GUEST POSTS: NSTA Linking Literacy, NSTA National Convention, Boston, MA. 9 am – 3 pm, April 4, 2020.
The National Science Teacher’s Association has invited authors of Outstanding Science Trade Books and Best Stem Books to discuss literacy and children’s books at a special Literacy Event. 14 of these authors have contributed guest posts to run from January 7 – April 2, 2020.

See the full author list and the date on which they’ll post at Linking Literacy 2020

Do you remember that kid who claimed bragging rights for knowing stuff? Let’s call him “Encyclopedia Eddie.” He annoyed me, to be honest. But I also secretly wanted to know as much as he did. He was the kid I had in mind when I started working on John Deere, That’s Who!.

From my experience writing an earlier book about tractors, I knew that most people who have seen the name “John Deere” on those ubiquitous green-and-yellow tractors and lawn mowers conclude that John Deere must have invented the tractor.

Wrong, friends. John Deere died about 30 years before the first tractor. And that fact alone would have been bragging rights for Eddie. But it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to find out what John Deere actually did to make him famous. My line of inquiry had nothing to do with STEM—and everything, in the end.

My research for the book included reading books, scouring 1800s newspapers, viewing online archives, interviewing experts (including farmers and the archivist at the John Deere headquarters), and visiting the John Deere museums in Moline and Grand Detour, Illinois. I learned that John Deere was a pretty good blacksmith, which the little town of Grand Detour needed, especially since its location on the prairie meant that the farmers were banging up their heavy plows on the tall-grass roots all the time. BOOM. John had a problem to solve for his customers! John did hands-on research and figured out that steel would probably work better than iron. He brainstormed solutions, chose a design that might resolve the problem, built a prototype, tested it, and kept tinkering with it to make it better and better. His plow eventually changed America and his company went on to become one of the best-known farm-implement and equipment manufacturers in the world.

Now my job was to write that up, and make it interesting and engaging for young readers, including Encyclopedia Eddie. It had to a have a fun-factor. But what?

I tried lyrical prose à la Jacqueline Briggs-Martin’s Snowflake Bentley. My draft? Utterly boring.

Next, I revised the content into a series of poems, recalling Joyce Sidman’s Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold. Hers? Beautiful. Mine? Meh.

Then I played with the rhythm, repetition, tone, and voice, using The Extraordinary Mark Twain, According to Susy by Barbara Kerley and Just Behave, Pablo Picasso! by Jonah Winter for inspiration, among other outstanding biographies. Soon, I found my own way into John Deere’s story and things became more fun, for me and for readers.

After the book came out, a teacher emailed me to ask if John had used the Engineering Design Process. My first reaction was: His plow was developed in 1837—way before some fancy-pants innovation technique. Then I looked up “engineering design process.” Turns out, John nailed it!

So, when I say that the book had nothing to do with STEM, I mean that I didn’t set out to write a STEM book. I wanted to write the surprising story of one of America’s game-changers in an interesting and engaging way. Tim Zeltner’s beautiful artwork complements the effort and captivates readers, particularly visual learners. Together, I think we organically and authentically created a STEM picture-book biography—and that’s why it works.

When young readers discover a picture-book biography about a scientist, inventor, engineer, mathematician, or artist they know nothing about—or think they know everything about—magic can happen. Educators, librarians, parents: please, read the books aloud. Share the back matter. Then deconstruct the book together:

• Can you find technical information tucked into the story? What did you learn?

• Ask why this person mattered then, and why this person matters now.

• Discuss how the illustrations help tell the story (or not).

• Look for patterns in the illustrations and text.

• Ask how does this story change how you think about that time period, place, culture, etc.?

• What would you tell a younger reader about this book? About this person?

STEM/STEAM picture-book biographies can help stretch readers’ imaginations while conveying truths about our world, past and present. These books offer accessible ways to see how one person (or a group) can make a difference or lead to changes. Picture-book biographies can inspire more inquiry and reinforce STEM learning. They can even be fun to read, for Encyclopedia Eddie and the rest of us. 

I’m looking forward to talking more about picture-book biographies and other STEM books at the 2019 NSTA Convention’s Linking Literacy event on April 12-13, in St. Louis. And I’ll have a sneak peek there of my next book, Samuel Morse, That’s Who!

Who’s ready for some STEM-book fun? We are, that’s who!

Tracy Nelson Maurer has written more than 100 nonfiction books for children, including the award-winning John Deere, That’s Who! (Henry Holt) and Noah Webster’s Fighting Words (Millbrook). Her next book, Samuel Morse, That’s Who! (Henry Holt), launches June 25, 2019; it’s already a Jr. Library Guild Selection. She loves the writing process and talking about books. Come join the discussion!

Learn more at Follow her on Facebook and Twitter (@ReadTracyMaurer).

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