October LILbooKtalk: “Using the Power of Storytelling to Promote STEM to Students” with Jarrett Lerner and Mary Fan

Hi guys! I am really excited to share with y’all this month’s LILbooKtalk! I have two of my favorite authors ever–Jarrett Lerner and Mary Fan–back on the blog to discuss “Using the Power of Storytelling to Promote STEM to Students.” Since personally I am very STEM-mind and will be pursuing computer engineering in college, this is definitely a topic that I had a lot of fun learning more about. I hope you enjoy!

About EngiNerdsEnginerds

The battle between boys and bots is on in this funny, fast-paced novel.

Ken is an EngiNerd: one of a super-smart group of friends—all nerds—who have been close since kindergarten.

They may be brainiacs, but they’re just like everyone else: they fight with one another, watch too much TV, eat Chinese food, and hate walking their dogs. Well, maybe not just like everyone because Ken’s best friend Dan has been building robots. He then secretly sent one to each of the EngiNerds, never letting them know he’s the mastermind.

At first Ken is awed and delighted: what kid hasn’t dreamed of having a robot all their own? Someone who can be their friend, clean their room, walk the dog, answer homework questions…how amazing is that?

But be careful what you wish for: Dan’s robot, Greeeg, may look innocent, but his ravenous consumption of food—comestibles—turns him into a butt-blasting bot. And once the other robots ‘come alive’ it’s up to the motley crew of EngiNerds to not only save the day, but save the planet!


Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | IndieBound | Book Depository

About Brave New Girls: Tales of Heroines who HackBrave New Girls 3

Welcome to the sci-fi worlds of brainy teen heroines who hack not just computers, but whatever puzzles come their way. A scrappy mechanic on an oppressed planet builds a device she hopes will be her ticket to a better future. A fledgling chemist uses her skills to catch a murderer. A teen inventor creates a weapon to battle the mysterious beasts attacking her city. A superhero-in-training puts her skills to the test when attackers strike her compound. A self-styled detective hacks an augmented reality game to solve a dastardly crime. Girls who code, explore, fix robots, pilot starships, invent gadgets, build high-tech treehouses, and more. With tales ranging from space adventures to steampunk to cyberpunk and more this 23-story collection will delight, thrill, and enthrall.

Proceeds from sales of this anthology will be donated to a scholarship fund through the Society of Women Engineers. Let’s show today’s girls that they, too, can be tomorrow’s inventors, programmers, scientists, and more.

STORIES BY: Lyssa Chiavari, Jennifer Chow, Russ and Abby Colchamiro, MLD Curelas, Paige Daniels, Kay Dominguez, Mary Fan, Halli Gomez, Valerie Hunter, AA Jankiewicz, Nicholas Jennings, Jamie Krakover, Tash McAdam, MJ Moores, Jelani Akin Parham, Selenia Paz, Josh Pritchett, Jeremy Rodden, Aaron Rosenberg, Jenifer Purcell Rosenberg, Jennifer Lee Rossman, JR Rustrian, and Joanna Schnurman.

Featuring illustrations by Jacob Atom, Brandon Bell, Jo Belle, Lyssa Chiavari, Sharon Emmitt, Ben Falco, Fauzy Zulvikar Firmansyah, Christopher Godsoe, Liana Kangas, John Kovalic, MunkyWrench, Josh Pritchett, Emily Smith, Jennifer Stolzer, and Ronald Suh.


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LILbooKtalk September 2018.png

(Questions are in bold.)

Kester:The first author we have today is Jarrett Lerner, author of the EngiNerds series and an advocate for children’s literature with #KidsNeedBooks, #KidsNeedMentors, and the MG Book Village. Could you describe to us a little bit about yourself and your novels?

EnginerdsJarrett: Sure! I write stories that I hope all kids (and kids at heart) can enjoy, but often write with the so-called “reluctant” or “striving” or “undiscovered” reader in mind — educators have all sorts of terms for these kids who have yet to find books they love. Reading and books changed my life, and continue to improve my life every day. I want every kid to have that experience, and seek to make that happen through my writing, my outreach, and the various projects I work on.

Kester: Thank you so much for everything you do in the kidlit community, Jarrett! Certainly you and your books have changed the lives of readers across the nation. 🙂

Jarrett: That’s very kind of you to say, Kester!

