True stories in the form of biographies have proven to be an appealing way to introduce students to complex ideas and the trailblazing people behind those ideas. Luckily, a plethora of STEM- and STEAM-centric biographies are available that do just that. We spoke with some of the editors and creators of these books about how they showcase key figures and essential content from the STEM and STEAM disciplines.
For Shelby Lees, senior editor at National Geographic Kids, a successful STEM/STEAM biography must have “a really interesting personal story. While the subject might be responsible for a really important discovery, if we don’t care about them as a reader, if we’re not invested in their story and their success, then the experience falls flat,” she says. “At the end of the day, a biography is still a story, even if it’s true.”
Author-illustrator Marissa Moss, who is also the editor and publisher of Creston Books, agrees that story is paramount. “These books make history interesting because instead of a list of names and dates, battles, and political events, you have stories,” she says. “After all, history is made up of stories that happen to be true. What could be better? I love history for exactly this reason—it allows you to time-travel, to imagine a different place and time.”
Anne Schwartz, v-p and publisher of her eponymous imprint at Random House Children’s Books, says that “a compelling story, an emotional hook, a character that grabs us,” are ingredients for any good book, including STEM/STEAM bios. “In my opinion, these are the things that matter most—not the idea that the book should educate. That is a happy side benefit, if the book works.”
In order for any biography project to speak to her, Ann Rider, executive editor at Clarion Books, says, “I’m looking to become fascinated by the person being profiled.” She wants to find authors “who can make us care about the person, feel how it was to be in their shoes, feel their struggles and joys. When there is science or art involved, I like to make sure authors provide plenty of context. We take so many facts for granted today that were unknown at the time. Many readers today won’t know, for example, that women couldn’t attend university during Mary Anning’s time, that they were banned from academic circles.” Anning is the subject of the forthcoming Clarion release Fossil Hunter: How Mary Anning Changed the Science of Prehistoric Life by Cheryl Blackford. “I love science biographies that show what a process of struggle and discovery science really is,” Rider adds.
“For me, the most important elements in a good STEM or STEAM biography are passion and determination,” says Carolyn Yoder, editorial director at Calkins Creek Books, the U.S. history imprint at Boyds Mills & Kane. “Everyone has a passion, whether it is science, sports, arts, whatever. Our titles tend to follow individuals on their life journeys—to show what sparked their passions and to show how these passions took hold of their lives. In the case of Margaret Lowman, the Leaf Detective [spotlighted in The Leaf Detective by Heather Lang, illustrated by Jana Christy], her passion for trees and plants started early and just wouldn’t let go until she got to the treetops to see what was up there—to really discover the secrets of leaves. Not all kids are gaga over leaves, but they will be fascinated to see how Margaret lives out her dream and how she turns this dream into a crusade.”
Brian Geffen, senior editor at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, says that a quality STEM/STEAM biography “isn’t merely an account of someone’s life or their work, but like any good biography, it’s a sprawling narrative viewed through the lens of a specific figure, and in doing so tells a much wider story.” He cites two examples from the Holt list: “I edited Edward Snowden’s young readers adaptation of his memoir, Permanent Record, and while at its heart it’s a story of his life, through that viewpoint we equally learn about the history of the internet, encryption and personal computers, 9/11, the Iraq War, the notion of freedom of speech, and the history of whistleblowing,” he says. “Rebecca Barone’s STEM nonfiction book, Race to the Bottom of the Earth, follows four intrepid explorers who made history in Antarctica, but it’s also a study of the science of survival, the history of exploration, and teaches kids about teamwork and cooperation.”
Reka Simonsen, editorial director of Atheneum Books for Young Readers, says, “I prefer what Carole Boston Weatherford [author of Respect: Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul] calls an impressionistic approach to picture book biographies—one that evokes the spirit of the person and their work rather than trying to cover all the details. Of course it has to be well-researched and include the necessary facts, but first and foremost I want the book to capture a child’s heart and imagination. That’s what will make them eager to learn more about the person and will hopefully inspire them in their own lives.”
And at Nomad Press, content marketing manager Andi Diehn believes that it’s crucial for a biography to offer “a deep exploration not only of the subject’s life and work, but also of their context—what was the world like when they were alive? How did their surroundings contribute to their choices? Were they working alone or collaborating with other people? What challenges did they have to overcome to produce the work they are known for?”
Diehn adds that The Science and Technology of Marie Curie, an entry in Nomad’s Science Biography series, written by Julie Knutson and illustrated by Michelle Simpson, exemplifies this holistic approach. “She was a woman working as a scientist during a time when most thought that was inappropriate,” Diehn explains. “Along with deep societal gender bias, she also had to contend with personal tragedy—the death of her husband and partner, Pierre Curie. And then along came World War I! All of these elements helped shape the work she did and the person she was.”
