Interview: Patricia Newman

Newman-Eavesdropping on Elephants cover.jpg

First, can you introduce yourself to our readers?

Writing about myself is harder than any other type of writing that I do. My official author’s bio lists the titles I’ve written and the awards I’ve won, but I imagine you’d like to go deeper. Here’s a compromise—a snapshot list.

I like:

The ocean better than the desert

Sunshine better than rain

Thunder better than lightning

Research better than writing a first draft

Life science better than physical science

Dogs better than cats

Breakfast better than lunch

Pasta better than steak

Game of Thrones better than Westworld

Board games/card games better that role-playing games

Outdoors better than indoors

Reading better than…um, well, anything

Oh, and I’m a Gryffindor

Now to the new book: EAVESDROPPING ON ELEPHANTS. What’s it all about?

Elephants! (That was for the elephant lovers out there, because for us that’s enough.)

But for those of you who don’t already love these magnificent animals, Eavesdropping on Elephants takes you deep into the forests of Central Africa to listen to the little-known forest elephant.

You probably already know that elephants live on two continents, Asia and Africa, but did you know there are two species of African elephants? Savanna elephants (which get most of the attention in books and nature documentaries) and forest elephants. Instead of roaming the wide-open plains of East Africa, forest elephants hide in the dense forests of Central Africa.

The Elephant Listening Project studies these complex creatures by eavesdropping on their conversations. Scientists hope to understand how elephants use the forest and decode what they’re saying to one another to save them from extinction.

I included QR codes in this book because it’s difficult to write about sound without the benefit of hearing it. Scanning the QR codes will transport you to the forest for elephant audio and video just as the scientists saw it!

What did your research for the book look like?

The story of the Elephant Listening Project (ELP) spans many years and involves several people—most of whom I interviewed during a cold rainy trip to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Technically, ELP belongs to Cornell’s famous Lab of Ornithology. Are you scratching your head trying to figure how birds and elephants mix? You’re not alone. Actually, it’s more about the technology. The Bioacoustics Research Program is housed at the Lab, and bioacoustics recording devices are used by ELP to listen to forest elephants.

I spoke with ELP founder Katy Payne (who (with her former husband) discovered humpback whales compose songs for each other). Katy, now in her 80s, took me back to that first day she proved elephants communicate with infrasound, sounds too low for us to hear. The sort of discovery every scientist dreams of, and one that launched a significant body of elephant research.

I interviewed Peter Wrege, the current director of ELP, about his trekking through the forest to put acoustic recorders in trees, and Daniela Hedwig, a young German scientist newly hired to study the language of elephants. Liz Rowland showed me around the ELP lab where she analyzes the forest sounds that Peter brings back. And I met several student volunteers trained to listen to the sounds and categorize them.

I also spoke with Andrea Turkalo, an elephant researcher from the Wildlife Conservation Society who partnered with ELP. Andrea knows thousands of elephants by name. I studied some of her index cards on which she recorded their features, such as sex, tusk length and shape, ear markings, and family relationships. By the time I finished my research even I could identify some of the elephants!

Scientific studies are always part of my research, and I waded through my fair share. Best of all I watched hours of elephant videos, learning their behavior and listening to their conversations.

Each book I research is truly a labor of love because of the hours spent questioning, describing, writing, and revising. Meeting the scientists was one of the highlights of Eavesdropping on Elephants. They are dedicated, generous people who want the world to step up and save elephants.

What was the most surprising and/or fascinating thing you learned during your research?

I already knew elephants communicated using infrasound because my daughter volunteered for ELP as an undergraduate. But I wasn’t prepared for the variety of sounds they make. We’ve all heard elephants trumpet, but have you heard them rumble, roar, and aooga? You will if you read this book and take advantage of the QR codes.

Of course these sounds are cool from a novelty perspective, but they’re also cool from a scientific perspective. The Elephant Listening Project is trying to find out what the sounds mean in combination with one another. Does a roar-rumble mean something different than a rumble-roar? What sounds do infants make when separated from their mothers? The answers to these questions are important because they help scientists decode elephant messages when they can’t see their behavior in the forest.

