Talking with Sally Ride and Tam O’Shaughnessy

Book Links Mar. 2009 (vol. 18, no.4)

By Cyndi Giorgis and Nancy J. Johnson

Ride and O’Shaughnessy discuss the urgency of global warming in their latest collaborations.

Elementary school through high school

Sally Ride and Tam O’Shaughnessy became friends at the age of 12 when they both played tennis. While their lives took different paths, they stayed in contact over the years. Ride went to Stanford University, earned a BS, an MS, and a PhD in physics, and became the first American woman to fly in space; O’Shaughnessy became a professional tennis player and later earned a BS and an MS in biology from Georgia State University and a PhD in school psychology from the University of California–Riverside. Not only have the two remained good friends but they are also coauthors of several science books for children, including the 2009 titles Mission: Planet Earth: Our World and Its Climate—and How Humans Are Changing Them and Mission: Save the Planet: Things You Can Do to Help Fight Global Warming! Recently, we interviewed Ride and O’Shaughnessy at the office of Sally Ride Science in San Diego.

CG & NJJ: While perusing your Web site, we noticed your strong commitment to education. Your site offers invaluable resources, as will your two new books. Is education part of the vision for your company, Sally Ride Science?
Ride: One of the reasons that we co-founded the company was our belief in the importance of science education. In particular, we want to reach fifth- through eighth-graders because that is when students start to lose interest in math and science. We also place an emphasis on girls in science in everything we do. While some of our programs are specifically for girls, most appeal to either boys or girls. We feel strongly about the need for accurate science information in schools in a form that kids and teachers can understand and that is not condescending.

O’Shaughnessy: Writing nonfiction and working with other science writers is part of what we do in our company. I like the idea and challenge of writing books that are exciting and interesting for kids so that they see science as something that is important and fascinating.

CG & NJJ: Many kids head immediately to the nonfiction section of the library to choose a book because they like that genre. Unfortunately, teachers don’t often select nonfiction to share in the classroom.
Ride: It has been our observation that kids love reading nonfiction. I certainly did—biographies, science books, whatever. Kids can be mesmerized by science, especially in third, fourth, or fifth grade. They are curious about the way the world works and, in some sense, are natural scientists. But teachers and parents often don’t know which books to point them to. They may not know anything about the subject, so it’s easier to hand their kids a fiction book.

CG & NJJ: The layout and design of Mission: Planet Earth allows readers to read sections, captions, or the whole book. Did you have much say in how the book was formatted?
O’Shaughnessy: Our editor, Simon Boughton, has a good eye and a good feel for books. Sally and I have worked with Simon on five or six books. Usually, when we’re writing, we create a book map and try to figure out what graphs, charts, and pictures we want. Simon not only takes our suggestions, he wants them.

Ride: When we’re doing research for a particular section, we usually have an illustration, graph, or image in mind. However, once an illustrator begins working on the book, it may look different than we imagined. In our other books, we selected most of the images because we knew what we were going to write about.

CG & NJJ: The double-page spreads in Mission: Planet Earth come at the right time. Readers are absorbing so much information that they need time to catch their breath and reflect. Was that a conscious decision, or is that how you think as scientists?
O’Shaughnessy: It is a little of both. When we started writing, we talked about pacing. Simon translated that into some of the spreads where readers take a break and then go on. This is necessary because there’s a lot of information in the book.

CG & NJJ: How did you decide how much scientific information to include in Mission: Planet Earth and still maintain its kid appeal and accessibility?
Ride: That’s hard to determine. This could easily have been a 10,000-page book because there is so much information about climate change. We have conducted professional development for teachers on this topic, so we have seen when their eyes start to glaze over. Similarly, kids ask us a lot about global warming because 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds want this information. They are dragging the rest of us into the twenty-first century.

CG & NJJ: In Mission: Planet Earth you include information about regions all over the world and how they are being impacted by changes in the environment.
O’Shaughnessy: That was intentional. It’s important for kids to be able to relate to the area where they live, but they should also understand that global warming is happening everywhere—not just in California with its droughts and not just the Northeast with its heavier rains. It is everywhere.

CG & NJJ: What age group do you envision as your intended audience?
O’Shaughnessy: Nine through 13 is the target audience. We also see high-school kids interested in the book, especially those who don’t think that science has an impact anymore.

CG & NJJ: The last page of Mission: Planet Earth issues a direct call to action and makes a clear statement about taking responsibility. That call may speak to an American public that doesn’t trust science or to parents who are raising kids who don’t trust science.
Ride: We think it is important to raise the level of discourse and to start appreciating the importance of science and the role that science can play. That translates to kids who think that science isn’t important or that science isn’t cool, and they ask, “Why should I go into science?” In this particular case, they don’t appreciate that it is science that’s telling us what’s happening. And it’s science that can help us solve the problem. If they want to make an impact or become part of the solution, there are several different things that they can do and ways they can go about it. One is by becoming a scientist or an engineer to help solve these problems.