Making the cut
The editors we spoke with note that they receive many more STEM/STEAM biography submissions than they can publish. And the selection process for going through those submissions is the same as for other areas of publishing: electing to take on a book project involves many considerations, including evaluating what will make a title stand out in a currently crowded market.
“These days, I’m most interested in biographies about people we haven’t heard much about, who have been left out of the history books or the curriculum for any number of reasons,” says Katie Scott, editor at Kids Can Press. “I’m not really interested in publishing another book about Einstein, you know? It’s kind of a fine line to find a subject who is not yet a household name but who should be. And of course, kid appeal—we’re always asking, ‘Is this a topic kids could get excited about?’ ”
Scott mentions the picture book biography The Fossil Whisperer: How Wendy Sloboda Discovered a Dinosaur by Helaine Becker, illustrated by Sandra Dumais, due next June, as an example. “Wendy Sloboda is this really badass woman who discovered a dinosaur. And the dinosaur, Wendiceratops, was named after her! What kid wouldn’t think that’s the coolest thing that could ever happen to you? And why don’t we know more about this woman? When Helaine pitched me the idea to do a book about Wendy, I said yes immediately.”
That same sense of discovery appeals to Simonsen. “I’m most drawn to stories about people who have broken barriers or done incredible, important work but who are not as well-known as they should be,” she says.
Similarly, Yoder at Calkins Creek says, “We tend to spotlight little-known scientists and artists, so I have come to know an ingenious super sniffer who worked the New York City subway in ‘Smelly’ Kelly and His Super Senses; a female designer of airplanes in Wood, Wire, Wings; and an African American entomologist in Buzzing with Questions, to name only a few.”
Pacing can bring a project to the top of the pile for Geffen at Holt. “As a children’s book editor who has an attention span on par with a middle grade reader’s, I think very deeply about pacing and how to shape a book so that readers are rapt from start to finish,” he says. “So for me, I look for biography writers who have strong storytelling abilities and pace their books in such a way that they read almost like page-turners, or survival fiction, or thrillers. If the story structure or voice keeps me rapt, then I think/hope that a middle grade nonfiction reader might be similarly immersed in the true-life material.”
Carol Hinz, associate publisher at Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda, says, “Books that challenge stereotypes about who scientists are and how the process of science works stand out. In addition, it’s powerful to show readers how a given science concept is meaningful and relevant in our lives today.”
Subject matter is what “gives a book presence in the marketplace,” Schwartz says. “If by chance the subject of the biography is suddenly thrust into the news, well, that is incredibly lucky and obviously helps a lot.” Additionally, she believes that subjects “that connect in some way to what is on all our minds are more likely to resonate. Candace Fleming’s The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh, for example, which explores Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism and belief in eugenics, and also showcases his Trump-like rallies, really speaks to today’s reader.”
At National Geographic Kids, Lees says she faces an added layer of consideration when deciding what to acquire for her list. “Since we publish almost exclusively photographic books or a combination of photo and illustration, we try to look for subjects that have compelling photography,” she explains. “Further, we’re always mindful to consider what National Geographic brings to the table for each book—how does National Geographic enhance or support this specific story? For our One Step Further picture book autobiography by Katherine Johnson, we were actually able to send our photo director to Mrs. Johnson’s home to photograph memorabilia for the book. Her report card, graduation program, NASA ID, and string of pearls made famous by the movie Hidden Figures were all specifically photographed for our book.”
There is typically some surveying of the potential sales climate involved in making publishing decisions, too. “We’re constantly looking at the market,” Scott says. “Are there gaps we could fill? What’s performing well—not only in terms of sales, but also accolades and awards? What do readers have an appetite for? And because it takes us about three years to get a book to market, do we think that appetite will still be there in three years?”
As Kids Can does a significant amount of business in the institutional market, Scott says, “it’s essential that our books hit all the right notes for educators. When acquiring a nonfiction title, I’m always thinking about how it might fit into curricula across North America and how educators could use the book in their classrooms. In development, that could mean targeting the whole package—reading level, design, illustration style—to align with the grades where that subject is being taught.”
Birth of an idea
The vast majority of STEM/STEAM biography ideas are pitched by authors and illustrators, but sometimes the spark for a book project will come from the editor. “Part of my job is commissioning books—finding a topic that fills a gap in the market and then finding the ideal author to write that story,” Scott says. “That was the case for Her Epic Adventure by Julia De Laurentiis Johnston, illustrated by Salini Perera, which published this spring. I’d seen a lot of books about women in history, but I felt we could come at it from another angle by adding STEM-related sidebars alongside the biographies. So, kids get to read about incredible women like astronaut Mae Jemison and mountain climber Arunima Sinha, while also learning about what happens to a human body in space or how to escape an avalanche. The end result is a book that’s part biography and part how-to manual for the future adventurer.”