Why do you think it’s important for kids to have non-fiction books as part of their reading diet?

By now we’re all probably familiar with how children’s fiction acts as a window and a mirror, but the same is true for nonfiction—especially science nonfiction. I’ve written about marine debris, zoo scientists who promote conservation, Ebola, sea otters that save entire ecosystems, and now elephants. Every scientist was once a child who rescued animals, loved horses, participated in Earth Day clean-ups, or geeked out on technology. I hope my readers see themselves reflected in these inspiring scientists and dream big dreams for their futures.

Nonfiction books also act as windows onto the natural and physical world, filling kids with TRUE stories, connections, and facts. We all know kids who recite shark facts or pour over all things outer space, but nonfiction also promotes diversity by forging bonds between kids of different ethnicities interested in things such as sharks or space. Nonfiction expands the perspective of young readers beyond home and family to the wider world. It points out connections between us and the STEM fields. By understanding these connections, kids realize their place in the world and how they affect it.

What about conservation do you hope readers take away from EAVESDROPPING ON ELEPHANTS?

Conservation is about connections and balance. How the natural world affects us and vice versa.

For instance, in Sea Otter Heroes, I show kids how sea otters have a huge impact on the food chain in a seagrass ecosystem. No sea otters? No seagrass. Without seagrass, baby fish (our future food supply) wouldn’t have a place to grow up, our shores would erode because of waves, and climate change would be worse than it is now.

Let’s take that to present day politics. The White House plans to scale back protections on threatened species (such as sea otters), and allow economic factors to be considered before protecting species or habitats. Would this mean that an urchin or abalone fisher would have the right to kill a sea otter eating from the fishery? No one knows. But if sea otters suffer, so do seagrass ecosystems, and ultimately us.

In Eavesdropping on Elephants scientists from ELP are desperately trying to save elephants from poaching, mining, and other human intrusions into the forest. Not simply because elephants are the largest living land mammal on Earth, but because as Andrea Turkalo says, “Elephants are the architects of the forest.” They range widely eating fruit as they go and their feces contain seeds that sprout new trees and keep the forest alive. While the forest lives, it mitigates the effects of climate change, supports a huge array of mammals, insects, reptiles, birds, and plants, and sustains the native people who call the forest home.

I want kids to understand that the planet is not ours—we share it. Sharing always means compromise and compromise is a balancing act. Economic gain is not a divine right, but must live in harmony with the natural world that sustains us. I hope that my environmental nonfiction provides the appropriate connections so kids not only find their place in the world, but are moved to ACT.

Patricia_Newman.jpgPatricia Newman’s books inspire kids to seek connections to the real world. Titles such as SEA OTTER HEROES, EAVESDROPPING ON ELEPHANTS, and NEEMA’S REASON TO SMILE encourage readers to act and use imagination to solve problems. A Robert F. Sibert Honor recipient, her books have received starred reviews, two Green Earth Book Awards, a Parents’ Choice Award, been honored as Junior Library Guild Selections, and included on Bank Street College’s Best Books lists. Her author visits are described as “phenomenal,” “fantastic,” “mesmerizing,” “passionate,” and “inspirational.” Visit her at

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Haven’t had enough elephants? Check out the EAVESDROPPING ON ELEPHANTS book trailer here, and learn even more about the book here. You can also find Patricia on Twitter at @PatriciaNewman and on Facebook at Patricia Newman Books. Below is a bit more about some of her other books.

NEEMA’S REASON TO SMILE is the story of a young Kenyan girl who wants to attend school but can’t. Winner of a Parents’ Choice Recommended Award, this beautifully illustrated picture book includes themes of equal access to education and financial literacy.

ZOO SCIENTISTS TO THE RESCUE is about three remarkable scientists who use scientific investigation to save endangered species. The book is a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year; A Chicago Public Library Best of the Best Book; a Junior Library Guild Selection; and a Eureka! Gold winner from the California Reading Association.

