S1 E 10: Science is For Everyone Guest: Shelli R. Johannes
Host: Dr Diane Jackson Schnoor Shelli R. Johannes is the author of 18 books (out and forthcoming). She is the coauthor (with Kimberly Derting) of the popular CECE LOVES SCIENCE series and PENNY (An Engineering Tale of the Fourth Pig). In addition to her tween and teen novels, she is also the author of the THEO THESAURUS series and SHINE LIKE A UNICORN. Her new chapter book in Chelsea Clinton’s “She Persisted” series on FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE comes out in March 2023.
Welcoming Shelli to the Adventures in Learning podcast was like welcoming an old friend. Today's blog focuses on the importance of science for everyone and we delve into different ways that Shelli and her co-author, Kimberly Derting, model this love of science with the enthusiastic storylines, engaging diverse characters (illustrators Vashti Harrison and Joelle Murray have really created memorable heroines), solid science vocabulary, and easy-to-perform at home experiments of the ...Loves Science series. Shelli and Kim also recently published Penny, An Engineering Tale of the Fourth Pig, which connects simple machines and a smart sister pig to the well-known tale of the three little pigs.
*Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
What follows are excerpts from my conversation with Shelli R. Johannes, with links to her books and other teaching resources. Her website is a treasure trove for teachers, librarians, and families. The full transcript is available on the podcast. Enjoy!
Science IS for Everyone: The Personal Story That Prompted Shelli To Write Cece Loves Science
Before the Cece Loves Science books, Shelli was actually writing young adult thrillers. She tells the story [00:46] about how her 10 year old daughter, who had always loved science, suddenly came home and said the dreaded line "science is for boys." She had always loved science within the science club, loved science camps while girls were off kind of playing and putting on makeup," Shelli recalls. "She was always in the yard with earthworms and saving earthworms. And one day I was like, are you excited about going to science camp this week? And she said no. I don't know, I think science is for boys." Shelli says that moment stopped her in her tracks because her husband has a PhD in topography and a degree in geology and she does a lot of conservation work with animals at the Atlanta Zoo and with the Dolphin Project and some other local animal conservation groups.
"And so we couldn't figure out where that came from because we were a science loving family," she says. Shelli knew she had to do something to combat the message that science was just for boys, to reinforce that science is for everyone.
And so I kind of thought maybe I'll do a Fancy Nancy for science. And that's kind of how it started. And when I talked to Kim (Derting) about it, she was like, that's so weird. My daughter said the same thing about the same age, and she was also writing thrillers at the time. And we were like, do we want to write this book together? And so that was just kind of how it evolved.
Over the years, I've seen the same phenomenon play out. I ran into it with my own daughters when they were in middle school, and they had been total science girls, LEGO clubs, all of that. I also saw it when I was running summer camps at a children's museum, girls who had previously been leaders in STEM suddenly were erasing themselves in camp or deferring to others. In those circumstances, I found, for me, it took modeling -- sharing examples of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians of all genders and cultural backgrounds -- as well as providing opportunities for hands-on exploration and meaningful challenges and problem-solving. If you want to learn more about some of the barriers that exist surrounding women in STEM, as well as some of the solutions, check out these articles:
To support the premise that science is for EVERYONE, Shelli and Kimberly Derting collaborated to create the ...Loves Science series. Cece loves biology and zoology, Libby loves chemistry, and Vivi loves marine biology and oceanography..
[03:48] Dr Diane: That's really exciting. I know one of the things that drew me to the books originally is I work with librarians and teachers through UVA and had noticed there aren't a lot of diverse transitional readers and was trying to broaden their spectrum. And when I discovered the Cece Loves Science, I Can Read books, I was so excited because I thought, this book is representational, all kids can see themselves in it, and it's really giving a great message on a readable level. And I thought that was really powerful. What prompted you guys to have sort of the match of the picture book and the early readers?
