National Geographic is on a mission to introduce a generation of readers to some impressive female heroes in the form of dynamic fictional characters and real-life role models. Izzy Newton and the S.M.A.R.T. Squad is an all-new series featuring a group of middle schoolers who solve STEM-minded mysteries, while Girls Can is a colorful compendium of admirable women from every walk of life, from Cleopatra to Oprah, and including some real-life Nat Geo scientists. It’s part of a plan to empower today’s preteens and help them find success.
The diverse set of characters in Izzy Newton and the S.M.A.R.T. Squad will do just that. The first book, Absolute Hero, offers a compelling story that includes science- and tech-inspired adventures mixed with kindness, humor, and humility. There might be no author better equipped to launch this series than Valerie Tripp, whose long list of credits includes American Girl titles featuring popular characters like Felicity, Josefina, Kit, Maryellen, Molly, and Samantha. “Valerie Tripp has an innate ability to tap into the hearts and minds of young women through her inspiring characters and uplifting stories,” says Rebecca Baines, executive editor of National Geographic Kids Books. “We are honored to work alongside her to deliver this fun new series that reaffirms National Geographic’s ultimate goal of inspiring kids to work hard, dream big, and never stop chasing their goals.”
As 11-year-old Newton and her group of brainy buds team up to solve mysteries and reveal truths, they also deal with the universal trials and triumphs of growing up. Tripp was excited to take on this new challenge. “Just as the American Girl stories empowered readers by blasting through dusty old tropes and gender stereotypes that were never universally true,” Tripp says, “the S.M.A.R.T. Squad stories say to readers: ‘Do what you love. You know you’re mindful, kind, goofy, creative, hardworking, brave, and smart, so go ahead and be the quirky, unique individual you are—otherwise, what’s the point?’” That’s a message that will clearly resonate with readers both young and old.
“The girls are a diverse group with different backgrounds, interests, talents, flaws, and obsessions,” Tripp says. “I love throwing them together, challenging them with a problem, and then, watch out! Anything can happen.” She admits she was also driven by a sense of urgency. “I want the S.M.A.R.T. Squad stories to focus on putting facts, science, evidence, and logic to work in the service of compassion,” she says. “Could there be anything more important right now?”
The author was also lucky to find a key group of advisors she calls the Lunch Bunch. “They’re the bright, bouncy girls at St. John the Evangelist School in Silver Spring, Md., who inspired me with specific ideas for stories,” she says. “With my Lunch Bunch girls’ help, I’ve learned that we’re not meant to be perfect. We’re meant to need each other and help each other. Really, they set the whimsical, friendly, sincere, ‘smart girl’ tone of the series and gave the stories authenticity and heart. I was blown away by their empathy and kindness for others.”
The series debut is set during the first few weeks of middle school, as Izzy Newton and her pals Charlie Darwin and Allie Einstein journey into a whole new sixth-grade world, with changing classes, crowded hallways, and trying out for teams and clubs. But they aren’t expecting the school to actually be freezing inside from an air-conditioner malfunction, nor are they prepared for the chilly reception they receive from a former friend who has moved back to town.
“Middle school is the perfect setting for these stories,” Tripp says. “It’s a giant scientific experiment in which every kid tests hypotheses about how to navigate it every day. It’s about literally and figuratively finding your way.”
And it’s not a stretch to imagine any one of the S.M.A.R.T. Squad girls—or the book’s future fans—growing up to become one of the impressive role models featured in Girls Can. With an eye-catching design and a fun-to-read combination of colorful profiles, exclusive interviews, and myth-busting advice, Girls Can is a guide to more than 70 historic and present-day female trailblazers from all walks of life, women who’ve conquered obstacles on their way to success in sports and adventure, literature and the arts, science and technology, leadership, business, activism, and more. These women run the gamut from famous figures such as Marie Curie, Frida Kahlo, and Serena Williams to lesser-known heroines like Enheduanna—a Mesopotamian princess and priestess from around 2285 BCE, who also happens to be the world’s first poet—and Gitanjali Rao, the Colorado teenager who invented an innovative way to test water for lead in response to the crisis in Flint, Mich.
A trio of authors collaborated on the book, and each has her favorite role model. Social media activist Marissa Sebastian chooses Junko Tabei from Japan. “She was so incredibly courageous and hardworking, as both a mountain climber and a woman,” Sebastian says. “She was the very first woman to climb all seven of the highest mountains in the world. It doesn’t get much cooler than that.”
Marissa Sebastian Former National Geographic Kids editor Paige Towler picks Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, “two transgender women who made enormous strides for LGBTQ+rights and really exemplified the importance of female friendships,” while journalist-critic Tora Pruden is inspired by writer Roxane Gay. “Her work has helped so many, including myself,” she says, “who have struggled to live comfortably within themselves.”
Sebastian and Towler were also thrilled to bring attention to marine conservationist Asha de Vos. “Her work is so important to women, to her home country of Sri Lanka, and to the planet,” says Towler. Sebastian agrees. “I have a deep love and reverence for the ocean,” she says, “so getting to know more about Asha de Vos’s work and how it’s helping to save my favorite biome was amazing.” In fact, Girls Can profiles several impressive female scientists who are working to save the planet as National Geographic Explorers. Girls Can also boasts a captivating collection of interviews with prominent women such as Melinda Gates, Nancy Pelosi, and Oprah Winfrey, as well as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke, #BlackLivesMatter leader Alicia Garza, soccer star Alex Morgan, and Patagonia CEO Kristine Tompkins.
Of course, choosing which amazing women to feature in the book presented its own challenge. Ultimately, the goal was to shine a light on some unsung heroes, to add new insight into the lives and motivations of well-known figures, and to make sure a diverse collection of nations was represented. The result is a well-balanced look at female trailblazers throughout the centuries.
S.M.A.R.T. Squad author Valerie Tripp is a fan, and notes the themes of empowerment and perseverance connecting the books, while the Girls Can authors are equally excited about the introduction of Izzy Newton and her friends: characters that are amazing young women who totally blow any myths about girls succeeding in these fields out of the water.