Kester: Thank you! The second author we have today is Mary Fan, co-editor of the Brave New Girls anthologies, in which all proceeds are donated to the Society of Women Engineers scholarship fund. Would you also like to tell us a little about you and your books?

Brave New Girls 3Mary: Absolutely! I’ve been a nerd for as long as I can remember, and so naturally, I ended up writing nerdy stories :-). Pretty much all of them are about intrepid heroines in far-off worlds. With the Brave New Girls anthologies, fellow sci-fi author Paige Daniels and I are hoping to encourage more girls to explore STEM careers. Women are still woefully underrepresented in STEM, and even though there’s definitely been more of a push to show girls that they can do anything, we still have a long way to go. Thing is, it’s all cultural. There’s no reason why girls shouldn’t end up choosing math or science or engineering if they want, but years of cultural expectations have created this notion that girls in tech are uncool sidekicks. We’re hoping to change that by releasing these books full of stories about girls who are both into the geeky stuff and the heroines of their own stories.

Jarrett: Hear, hear! And can I just say, Mary, that if you haven’t read the books of Katie Slivensky, you MUST! The Countdown Conspiracy and The Seismic Seven–you would LOVE!

Mary: Thank you! Will definitely check them out! 😀

Kester: I know I need to check out Katie’s books, too! Here’s my first question: In today’s increasingly technological world, there is a huge need for students pursuing careers in the sciences, mathematics, engineering, and technology. Why do you believe it is important to use the power of storytelling to instill a passion for STEM in young students? How do your books accomplish this task?

Brave New Girls 2Mary: Much of who we become is influenced by what the world around us tells us we can be – whether we realize it or not. If every book you read shows people in science and tech as uncool, it’s easy to start believing that’s true in real life too. That’s why it’s important to tell stories where the geeky kid gets to save the day and be the main character. With Brave New Girls, we aim to publish a variety of these kinds of stories so girls (and really, everyone — just because the protagonists are girls doesn’t mean the readers have to be!) can imagine that it’s possible. And once you imagine it, it starts to feel normal in real life too.

Jarrett: I think school tends to instill this idea in kids’ minds (I know it did in mine) that there are these rigid boundaries between subjects–that science is separate from art, which is separate from history, etc., etc. Skills that are used in the STEM fields are directly applicable in the “humanities.” The lessons and truths I rely on as a writer and illustrator are the same ones that guide scientists and mathematicians and engineers. These things are much more linked than we are regularly taught, and by using, say, fiction to explore and celebrate engineering (or “tinkering,” which is the term I use most when discussing my EngiNerds), I am, I hope, breaking down those artificial and unhelpful barriers a bit.

Scientists and engineers are some of the most creative people ever, and there is an art to their work. Plenty of artists approach their work with the mind of a mathematician. The more we break down these barriers and explore these other sides of these subjects, the easier it will be for kids to find their “place” and express their passions in these fields.

Mary: Jarrett–that is so true! There’s this false dichotomy between art and science that we need to break down.

Jarrett: Yes! And I think the more it’s done, the more kids will maybe say, “I’m super creative–I could be an engineer!” (Instead of assuming they have to be, I don’t know, a painter!)

Kester: And you can still do both!! I’m hoping to study computer engineering in college but I still plan on doing as much music, both orchestral and choral, as I can!

Jarrett: There you go! Exactly! I was just at a book launch for Josh Funk, who’s a programmer and a brilliant, brilliant picture book writer!

Mary: That’s awesome, Kester!! One of my best friends is currently a physics post doc… and a classically trained soprano in her local choir. 🙂

Kester: Thank you! And that’s awesome–that’s my dream: to have a job in STEM but be a part of a local (or even prestigious) symphony. Next question: How can parents and educators help their children and students explore STEM as a possible career choice and foster their interests in this field?

Brave New Girls 1Mary: I think the most important thing parents and educators can do is to encourage kids’ natural curiosity. Take them to museums. Give them books about science. Most kids, I think, love to know how things work. There was a study that showed that the majority of young girls (I can’t remember the exact numbers, but I believe the survey was of fourth graders) enjoy math and science, and yet a tiny fraction of college women declare STEM majors. Something happens during the middle school and teenage years, when young people are going through transitions and trying to fit in. It’s important to keep encouraging them to pursue their interests no matter what society tells them is cool or not.

