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A friend told me recently that research has found that girls decide science is not for them by second grade. New England author and poet Jeannine Atkins is determined to change those perceptions and has created multiple books that put girls and women at the heart of science exploration, technological innovation, ingenious engineering, and mathematical inquiry (STEM!). Atkins’ recent novel in verse, Finding Wonders (2016), is one such fantastic example: a depiction of three women in history whose respective passions for math, astronomy, paleontology, botany, and more is evident already in their young childhoods.
It isn’t Atkins’ first foray into true stories of girls and science: previous titles (see end bibliography) reveal a real passion for science, history, and biography. It’s something that is particularly clear when she mines the untold stories of girls and women who ventured into these male-dominated fields long before Gloria Steinem (or even Elizabeth Cady Stanton) advocated for women’s rights and roles. Using careful research, thoughtful storytelling, lyrical language, and powerful portraits, Atkins honors real women in history whose lives and contributions deserve to be shared and celebrated with young readers of today. Here, she answers a handful of questions about poetry, science, feminism, biography, and the importance of fathers as models and encouragers.
VARDELL: Can you describe the role poetry played in your childhood? When and how did you first discover a love for science, too?
ATKINS: I grew up in a small New England town where I could wander in the woods, bicycle down back roads, and walk to the library. There wasn’t what we’d call a lot to do. In other words, it was a sort of golden age of childhood. In the attic of our old house, I found musty primers that I used to give my dolls lessons, and where I had memorized some poems. All these years later, some lines remain with me.
Poetry, science, and play blurred together. I cracked open rocks, made lists of birds and flowers, and collaborated with my brother on experiments using old glass cigar tubes as test tubes, but no one ever suggested I become a scientist. That’s OK. I lost most of my interest in science when cloud formations and maps of the earth’s core got swapped for abstractions. Who knows if anything would have been different if I was aware of women scientists, but I want to help today’s children know more possibilities.
VARDELL: Which poets have influenced your writing for young readers?
ATKINS: So many poets have touched me, including Joyce Sidman, Irene Latham, and Naomi Shihab Nye, but Marilyn Nelson’s work, particularly Carver: A Life in Poems (2001), and Karen Hesse’s verse novels, beginning with Out of the Dust (1997), made me see how lightly but powerfully free verse could hold history.
VARDELL: How would you characterize the relationship between science and poetry?
ATKINS: Poetry hints, explores, and doesn’t pounce onto certainty. Science is like that, too. For each question solved, another rises. Both poets and scientists may look closely at the world, make mistakes, try again, and wonder.
VARDELL: You celebrate the achievements of girls and women in science in your writing. Where does this feminist perspective come from?
ATKINS: Writing was a pleasure for me as a child, but in high school, my memories of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott faded—reading lists had just a few poems by Emily Dickinson and stories by Eudora Welty sprinkled among bulky novels written by men. Curricula have become more diverse, but women remain underrepresented in science. I like the thrill of the hunt, finding what’s partly buried. And it’s another joy to introduce young readers to women who pursued their dreams.
VARDELL: What do you think biographical poetry might offer that a nonfiction prose biography might not?
ATKINS: Biographies don’t always suggest the sense of a life in context: the sounds of waves, the slickness of rocks, the scent of the night sky by the salt water where discoveries were made. Some fact-heavy nonfiction can even give the wrong impression that everything has been discovered. Poetry’s compression, imagery, and omissions may create a sense of mystery that reflects the way nature keeps surprising us.
VARDELL: How do you decide if a story should be told in verse?
ATKINS: There’s often more blundering than choosing, or I work my way through the wrong form before finding one that’s better. I first wrote Borrowed Names as prose, but it seemed to grow more alive under my hands when I took out words. Sometimes nonfiction can seem too long. And sometimes poems may seem too short.
I loved writing small poems on how Jean-Henri Fabre got his children involved in his study of insects, and on the mathematical work of Florence Nightingale for The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science (2014). A poem can be a window into a life. But for Finding Wonders, I wanted to spend more time with my subjects. Verse narratives can be the perfect way to use poetry’s precision along with the wondering of “What happens next? And then?”
Writing the linked poems let me show what led to discoveries, as well as how girls devoted to science also cared about neighbors, families, religion, a friend’s choice in shoes, whether the chowder was hot, or other everyday concerns. Sure, science needs devotion, but even Marie Curie made time to bicycle with her daughters and tend a rose garden.
