Nerdy Babies Book Birthdays Celebration: Interview with Emmy Kastner

Today I’m excited to welcome Emmy Kastner to the blog to talk about her new board book series, Nerdy Babies!

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Hi Emmy! Thanks for stopping by my blog! Tell us a little bit about your new book series!

Thanks for having me, and for all you do to advocate for young readers. Nerdy Babies is a series that celebrates curiosity at its core. Asking questions, exploring, and discovering the world around us is a fun, engaging experience which I think is reflected in these books. Each book explores a new topic, serving as a basic primer of understanding. They each include science facts and playful back and forth with the reader and our inquisitive nerdy babies. We’re starting the series exploring space and the ocean. I’m excited that they’re launching in two formats—traditional picture books and board books—meeting the needs of a range of young readers!

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Why did you think this was an appropriate series for babies and toddlers?

Babies are tiny scientists; experimenting, testing limits and asking questions. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we’ve all heard a baby ask “What’s that?” once they’ve got the words. They’re born ready to figure it all out. Science isn’t something to be saved until kids are older. This is a series that answers questions and leaves readers asking more. That’s what science is all about! As a parent myself, I appreciate any and all support. As I wrote these books, that was always in the back of my mind, so the series aims to support parents/caregivers/educators as they field questions from little ones about the world and beyond. And adults are learning something too!  I’ve shared these books with many adults who have exclaimed, “I didn’t know that!” So to share that with young readers, that notion that you’re learning alongside one another, that’s very exciting.

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Babies aren’t going to walk away ready to explain gravity, but simply making science accessible early in life is important. Science is for everyone. Nerdy Babies is a series that grows with readers. Their conceptual understanding of the science within the books is something that will continue to evolve with every reading—from babies to the hands of toddlers and preschoolers.

And, we all (should) know representation matters. It starts at birth. These books are a celebration and reflection of the diverse voices and identities of the scientific community all over the world.

What did you do to make sure your illustrations and text were understandable for our youngest readers?

As an artist, I generally lean toward the minimal— limited palettes, uncomplicated style. Though with this series, I embraced lots of bold colors that felt engaging and playful, fleshing out detail in a layered, slightly more complicated world. Though there is zero scientific evidence that planets have faces, I included those, because that’s cute. I am crossing my fingers I don’t devastate any children when they grow to learn that the big red spot on Jupiter is a storm and not Jupiter’s nose.

Tell us a little bit about your writing/ illustration process.

My mantra with this series is, You should probably simplify that. My manuscripts all start very long, and we widdle them away to digestible science explorations. With each concept, my first inclination was to explain why, but that’s not what this series is about. Overcomplicating things takes away from the pace of the story and the joyful simplicity of young readers sticking their toes in the water of these big concepts. Knowing that there’s no sound in space, or that planets spin, or an octopus has three hearts is fun information for little ones to know. As for process, I start with stuff like that, what I know, then research fun facts, and figure out essential concepts I want to include. All the while, I consider the journey I want to take readers on, always starting from where they are now. In Space, the story travels from Earth and outward through the solar system. In Ocean, we travel from the beach and head to the bottom of the ocean.

Building the world of these Nerdy Babies is so much fun. While the books can stand alone, they complement one another in fun ways. In the Ocean book, you’ll see the baby who walks on the moon in the Space book looking at the coral reef saying “You can see this from the moon!” It’s a subconscious nod to the intersections of the scientific world. The layers of nerdiness run deep!

Have you always been into writing/illustrating?

Yes. I was asking people to write my stories down before I could do it myself. I was the classroom reporter for my kindergarten class, which meant I would “write” stories reporting on Ms. Carmen’s class with the help of 5th grade editors. I was probably supposed to fill them in on what songs we sang in music or what we were learning in math, but I would spin elaborate updates to entertain them, and they would have to go back to my teacher on fact-checking missions. Did your class really work at the zoo last week? If so, did Emmy really feed the snakes?

I’ve always loved to make art as well. As a high school English and science teacher I was always incorporating art and storytelling, bringing in picture books, comics, etc. to inspire my students. I’d give a test in comic book format, or ask my students to write a book for young readers about something like acids/bases to demonstrate understanding of the concept. Art and writing are always my foundation.

What’s the most exciting part of your job?

I love the act of making something—experimenting with a new medium or figuring out how to tell a story much like figuring out a puzzle. The most exciting part of my job would be when a story lives outside of myself. That excitement snowballs as the story gets farther and farther away from me, first with my agent and editor, then as I share drafts with family and friends, and then eventually sharing the books with booksellers, librarians, and young readers and families. What starts as a snowball in my hand has rolled far down the hill, and is then this giant snowball. Then I’m shouting down the hill in shock and joy, “Hey! I did that!”

What inspires your creativity?

Reading books, meeting people, paying attention. I take a lot of joy in being an observer of the world. My daughter Mabel is in kindergarten now, but a couple years ago, she’s the one who inspired the series. As 3-year-olds do,  she was playing with stuffed animals reciting lines from a book we read all the time. Probably the Elephant & Piggie book about sharing ice cream. I just remember sitting there with a string of thoughts: That would be cute to hear her reciting science facts like that. That would be a great book. Someone should make that book. I should make that book.

So yes, my kids are often a complicated source of creativity for me. Complicated in the sense that they inspire creativity, and then I want to go do the solitary act of being creative, but that means being away from them. They do inspire me when we’re not physically around each other. My nearly 10-year-old keeps encouraging me to write books for him. It’ll happen.

What is one thing that readers don’t know about you, that only you could tell us?

I changed my major 7 times in college. (Though my college advisor could also tell you that.)

If you weren’t writing/illustrating books, what do you think you’d be doing?

This happens often, as I do leave my studio on a regular basis. My husband and I own a coffee shop, which keeps us busy. Mostly him, but I do all the design stuff. Amplifying youth voices is something that has been a cornerstone of every professional career I’ve had. When I’m not working on books or with my family, I’m spreading the word about Read and Write Kalamazoo, a writing center I co-founded in 2011. I work with the International Congress of Youth Voices, too, which is a non-profit that convenes youth writers and activists from around the world at its annual conference, with the aim of enabling them to connect, learn and collaborate.

But you’re probably asking about a different job entirely? I think I’d be writing and directing movies, or would have a bakery. I love to bake.

What can readers expect from you in the future?

The next books in the Nerdy Babies series will hit shelves Spring 2020 (WEATHER and EARTH!) There are other stories and collaborations I’m working on as well. More books! I haven’t thought about my short-lived career as a kindergarten classroom reporter prone to exaggeration for a long time, but maybe I should write that book …

Anything else you’d like to share with readers of this blog?

There is power/healing/beauty in carving creative space for yourself in your life, being intentional about being creative in whatever way works for you. I hope you make the time to be creative today.

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