Culture, Astrophysics, and Chickens: Adventures in Learning with Author Teresa Robeson
Updated: May 3
Teresa Robeson is the APALA Picture Book Award-winning author of Queen of Physics (also ILA Nonfiction PB Honor and NCTE Orbis Pictus Nonfiction Recommended Book). Other publications include Two Bicycles in Beijing and an essay in Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep, edited by Melissa Stewart.
Her upcoming works include a nonfiction poem in No World Too Big, edited by Dawson, Metcalf, and Bradley; two biographical graphic novels with Penguin Workshop, Who Is Tibet's Exiled Leader? The 14th Dalai Lama (2023) and the other on Bruce Lee (2024); as well as two picture books, the informational fiction Clouds in Space: The Nebula Story with MIT Kids/Candlewick (2024) and an own-culture picture book with Astra Young Readers (2024).
Teresa Robeson focuses on science and cultural heritage in her picture books. She was born in Hong Kong, raised in Canada, and now writes and creates from her mini-farm in Indiana. She and her family try to live a self-sufficient lifestyle on 27-acres where they’ve been raising chickens (but not goats) for twenty years and growing and processing much of their own vegetables. When not writing or washing veggies for hours on end, Teresa is an amateur astronomer. Join us for this conversation from the Adventures in Learning podcast series.
Teresa, tell us about your adventures in learning.
[00:54] Dr Diane: So Teresa, I wanted to start by asking you the question I ask everybody, which is, can you share a little bit about your own adventures and learning? How did you become an author and sometime illustrator? What was that process like?
[01:06] Teresa: Well, my mother knew I was going to be a writer long before I did because we moved to Canada when I was in third grade. And after I learned English in third grade, I started writing poetry in grade four. And my mom loved that and said, “I think you should be a writer." And I'm like, but I love science. So when I went to university, she's like, you might want to consider doing creative writing or something and get a degree in that. And I said, no, I'm going to do something sciency because I love science.
And so I didn't actually really think about it until after I got married. And my husband was doing his graduate degree and well, okay, this is just long story short, I met him at the University of British Columbia where he was doing his master's and I was doing my undergrad, and then we got married after that, and he was in Delaware doing his PhD. And so when we got married, I moved over there and I wanted to get a job at the university to be close to him and there weren't a whole lot of options. So I was doing office work, and I was really bored, really bored. So I decided to pick up writing again. So I took a course with the Institute of Children's Literature, which was back in 1990 or 1991, and through that I started writing short stories and poetry, and I was published in magazines such as Baby Bug and Ladybug. And then we had kids, and I sort of let that trickle off because raising kids, oh, it's a whole lot of work.
[02:59] Dr Diane: Yes, it's a job in and of itself.
[03:02] Teresa: It truly is.
[03:03] Teresa: And so I let that go for a while, but once they got old enough and didn't really need me anymore, although we homeschooled, so it was still a bit of work. But in 2010, I started going back into writing again. And this time I had my sight set on books because previously I always thought, oh, I don't have enough information in my head or stories in my head to write a full book. But when I came back, I thought, you know, I think I do. I'm going to try books.
So I took a whole bunch of courses, including Susannah Leonard Hill’s “Making Picture Book Magic" and just whatever courses I can think of. And I joined 12x12 picture book writing challenge. And I just started writing manuscripts. I got my first agent in 2014, I believe. Unfortunately, that just lasted a year because she quit agenting after we were together for a year. I didn't sell my book, and I was really kind of down in the dumps for a couple of years until at the urging of one of my wonderful critique partners, Sylvia Liu, she really encouraged me to enter the We Need Diverse Books contest for having a mentorship. And so I did, and I was extremely lucky.
And I got Jane Yolen as my mentor, yes, oh, my goodness, the Queen of Kid Lit. I got her for a mentor, and she helped me polish the manuscript that eventually became Queen of Physics. And when I went to visit her at the NESCBWI — that’s the New England SCBWI Conference, just to meet her in person that year, I sent out the manuscript to a bunch of agents and editors there, and one of the editors really liked it, and it fit in with their line. And that happened to be Sterling, which is now Union Square, but they have a line of books about women in history doing great things, and Lori Walmart also has a couple of books with their line, and anyway, it really fit in and they wanted my book. And that's how Queen of Physics came to be published. And that's pretty much my path because then I picked up my second agent through that book deal because I had a book offer in hand and so she signed me and yeah, it just went on from there.