VARDELL: Why do you think fathers are so important in the lives and stories of female scientists?
ATKINS: It’s said that every father of a girl becomes a feminist. Maybe that’s wishful thinking, but the fathers in the families shown in Finding Wonders wanted to share their passions, needed help with their work, and didn’t discriminate between daughters and sons. Even today, fathers are more likely than mothers to have science and engineering knowledge to pass on, and men who don’t have sons seem more likely to ask daughters to help them fix the car or plumbing, ensuring that girls feel competent with making measurements and using tools. Hurray for those dads!
VARDELL: What advice do you have for teachers, librarians, and parents about promoting an interest in science and poetry in young people?
ATKINS: Many children still think of a scientist as a white guy with wild hair in a lab coat, so it’s great to display pictures of women doing science and exploration. These images are important not just for girls but for boys, growing up and down the road. More women in male-dominated fields like science or politics may improve conditions for everyone, as adjustments are made in recognition that many workers have families who need them.
Research can turn into poetry instead of papers or reports. Writing a poem or two might take students out of the bounds of one book to cover long library tables with travel guides, science manuals, and collections of pictures of houses, gardens, fields, and woods.
So much good happens when an adult says yes to the interest of any child. Teachers and parents do that every day with words, looks, passing along books.
Borrowed Names: Poems about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C. J. Walker, Marie Curie, and their Daughters. By Jeannine Atkins. 2010. Holt, $16.99 (9780805089349). Gr. 6–9.
Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science. 2016. Atheneum, $16.99 (9781481465656). Gr. 4–7.
Girls Who Looked under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists. Illus. by Paula Conner. 2000. Dawn, (9780613353830). Gr. 5–8.
How High Can We Climb? The Story of Women Explorers. Illus. by Dušan Petričić. 2005. Farrar, o.p. Gr. 5–8.
Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon. Illus. by Michael Dooling. 1999. Farrar, $16 (9781480056879). K–Gr. 4.
Wings and Rockets: The Story of Women in Air and Space. Illus. by Dušan Petričić. 2003. Farrar, o.p. Gr. 5–10.
Read Finding Wonders aloud as a class or group book selection. Select passages can even be read readers’-theater style, with volunteers taking the parts of the main characters and subjects (Maria Merian, Mary Anning, and Maria Mitchell) and supporting characters. Talk about each of these women and their accomplishments; then work together to add visuals so students can truly picture the era in which each of these women grew up and worked.
Check out the “Finding Wonders Timeline” on the author’s website. Collaborate to create a slideshow featuring these images and reading (and recording) a poem or two about each woman. These could be shared during an open house or science fair.
In Finding Wonders, Atkins makes it clear that each woman’s interest in science, math, or engineering is rooted in her childhood explorations, hobbies, and interests (e.g., painting outside, hunting and collecting, studying numbers and puzzles, stargazing, etc.). In many cases, each girl had several interests (in drawing or painting and in studying nature, for example) that evolved into true scientific inquiry. Talk with students about their hobbies and interests and point out how these may offer STEM connections. Research possible career paths that might emerge from these interests using websites like the following:
Invite guest speakers (particularly women) who work in these fields to talk with students about their own STEM work and the roots of their interests, too.
What other women have been unheralded in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics? Work together to research more names worthy of exploration using books like Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women (2000), by Catherine Thimmesh; Amelia to Zora: Twenty-Six Women Who Changed the World (2005), by Cynthia Chin-Lee; or Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World (2016), by Rachel Ignotofsky.
Also helpful are websites such as Biography.com, FamousFemaleScientists.com, and AMightyGirl.com. Students can choose a woman-scientist subject and then take notes or jot keywords describing her and her contributions and examining what is known about her childhood, in particular. Then challenge students to take those details and turn them into a free-verse poem or biopoem and make a class poetry book of STEM women heroes for Women’s History Month, in March; National Poetry Month, in April; or for sharing any time. For more examples of poems about women in science, look for The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science (2014).
Sylvia M. Vardell, a professor of children’s and young adult literature at Texas Woman’s University, is the author of the Poetry for Children blog and coeditor (with Janet Wong) of The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations: Holiday Poems for the Whole Year in English and Spanish (2015).
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