SEA OTTER HEROES: THE PREDATORS THAT SAVED AN ECOSYSTEM is a Sibert Honor book; a Green Earth Book Award winner; and a Junior Library Guild selection about Dr. Brent Hughes’ discovery that the sea otter, an apex predator in Elkhorn Slough off Monterey Bay, helps protect the seagrass ecosystem. The book received a starred review in KIRKUS and made the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Longlist.

EBOLA: FEARS AND FACTS tells the story of the 2014 Ebola epidemic and the amazing healthcare professionals and volunteers who helped stop it. The book received a starred review in BOOKLIST and was ranked one of the Best Books of the Year by Bank Street College

PLASTIC, AHOY! INVESTIGATING THE GREAT PACIFIC GARBAGE PATCH follows three female scientists who are among the first to study the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The book received the Green Earth Book Award sponsored by The Nature Generation, is a Junior Library Guild Selection, and was selected as a finalist for the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Award.

Interview: Jennifer Swanson on STEM Tuesday


Today we welcome Jennifer Swanson to the Village! Jennifer is an award-winning author of over 35 (!!!) nonfiction books, and also the creator of, and a regular contributor to, STEM Tuesday, a weekly feature hosted by the From the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle Grade Authors blog. Learn more about Jennifer and STEM Tuesday below, then head over to the site to catch up on old posts — and make sure you don’t miss future STEM awesomeness every Tuesday at From the Mixed-Up Files!

~ Jarrett

. . .

Welcome to the MG Book Village, Jennifer! Thanks for stopping by to tell us about STEM Tuesday. Before we get started, would you care to introduce yourself to our readers who don’t already know you?

I’d be happy to, Jarrett.  I have loved science my whole life, which makes sense when you know that I started a science club in my garage when I was 7 years old. I studied chemistry in college and have my masters degree in science education. When I decided to try my hand at writing, it only made sense that I start with something I know. Eight years later, I’m the author of over 35 books for kids–mostly about science, with a few history books thrown in, too.  What I hope to do with my STEM and STEAM books is to share my passion for the topics and get kids excited about all aspects of science, technology, engineering, art, and math. That’s why I focus on exciting, interesting, and unique subjects. Helping to inspire a new bunch of future scientists and engineers is ultimately what all of us STEM writers hope to do.

STEM Tuesday is hosted by the From the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle Grade Authors blog. Can you tell us a bit about that site?

The Mixed-Up Files blog has been around for eight years. It was started by Elissa Cruz and is still going strong. We focus on all things middle grade: book topics, new release middle grade books, teacher tips, diverse books, and even writing tips for aspiring writers. With almost 30 published middle grade authors contributing, we aim to get the word out to teachers and librarians about fabulous middle grade books and also throw in some info about what’s going on in the publishing world with regard to middle grade books. As I said, all things middle grade.

Now, STEM Tuesday. What is it?

STEM Tuesday was an idea that I had for quite awhile.  You see, every time that I spoke about STEM middle grade books, teachers and librarians were asking me how they could find them. There is a lot of information about STEM picture books out there, but not a lot about middle grade ones. Then I read a post that librarian extraordinaire Betsy Bird wrote for her Fuse #8 blog. She talked about what would go into a great STEM blog that would be most helpful to teachers and librarians. I used her list as my blueprint for STEM Tuesday. Two years, and a lot of hard work and planning, and STEM Tuesday was born.

The official description is: STEM books ENGAGE. EXCITE. and INSPIRE! Join us each week as a group of dedicated STEM authors highlight FUN topics, interesting resources, and make real-life connections to STEM in ways that may surprise you. #STEMRocks!

Whose behind STEM Tuesday? Is there a team of contributors?

While I was the creator, I could not do any of this without my amazing team of contributors. I have gathered some of the top middle grade STEM authors in the business and asked them to help. They are: Nancy Castaldo, Heather Montgomery, Mary Kay Carson, Patricia Newman, Michelle Houts, Carolyn DeCristofano, and Mike Hays. We work together as a team to keep STEM Tuesday relevant and up-to-date with the newest books and activities. This team is really fantastic!

