What do you get when you combine exciting storytelling, diverse characters, and factual content that inspires kids to care about the planet? As any aspiring young scientist will tell you, the answer is the Explorer Academy series from National Geographic, written by top-selling author Trudi Trueit.
As the flagship series from Nat Geo’s Under the Stars imprint, which focuses on publishing fact-based stories for middle grade readers, Explorer Academy draws from the expertise of real-life National Geographic scientists and explorers from a broad range of fields. Launched in 2018, the Explorer Academy series now includes five books: The Nebula Secret, The Falcon’s Feather, The Double Helix, The Star Dunes, and, released most recently, The Tiger’s Nest. The books center on Cruz Coronado, a 12-year-old from Hawaii who enrolls in an elite school for young explorers. With a ship for a classroom and the whole world to explore, the opportunity for discovery and adventure is limitless. Designed to pique young readers’ interest with its fictional framework, the series also integrates core subjects such as geography, history, STEM, world culture, and travel.
The idea for the Explorer Academy series, according to Rebecca Baines, editorial director for National Geographic Kids Books, was born during an annual event at the organization’s headquarters called the Explorers Festival, a weeklong conference that draws together National Geographic grantees, scientists, and explorers from around the world to share cutting-edge research, insights, and experiences.
“The presentations are so engaging, rich, and exciting, I often find myself sitting at the edge of my seat by the end, lost in a world rarely seen,” Baines says. "That’s what we wanted to deliver to kids with Explorer Academy.” Inspired by true stories of adventure and discovery, Baines envisioned a series of books that would allow kids “to make groundbreaking discoveries and technological breakthroughs, and have tearjerker moments with animals in the wild—through characters their own age, and also through the real experiences of people who have lived them.”
With their blend of storytelling and STEM, the Explorer Academy books hit a sweet spot for young readers. “You read about the gadgets the characters use, the places they discover and explore, and everything sounds so surreal and futuristic,” Baines says. “But then you get to the back of the book and, in the Truth Behind the Fiction section, you learn about these real Nat Geo explorers who are utilizing the latest and greatest technology to create these innovations that enable them to communicate with animals, hear trees talk, or discover an underwater volcano.”
In addition to the Truth Behind the Fiction supplemental section in each book, readers are invited to visit the Explorer Academy website (exploreracademy.com) to read interviews, watch videos, and learn more about topics presented in the books. In essence, the books serve as a point of embarkation for readers to learn more about topics that interest them.
Over the course of the planned seven-book narrative arc, readers follow Cruz and his peers through thrilling and awe-inspiring adventures ranging from exploring ancient ruins in Petra, Jordan, to diving with whales—and translating whale sounds into human speech using a Universal Cetacean Communicator, an invention based on a real-life study on learning to decode whale language. Baines praises Trueit’s instinct for creating tension and maintaining suspense while organically integrating the science-based content: “Trudi has a gift for throwing in curveballs just as you think you have it all figured out,” Baines says. “You expect to know where the story is going—then bam!—you find out the good guy maybe isn’t so good.”
Vivid storytelling deserves evocative images, and with interior artwork created by artist Scott Plumbe, the books deliver. In fact, many of the images are based on photographs taken by National Geographic explorers and photographers. “It’s extremely difficult to illustrate these books, not just because of the intricacies of the characters, but because all of the locations in the book are real places,” Baines says. “As are the artifacts and animals! Scott, our design director Eva Absher, and our photo director Lori Epstein had to do a ton of research to make sure they got every detail exactly right.”
There’s also a mystery at the heart of the story, which Cruz—and readers—attempt to unravel via the book’s clues and embedded codes. Each of the titles builds upon the last, enabling readers to decode the hidden messages as they follow the familiar characters on their new adventures. “The codes are so brilliantly woven in,” Baines says. “As you get further into the series, they spell out clues that were right in front of your face in books one or two, but you won’t know it until you read book five. It’s that kind of architectural storytelling that keeps readers engaged and wanting more.” With plenty of intrigue and twisty storytelling, the plots alone are sure to keep even reluctant readers engaged.
Response to the series has been over the moon. Kids and parents both love the combination of adventure, science and high-tech, and problem-solving. The series sparks kids’ curiosity and engages them with a hands-on, interactive element as they take part in unraveling the mysteries. “We’ve had a lot of feedback from readers who love the series so much that they’ve had Explorer Academy–themed scavenger hunt birthday parties,” Baines says, “or hosted EA-themed events for their friends.”
Baines hopes that, even though most readers won’t get the chance to dive with whales or travel aboard a floating classroom or explore ancient ruins, readers will be inspired by the books to be curious about the environment that surrounds them. “Exploration is at the heart of National Geographic—but that can mean a number of things,” she says. “It can mean exploring the world physically, or exploring through reading, researching, and talking to people. It can mean going on vacation with your family, or it can mean lying on the ground outside your home and taking notice of the teeny-tiny creatures you walk past every day or the stars in the night sky.”
For readers who aspire to become scientists, conservationists, and explorers, the books also help them understand how they can realize those goals. Baines believes these professional destinations start with “wondering about what this beautiful planet of ours has to offer.”
“When we introduce these experiences to kids, they start to feel like they are part of this global community, and they start to care about our planet,” she adds. “And that creates empathy and compassion, and empowers kids to leave it a better place for generations to come. And if that’s what our readers are taking away, we’ve done our job.”