Brain Trouble. Illus. by Reggie Brown. 2020. Random/Stepping Stone, $5.99 (9780593123010). Gr. 1–3.The Magnificent Makers #3: Riding Sound Waves. Illus. by Reggie Brown. 2020. Random/Stepping Stone, $5.99 (9780593123102). Gr. 1–3.
Maggie Reagan is a Books for Youth Senior Editor at Booklist.
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