How does a love of science influence the writing you do?
[05:32] Dr Diane: Well, that's very exciting. And you said that you were always sciencey, so I'd love to explore that a little bit with you in terms of how your past love of science informs the writing that you do now.
[05:44] Teresa: All right, sounds good. So I fell in love with astronomy for some strange reason. No, actually, I know the exact reason. Would you believe it was from watching Star Wars, the very first one that came out in, what, 1978 or something like that? After watching that, I wasn't really paying attention to the whole storyline. I was just looking at the big screen and how when the ships went into space, there was just the stars. It was glorious. I had never been to a planetarium before that. So after that I went to a planetarium and I was just hooked. I was completely smitten. And so that's when I started becoming an amateur astronomer.
[06:30] Teresa: And I've always enjoyed science, like you had mentioned. So in university, I did speech science, which is under linguistics, and then I went back to do a
climatology degree, which I actually never finished, I'm so embarrassed to say, but I got a couple of years in, and so my husband is a climatologist. That's how we met in the department.
But I just really love science, and at some point, I actually wanted to do a graduate degree in it. And my husband, we were married at that point, and he said, okay, so you want to do graduate degree, and what is your hope like, did you want to teach? And I said, Heck, no, I don't like teaching. And he said, okay, so if you do it in astronomy, you're probably going to have to, at that point, go off to observatories elsewhere for lengthy periods of time to do observation. Are you good with doing that? And I thought, no, not really. I don't like to travel very much either. So I was just like, okay, never mind. He said, well, you like writing. You don't need an advanced degree to do writing. And I said, yes, that's true.
And I can just incorporate my love of science into the writing instead, and that's what I've been doing. And my passion, of course, is for astrophysics and also physics. I just really love physics, and I try to write mostly about astrophysics and physics stuff when I write about science.
Who is the Queen of Physics?
[08:05] Dr Diane: So talk a little bit about the Queen of Physics. What prompted that book, and why is it so important for kids and teachers to dive into it?
[08:15] Teresa: Well, I believe that really, Wu Chien Shiung is one of those remarkable women in science and history that are highly overlooked, and their stories should be highlighted more because it's really inspiring for kids.
I think, I’m not positive, but I think I first saw an article about her in Physics Today magazine. My husband used to get the paper copy of that, and I would read it, of course. And so I saw her story, and I thought, oh, my goodness, how is it that I did not know about her? I knew about all the other famous men, scientists like (Richard) Feynman and (Enrico) Fermi and you name it, (Linus) Pauling, whatever.
[09:06] Teresa: How is it that I don't know about this woman? So I dug deeper, and that was when I wrote my first draft back in 2013. And it was because of her story that I got my first agent, who unfortunately did not sell it before she quit the business.
But I fell in love with her story because here is this woman who's a lot like me, Chinese immigrant to America, who loves physics, and I thought, okay, I have to tell her story. And besides which, like I mentioned, her life is just really inspiring. She had to fight sexism and racism to make herself known. And she had to work probably, what, three times as hard as her male colleagues just to be recognized.
[09:55] Teresa: And I thought it should be inspired by that because a lot of women probably face obstacles of their own that really drag them down on a day to day basis so they can look at her life and go, she did it, so can I. And that's kind of what I want to bring to readers.
What is the research process when you’re writing about a real person?
[10:17] Dr Diane: And what was your research process since you were dealing with a real life person? How did you go about learning about this person's life to be able to write about it?
[10:26] Teresa: Well, unfortunately, she had passed away by the time I wanted to write about her, so I couldn't interview her or anything. I also tried to get a hold off her son, who I knew anyway, was the sole survivor. She and her husband only had one son, and I tracked him down to what I thought was his place of work. But he wasn't there anymore and he never replied to my email. So I just went about it a different way.
So I started out by looking at all the children's books that featured her. And there weren't any picture books. There was only some middle grade ones. Some are like, compilation of biographies, and there was one that was solely on her. So starting with those, I then looked into their back matter and then I expanded to adult literature on her.
