Fractured Fairy Tales, Cicada Symphonies, Leprechaun Traps, & Kid Scientists: Meet Author Sue Fliess
Welcome to Adventures in Learning, where curiosity and connection lead to exciting discoveries. In this episode, we delve into the world of STEM picture books with the acclaimed author Sue Fliess. With a passion for combining science, technology, engineering, and math with captivating storytelling, Sue has captured the hearts of young readers and educators alike. Sue is the author of more than 50 picture books, including Goldilocks and the Three Engineers, Little Red Rhyming Hood, Mary Had a Little Lab, Beatrice Bly's Rules for Spies series, Sadie Sprocket Builds a Rocket, the Kid Scientist series, and the recently published Cicada Symphony to name just a few. Join me as Sue and I discuss her journey as an author, her inspiration for STEM-themed fractured fairy tales, as well as her natural curiosity and wonder that is leading her into more science and nature-based books. What follows are excerpts from our conversation. For the whole podcast episode, visit the Adventures in Learning podcast.
A Journey to Becoming a Picture Book Author
We start by learning about Sue's background and her path to becoming a picture book author. From her early love of writing to her experience in the publishing industry, Sue shares the pivotal moments that led her to discover her passion for writing children's books. The role of her son and the influence of a supportive local librarian become instrumental in shaping her career.
Sue: So I've always loved writing. As a kid, I used to write poems for my family and friends and about my dog and things like that, but it was always just a hobby. I kept a journal in high school, angsty teen stuff and things like that. I used to write poems when I got older, and then when I started to really feel more serious about writing, I was writing poems. And I was working at Putnam Berkeley, which is, of course, now Penguin Random House. I worked in the Berkeley paperback division. That was my very first job as an assistant to the publicist. I eventually became a publicist, but I was sort of surrounded by books.
Sue joined a writing group in NYC, where her group encouraged her to focus on telling stories. But she didn't start writing picture books until she became a mother.
Sue: But it was not until, gosh, many years later, I was 31. I had had my first son. I was reading him tons and tons of picture books. And a couple of years into his toddlerhood, I started to think maybe I used to love writing rhyming poetry, and that never really translated for me to write for adults. People don't necessarily want to read rhyming poetry as adults, if you get my gist. And so I thought maybe this is something that I could explore. And I took a class on writing children's books 101 at the local college. And it was this eight hour all day class, and I kind of left there with a fire in my belly to at least try it.
I formed a writing group, started going to conferences, started learning everything I could about the industry, but so it was really my son and reading to my son, which sort of brought to life that love of writing, this rhyming poetry that came back.
What was the very first book you published?
Sue: It's called Shoes for Me. And it's about a hippo whose feet have grown, and her mom says basically you can pick out your very first pair of real shoes. So they go to a shoe store, and it's kind of like a list book. So it's shoes that button, shoes that snap, shoes for ballet, shoes for tap. I think I've read it so many times, I probably have it memorized.
But what was great about that book is I pictured it in my head as a little human girl going to the store with her mom. And then when the editor said, I want to make this a book, she said, I think it would be really fun to do with animals. And I thought, great, this is my first book. It doesn't matter to me. Do whatever you want with it. And then when they gave it to the illustrator, he really wanted to do hippos. And I thought how funny that a book about shoes is going to be with hippos that have the biggest feet possible in the animal kingdom. But that was sort of a great way to realize that I have control over part of the process, but that it then takes on a life of its own, which always ends up making the book better.
Dr Diane: And I was reading that you talk to people about leaving room for the illustrator. What exactly does that mean in your work, and how do you go about doing that?
Sue: Yeah, so it's sort of like when I'm writing, I can picture a movie of the book, but it's very limited. And so what I try to do when I'm writing is every now and then, sort of a gut check. Like, do I need all this detail? The first draft, of course, just write down, get it all out. Then as I'm going through, I think, is this something the illustrator can show that I don't need to put all these extra words in here?
So my whole thing and of course, with picture books across the board, is less is more. You want to let the illustrator take it to another level.
I mean, especially with the fractured fairy tale series you were mentioning, Mary Had a Little Lab, there's all these other stories sort of going on in the illustrations that I didn't write those notes. I mean, sometimes I do use illustrator notes if it's vague, if what I'm trying to get across is very just, well, it's in my head, but it's not on the page. But for the most part, the illustrators take it to a whole other level. So if you're dictating everything that has to be illustrated, you're just not going to get that level of creativity that they bring to it.