[04:25] Shelli: Yeah, well, I think that having Vashti Harrison come on board from the very beginning, before her Bold Little Leaders came out, really added, like, a dimension to that book.
And I love that the book is a diverse science book, but it's not issue driven. It's just people who love science, girls who love science, boys who love science. And so we thought that was a great kind of layer that we weren't expecting at the very beginning. -- Shelli R. Johannes
When Vashti wasn't able to continue with the series, Shelli says they really worked with their editor to try and find another diverse artist, Joelle Murray, who could match that series and really take it to the next level. She credits Virginia Duncan, their editor at Greenwillow, eiyh being a huge advocate of this series. Virginia oversees the Amelia Bedelia I Can Read series and saw the potential for connecting the Loves Science picture books to an I Can Read format. "And so she kind of felt, well, let's make sure we're hitting all levels," Shelli says. "So as girls are aging up or as boys are aging up, as little scientists are aging up, they can follow and just remember that science is important." Shelli notes that she hopes the Loves Science series will age up into chapter books and grow with the readers as well.
Shelli notes that she thinks some of the breakdown in science enthusiasm is when it becomes a school subject in upper elementary or middle school and becomes something that is graded, rather than something that is observed and learned.
I feel like that's where something starts to break down, where it (science) becomes about a subject and a study, and you lose kind of perspective that science is all around us and it's fun and it's experimental. -- Shelli R Johannes [06:07]
Why wouldn't you connect the joy of reading to the hands-on experiences?
As a STEM/STEAM educator, one of the things I really appreciate about the Loves Science series is the fact that each book includes real science vocabulary and experiments to try at home. As an educator, I'm always trying to link STEM and STEAM back to children's literature because I think the two pair so beautifully. And why wouldn't you connect a book and connect that joy of reading into the hands on experiences?
[06:59] Shelli: And something that was really important to us was including experiments that were safe and easy to where you could do them at school or you could do them at home, and they weren't like, super messy, they weren't dangerous. You didn't have to get any type of borax. There wasn't anything that would keep would prevent a child from doing the experiment. And Virginia has always been really good about pushing the national science standards. And so, in fact, we're just doing another I Can Read now. And she's like, okay, what are we going to hit this time? And we're kind of thinking, okay, oil and water, freeze and melt, like, what are states of matter? But we always look through the national science standard and try to focus on something that we know is going to be somewhere K to five, so that it's really something that they can use not only from a literacy perspective in the classroom, but also from a science perspective.
Lessons Learned From Classroom Visits
Each year, Shelli is invited to virtual and in person author visits. I asked if she had noticed any common questions, threads, or lessons that emerged from these school visits.
[08:03] Shelli: Yeah. In fact, there's sometimes where I'll go into kindergarten and they'll say, we're going to have you do like K to two. We'll have you read the book and then do some science pieces. But then for our fourth and fifth graders, we'll have you come in and talk more about writing. And I always ask when I go into the fourth and fifth graders, okay, who knows Cece Loves Science? If you haven't heard about it, it's a girl who loves science. And someone will always say, are you going to read it? And usually that is not part of my fourth and fifth classroom because they're older, and I always end up reading the book because kids just never get too old to read to, and they love it. And so even though it's a picture book, they'll love it, whether I read a picture book or I Can Read. And they're beyond that level in reading, but they still love it.
I think one of the things that we forget about as adults is that picture books are so packed with meaning, and when you take the words, you take the pictures, there's always more you can find. And I think that once you get through the I can read stage, you think I'm too old for picture books, but really, that's the age where you should be reading them, because there's so much more to grab.[08:50] Dr Diane
[09:10] Shelli: Yeah, so I really try to keep going. I really hope the series continues to age up, because I really do love that idea of making sure that kids are constantly seeing science as fun, as engaging, as experimental, and that it's just all around us and it's not just a subject in school as they start getting older.