Jarrett: Well, at the risk of being a bit of a broken record–they can teach and discuss these subjects as not being so rigidly separate and distinct. They could also take some of the traditional techniques used to teach in one field and apply them to the other. For instance: in a science class, why not write a report about a scientist, get to know them as a person, much as you might write a paper on Shakespeare in English class. And in English class–take a short story or a book and dissect it as you would an earthworm or a frog in science lab. Pick it apart.

This is a detour outside of the kid lit world, but with all this music talk, I can’t help myself–Milan Kundera has a non-fiction book about his writing, and he shares that every single one of his novels is modeled/structured after a Beethoven symphony. He approached those pieces of music like a scientist, picking them apart and “mapping” his own stories to them.

Mary: Jarrett–that’s a really cool way to do it!

Jarrett Lerner
Jarrett Lerner

Jarrett: In terms of parents, I think it’s seeing their kids interests and strengths and not limited them to one thing or another. Like that example I gave before–if a kid shows a tremendous amount of creativity, and enjoys being creative, they need not be an artist. EVERY pursuit can benefit from the application of creativity!

Mary: Yes, making it fun is super important. STEM is about more than rote memorization and tough tests. I wish someone had told me that when I was a teenager…

Jarrett: I had a science teacher in middle school who would often do things to “get our attention,” so to speak–he’d light magnesium on fire and put on a light show. At the time, I didn’t really think much of it–but later on I realized that he was making class unexpected, exciting, and showing us that THAT’S what science so often could be. Kids and teens are so impressionable–like Mary said, if you SHOW them that STEM is more than rote memorization and tests, they’ll be more likely to grow up and ALWAYS think of it as more than that.

Mary: And it shouldn’t stop with kids and teens–even at the college level, a lot of people are discouraged from pursuing STEM because of the way it’s taught… huge, impersonal lecture halls where you’re expected to answer factual questions at the drop of a hat. Where you’re expected to enter a single number into a computer system that grades you solely on whether that number’s correct or not, and not on whether your methodology was on the right track. STEM education needs to be about *how* to think, not just *what* to think.

Revenge of the EngiNerdsJarrett: YES! YES! YES! I think I would’ve taken more STEM classes in college, even though I knew I wanted to go into writing, if I wasn’t terrified of those impersonal lecture halls! Inject more of what’s traditionally limited to the humanities into STEM, and vice versa.

Mary: Agreed!

Jarrett: The goal of education (especially higher ed.) should be to help foster thoughtful, productive HUMAN BEINGS, who can think and problem solve in any situation. I enjoyed all my English classes and creative writing I did in college, but I almost wish I’d been forced to get out of that comfort zone more .

Kester: I definitely know how it feels as a STEM student today. My AP Computer Science Principles teacher helped cement in me a desire to be a computer engineer because his class was engaging, not very overwhelming, and interesting to learn from. Coding became more fun for me, even though I only know the basics, haha.

Mary: That’s fantastic to hear! I think now, with the rise of Silicon Valley and tech giants, it’s become more obvious how much creativity and STEM are intertwined.

Jarrett: Yes! I hope so too! And I hope efforts like yours, Mary, make it so that a broader range of STEM role models are out there for kids to look up to! Steve Jobs changed the world (many times over) and was certainly incredibly creative–but I don’t think he’s the best role model… We need more STEM superheroes of all kinds!

Kester: Speaking of creativity, that ties in very well with my next question! What are some misconceptions about the STEM field that you want your stories to prove wrong? Why is it important to empower nerds and girls in STEM as main characters in MG and YA fiction?

Mary Fan
Mary Fan

Mary: For the longest time, nerds were portrayed as losers. There was a social hierarchy in place, and nerds were always at the bottom. I think it was kind of a vicious cycle… the nerds would be the losers in real life, and fiction would depict them that way, but that would encourage more people to think of nerds as losers. Nowadays, being nerdy has become more mainstream and even cool. But there’s still this undercurrent that hasn’t gone away… too often, nerds are still portrayed as an awkward stereotype sitting in a lab while the *real* heroes get to do the cool stuff. There’s no reason why that should be. Nerds come from all walks of life, and it’s important to show that.