[11:25] Teresa: And there is a book by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, I hope I didn't butcher her name because I am so grateful to her. She actually interviewed Wu before Wu passed away. And so her book held, it was a book about various scientists, women scientists, but her piece on Wu specifically had personal interviews. And so I based a lot of my knowledge of Wu on that. And I contacted Sharon and asked her if I could use certain quotes from that that were really, I thought, poignant. And Sharon was very gracious. And she said, Go right ahead. And so, yes, so pretty much I researched Wu kind of secondhand, but it was as primary source as I could get to anyway through Sharon's article. And then I read some of Wu's writings, such as her journal articles and her book on beta decay, which is a seminal volume in that area of physics, and also just various other clippings and articles that I could find on her.
What new biographies are coming out for you?
[13:23] Dr Diane: Wonderful. And you've got quite a range of biography type books coming out. Can you describe those and describe how the process might have been different for those than it was for Wu?
[13:52] Teresa: So it's called Who Is Tibet's Exiled Leader? The 14th Dalai Lama. And it's with the highly popular Penguin Workshop who HQ series. So you might know, like, Who Was Neil Armstrong? And there's a whole bunch of them. Who was Joan of Arc? So they had a line of regular prose type biographies, but then they recently started a Graphic Novel Line, and my then agent, my second agent, had seen a call out from the editor of that line saying, we're looking for authors to help us write scripts for these new upcoming biographies. And my agent's like, hey, you want to try writing graphic novels?And I said, of course, because Jane Yolen says, always say yes to opportunities.
And also, I have always loved the graphic form. In Asia, it’s been hugely popular for years. Adults and kids all read it. There's no stigma attached to it at all. So I pretty much cut my reading teeth on graphic forms. I read tons of graphic novels in Hong Kong.
And so, anyway, I was really curious to try writing it myself, and so I said yes, and I quickly learned about it. And after I started writing it, I also took a class with Kids Comics Unite, which is started by Agent Janna Morishima. And it's an excellent, excellent intensive. So I highly recommend it to anybody who wants to try writing the graphic novel form.
[15:37] Teresa: But the research part, I would say, was pretty similar. Again, I looked at children's books, and then I used the backmatter of those to work up to adult literature. And for the Dalai Lama, it would be virtually impossible to get a hold of the Dalai Lama for an interview, and he has written autobiographies, so I thought, okay, well, that's as good as interviewing him. So I based most of the stuff on the book on his autobiography, in addition to a couple of other biographies by people who knew him. And so I cross referenced things that he said with things that they wrote just to kind of make sure there's a consensus there. And the book is not covering his entire life. This book has to, because it's a 64 page graphic novel, it has to be a lot shorter. And so in the series, we authors pretty much covered a very important period of the person's life. And so for the Dalai Lama. it was a period when he escaped from Tibet and sought refuge in India. So for me, that was a really exciting and hugely impactful moment of his life. And so I decided to cover that. And, yeah, so the research was, like I said, fairly similar to Queen of Physics.
What inspired Two Bicycles in Beijing?
[17:12] Dr Diane: Well, excellent. And talk a little bit about Two Bicycles in Beijing, because that's a little bit different than the Dalai Lama. book or the Queen of Physics. What inspired that particular book?
[17:24] Teresa: It's interesting, that one. I took a trip, my whole family took a trip with my dad to China in 2013. It was a trip that my parents had always wanted to take us, me, my husband, and our kids. And unfortunately, my mother passed away in 2010, so she couldn't go. But by 2013, my dad was like would you all like to take this trip to China with me? And we're like, of course, because what an amazing opportunity, because he paid for it. Thank you, dad. And so I took a whole bunch of photo, as one does going to a wonderful place that has lots of great sites.
And several years later, after I got home, I saw this picture that I had taken, and it was of this whole line of bicycles outside of a bunch of shops, and it had beautiful, colorful flowers and lanterns around it. It was just, I thought, anyway, a really gorgeous photo. And I started to think about bicycles in Beijing and how it was such an important transportation mode of transportation for people there. And then I thought, okay, well, that’s all fine and lovely, but what do kids care about? And one of the things that's important to kids is friendship. And so I merged the two together, and I thought, okay, let's do a friendship story with bicycles in it. And that's how it began.
[19:05] Teresa: And when my agent first read it, she was like, I don't know, it's kind of odd. And so we put it aside for a while, and then she came back to me and she said, you know, I couldn't get that story out of my head, so maybe we should go on submission with it. And so we did. And actually, my editor, who had bought Queen of Physics, she was then working for a different publisher, and she really really liked the story because she clicked to my writing, I'm sorry to say she's no longer with publishing, at least not trade publishing. So, unfortunately, I can't send her anything else. But she was wonderful, and she loved Two Bicycles in Beijing and decided to publish it well.