Shelli's Adventures in Learning
[09:30] Dr Diane: Absolutely. So I know that you didn't start off writing the Cece books, and you said you were in YA before that. Can you describe your adventure in learning? Like, how did you get to where you are today as an author of children's books?
[09:44] Shelli: Oh, gosh, I've always loved to read. I mean, I was a voracious reader. The Laura Ingalls Wilder series, the Bobsey Twins. Nancy, gosh. who else? Pippi Longstocking is one of my favorite characters of all time. So I've always been a big reader, and I've always written on the side. But I think when I was younger, I didn't really know that writing could be a career. So I do remember in fourth grade, in fourth grade, my grandfather had passed away and my teacher, Mrs. Crawford, had encouraged me to enter an essay contest that was for the state, and it was about nutrition, and you were supposed to write an essay about why nutrition was important. And instead of writing an essay, I wrote a picture book that was How To Be a Smart Cookie, and I did all the pictures myself, and it was about a cookie who was learning how to eat right and was learning about nutrition, and I won. And so I remember that as part of just realizing, wow, everyone else did essays and I did a book, and I actually kind of stood out. But somewhere along the line, I got a little bit lost. So I went into marketing and really started focusing on business writing until my daughter was born. And I had six months off of the bank where I was working as an SVP, and I just started writing again. I guess I had the time and the space and the energy and just the creativity. I was like, if I can create a baby, I can create a book.
[11:16] Dr Diane: Absolutely.
[11:17] Shelli: So that was kind of how I got back into it, and then I just got bit by the bug. I always say she sat on something inside of me.
[11:25] Dr Diane: And I think all of our experiences do add up and shape who we are as humans, as writers, in terms of our career, all of that.
I always say that to kids at school because you don't have to know what you want to be. You just need to know what you love. Find what you love. It doesn't necessarily mean that you have to know what you want to be. Because I always loved reading and writing, but I didn't know I wanted to be a writer until later. And that as long as you follow what you love, you'll come to who you're supposed to be. [11:34] Shelli R Johannes
Earthworms, Frogs, and Baby Squirrels -- Shelli's Early Science Encounters
[13:53] Shelli: I grew up in Florida, and we were always outside. I mean, we had a pool. We were always catching frogs out of the saving fogs out of the pool, saving raccoons out of the pool, saving snakes out of the pool. I remember when I was probably in like first or second grade, I found my cat had adopted these baby squirrels, and I was convinced that I was going to raise these squirrels. And so I was trying to take care of these squirrels, and they were nursing on my cat, who could not nurse at all, and I put them in a box, and my mom ended up finding out about them and took them to the vet. I just remember all those things. I've always been one to pick up an animal on the side of the street. I met my husband at the Atlanta Zoo, where we volunteered for several years. And so it's just always been a part of my life. I think it's a lot of animals and just experimenting and just kind of being aware of the world around me. But I think a lot of that was just because we didn't have TV, and my parents were like, go outside and then come back in when it gets dark.
[14:59] Dr Diane: That sounds like my childhood time. They would release us, send us out into the wild, and say, be home for dinner.
Yeah. And I think kids are missing that today because they're inside and they're on their computers. And I love technology, but sometimes when I go into schools, I'll say, okay, who in here loves science? And I would say, there's always the ones that shoot up, and then there's always the ones that are like, I guess I better raise my hand because she's going to say something. I'm like, don't raise your hand if you don't love science. And so they'll kind of put them back down, and I'll kind of go through, all right, who loves to cook? And some people raise your hand. I'm like, that's chemistry. And then I'll say, who loves to play outside? Raise your hand. Okay, that's botany. Biology. Who loves space? That's astronomy. And then I'll kind of get down to it, and I'll say, okay, there's always a few kids who are just like, there's nothing she's going to say that I like sitting back. And I'll say, okay, who loves computer games? And they'll raise her hand. I'll be like, that's computer science. So everyone in here has said that they love science. And I think people just forget what science is. And I was always a part of that when I was younger, animals and science and outside and baking. And so I think I just grew up knowing that that was science. -----[15:08] Shelli R Johannes
Engineering Pigs, STEM, and Princesses Who Can Solve Their Own Problems
Shelli and Kimberly Derting have a wonderful new book out, Penny. The Engineering Tail of the Fourth Pig. In this section, we discuss what prompted them to write this new adventure.