STEM Picture Books and Fractured Fairy Tales:
In this next section, Sue delves into her unique approach of blending STEM concepts with fractured fairy tales. She takes us behind the scenes of her creative process and shares the inspiration behind her books, such as Goldilocks and the Three Engineers, Little Red Rhyming Hood, and Mary Had a Little Lab. Sue's ability to reimagine traditional stories with strong female leads empowers young readers and sparks their interest in science and technology.
Dr Diane: I love the take on your fractured fairy tales because you take those stories and you sort of raise them to another level. You reinvent the stories. What was your inspiration for going in that direction?
Sue: So the first one, I have to admit Mary Had a Little Lab kind of came to me in a dream.
When I talk at school visits. I say how there's no such thing as an idea fairy that comes and sprinkles ideas while you're sleeping. But in that one instance, I feel like I got that idea from a dream.
Sue: But I have two Labrador retrievers at home, and we just say we have two labs. And when I was dreaming, somebody asked me in my dream, what are you working on? And I said, oh, I'm working on a book called Mary Had a Little Lab. And I woke up and I thought, oh, well, no one wants to hear about a girl and her Labrador retriever. That seems kind of boring. But I said, what if Lab was short for Laboratory? And suddenly the book just came to me as, okay, she's a scientist. She's in a lab. What is she going to make in her lab? And of course, the tie in to the original nursery rhyme is lamb. So I chose sheep, and I thought, of course she's going to make a sheep in her lab. So that kind of set the stage for that book.
The success of Mary Had a Little Lab set Sue on a trajectory of creating STEM fractured fairy tales with a strong female protagonist. In fact, she has a new book, Beauty and the Beaker, coming out next year!
Dr Diane: That sounds really exciting. I love the cleverness of that. And with these books, I've noticed there are activities now on your web page that go with them. How did that come about?
Sue: So that is technically the publisher that is creating some of those. I always do a book trailer, which is more just promotional. But, yeah, my publisher is really taken to creating activities for the books, especially when there's science involved. But, yeah, the more you can say, we need more of that, that helps me because then it's another thing for me to share with schools when I go, there's an activity kit. Even if you haven't bought the book, the kids can do the activities in the book.
STEM Workshops and School Visits:
We discuss Sue's school workshops for students and faculty that are centered around STEM, writing, and fractured fairy tales. She explains how she encourages students to create their own fractured fairy tales while incorporating STEM elements. Furthermore, Sue emphasizes the significance of research in her writing process and how she conveys accurate scientific information in her stories, even within a fictional context.
Dr Diane: And you talk about STEM when you go to school visits. I saw that was one of the workshops you do. What would be included in a workshop like that when you're working with schools and libraries?
Sue: Well, when I do the Fractured Fairy Tales I have them create their own fractured fairy tales and I talk about mine and how I work science into it. But the STEM workshop is really talking about the writing, the research and what kinds of things I researched and did in order to put that into my stories. And I'll show them examples of fiction and nonfiction that I've done the research for.
So an example from The Princess and the Petri Dish. There's little snippets of the science in there, but I tell them how I watched tons of videos and took out books on how to grow a pea from cocoa beans and what's involved and splicing.
And so I learn all the science involved. Even if only a small portion of that gets put into the book. I stress that I still want it to be accurate even though it's fictional.
Obviously those vines growing like crazy and no one would really fall asleep for a week, those kinds of things are fantastical. But the actual science of it and how she puts the seed on a petri dish that's lined with wet paper towel, all of that is real science. So I talk to them about how important it is to do your research whether you're writing for fiction or nonfiction.
But then I use all of my STEM books as examples. And I often get asked, especially with my Kid Scientist books, I often get asked if I have a science background and I say no. But I have this real love of science and how things work. And I sometimes joke that maybe if I wasn't doing this I would have pursued a career in science.
Exploring New Horizons with Kid Scientists
In this section, Sue provides a sneak peek into her latest book, "Volcano Experts on the Edge," set in Iceland. I am particularly excited about this book as I am adventuring to Iceland in June. Sue shares her excitement about the research process and her dedication to delivering authentic experiences to her readers.
