Magnificent Makers: Diversity and Inclusion in STEM : Short Wave Maddie talks with author and neuroscientist Theanne Griffith about her new children's book series, The Magnificent Makers, which follows two intrepid third graders as they race to complete science-based adventures.

Follow host Maddie Sofia on Twitter @maddie_sofia. Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.
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Kids' Books Where Science Is The Adventure

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Kids' Books Where Science Is The Adventure

Kids' Books Where Science Is The Adventure

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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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SOFIA: Theanne Griffith has always had two loves in life - science and books.

THEANNE GRIFFITH: Well, I've always been a very avid reader, and I've always really enjoyed writing. So ever since I was a young kid, I've done both. I entered in writing competitions...

SOFIA: Over time, that love of writing and reading for fun took a back seat to her work as a neuroscientist. She became the head of her own lab at Rutgers University. But then, on maternity leave with her first daughter, she decided to take a leap and jump-start that passion for writing.

GRIFFITH: I don't know if it was, like, the postpartum hormones or whatever, but I just kind of had this, like - I don't know if I would call it an epiphany but just something said, you know, just do this, Theanne. You've been wanting to do this for a long time. Just do it. And so I changed my Twitter handle to, you know, children's book writer. I created a website...

SOFIA: And started writing and trying to figure out how to explain science concepts to kiddos.

GRIFFITH: And it kind of just snowballed from there a bit (laughter).

SOFIA: And so "The Magnificent Makers" book series was born. And I will say, as a grown adult woman, I found these books delightful.

GRIFFITH: So these books follow best friends Pablo and Violet on these out-of-this-world science adventures.

SOFIA: They're routinely zapped out of their third-grade science class, one time getting sucked into a magical microscope.

GRIFFITH: And they go on these science adventures in this magical laboratory, or magical makerspace, called the Maker Maze. And they're accompanied by a kind of kooky scientist called Dr. Crisp.

SOFIA: Who has some really legit rainbow hair. Shout-out, queer science fam.

GRIFFITH: I want to make these books as inclusive as possible for everyone, you know?

SOFIA: Well, I'm telling you what - I saw it, and I liked it. And I knew what it was, and I was like, that's nice.

GRIFFITH: (Laughter) Yep. I see y'all. I see y'all.

(LAUGHTER)

SOFIA: For Theanne, it's not only important that these characters represent different backgrounds and identities. It's that they're all having fun doing science, and they're all really good at it. And so today, for one day only, we leave this world and enter that of "The Magnificent Makers." We talk to Theanne about why hands-on science and representation early on are so important for all the little scientists out there.

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SOFIA: Theanne Griffith's the author of "The Magnificent Makers" children's book series. In each of the books, the main characters, Violet and Pablo, are transported to an alternate world with an awesome lab. We're talking robots, cool bugs, an antigravity chamber. There, they have to make their way through a maze by solving science-based problems.

GRIFFITH: Each challenge has three levels, and they have 120 Maker Minutes to make it through the maze. Otherwise, they don't get the chance to come back.

SOFIA: I didn't realize they didn't get the chance to come back. That's high stakes.

GRIFFITH: Yeah, yeah. And these kids love science, so they really - and they have so much fun on these adventures. But they have to be able to finish them in time if they want to come back.

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SOFIA: Each book explores a different topic. There's one on brain biology, one on sound. The one I like best is about ecosystems. And here's one of my favorite parts of "The Magnificent Makers" as the reader - you solve puzzles and riddles right alongside the characters. And in each book, there's instructions on how to build something. And that building or making was really important to Theanne.

GRIFFITH: So science basically has two parts. Right? It has this kind of intellectual part, where you're learning and you're thinking. But then it has this very hands-on part, which is the doing. So whether you're, you know, a biologist or an engineer or a physicist, you're usually making something. Like, research is literally doing. And so I felt that it was really important to kind of combine those two with these books, right? They have, you know, kind of the facts that the kids learn, but then these activities that encourage the doing part of science, as well.

SOFIA: Yeah. Well, I think the way that science is taught in early education is often this memorization of facts and stuff...

GRIFFITH: Right.

SOFIA: ...That other people have learned, you know? And you and I both know that science is a process, a set of rules to observe and test and problem-solve. So was that really important to you in the book?

GRIFFITH: Yes, definitely. And it also shows kids, you know, just how fun science is. I think my favorite part of science is the doing - being in the lab, tinkering, doing my experiments, you know, seeing that positive result. It's just - there's really not something that I can compare it to in terms of that, you know, something that gives me that boost of adrenaline. (Laughter).