[16:29] Shelli says they really wanted to push the envelope on STEM and push against some of the stereotypes that are out there. "So we were kind of thinking about fairy tales and how could we take a fairy tale, like, what happens after the fairy tale when someone has the happy ending or it ends, and then what happens?" she says. "And could we roll science into that?" As they revisited fairy tales and folk tales, they came across the story of the Three Little Pigs, which got them thinking about other pig family members and bringing a girl engineer into the story after the houses blow down.
And so we kind of came up with Penny, who just loved being an engineer, loved building things, and that once their houses blew down, they called her to come in and save the day and try to help them rebuild. So that was how we moved over into, okay, let's do Penny as the fourth pig and make her an engineer. -- Shelli R. Johannes
[17:50] Dr Diane: I love that concept. One of the things I do with teachers is I do a workshop called Beyond Ever After. And we're focused on how do you take diverse folk or fairy tales and connect them to STEM and STEAM.
[18:04] Shelli: Yes.
[18:04] Dr Diane: And so I've always loved the three pigs because you can go beyond the house building to really how do you problem solve? How do you create a structure that's going to withstand the wolf? David Wiesner has his Three Pigs where they fly right out of the book. How do you build a stronger paper airplane? Then you can talk about lift and all of that. But I'm so excited to add Penny to the canon of books that I get to introduce the teachers.
[18:29] Shelli: Yeah, we love Andrea Beaty's books. And so we wanted to stay in that STEM space, but we wanted to make it more applicable, like something that kids could actually do, because her books are lovely and delicious and the rhyming is amazing, and all of her characters are so robust. And so we were like, how can we hit this STEM space when Andrea Beaty is completely owning that space with Ada Twist and Rosie Revere, but make it a little bit more applicable? And so this kind of has those ideas in it as well. To experiment with simple machines and levers and pulleys.
[19:10] Dr Diane: It's a neat entry into the space. I really liked it.
And I like that beyond ever after, it's really beyond happily ever after, like these princesses and kind of these characters. What happens later? Maybe it's not that they go off with the prince. Maybe Snow White — we had an idea, like, in our series, we have a Snow White and Math kind of concept that we're trying to talk to our editor about. Maybe there's something beyond, like, the witch and the apple. Maybe she starts her own apple business with the seven dwarves. And it's about math. So it's kind of like, what is next? What don't we see on the page?[19:14] Shelli R. Johannes
[19:47] Dr Diane: I like that. You can make apple muffins and you could be counting all the different muffins and do the chemistry.
[19:51] Shelli: Right and dividing like you have seven people you're making an apple pie for. So how do you divide your recipe?
[19:58] Dr Diane: Absolutely.
[19:59] Shelli: I think there's a lot of fun stuff there that we could kind of get into.
[20:03] Dr Diane: And I love the notion of going beyond what's on the page because I think that that's part of the storytelling with the kids too is getting them engaged in what happens next and they come up with some great endings.
[20:16] Shelli: And also just realizing, especially like, on the Princess ones, that it doesn't end with happily ever after with the boy. What could the girl do next that's different and independent? And so it's just kind of building off of those stories that are already there to just show them that there is science there. It's not a fairy tale. It's not a happily ever after. It's a life. And there is science there that someone uses.
Dinosaurs In Love With Long Words -- Inspired By Real Life
[20:49] Shelli: Most of my ideas, I think, comes from my kids. So Theo came about because I was cooking one day, which is rare for me. And my son was in the back and he was probably, like 5th or 6th grade, just getting to the point where he was writing papers and trying to impress teachers. And he kind of yelled from the back room as I was cooking what's a big word for happy? And I was like, ecstatic. And he was like, what? Because I'm in the front. Because heaven forbid if we went into the same room, right? We're all yelling through the house. I walked in the same room and had a conversation. My husband was always like, Why don't you just go back there?