Dr Diane: Well, let's talk about the kid scientist books for a minute. I know that Volcano Experts on the Edge is the latest one and that takes place in Iceland and it's coming out in June. And I'm excited about that because I'm heading to Iceland next month.
Sue: I'm so excited for you. And I wish I could say that I've been there to do all my research, but I have not.
Dr Diane: How did you decide on the Kid Scientists series? Tell us a little bit about it and the topics you're exploring through it.
Sue: I actually was working with my publisher on all the fractured fairy tales that are STEM-based and an editor approached me and said, well, we're thinking about do we want to do some kind of a scientist series? We don't know what to call it yet, but we think you would be the perfect one to write it. And I said, I write fictional science books. I don't know. But I didn't really say that to them, of course. I said, yeah, that sounds amazing. I would love to do that. And then I had a brief moment of panic. What did I just sign up for?
Sue: So for the first one, I said, I love the ocean and humpback whales, dolphins and things like that. I said I would love to do marine biology. So each one, we kind of discussed the science, and then I came back with what the kids would do.
For Volcano Experts on the Edge, Sue was excited to explore all of the wonderful volcanoes of Iceland, but her publisher had concerns about kids going into fiery volcanoes and being on the edge of molten lava.
Sue: They said, well that seems really dangerous, and because the chance of an eruption could really cause harm, why don't we focus on underground? I thought, oh, volcanoes under the ice. But I said, that's not going to be a very interesting illustration, going to be a lot of kids walking across snow and ice. And so I said, what if we find a dormant volcano?
Another challenge Sue faced in writing Volcano Experts on the Edge was the difficulty young readers might have in pronouncing Icelandic volcano names.
Sue: So I needed to find a volcano that was dormant, that kind of had a fun nickname. It's called Queen of Icelandic Mountains. So now they just refer to it as the Queen throughout the book. And then I had to come up with a hypothesis. So the hypothesis is they believe it's dormant, but they have to prove that it's dormant by doing all the science involved with that, ground sensors and aerial drone images and things like that.
Dr Diane: I'm excited because we're actually walking in a volcano while we're there. So it's going to be just an amazing experience.
A Shift Towards Environmental Themes:
During the interview, Dr. Diane pointed out a shift in Sue's recent writing, leaning towards environmental and Earth-based books like The Earth Gives More, Rumble and Roar, and Cicada Symphony. Sue acknowledged that her concerns for the planet and its creatures have influenced her work, highlighting the importance of raising awareness and encouraging children to protect their surroundings. She emphasized the urgent need for change to ensure a better future for generations to come.
Sue: I'm not sure it was a conscious shift. I mean, I am very worried about our planet, and I think that probably is just coming through in any way I can help to shed light on how important it is to take care of the planet and respect the creatures of the planet.
Sue: I guess I'm just very into nature, and I go on walks all the time. We go on hikes. My dad and I used to sit and watch nature shows when I was younger. So, I mean, I had a little magnifying lens -- it was called a bug eye, where you can collect the bugs and watch them. And maybe I was a little bit strange that way, but I absolutely love nature and everything that has to do with nature. So I do think that that is coming through a lot more in my writing. I guess there's more of an urgency about it now.
Dr Diane: As you were talking, I'm thinking about my nature walks, and I've been so interested in animals for a long time, but it's been a more recent thing in terms of that urgency. I traveled to Antarctica in December with my father and am going to Iceland and building this into the kind of teaching I'm doing with kids. But I think we've got to raise the alarm, and we've got to make changes in what we're doing in order to be able to save the planet for our own children and generations to come. So I appreciate what you're doing.
Sue: The more that we can get kids to be aware of their surroundings, the more they're going to want to protect it when they're in a position of power or a position to actually do something about it.
Cicada Symphony: A Surprising Success:
Full disclosure, the science, STEM, and nature lover in me adores Cicada Symphony. In this section of the podcast episode, Sue recounts her unexpected success with Cicada Symphony, a book she initially doubted would be well-received. However, her fascination with cicadas, the timeliness of the cicadas, and the scientific community's love affair with these insects led her to craft a unique story. The book follows the life cycle of cicadas, combining engaging rhyme with factual information, making it an excellent educational tool.