[19:39] Dr Diane: And I really liked the way the color yellow plays throughout the book and is the way that you take us into the city and give us a chance to explore Beijing. Not in the way we might see it on TV or on the news, but in the way that somebody visiting Beijing would see and explore the city.
[19:57] Teresa: Well, thank you. I'm so glad you like that. And as far as the art goes, it was all Junyi Wu's brilliance that made it come to life. I have to say I had nothing to do with the color yellow, but, well, I mean, besides the bike, but she just pulled everything together and her work is gorgeous. So yeah, I'm so glad you like it.
[20:17] Dr Diane: It really is. It's a wonderful book.
How does cultural heritage inform your work?
[20:23] Dr Diane: So talk a little bit about how your cultural heritage informs your work.
[20:27] Teresa: All right, thank you for that question because I never used to think too much about my own culture. When I was younger, living in Hong Kong and in Vancouver, there were a lot of Chinese people, of course, and so I never really gave it much thought. But as I got older, the older I get, the more I think about it because the more I think about my childhood and living in southern Indiana too, where I'm not around a lot of Chinese people, it feels a little isolating sometimes. I don't know. I just think about my culture a lot because of this isolation and because I think about my childhood a lot now.
So it's just really important to me too because I want my kids to understand that part of their own history because my husband is of European descent, so they have two different cultures in them. And so I just want to write things that, well, kids in America who are of immigrant status or whose culture happens to be Asian can partake of and feel proud of. And I want that for my kids too, even though they're in their twenties now, so they're not really sitting around reading my picture books. But if they do, I want them to feel that.
[21:51] Dr Diane: And that makes total sense. What you're doing is providing as Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop would say, you're providing sort of that mirror for your own kids to be able to see their culture. But it's a window for other kids as well, the kids in Indiana or elsewhere to be able to gain some understanding and not be trapped in sort of viewing Asian Americans in a single culture, but to see all the richness that makes up the culture. So I think you're serving a valuable role in both ends.
[22:24] Teresa: Well, thank you. I'm glad you think so.
Let’s talk about farms, chickens, and goats!
[22:28] Dr Diane: Let's talk a little bit about Indiana. I was reading online that you guys have a largely self sustaining farm where you wash vegetables and feed chickens. Do describe.
[22:42] Teresa: So it's a mini farm. It's only 27 acres, so it's not like a big farm.
[22:47] Dr Diane: That sounds like a lot of acres to me regardless.
[22:51] Teresa: Well, for a family of four to take care of, it is a lot. It's mostly my husband and younger kids, but yeah, my husband especially has always been into gardening and we for some reason both of us really like homemade and self sufficiency concepts. And so when we bought this acreage out here, it was when he got his job at Indiana University, we bought the acreage out here, and he just started growing a really big garden. So we have fruit trees. In fact, I just made a peach pie with peaches from our tree that we harvested last summer. And he has this garden, main fenced in garden area because all the deer and the rabbits, we need it fenced in, and he grows tons and tons of vegetables. And so we process tomato sauce and we can beans and freeze beans and freeze other things like collard greens and spinach and what have you. We just grow a whole bunch of different things. Yeah, we are just really into that.
And we got chickens because they were the easiest things to raise without a lot of fencing, because we thought about doing pigs, too, but that would take a lot of fencing. And we just never had the time, or earlier in our lives, the money to pay for fencing. And so chickens chickens are super easy. They're really fun to watch. Every single one of them have a unique personality, and yet they're just really fun to watch. And our kids just love them, too. And they're great for generally, we just raise them for eggs. Occasionally, we have butchered our own chickens for meat. But as we get older, we are a lot lazier now, so we don't butcher as much anymore. But chickens are just so much fun. Like I said, they're easy to raise, they're fun to watch. They're like pets that we have to get eggs from.
And it's just been a great life. It's really great for the kids, too, because they know where their food comes from. And that, to us, was very important.
[25:02] Dr Diane: I agree. When we lived in Millbrook, New York, we had goats and chickens. My girls grew up knowing how to milk goats. They were able to gather the eggs from the chickens. They sold the eggs on Sundays as part of sort of their allowance money when we had more than we could use. So it was such a wonderful way for them to get a sense of where your food comes from and to be able to appreciate that connection to nature and to the earth. So that really resonates.