Jarrett: I think the biggest misconception is the misconception of the nerd. For so, so long, there has been a stereotypical nerd tossed into stories, movies, TV shows, etc… I love that our culture is starting to turn around on that. My definition of a “nerd” is someone who is proudly passionate about something, and ready to tell anyone and everyone all about it. In that case, pretty much EVERYONE is a nerd about something or other. You can be a music nerd. A car nerd. A soccer nerd. A history nerd. If we can make it so that it’s cool for EVERYONE to be proud about their passions, the world will benefit.

I think for middle graders and young adults, being passionate is NOT cool. You’re supposed to be apathetic, all “whatever.” You’re untouchable. You can’t be driven to extremes of emotion. THAT needs to shift and change.

Mary: Yes! It’s messed up how if you behave a certain way for one passion, you’re considered cool, but for another, you’re not. Like dressing up. If you dress up for a football game, you’re a passionate sports fan and “cool.” If you dress up for a convention, you’re a weirdo geek. That’s messed up.

Jarrett: YES! You know, I’ve never really thought of that. I was at Denver Comic Con earlier this summer, and I thought those cosplayers were SO cool. Talk about creative! And a scientific precision to detail too. But I never thought to compare them to the people in the football stands with painted faces and jerseys of their favorite players! And here we are, showing another link between things usually seen as separate — you love something, you want to SHOW it, to dress up as it, whether a football player or a superhero.

Mary: Yup! I guess in all areas, we need more acceptance and a willingness to stop seeing things as “either or.”

Jarrett: Yes!

Kester: I’m loving this conversation so much!! It makes me embrace the nerdiness in me and in other people even more! So what drew you to science fiction as an author or reader? What do you love most about the genre?

Jarrett: To me, fiction is a world where anything is possible. In science fiction, that is even MORE true. I also write stories that wouldn’t be classified as science fiction, but when I’m writing science fiction, I really feel most free. Because not only is anything possible — even the IMPOSSIBLE is possible! It offers the biggest playground for my imagination to play in.

I think my favorite thing about OTHER people’s sci-fi is how it has often “predicted” the future, the way an author’s invention (whether it’s a rudimentary mobile phone or a certain perversion of a government) often “appears” or “comes true” down the line. That fascinates me, art and reality intermixing, influencing each other. I think that happens in sci-fi more than other genres, and in truly exciting (and sometimes scary!) ways.

Mary: I have a pretty distinct memory of how I got into sci-fi! It all goes back to one book: the Wishbone version of Legion of Space (a classic sci-fi novel from the early-ish 20th century). I was a huge Wishbone fan as a kid (and for those of y’all too young to remember, Wishbone was a talking dog who reenacted classic literature to encourage kids to read), and I picked up the book on a whim. And I loved it so much I went and checked out the original novel… and was blown away. It was all the possibilities — sci-fi asks the question of “what if” and then lets you explore where the answer could take you. It can also be turned around as an allegory or examination of the way things are today. I’ll admit, I also just love the aesthetic… stars and high tech and bots…

Jarrett: Wishbone! You’re speaking my language, Mary. I LOVED me some Wishbone as a kid!

Mary: *High five!!*

Kester: I just looked up Wishbone and I know I don’t remember him at all… I’m too young, haha.

Jarrett: Hahahaha! And now I feel TOO old!

Mary: As long as they’re rebooting everything from the ’90s, they should totally reboot Wishbone. 😉

Kester: Do you have any experiences working or studying in the STEM fields in your background? How have your personal experiences (both STEM-related and beyond) have shaped your stories?

Jarrett: I don’t have many personal experiences. BUT I’ve got a few very close friends who are in the STEM fields. One is a rocket scientist (no joke–he works on propulsion, like figuring out how to send ROCKETS into OUTER SPACE) and another is a roboticist. I’ve always been fascinated by what they do, and have always enjoyed talking to them about it. Doing so has definitely influenced my thinking, and inspired my imagination in all sorts of ways. I’m guessing they are HORRIFIED by what I’ve done with the information and insights they’ve passed on to me–twisted it in my silly imagination into crazy, flatulence-filled romps. But that’s fiction!