What are your goals for the weekly feature?

The goal of this blog is to highlight middle grade and YA STEM books. To help teachers not only find them, but learn how to use them in their classroom by providing actual activities for them to follow. We want to shine the light on the amazing and exciting STEM books that are being created for middle grade readers right now. They are truly amazing and unique and deserve attention!

What can readers expect from the posts?

We start with a monthly topic, say for example: space and exploration. The first Tuesday of the month is a list of middle grade STEM books about that topic.  We try to have a mix of new and old books, because sometimes it’s tough for teacher to get brand new books. The second week is called “In the Classroom,” which features actual activities that teachers can do with these books in their ELA classrooms. Yes, STEM books CAN and DO work in an ELA class! The third week is called “Writing Craft & Resources.” It’s sort of a mash-up of techniques that STEM authors use to write their books, STEM topics in the news, and also an Out of Left Field section. You never know what will end up there, but be sure it’s some unique bit of information about STEM. The last week includes an interview with a middle grade STEM author and a free giveaway of one copy of their book.

Why is it important for young readers to have books about STEM?

Love of science starts at an early age. Neil deGrasse Tyson said it best: “Every kid is a born scientist.” YES! Kids are curious and want to know how things work. By giving them a STEM book, you will extend that curiosity, feed it with fun facts, and allow it to grow into a passion for all things STEM in the future. A STEM book invites readers to open their minds to the world around them, encourages them to embrace diversity of thought and culture, and allows them to figure out how they can help take care of our home, the Earth.

There has been a profusion of wonderful and exciting non-fiction MG books coming out in recent years, and it seems like more and more authors are using their talents to tell true stories. What do you attribute this to? What can non-fiction offer readers that fiction can’t? 

Nonfiction offers FACTS. And while that may seem boring, understanding facts is anything but that. One of the most popular TV shows is Jeopardy, which is all about trivia–fun facts. One of the best-selling kids books of all time is still the Guinness Book of World Records–also facts. I do love fiction and it definitely has its place, but nonfiction, for me, allows me to explore the possibilities of real-world things. It helps those kids who have a burning desire to know how things work and how they are made, and how they interact, to get the answers they need. It encourages deep-thinking, collaboration, and inclusion of many different backgrounds, but most of all, ACTION. That is how scientists and engineers learn–by doing things. And that is one thing that this world needs right now.

Before you go, can you share a few past STEM Tuesday posts so readers can get a taste?

I would be happy to. I’m including the link here, but you can find STEM Tuesday at

A great place to start is a Highlights of STEM Tuesday blog that I just wrote. It sums up all of the topics that we’ve covered so far and shows the book of the month:

This month’s topic is Shining the Light on Technology, Engineering, and Math. You can find the book list here:

We invite everyone to stop by STEM Tuesday and check it out. We’d love to hear from you, too. If you have suggestions for topics or comments or even kudos to pass on, just email us at

Awesome! Thanks again for stopping by, Jennifer!

Thanks so much for having me, Jarrett!  Go STEM/STEAM books!

Jen Author Photo-2017.jpgScience Rocks! And so do Jennifer Swanson’s books. She is the award-winning author of over 35 nonfiction books for children. A self-professed science geek, Jennifer started a science club in her garage at the age of 7. While no longer working from the garage, Jennifer’s passion for science resonates in in all her books but especially, BRAIN GAMES (NGKids) and SUPER GEAR: Nanotechnology and Sports Team Up (Charlesbridge) which was named an NSTA Best STEM book of 2017 and an NSTA Outstanding Trade Book 2017. Jennifer’s book, Geoengineering Earth’s Climate: Re-setting the Thermostat (Lerner Books) received a Green Earth Book Honor Award. She has presented at National NSTA conferences, the Highlights Foundation, and also the World Science Festival. You can find Jennifer through her website