[25:32] Teresa: Oh, that's wonderful. Oh, I wish we had raised goats too, but that was another fencing issue that we never dealt with.
[25:40] Dr Diane: The goats were fascinating. We inherited goats because we lived on a prep school campus up in New York, and they had a zoo. And the zoo likes to say they're the only zoo in the country that has a prep school. And the prep school likes to say they're the only prep school in the country that has a zoo.
[25:57] Teresa: Oh, I love it.
[25:59] Dr Diane: And so some random person had donated goats to the prep school. Well, they didn't need goats. And because my husband was the facilities director, we had the farmhouse at the edge of the property where there was lots of land and sort of an old dilapidated barn from the turn of the century. So we said we'll take the goats. And so we took the goats, and we learned how to take care of the goats. And we milked goats. We made goat ice cream. The goats used to go for walks around the property with us. We would take our dog, and the goats would go trotting along right with the dog.
[26:34] Teresa: That is awesome. I had suggested to my family several times, we should get some goats, and they never did. But that story just, oh, that makes me so happy.
[26:44] Dr Diane: It was so much fun. And, you know, that came back to me because you had talked about working with Susanna Leonard Hill back at the beginning. And when I was in New York, I ran a preschool, and every year Susanna would come to my preschool and she would bring Phyllis the Groundhog and do our special Groundhog Day program with us.
[27:04] Teresa: I love Susanna and her Phyllis books are so awesome. I love them.
[27:09] Dr Diane: She really is wonderful, and she's done so much for, I think, authors who are aspiring in picture books.
[27:15] Teresa: Yes. She is just the most generous soul. I love her.
What future adventures lie in store for you?
[27:20] Dr Diane: So as you look to the future, what are some of the things that make you happy or excited that you see coming down the path for you?
[27:27] Teresa: Oh, I am super excited about this book that I have coming out in 2024. It's called Clouds in Space. I'm not sure if we've actually settled on a subtitle yet because marketing came back to us and said we need to include certain things. So anyway, but it's called Clouds in Space, and it's about an astronomical phenomenon called nebula. Nebula. Nebulae. Plural. And well, because astrophysics is my passion. So it's a book that I have loved for a long time. I wrote it in 2014, and I've been trying to sell it for a while. I got some close nibbles, but my current agent found the perfect publisher for it. It's MIT Kids, which is a new imprint that was started with Candlewick. And my editor is just the most awesome person, and we have had such fun with this manuscript. It's a project that's really close to my heart, and I am so excited for it to come out. The art is beautiful, and yeah, I'm super excited about that.
[28:35] Teresa: In addition to the next Who Is Book coming out, and it's going to be about Bruce Lee, and I'm really excited about that too, because, well, he was based out of Hong Kong, so that's my hometown. And also my dad has actually met him a few times back.
[28:56] Dr Diane: Wow.
[28:56] Teresa: Yeah, because my dad was taking kung fu at the time, too, and so he knew just not like close or anything, but he knew Bruce Lee’s Sifu and he met Bruce Lee in passing. So anyway, I'm really excited about that too.
[29:14] Teresa: Let's see. And there's another I don't know if I should mention this or not because it hasn't been announced yet. Publishing is so slow, it takes forever to get anything announced and out. But there's a book coming out with Astra Young Readers that I'm also really passionate about because it's based on well, it's all about a Chinese holiday that I absolutely love. It's very close to my heart and I remember participating in this holiday when I was a kid in Hong Kong. And so anyway, I'm excited about that too. And I have a couple of middle grade nonfiction projects that are going to be out probably, I don't know, 2025, maybe 2026, I'm not sure.
[29:59] Teresa: But anyway, those are going to be super fun. And I can't mention them either because they haven't been announced. But there are so many things that I'm just really super excited about and lots of things that I'm working on.
How do you build a career in writing?
[30:12] Dr Diane: And it sounds like this hasn't been an overnight thing for you, that it's taken time to sort of build and reach the level that you're at. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers who might be hoping to follow your path?
[30:25] Teresa: Well, I have to say, and I know other people say this a lot, but don't give up. I was really this close to giving up around 2015, 2016, when, you know, after my first agent left and I couldn't get anyone else interested in the Queen of Physics story. And it was just a really depressing time for my writing life because I just felt like it's never going to be published, kids are not going to know about her story, and I'm never going to have a book out. So it's really easy to get down in this business because it takes forever.