Mary: I was a huge STEM nerd as a kid and teenager–went to physics camp and participated in Science Olympiad. I loved seeing how things worked, and balancing equations gave me a profound sense of satisfaction. Sadly, the way science was taught at my university discouraged me from continuing my studies (it was those impersonal lecture halls and computer-graded homework assignments). I think part of it was societal too… girls weren’t supposed to be in STEM, so if you were going to defy conventions, you’d better be a total genius or stop bothering. There was no room for struggling a bit, for a period of mediocrity. Though I didn’t end up pursuing STEM professionally, I still find it fascinating and read way too many pop science articles, which inspire my sci-fi writing. Oftentimes, I find myself wondering about the human repercussions of the inevitable change in the future, and I think that comes across in my books.

Jarrett: I’m sorry to hear that you were discouraged in that way, Mary! Though I’m glad you get to explore those passions and interests through your fiction!

Mary: I like to think things turned out they way they did for a reason. I do believe that things are getting better, with all the STEM initiatives out there!

Kester: I’m so glad to hear that, Mary! Before we end this LILbooKtalk, would you both like to share any advice to young readers and writers who are viewing this discussion?

Mary: Sure thing! My #1 advice is this: Write what you love. Because there are no guarantees in this industry, and if you write what you love, then no matter how things turn out in terms of publication or monetary success, at least you’ll have something you can be proud of. Writing should be fun, and if it isn’t, what’s the point? On a related note: Don’t be afraid to take breaks when you need to! Sometimes life can be a lot, and writing (and the inevitable cycle of rejections) is emotionally draining. Just as athletes take time off to recuperate when their physical health suffers, so should writers take time off when their mental health suffers.

Jarrett: Pursue your passions, wherever they take you. Know that to be a good writer, you have to be a good READER. And good writing is actually rewriting (and rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting)–no one gets it right the first (or fifth, or fiftieth) time. And the things you need most to become a published author aren’t skill or talent (though those help), but patience, persistence, and relentless optimism. And last and perhaps most important of all: HAVE FUN.

Mary: Agree with all that, Jarrett!

Jarrett: And I agree with all of what you said! Ha! Kester was pretty wise pairing us up, huh? We are on the same page about so much!

Mary: It’s like we’re on the same wavelength! This is getting freaky!

Kester: I have a knack of pairing the right authors together. 😉

Jarrett: You do!

Mary: Haha, indeed, you do!

Kester: Thank you so much, Jarrett and Mary, for coming onto this LILbooKtalk!! I really appreciate the both of you coming here today, and I had so much fun and I definitely learned a lot!

Mary: Thank you for having me! Those were great questions! 😀

Jarrett: Thank YOU for having me, Kester! This was awesome! I so enjoyed learning more about you and your work, Mary, and I feel totally inspired to keep up my work!

Mary: Great chatting with you, Jarrett!! Totally enjoyed learning about you and your work too!

Kester: Aww thank you!!! In the meantime, I’ll be excited for Wayward Stars and Revenge of the EngiNerds!!

Jarrett: Thank you, thank you!

Mary: Thank yooooou! 😀

About JarrettJarrett Lerner

Jarrett Lerner writes books about farting robots, belching knights, and other serious matters. He has never unleashed a horde of hungry robotts on a small, unsuspecting town. (Not yet, at least.) You can find him online at jarrettlerner.com and on Twitter at @Jarrett_Lerner. You can also often find him hanging out at the mgbookvillage.org, which he cofounded and helps run. He lives with his wife, his daughter, and a cat in Medford, Massachusetts.

Website | MG Book Village | Twitter | Instagram

About Maryaa5a0-mary2bfan2bauthor2bpic2bsmall

Mary Fan is a hopeless dreamer, whose mind insists on spinning tales of “what if.” As a music major in college, she told those stories through compositions. Now, she tells them through books. She is the author of the Jane Colt space opera trilogy, the Firedragon YA dystopia/fantasy novellas, and the Fated Stars YA high fantasy novellas. She’s also the co-editor of the Brave New Girls YA sci-fi anthologies, which are dedicated to encouraging girls to enter STEM careers and raising money for the Society of Women Engineers scholarship fund.

Author Website | Brave New Girls WebsiteFacebook | Twitter | Instagram

Happy Reading!

+ J.M.J.

~ Kester

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” — Albert Einstein

Comment below, or find me in one of my social media pages, and let’s chat!

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