SOFIA: That science adrenaline...

GRIFFITH: Yeah.

SOFIA: ...That we always talk about.

GRIFFITH: Definitely.

SOFIA: So which character do you feel like you identify with the most?

GRIFFITH: I'm going to have to say Violet, for sure. You know, she's a little bit more of a daredevil. She's a little bit more of a kind of, you know, I'm going to do this - nothing's going to stop me. You know, Pablo is a little bit more on the pragmatic side. He's a little bit more maybe - I wouldn't say necessarily cautious but just, you know, he's the one that's always looking at his watch, making sure that people are on time and making sure that, you know...

SOFIA: I love that about him.

GRIFFITH: ...We're getting...

SOFIA: I'm such a Pablo. Can I just say I'm such a Pablo?

GRIFFITH: (Laughter) Yeah. Making sure that they're getting through the maze on time - and Violet is, too. It's not that she's, you know, reckless. But she's just a little bit more - a little bit more carefree. And if I'm being perfectly honest with myself, I definitely have a lot of Pablo, too. Right? That's what keeps me orderly, you know, and organized, you know? But I think my core and my essence has a little bit more of that, like, just go for it - just do it kind of side, which is maybe how I got into writing these books in the end (laughter).

SOFIA: Right, right. Sure. Well, you know, I noticed - so Violet is a black girl who loves science and dreams of running her own lab one day. You're a neuroscientist as well as an author. And I'm wondering if, in some ways, this book was kind of, like, a little bit of a love letter to a younger you. Is that fair?

GRIFFITH: Most definitely, most definitely. And not just a younger me - it's really a love letter to all kids who didn't necessarily see themselves in science roles when they were growing up. And when - you know, when they thought of a scientist, they didn't picture someone who looked like them or came from where they came from or who had a unique feature that they had. That's not what they were taught a scientist, you know, was. And it's 100% a love letter to my younger self as well as, I said, a love letter to, you know, all of the kids out there who just want to do science and don't want to be told that they can't.

SOFIA: Yeah. I mean, I have to imagine it felt, like, good for the soul to write a children's book about kids of color who not only are engaged in science but they're, like, really good at it. They're crushing it.

GRIFFITH: Yes, exactly - because there's these concepts of what a scientist looks like and who is kind of naturally good at science, I think, and someone, you know, like, who - they just kind of - that's just what they're born to do. And that often does not include, you know, black and brown kids. I think black and brown kids are taught that we're strong, we're tough, we can overcome, you know, hardship, which is - which are all true things. But we're also curious. We're also creative. We're also excited about learning, you know, how the world works around us, you know?

And I wanted to really highlight that. And I want to, you know, mention, too, that I don't focus - at least at this point in the series - a lot on the kids' races. I want that to just be a given, you know? I don't want necessarily that to be the topic of conversation, per se. I just want them to be them, to be carefree, to be out there just doing and loving science. And this isn't, you know, just for young kids of color to see. I think this is also important for white children to see - the fact that there are kids of color who are also just carefree and doing science. I think representation matters for everyone. You know, it's not just important for, you know, young kids of color to see themselves. I think it's important for all kids to see young kids of color, you know, doing science and kicking butt at it (laughter).

SOFIA: Yeah, yeah. So I kind of want to talk a little bit about you in this process a little bit because, you know, when I was in academia, there was definitely a hesitancy around putting a ton of time into outreach and doing things that weren't, quote, "real science."

GRIFFITH: Right.

SOFIA: I mean, were you worried at all about what your peers might think of you spending time writing these books?

GRIFFITH: Yes. I mean, yes and no. I've done outreach at museums and with local libraries, and I've never felt a pushback against those kind of activities. But this is a little bit different because, you know, there are, you know, authors who are 100% authors, right? (Laughter). And I am not a 100% author. I'm also, you know, an active researcher. And so I was a little bit worried that it would be interpreted as me, you know, just kind of taking on a new career and putting science on the back burner. And that's not what I aim to do. You know, I'm - you know, I guess that's the Violet in me. (Laughter).

I aim to do both, you know? I am still going to be an active researcher, and I'm going to pursue, you know, these books actively because I think that they're just both important, you know? As a black woman in science who is in academic science, I don't want to leave this position. There aren't enough of us. I need to be here for this.

SOFIA: Theanne Griffith is a neuroscientist at Rutgers University and a children's book author. The first two books in her "Magnificent Makers" series are out Tuesday.

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SOFIA: This episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez and edited by Viet Le. Berly McCoy checked the facts. I'm Maddie Sofia, and you've been listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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