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A Nerdy Q&A with Nerdy Babies Creator Emmy Kastner

Last summer, at Nerd Camp, I met Kalamazoo author/illustrator Emmy Kastner. She told me, appropriately enough, she was working on a series of books called Nerdy Babies, full of facts for little ones.

Now the books are out, and I asked Emmy some questions about the series.

Travis: Hi Emmy! I’m always curious about how authors arrive at the particular format they work in. Was Nerdy Babies conceived as a board book series? What did the initial idea look like?

Emmy Kastner: The idea for Nerdy Babies started as a single picture book, with a distant thought of, “I think this could be a series …” I remember the moment the idea popped in my head. My daughter was was three at the time and was reciting some memorized lines from an Elephant and Piggie book. As a former science teacher, my thoughts quickly wandered to thinking how great it would be to hear kids to reciting lines in this way that were science facts. Digestible little sound bites that young readers could stow in their pockets—Jupiter has 79 moons! There’s no sound in space!

My agent took it to publishing houses as a picture book, Nerdy Babies Explore Space, with a few suggestions of future titles in the series. It was when it found a home with Roaring Brook Press at Macmillan Children’s Books, that the plan was hatched to publish simultaneously in both picture book and board book formats to embrace all young readers.

Travis: How did you approach writing them?

Emmy: My focus was on two levels: introduce new science concepts to babies and toddlers and consider what fun new information to include for readers familiar with the subjects.

I was also thinking about caregivers, parents and teachers reading the book with young readers. Adults field a lot of questions from little ones every day, and these books aim to give them a handy resource. Many adults have been exclaiming “I didn’t know that!” after reading the books. That’s fun. We’ve all got so much to learn! With all that in mind I map out the journey of the story.

In Space we’re traveling from our familiar home on Earth and outward through the solar system. In Ocean we’re starting at the shore and traveling down to the bottom of the ocean.

I’ve got a list of necessary facts, I research fun facts to include, and then try to balance them out through the book. I consider our characters, our Nerdy Babies who serve as guides through the journey, and how they’re engaging with the narrative and the reader. I want it to be fun and playful. I want readers to laugh and learn, to see themselves in the books in every way. Representation matters in these books, just as it does in the science field.

Travis: I’m guessing you have a list of topics you want to explore in this series. So far we have space and ocean – what’s next? Are there topics that you’d like to do, but just won’t work?

Emmy: Nerdy Babies: Weather and Nerdy Babies: Earth will be published Spring 2020. I was a high school science teacher for a handful of years, and geology is near and dear to my heart. Rocks! Plate tectonics! I love that the first four books in the series complement one another well: Space, Ocean, Weather and Earth.

There’s a running list for future titles that I’m keeping from my own ideas, and suggestions from young readers who are quick to let me know what topics these babies need to explore. Everyone of all ages lets me know that there needs to be a dinosaur book. At bookstore events and school visits I love to talk about all the different things we can be nerdy about—sports, cooking, art, music … Expanding beyond science would be fun to explore. Who knows?!

I do know there’s also a hilarious list of bad ideas for Nerdy Babies books that will never see the light of day but make me laugh: Whittling, Power Tools, Cocktails, TV … We’ll keep nerdy baby explorations appropriate.

Travis: I need Nerdy Babies: Game of Thrones. Just putting that out there.

What is your illustration process like?

Emmy: It’s pretty traditional, and often in tandem with the writing process. I used a lot of reference photos, especially for the ocean life. I write the manuscript on my computer and sketch options for each spread with paper and pencil. I create a paper dummy, sketching the art and really engaging with the physicality of the book. I’m such a visual, hands-on learner and I need to experience that for page turns and the flow to make sense in my brain. I scan in the sketches and with these books I created the final art digitally using my iPad.

Current digital technology is astounding. I know these books are about science, but it often feels magical how closely technology can replicate traditional art. After searching and experimenting I found digital brushes that feel close to gouache and colored pencils that I use regularly.

Travis: The most important question of all: What snack puts you in peak creativity mode?

Emmy: I love snacks. Food is the best. I’m a fan of pretzels of all different types—fill them with peanut butter, cover them in chocolate, sprinkle them with everything, dip them in all the mustard. I don’t think I’ve met a pretzel I didn’t like.

Travis: Thank for taking my questions, Emmy!

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.