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The debut author discusses STEM, mental health, and representation in middle-grade fiction, while making some truly terrific puns.
Tae Keller is a New Yorker by way of Honolulu and the proud mom of a stubborn Yorkie. Her debut, middle-grade novel, The Science of Breakable Things (2018), garnered a starred review from Booklist. The moving novel chronicles seventh-grader Natalie’s attempts to use the scientific method both to win the local egg-drop contest and bring her botanist mother out of depression. Peopled with well-rounded characters young and old, it’s a story with appeal for a wide range of readers. It was a pleasure to catch up with this bright new voice in middle-grade and talk STEM, mental health, and the importance for everyone to see themselves in books.
BARNES: The classic egg-drop experiment is a formative memory for so many of us. (Perhaps I had a somewhat twisted sixth-grade teacher, though, because, as I recall, we first had to keep an egg “alive” for a week as part of a parenting unit, followed by the egg drop!) Did you mine your own middle-school memories or was it something you had to experiment on all over again?
KELLER: Oh, that is twisted! We did an egg drop when I was in middle school, but tragically, my egg broke in the first round. Coming up for designs for this book was so fun because not only did I get to play around and experiment again but I also got to explore every wild, impossible idea I had as a kid. Basketballs, balloons, marshmallows—nothing was off-limits.
Over the past few years, we’ve been seeing more middle-grade books exploring mental-health issues. Your depiction of Natalie’s mother’s struggle with depression felt especially true to life, and yet it never swallows the story. Was it challenging to strike the right balance?
KELLER: A lot of times, when you love somebody who is struggling, it can feel selfish to think about anything else. But of course, life keeps happening. I was really aware of letting Natalie go to school, hang out with her friends, and just be a kid. I wanted to show that it’s OK to continue on, to experience life beyond the pain. It’s necessary. And that doesn’t mean you love the person any less.
STEM plays a large role in The Science of Breakable Things, from the structural use of scientific methods to Natalie’s mother’s work as a botanist to Operation Egg Drop. How much of this comes from your own experience and how much stemmed from research (pun-intended)?
KELLER: That is an egg-cellent pun. I’ve always loved science, and I was excited to write a book about it, but my background is far more creative than STEM based. This book was a learning experience for both Natalie and me; I studied a few seventh-grade science textbooks and talked to teachers to make sure I was getting the classroom science right!
As for Natalie’s mother’s work—that was more of a challenge, because most of that science is invented, but I wanted it to feel rooted in reality (the pun game is strong). I did a lot of botany research so I could come up with a somewhat feasible scenario, but ultimately got creative with bright blue miracle orchids.
Your debut has so many hooks for young readers, making it a great fit for many classrooms. Do you have any suggested tie-in activities? What do you hope kids will take away from this story?
KELLER: Beyond the egg drop, Natalie and her friends do a frog dissection, build compasses, and study pendulums—so hopefully there’s tie-in potential there!
Part of the reason I structured the novel as a middle-school science notebook is because homework is such an essential part of kids’ lives. And I had such complicated feelings about homework when I was a kid—it was a burden, occasionally, but it was also something I felt complete ownership over. Often, homework was a safe space. I want readers to know that they can use their schoolwork as a space to learn and grow—not just in specific subject areas, but as a person, too.
BARNES: Natalie is one-quarter Korean on her father’s side, and while she’s trying to forge a stronger connection to her Korean heritage, it’s only a small part of the story. How important is it for you to tell stories about nonwhite characters that capture their complexity and truths? As a young reader, did you struggle to find stories that mirrored your life and experiences
KELLER: I’ve written plenty of practice novels and stories before The Science of Breakable Things, but they never featured a main character with my identity. Growing up, I’d mostly seen stories about white girls, and occasionally Asian girls, but I never read about biracial girls. For a long time, it didn’t even occur to me to write that identity.
And because of that, I think it’s so important to feature those characters. Growing up—and sometimes even now—I felt this pressure to “pick a side”: to be Asian or white. And I think it’s important to show readers that it’s OK to be both, that being mixed race is a valid identity.
Middle-schoolers are perennially interested in friendship stories, though at the same time so many friendship stories have already been written. Natalie’s friendships felt fresh and current. Was it hard to find a new angle?
KELLER: So much of middle school is about change. Every individual grows so much, and because of that, friendships form and transform and fall apart rapidly. In Natalie’s friendships, I wanted to do justice to the nature of growing up, while also showing that change doesn’t always mean the end of a friendship. No character stays the same, and their relationships evolve with them.
What are you working on next?
KELLER: I can’t say too much, but I’m writing another middle grade, this one based on the Korean folktales my grandmother used to tell me. It’s been such a joy to connect to my heritage in a new way, and I can’t wait to share this story.
The Science of Breakable Things. 2018. Random, $16.99 (9781524715663). Gr. 4–7.
The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole. By Michelle Cuevas. 2017. Dial, $16.99 (9780399539138). Gr. 3–5.
The Fourteenth Goldfish. By Jennifer L. Holm. 2014. Random, $16.99 (9780375870644). Gr. 4–6.
The Friendship Experiment. By Erin Teagan. 2016. HMH, $16.99 (9780544636224). Gr. 4–7.
The Someday Suitcase. By Corey Ann Haydu. 2017. HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen, $16.99 (9780062352750). Gr. 3–6.
The Thing about Jellyfish. By Ali Benjamin. 2015. Little, Brown, $17 (9780316380867). Gr. 5–8.
Fiction Dealing with Mental Illness
Chasing the Milky Way. By Erin E. Moulton. 2014. Philomel, $16.99 (9780399164491). Gr. 5–8.
Finding Perfect. By Elly Swartz. 2016. Farrar, $16.99 (9780374303129). Gr. 4–7.
Footer Davis Probably Is Crazy. By Susan Vaught. 2015. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 (9781481422765). Gr. 4–8.
Sure Signs of Crazy. By Karen Harrington. 2013. Little, Brown, $16.99 (9780316210584). Gr. 5–8.
Jennifer Barnes reviews for Booklist and is a former teen and youth services librarian.
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