February 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Earth Day Q&A: SLJ Talks to MIT Professor Penny Chisholm About Her Upcoming Picture Book with Children’s Author Molly Bang

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Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth is set to be released by Scholastic in Sept. 2014. Image courtesy of Scholastic

Part of a long-running series on the environment, the upcoming Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth (Scholastic/Blue Sky, September 2014) by children’s book author Molly Bang and MIT Professor Penny Chisholm takes a look at Earth’s history. Narrated by the sun, this gorgeous picture book explains the origins of fossil fuels and warns readers that the increased use of fossil fuels endangers the environment. With Earth Day (April 22) around the corner, SLJ caught up with Chisholm to discuss her collaboration with Bang.

Penny, you’re an MIT professor, and Molly is a longtime children’s book author. How did you two decide to work together?

PC: We were friends for quite some time before we started collaborating on books. We had talked about it for years before we actually got around to doing it. Once we got started, it was so much fun that we did not stop. To be able to work with a friend in this way—and manage to keep the friendship—is a blessing.

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MIT Professor Penney Chisolm. Photo by James Long courtesy of Scholastic

How do you two collaborate?

PC: First, we decide what the book should be about. Then, I try to list what I think are the 10 most important things we want the reader (children or adult) to know about the topic, and I discuss with Molly, and she helps shape the list. Then, I write some very boring prose describing the concepts, and we try to figure out a story line. Molly turns it into poetry. Inevitably the science gets too distorted in this process, and I modify it to make it correct. And we go back and forth in this way, trying to keep it interesting—while at the same time—making sure that the science is at least not wrong. The science is always incomplete, but what we want to avoid is it being downright wrong. Molly makes thumbnail sketches of what the pictures might look like, and we talk it over and brainstorm about options. Then she starts painting. I look at each picture as it is evolving, and see things that misrepresent the science or simply don’t work, and she modifies accordingly. All the while, we are constantly massaging the words, trying to make them better, and simpler. The latter is the biggest challenge. Getting it right with as few words as possible.

Though you address some heavy scientific themes, there’s also a real sense of poetry here. Was it challenging to create a book that’s both so informative and so lyrical?

PC: Yes, that is the biggest challenge. And that is where the partnership—and it is a true partnership, with both of us involved in all aspects of the books—is so critical.

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Children’s author Molly Bang. Photo by Jim Green courtesy of Scholastic

The book has a personal touch to it, with the sun narrating and addressing the reader.

PC: We struggled to find the right “voice” when we started the series. Molly came up with the idea of having the Sun narrate, and then things seemed to flow.

With Earth Day around the corner, what advice do you have for kids who want to contribute to helping the environment?

PC: Find ways to have fun and enjoy life that don’t require buying material things. The root cause of environmental problems is that we are using more energy and materials than the Earth can provide for us in a sustainable way. One reason for this is that we buy things that we don’t need and don’t enrich our lives. Most “things” that we buy—aside from those necessary for food and shelter—do not make us happy in the long run. When you get a new toy, you get bored with it very quickly… But, it is our friends and families, and our curiosity about the world we live in, that contribute most to our happiness in the long run.

Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.