[21:35] Dr Diane: It never happens that way, ever.
[21:38] Shelli: So we're yelling back and forth, I'm cooking. He's like, what? I'm like ecstatic. He's like, what? I'm like, look at a thesaurus. And he's like, oh, what? I'm like a thesaurus. And he's like, what? I'm like a thesaurus. Like the saurus, as in the dinosaur. Like, you know what a thesaurus is. And then I thought, Wait a minute, that would be so cute. What if there was a dinosaur that loved big words? I was like, that's been done. And so I left the food probably to burn at that point and went over and immediately Googled, as a writer would do oh, my God, is there a book out there that's a dinosaur who loves big words? And there wasn't. And so I sat down that night and kind of wrote my first draft just about a dinosaur who loved big words but was going to a new school, and no one understood a word he said. And he just felt very misunderstood. No one could understand them. There was constant miscommunication until the end. And he kind of realizes that sometimes you don't need words. So that was kind of where that came from.
Building Connections Between STEM and Imagination for Critical Thinking
In this next section, we discuss strategies for building connections with kids between the worlds of imagination and STEM in terms of helping them to continue to develop collaboration, critical thinking, creative problem solving.
[22:48] Shelli: I mean, I think through experiments. That's why we really put those in the book, is experimenting gives you first of all, it gives you that critical thinking, right? It gives you that thought process that is kind of out of the box, like what would happen if…
But I think what it also does is it shows kids that it's okay to make mistakes. That's what science is. Science is all about making mistakes, experimenting, doing things wrong, doing things different. And I think that's kind of what we really like to focus on, is it's not about doing things right all the time and perfect. It's about testing it and experimenting and getting it wrong and getting it wrong and getting it wrong until you get it right. And that's what science is. It's all about getting it wrong until you finally get it right.
That critical thinking, I think, is great at that age because they start to get to a point where it's about the grade and what's right. And even my son with the thesaurus, like, how is he going to get the best grade? He thinks big words are going to do that. And some of the words he would use at the time, I was like, no, I'm not sure that word what means what you think it means exactly, in that context. But it's really about the critical thinking around that and trying to get across what he wants to get across with the right words in the right way. And the same thing with science, like figuring out what the answer is by not getting the answers.
Shelli's STEM-spirations -- Picture Books that Inspire Her
[24:15] Dr Diane: So are there STEM based picture books or authors that ignite your imagination, other people's work that you love?
[24:22] Shelli: Yeah. Well, I mentioned Andrea Beaty. She's a big one, obviously. She kind of paved the way for those STEM books. Mary Had a Little Lab — I think is an adorable book for STEM. Josh Funk has a book out, How to Code a Sandcastle, which I think is adorable.
[24:42] Dr Diane: It is.
[24:42] Shelli: So I love now that it's kind of expanding a little bit, you start to see more STEM books coming out, kind of investigating different areas. 7 Ate 9 by Tara Lazar, adorable, that’s math. So I think there are so many fun ways that you can put STEM or STEAM into these books that make it fun but still, like, they're learning without knowing they're learning. Right?
[25:11] Dr Diane: Exactly. And I think that's part of the fun of learning is when we can make it playful, then they're learning without it being painful.
[25:18] Shelli: Yeah. And there's also Shanda McClosky’s book, Doll-E 1.0, she talks about drones, and that's also technology. So I don't know. I love these books that are coming out that are kind of focusing on the different areas and different ways that we can get these STEAM concepts across.
What's Next for Shelli and her Adventures in Learning?
[27:23] Shelli: I'm very excited to be a part of Chelsea Clinton's She Persisted series. So I just finished a chapter book on Florence Nightingale, which I'm really excited about. That comes out in March.