Lees says, “We definitely have requested some specific biographies. Often as editors we’ll come across a fascinating subject that we’d love to have an author dig into more. If we’re excited about a topic, we know our readers will be, too.”
Geffen notes that he occasionally makes requests or suggestions in terms of biography subjects. “In the case of Permanent Record, I approached Edward and his agent to see if he felt that a young readers’ edition would not only be feasible but of interest to him,” he recalls. “And I was thrilled that he was eager to share his story with a rising generation of changemakers and future leaders.”
Schwartz offers, “I will definitely reach out to an author if there’s a subject that I’m interested in. A few years back, I read an obit in the New York Times that completely fascinated me—of Tyrus Wong, the remarkable artist and creative force behind Disney’s Bambi. I thought a picture book bio about him could be really special. When I contacted an agent friend about it, she said that an agent in her office was already working with an author on a bio about Tyrus. The result is Julie Leung and Chris Sasaki’s Paper Son, which I published in 2019.”
For the most part, however, editors leave book ideas in the capable hands of authors and illustrators. “I am one of those editors who try to avoid telling authors what to write,” Rider says, “as I believe creativity comes from a pretty deep mysterious place and it’s of most importance for authors to follow what truly fascinates them. I will tell authors to provide a list of competitive titles, though, and let me know how they see their book standing apart. That always helps me better understand how they envision their work.”
Yoder falls into that camp as well, stating, “Our titles demand a lot of research and time so I always encourage authors to write about what they want to share with readers, what they are passionate about and determined to write.”
Taking a deeper dive
Like other works of nonfiction, STEM/STEAM biographies lend themselves to the inclusion of back matter following the main text. These closing pages can contain a broad range of materials such as authors’ notes, indexes, glossaries, bibliographies, timelines, and photos. They are one of the features that librarians, educators, and even some parents consider when selecting books for kids.
“We’ve heard from educators that not having sufficient end matter is a reason they might not take a book, so now our nonfiction books always fill that requirement,” Scott says. Like Scott, all the editors in this article say they insist on providing such material in their books, for a variety of reasons.
“I’m a huge fan of back matter,” Hinz says. “These additional components are great for the curious reader who wants to learn more, the teacher who wants to use a book in the classroom, and the caregiver who needs further detail so they can explain something to a child. In a picture book bio, I always like to include a photo of the person in the back matter to help readers connect with them and know that they’re real.”
Simonsen believes it’s essential to include back matter in picture book biographies. “Educators find that material really helpful, and so do many kids,” she says. “Those who were inspired by the book can find out more detailed information about that person, discover where to see the person’s work or hear their music, learn more about their legacy and organizations that continue the work, and so on. We often hear that middle-school kids use picture book biographies when they’re learning how to do research projects, and I think this is because the back matter is so helpful to kids who are just learning how to properly do research beyond Google searches.”
According to Diehn at Nomad, “Hands-on activities are a major part of our biographies. Kids are learning about people, yes, but they’re also diving deep into chemistry, engineering, biology, geography, and more.” She points out that “the same science topics that fascinated our biography subjects become fodder for scientific exploration in the classroom, library, or home.”
Schwartz likes to include back matter in her books because, as she says, “there simply isn’t room in a picture book biography to present the entire life of a figure, from soup to nuts, and it is important to have a place where those who want to know more about the person can go.”
Schwartz cites an example from her list: “I recently published a picture book by Deborah Wiles and Daniel Miyares about Rachel Carson—Night Walk to the Sea. The book is entirely focused on a walk Carson took with her nephew one night in which she introduced him to nature after dark, particularly bioluminescence. It was important to both Deborah and me to tell readers more about Carson, and to explain bioluminescence in greater depth. We wanted to give teachers and parents the tools to educate curious kids further.”
Geffen says, “I think every project has its own needs and desirable parameters, but I do like to include bibliographies in every biography I work on because I think it’s useful to kids, teachers, and librarians in showing them the specific materials used to create that book as well as all the research that goes into creating a biography.” He adds, “Rebecca Barone’s Race to the Bottom of the Earth, for example, has an extensive bibliography because she is a master researcher who puts an incredible amount of time and energy into researching and reviewing first and second-hand materials. I also love back matter that feels so singularly suited to a particular biography, which is why Edward Snowden’s Permanent Record young readers’ edition has a basic guide to encryption at the end, so that kids—with parental supervision, of course—can learn to protect their digital privacy and security.”