Sue: During the pandemic, I think I wrote three or four stories. I thought maybe these all have a good chance of becoming a book. And one of them was Cicada Symphony, and I thought it had maybe the least chance of becoming an actual book, because I just thought they're kind of weird creatures. It's so specific, and so for me to just choose this one insect and I just sort of became obsessed with Cicadas. When the brood emerged and we were hearing it, we were recording it, my husband had a little decibel reader. He's like, oh, my gosh, listen to how loud it is. And we could see them flying. And I just started to really look at them, and I'm like, oh, maybe I could do something with this. And he was the one that suggested you should write a book. And I thought, I don't know, it seems so specific and they're kind of weird and felt very localized. I know that they are in a big part of the US, but it still felt very local to me.
Then I just couldn't help myself. I started to hear lines in the book. I'm like, well, maybe I'll just write it down and see what happens. And then the more I researched, the more I heard other scientists talk about them and how they described them was like this love letter to them. So I thought, Well, I'll just write something and we'll see what happens.
Sue: And so, yeah, that first line. So let me just read the first line, if you don't mind.
Dr Diane: Not at all.
Sue: Here's the nymphs under the dirt.
There’s a secret you should know: bugs are lurking down below. In the Earth, nymphs lay in wait for their turn to…activate!
Sue: So it was just trying to capture that feeling of, like, we're walking above them and we don't even know it, and then they're about to come up and it's sort of a little bit creepy feeling about that. So I tried to capture that. And then once I wrote that stanza, I was kind of like, oh, man. I'll just try to write a little bit about the life cycle of it and see where it goes. And then the other three stories that I had written did not sell. And this one, within 24 hours, my editor said, I have to have that book. So it just goes to show the unpredictability of publishing and write what you feel passionate about.
Dr Diane: Well, and you hit, I think, a really good formula with that, too. I love the rhyme as you take us through the life cycle of the Cicada. And then I love the fact that you had the factual bits sort of in there as well, so that if a parent or a teacher is doing it as a read aloud, they've got the information that they can either read directly as you wrote it or paraphrase it to answer kids’ questions.
Sue: I've only read it [aloud] a few times because it just came out. And I've had my copies, my early copies for a little while. So I shared it at a few school visits. But, yeah, I would read the main text and then I don't want to bog them down, but I'll kind of say, you know, they molt four times, so, yeah, they're in small enough snippets that it's easy to paraphrase. And then if the kids are really, really interested, they can just sort of read all of it and take their time on each page.
Dr Diane: We were obsessed with the Cicadas as well, living here in Winchester, and they really were just the most amazing symphony in terms of the noise and watching them go. My husband was one of those people who actually did eat them. I'm a vegetarian, and I stood by that during this whole phase. But he experimented and he actually grilled several meals and invited friends over. And I was like, you enjoy your cicadas.
Sue: I love it. I know kids have asked me, I said, well, my dogs ate them. One dog ate them and one dog ignored them. But, yeah, apparently when they become like, when they molt for that last time, they come out of their exoskeleton and they're kind of white and weird looking, but apparently that's when they taste like shrimp. And I think that's when my dogs were most interested or my one dog was most interested in gobbling them up. But, yeah, they provide a beast for the forest animals and people alike, I guess. So did he like them?
Dr Diane: He said they were pretty good, kind of that taste like shrimp, tastes like chicken. And if you spice anything, I think it's edible.
Sue: Yeah, I know my husband recently said he was in Mexico City for work and he had some kind of guacamole that had cricket dust on it or something. He said it wasn't that, too, but, yeah, ground cricket. And I said, well, yeah, that seems like just a crunchy topping. But, yeah, I don't know. I don't know if I could ever bring myself to do it.
Sue revealed some of her upcoming releases, including How to Spook a Ghost, part of her How To… series, scheduled for release in August. Additionally, she mentioned Beauty and the Beaker, Octopus Acrobatics, and another installment in the Kid Scientist series focusing on zoology and the wolves at Yellowstone. Furthermore, Sue mentioned a Tooth Fairy book for the How To series and a future book titled Greta Green Builds a Submarine.
