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STEM and STEAM—whichever term you prefer to call Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Math—is a hot area for picture books that can be incorporated into classroom learning. (Well, of course “steam” is hot!) Author Karla Valenti joins us today to talk about her unique path to publication with her “My Super Science Heroes” series.

Karla, I love learning about how authors form their story ideas. How did this book come to be?

This book is part of the “My Super Science Heroes” series. It actually came about in a really unique way.

Back in 2016, a friend alerted me to a call for proposals from the Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA), a global research group with over 4,000 scientists worldwide. They wanted to partner with an author to write a picture book about Marie Curie. The profits would go to support their various research projects. The MCAA group was looking for books that would portray science in a unique and engaging way for young readers.

I am not a non-fiction or historical writer (I do fiction and mostly magical realism); however, I saw this as a way to flex my creative writing skills so I decided to give a try. I began doing research on Marie Curie and the more I read, I realized that she had led a very challenging life, constantly faced with opposition (both personally and professionally). It astounded me that she had achieved what she did in light of all that opposition. It was almost as if her persistence were a super power.

Ding!

A light went off and I began to explore the idea of writing a book where Marie Curie was a super science hero whose super power was persistence. Leveraging super hero tropes, I knew I needed a bad guy and of course, she had one—Mr. Opposition. And so the story came together—a book designed as a super hero concept, focusing on the person more than their accomplishment, focusing on how difficult it actually is to follow our dreams and celebrating the persistence that made it possible for her to reach them.

I submitted the proposal and, to my delight, won! I began working with MCAA to identify an illustrator who could bring a unique angle to this story – something different and unconventional. Annalisa Beghelli is the talented Italian illustrator who was brought in for the project, and she has been a wonderful collaborator.

We launched the Indiegogo campaign in 2017 and before the month was even over we had exceeded our fundraising goal and Sourcebooks had found out about the project. They made us an offer for world rights to the series, and so we began working with them directly.

MARIE CURIE AND THE POWER OF PERSISTENCE was published in April 2020, and we’re so excited for ALAN TURING AND THE POWER OF CURIOSITY, which includes all sorts of visual riddles and easter eggs in the artwork but also has loads of back-matter featuring various codes and ciphers.

MCAA, Annalisa, and I continue to collaborate on the series and a portion of all sales go to support the science initiatives of the MCAA folks.

Wow, going from a crowd-sourced book to a Sourcebooks-published one is a rare path to publication. How did you attract Sourcebooks’ attention?

It was a very rare opportunity and a very fortuitous one. Basically, the month we launched the crowd-funding campaign, someone forwarded a tweet about our project to Kelly Barrales-Saylor at Sourcebooks. Kelly immediately reached out to us and, after learning more about the project, expressed an interest in taking the project in-house. Of course, we were delighted and happily joined efforts with Sourcebooks to bring this project to life. I never found out who sent Kelly the tweet, but they will forever have a special place in my heart.

I love the concept behind these books—that there are forces like the “Nemesis” trying to thwart the scientists, but their super powers win out in the end! It shows kids that real traits like tenacity and wonder can lead to amazing things!

How were you able to step outside your usual writing comfort zone—you said you’re typically a fiction writer…? 

To be fair, this really wasn’t outside of my comfort zone (the series is actually fiction inspired by real-life heroines and heroes). That said, I did embrace the MCAA call as a challenge, a way to flex my creative muscles in a different way, almost like solving a riddle (which by the way, is what ALAN TURING AND THE POWER OF CURIOSITY is all about!).

As for what inspired me to do that—it was something my critique partner Tara Luebbe once said. To paraphrase: you never know what the next opportunity will bring, so take all the opportunities you can. And wow, was she ever right!

I love that advice and I often share that, too. There are many opportunities for writers online. Social media, like Twitter, is a great place for pitch parties and making connections with others in publishing.

When you write picture book biographies, you have to choose the parts of the person’s life that support the story you’re telling. There’s not room for everything. What facts about your science hero did you learn that did not make it into the book?

This is a good question and especially relevant in a series like ours that is not intended to be a comprehensive biography of the science super heroes, since we are only looking at certain events in their lives that pertain to the specific super power we are studying.

In the case of Alan’s story, I think everyone should be aware of one of the defining facts of his life; namely, the tragic criminalization of his homosexuality, which led to a horrendous punishment. Acknowledging their error, in 2009 UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Alan Turing, announcing, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.” He did.

It is our hope that people will read Alan’s story and be inspired by him and his unfailing curiosity, honoring his achievements as a real life super hero.

What are you working on next?

My debut novel, LOTERIA, comes out in September with Knopf. Set in Oaxaca Mexico, the book is a magical realist adventure that features a high-stakes game of Loteria played by Life and Death in which an 11 year-old girl (Clara) is the pawn. Every card reveals a new twist in Clara’s fate: a tree, a scorpion, a treacherous rose. But Clara knows none of this. All she knows is that her cousin Esteban has vanished, and she’ll do whatever it takes to save him, traveling to the mythical Kingdom of Las Pozas in her search. And although it seems her fate was sealed as soon as the cards were dealt, Clara just might have what it takes to shatter the game and choose a new path

I also have a picture book coming out with Chronicle in 2023 (MARIA MARIPOSA), and I recently sold two new picture books at auction (details to be revealed soon!)

Wow, Karla, this all sounds like a rip-roaring start to your writing career. Congratulations!

Blog readers, Karla is giving away a copy of ALAN TURING AND THE POWER OF CURIOSITY.

Leave one comment below to enter.

A random winner will be selected in a couple weeks.

Good luck!


Karla Valenti writes stories for and about kids, taking readers on journeys seeped in magical realism and deep philosophical questions. Her storytelling is heavily influenced by her Mexican heritage and layered with ideas and concepts she’s picked up in her many travels around the world. She currently resides in the Chicagoland area with her husband and three kids, two cats, and thousands of books. Connect with Karla at her website karlavalenti.com, on Facebook and Twitter @KV_Writes.

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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:


BLOOP
illus by Mike Boldt
HarperCollins
July 2021

ABSURD WORDS
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
November 2021

"PRIVATE I" SERIES #3
illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
2022

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