And then a lot of our Love Science books are going into paperback next year, which I'm excited about. Libby's going into paperback in the spring, and then Vivi is going into paperback towards the summer, which I think is really good because sometimes these hard picture books are so expensive for schools that I just love having that paperback option for kids.
We've got a couple more Cece Loves Sciences coming out and then Kim and I, I don't even think it's been announced yet, but we just sold a kind of STEM chapter book series that has to do with a girl who lives on a sustainable farm.
[28:40] Dr Diane: Oh, wow.
[28:42] Shelli: That's probably all I can say about it. So it hasn't quite been announced yet. So that's going to take us for the next few years. So taking that STEM and kind of those concepts up into chapter books is kind of where I would love to go next.
Exploring Connections -- What Brings Joy and Hope Right Now?
[28:53] Dr Diane: So what currently brings you Joy?
[28:58] Shelli: Oh, gosh, seeing my daughter who comes home from college. I'm sure you're going through that too. What brings me joy? Just quiet. I think that everything has been so busy and voices, negative and positive, have been so loud that I really am just kind of enjoying the quiet after being at home for a couple of years in the pandemic with everyone around and a lot of external noise. Just writing and quiet. That's really what's bringing me joy right now and just seeing my kids kind of who they're becoming. My son's 15. My daughter just went off to UNG, so she's 18 and she's studying to be a vet now, so luckily we got her back, yeah, science came back. So she's studying to be a vet. She's in biology. So just family, I guess, and health and that’s kind a boring answer.
[29:58] Dr Diane: It's not a boring answer at all. What makes you hopeful for the future?
[30:04] Shelli: This generation of kids. Just watching my kids and the things that they know about, even when I go into schools, it amazes me. I was not having that critical thinking at that age. I just don't remember having that. I remember just kind of thinking about what I was wearing and was I going to get a Popsicle. At the end of the day, I don't remember having the conversations that we've had in our house, especially at younger ages.
[30:34] Dr Diane: Right.
[30:34] Shelli: They're just so much more like, on one hand, this kind of social media technology thing, you just want to take it away sometimes. Just please, I just want to go back. But then on the other hand, they know so much and they're so much aware of the world around them. They're smarter than me. This generation coming up is smarter than us. And so I'm really excited and hopeful that this generation, as my daughter's voting as my son's coming up, that they're really going to be the ones that kind of get us back on track and change the world for a better place.
[31:06] Dr Diane: I keep hoping the same thing as I look at them. You're right. They do know more than we knew and for better or for worse. But I think they also understand that kindness is an action verb and that it matters. And they're certainly more aware of the people around them than I think that I was at their age. And I truly appreciate that.
[31:28] Shelli: Yeah. And actually, they're smarter than I am. It's not, like, smarter than I was at.
[31:55] Dr Diane: All right, so the last question. In your varied adventures in learning, if you were to give advice to a child now who thought they wanted to grow up to be a writer, what would you tell them to do?
I would tell them that whatever they want to do, to just do what they love, because I really want kids to follow their passions. [32:07] Shelli R. Johannes
[34:08] Dr Diane: But you're right. I think follow your dream and seek your passion, and it does come.
[34:13] Shelli: Yeah. No matter what it is. And it could be sometimes all parents will come and talk to you and be like, you know, my son loves trains. Like, what's he going to do with trains? I'm like, just be glad he loves something, because a lot of kids never find what they love. And I think if you can find what you love and what you're passionate about, then no matter what, you'll always have some kind of drive to do that or be involved in that. I'm more worried about the kids who don't love something. Those are the ones that makes me more sad. Then I'm not worried about the kids who love something, even though it seems wacky do. It's something that they can put their heart into.
If you want to follow Shelli R. Johannes' continued adventures in learning, please check out her website.There are many resources and fun activities available to families, teachers, and librarians. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok @srjohannes
*Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.