Sue: Yeah. So in August, I have a Halloween one coming out, How to Spook a Ghost. And the four kids are getting ready for Halloween and they hear a noise in the house, and they're like, are we going to be brave and investigate this noise? So they go upstairs and they see that it is a ghost, but of course, and then they realize the ghost is a friendly ghost and just wants to go trick or treating with them. So they invite the ghost to go trick or treating. And there's a craft on how to make a ghost costume and also a little ghost puppet.
Sue: And then next year I have Beauty and the Beaker coming out that I mentioned, and the beast is the storm, in case you're wondering. And then also with Albert Whitman, in line with the Cicada Symphony, is Octopus Acrobatics. And it's the same format, but just all about the life of an octopus. And octopuses are so amazing. And I didn't even want that research to end. And I've just watched countless videos. I'm sure you've seen My Octopus Teacher on Netflix, but I highly recommend that. And that comes out also next year.
And then the next Kid Scientist, it's Zoologists on the Trail because they're wolf biologists, but we just call zoologists on a trail and they're doing their own acoustics to call to the wolves. So that's kind of cool.
I think I have a Tooth Fairy book that I'm working on for the How To series that might come out maybe next summer. I actually don't know. They're just now thinking about the date of that. And then I have a follow on to Sadie Sprocket that doesn't come out until 2025, but that's Greta Green Builds a Submarine. Yeah, I have a lot of stuff that I'm sort of like in different stages working on. But I'm actually going on a writing retreat next week with three other writers, and I have not been on a writing retreat in so long that I'm looking forward to sort of catching up on all the ideas that I want to write that I don't have a deadline for taking that time for myself to really focus on what it is that I want to write.
Dr Diane: That sounds wonderful. And if folks don't know the holiday series or the crafty series, I highly recommend them. I was telling you earlier, I do work with Steve Spangler and Chris Kesler, and they do these PDS (professional development workshops) for teachers across the country. And they were talking about the holidays because Steve does this whole amazing holiday science video, where he connects it to Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, and April Fools because those are his three favorite holidays. And so he presents these experiences, and they're just amazing. They get the kids engaged with STEM and STEAM, and teachers can take these ideas and run with them. And so I was able to share book connections with these teachers, and I highlighted both your How to Trap a Leprechaun and How to Help a Cupid within that, because they were both such great platforms for leaping off into STEM and STEAM and thinking about ways to build a connection. And I love the diverse nature of the illustrations as well, because it allows all kids to see themselves within these holidays, and I just thought they were really cool books.
Sue: Thank you so much. And thank you for highlighting those. You just gave me an idea, though. I might pitch an April Fool's book to them. I feel like I've done every holiday, but that might be a really fun one.
Dr Diane: Well, I would highly recommend that, because when I was looking for April Fools books, those were the ones I got stuck on there's. Susannah Leonard Hill has April Fool, Phyllis, but there's not a whole lot out there for April Fools itself. And so, yes, please give me something for that.
Sue: You've got me thinking.
Childhood book inspirations -- and current authors and illustrators who inspire Sue Fliess
Sue: We went to the library every week, I think. My mom took us, my sister and me, to the library every week. We would check out a bunch of books, and then we would get home, and my dad would find a little selection and he would read them to us. So I was very lucky in that respect. I don't think I owned a ton of books because my mom was very practical and thought, you have enough books, we go to the library. So I'm a huge fan of the public library.
I know one that really stuck with me was William Stein’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. I don’t know that I knew that I was feeling empathy, but he accidentally turns himself into a rock in order to avoid danger, and then he's stuck, and he's really helpless. And this feeling of helplessness I just somehow really connected to. Not that I was feeling helpless, but I just felt so bad for this character.
And so sometimes I think about that book and think, how can I invoke a feeling like that book did for me?
I'm trying to think of, I mean, some middle grade, some Judy, always Judy Blume. And I just saw the movie (Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret?), and...
Dr Diane: It was really oh, it was wonderful.
Sue: Yeah. But all of Judy Blume’s stuff. Also Ferdinand the Bull, that was a favorite. And I think I'm sure we read all the Dr. Seuss books, and it's enmeshed in my brain. But, like, the books that I read to my kids, I'm like, were those my favorites, or are they my new favorites? Because I read them with my kids, so it kind of gets a little blurry. But we all love the Sandra Boynton books. But yeah, now, today I love Library Lion is one of my favorites by Michelle Knudsen. But, yeah, there's so many. But, yeah, we just checked out a lot of books at the library and read a lot of different types of books together, and my sister would sometimes read them to me, too, when she could read.