Back matter for STEM/STEAM bios is “absolutely essential,” in Lees’s view. “There’s likely STEAM content in the book that you just don’t have room to explain; having to pause the story to, say, explain the theory of relativity, stops the narrative in its tracks,” she says. “I always think it’s best to include only what moves the narrative along and then use the back matter to get into the expository explanations. The back matter, too, is a really great place to build context or give background information that can help readers better understand the subject’s life and circumstances. If the book is a readaloud or for really young readers, the back matter is also important for providing adults with additional resources, especially when there are some tough topics covered in the book.”
At Calkins Creek, Yoder says every title on her list has back matter of some kind and always includes documentation of all the quotations used in a book’s text. “One book had 13 pages of back matter in 48 pages!” she recalls. “For me, back matter not only validates the information in the book—citing the experts whom the author and artist have worked with as well as the references used—but encourages readers to find out more on the subject and also to embrace the art of research. Our goal is to inspire future history detectives! It’s important for young readers, as well as me, to understand, appreciate, and love the past—in order to better know the present and anticipate the future.”
The hook for young readers
What is it that keeps kids coming back to STEM/STEAM biographies? “These books spark curiosity, and it’s inspiring to read about people who are dedicated to their work and to making new discoveries,” Hinz says. “In addition, STEM/STEAM bios give young readers the opportunity to imagine themselves as scientists.”
In Scott’s assessment, “The most essential thing for connecting to readers is representation. There’s a saying when talking about representation particularly of women in history: ‘If you can’t see her, you can’t be her.’ When developing books like Her Epic Adventure and Canadian Women Now and Then, I would think about that phrase a lot. In both of those books, diversity is front and center—there are women of color, women with disabilities, and women from the LGBTQ+ community. It was important for me and for the authors that all kids could see themselves in the women we profiled in those books.”
Rider at Clarion agrees that kids can find connection and support when they draw parallels between their experiences and those of the figures they read about. “I think we are all looking for ways to help us make it through this complex thing called life,” she says. “Young readers are no different. It helps to see how others before us have suffered and struggled and found ways through. It helps us to see how they were told their scientific discoveries were ridiculous—and how they proved others wrong.”
And Simonsen sounds a hopeful note with her belief that STEM/STEAM biographies are a launchpad for a new generation. “If we’ve done our jobs well,” she says, “young readers will read about these groundbreaking people and their accomplishments and feel a sense of possibility in their own lives.”
Taking a longer view of this area of publishing, editors raise some of the issues they’ll be thinking about moving forward.
“The anti-science sentiment that has come up in the course of the Covid-19 pandemic has been eye-opening,” Hinz says. “It has prompted me to reflect on how we present science to young people, and to look for new ways to make STEM/STEAM topics appealing and accessible. As part of that, I think we need bios that present the work scientists do while also showing scientists as people so that we can connect with their work and their humanity.”
Format and feasibility are some of the things that are top of mind for Lees at National Geographic Kids. “In a recent workshop I gave, I talked a lot about walking the line between unique niches and marketability,” she says. “Not every subject needs to be a subject of a whole biography. Will you have enough readers, enough buyers, for the book to make financial sense? That’s really where the power of collective biographies comes in.”
Lees also mentioned the ongoing conversation around illustration vs. photography in this type of book. “We know from research as well as messaging from parents and educators that a lot of kids really prefer photographic nonfiction over illustrated,” she says. “Sure, especially with a picture book, it’s unlikely that you’ll have photography to illustrate each important moment in the subject’s life, but there’s something so intimate about seeing the real photography that you don’t get through illustration. I have, personally, become a huge fan of the photo-illustration combination for picture book biographies.”
Moss at Creston Books weighed in on the look of STEM/STEAM biographies, too. “This is an exciting time for these books,” she says. “I’ve been writing stories like this for decades, but they have a much higher profile now. One reason is that we’re seeing the importance of illustration in storytelling. Picture books for older students are a great way to make tough subjects accessible, just as graphic novels are. Teachers and parents used to see art as babyish somehow. I’m so glad they now recognize that images are a powerful way to convey information, not a lesser way.”
And Scott surmises that “it will always be important to publish STEM/STEAM biographies, because these books are about opening possibilities for kids.”
Below, more from our School and Library Spotlight:
STEM/STEAM Biographies Shine in New and Established Series
The biography genre continues to grow, presenting students and educators with more reading choices than ever; here’s a look at a few favorite series, as well as some making their debut.
Kids’ Workbooks Level Up
Sales remain strong and new programs launch after a windfall year in 2020.