Dr Diane: And are there current authors that you read for inspiration?
Sue: Oh, yeah. Ame Dyckman, Josh Funk, Tammy Sauer. I read a lot of middle grade and YA and I'm trying desperately to finish a middle grade book. My son, who is 20 years old now, I just picked him up from college yesterday, and he said, how are your books going? How's everything going? And I told him, and I said, I'm doing a writing retreat next week. I'm really excited. He goes, oh, are you going to work on the novel? I started this middle grade novel, chapter book, I don't know what it is yet, when he was ten. That gives you an idea. He's still trying to keep me honest about it, which is good.
If you're writing something, tell people you're writing it because they'll keep you honest.
So, yes, I am hoping to get back to that. But, yeah, there's so many authors right now, Andrea Wang, that I admire that I'll just go to the library and be like, how did they do that? How did they do that? I want to write something like that, and then sometimes I'll get it right, and then sometimes I don't.
Dr Diane: But that's part of learning, right?
Sue: Oh, yeah. At school visits, kids will say, how many books have you written? I said, well, how many stories have I written is very different than how many books I've written.
I've probably written more than twice what I've gotten published because not everything gets picked up. But no writing is wasted. It's all practice.
Sometimes it stings more than other times when it doesn't get picked up, but that's how you just keep motivated to keep writing.
What brings you hope?
In a world that often feels filled with uncertainty and challenges, it is essential to find sources of hope that inspire us to keep moving forward. In the last portion of the podcast, we discuss what brings us hope and the remarkable potential we both see in the next generation. Through our experiences with children and books, we still find reasons to be optimistic about the future.
Sue: What brings me hope, honestly, and it's going to sound so cliche, but the kids, I go to these school visits and they are really deeply thinking about things. I just hope that all grown ups adults give credit where credit is due. These kids are really thinking about their worlds and maybe on a level that we never did because we didn't have to. But I see every time I go visit a school and I see a kid who is really trying to do something or wants to be something, and that just gives me so much hope for our future. And we need to help them get there. We can't just be like, okay, now it's your turn. We need to help lift them up and lift their ideas up.
Dr Diane: I agree 100%. I was at a Rally for Reading yesterday that Shenandoah University hosted and 604th graders in a theater, my watch kept going off saying it was at rock concert levels. Like, they were screaming and shouting for books in a way that was inspirational. Mr. Shu of Mr. Shu Reads was there. He was the MC, and Katherine Applegate was their speaker.
Sue: And they're both amazing.
Dr Diane: These kids were so excited and amped about reading, about building connections, and at the end, Shenandoah University was able to give them copies of the books through a grant.
And there was a little girl in front of me who's clutching her books to her, and she had tears rolling down her cheeks. And I said,
Are you okay? And she goes, These are tears of joy. And I thought, okay, this next generation gets it.
Sue: Like the Beatles, right?
Dr Diane: Exactly. But I thought that's what we need to be supporting is that passion for reading, for being who you want to be, for making a difference in the world.
Sue: And any kind of reading is good reading.
Dr Diane: Yes.
Sue: I won't go into it because we're at the end, but this book banning thing, we have got to fix that because it's ridiculous. And these kids need to be exposed to all kinds of books, and they'll choose the books that they want to read, and they'll be excited about the books they want to be excited about. And all it can do is help open our eyes and their eyes to other ways and other cultures and other types of things that they might not experience in their own lives. That makes me so happy.
Dr Diane: And you're 100% right about the books, too, that we need to be putting these books in the hands of kids and teachers. And not every book is the right book for every child, but we need to let them have the opportunity to find that book friend that they can connect with and to have the opportunity to see possibilities and see other ways of thinking as well.
Dr Diane: Well, thank you for doing your part in making that happen. And thank you for being on the show. It has been such a pleasure to have you today. And I will put all of your contact information in the show notes so that people can reach out to Sue Fliess, bring her to your school. You want her to come do workshops and definitely check out her books because they're amazing.
Sue: Well, thank you, Diane. I'm so happy that you invited me, and I love the purpose of your whole website, blog, podcast, 100% supportive of making the connections with the kids and books and I really appreciate you having me on today.
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