O’Shaughnessy: Or by understanding enough science to become the next science reporter or science illustrator, or simply to make knowledgeable decisions about how they live in their community.

CG & NJJ: What do you hope resonates with readers of this book?
O’Shaughnessy: I hope that readers get the big picture, the gist of how all the parts of Earth work together. That includes living things and human ­beings. I don’t care if they know all the gory details, the parts per million of CO 2. It’s what’s going on that scientists over many decades have unraveled that’s important. We’ve gotten ourselves into this mess, and we can find creative ways to repair the earth.

Ride: What I want kids to take away from this book is appreciating that climate change is real. That it’s affecting all aspects of the world. You can probably see it wherever you live if you look hard enough. We all need to start doing something now!

CG & NJJ: While you were writing Mission: Planet Earth, had you also planned to write Mission: Save the Planet?
Ride: We wrote Mission: Planet Earth first, which took a lot of time figuring out what to include, what to leave out, and how to integrate the different pieces.

O’Shaughnessy: Then we brainstormed with Simon and decided that we should do a companion book. All along they were going to be the same size and look similar, like a two-book set. First the science, and then tips and activities that suggest “here’s what you can do.”

CG & NJJ: Was there anything you learned about climate change as a result of writing these books?
Ride: I learned a lot about discoveries related to the effects of climate change on biological processes. Part of that is because I am a physicist, a physical scientist. I’ve become aware over the decades of the physical effects of climate change. Tam has the biology background. When writing the early drafts of the book, we split up the areas where we each had expertise. At the same time, we were reading newspapers every day. I was struck by how much impact global warming is having all over the planet and by how many people were investigating particular ecosystems in their corner of the world.

O’Shaughnessy: When we started the book, there was the occasional news article about climate change—glaciers melting, what’s happening with the ice sheets in Antarctica, or maybe a story on butterflies in the West. As the months went by, stories appeared daily. Then the latest United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report came out and things just exploded. Over the course of writing the books, it seemed like the public became more and more aware until the general reaction was, “Oh, maybe it is something to be concerned about.”

CG & NJJ: Since information about climate change is changing minute by minute, do you anticipate new editions of the book?
Ride: Assuming that Mission: Planet Earth is well received, it may require a second, third, or fourth edition. There is definitely going to be new information, so some things will need to be updated.

CG & NJJ: What hope do you both have for the planet in 2009 and beyond? What worries you the most and what gives you the most awe?
O’Shaughnessy: I waver from being too negative to feeling very hopeful and positive. What terrifies me is that the oceans are changing so much. They are becoming warmer and more acidic. What is happening to the polar bears and the walruses just breaks my heart. Creatures all over the planet are migrating farther north because it’s too hot. Sally and I have discussions and debates about what is going to happen. People aren’t moving fast enough. I wonder why Congress doesn’t do more and why people don’t appreciate that we need renewable energy. We need to get cracking here.
Actually, one thing I learned from writing the books is that there are tons of things we can do. Getting people to put weather strips up would save gobs of CO 2 from going into the air. Right now it is a positive, encouraging time because we have a new president who believes in action and doing things about climate change. People really are creative, caring, innovative go-getters. Sally often reminds me of how quickly President Kennedy united the country over the space program. I have hope that people will be inventive and come up with solutions. Just taking steps, even the simple ones like conserving energy and doing what you need to do in your own home and in your own community, will have an impact.

Ride: I am fundamentally an optimist, which is a good thing to be right now. I believe that if people start acting and taking climate change seriously, we can slow it down, turn it around, and have something that looks like the planet that we have all come to know and love. If we have learned anything over the last 30 years, it’s that Earth is a complicated place. It might be possible to do something—try some experiment to help solve things—that could actually throw the whole system off, and we might have trouble recovering from it. We have to start working on and developing technologies, and then deploying these technologies. And we need to focus on the science to keep learning more and more. If we start experimenting with the planet, we could get ourselves in trouble. If we are going to be smart, we had better be really smart.

Reading Nonfiction Aloud

Not all picture books lend themselves to reading aloud, and the same is true for nonfiction. Reading Aloud and Beyond: Fostering the Intellectual Life with Older Readers by Frank Serafini and Cyndi Giorgis (Heinemann, 2003) offers the following considerations when selecting nonfiction read-alouds:

  • Author authority: Is the author an authority on the topic, or has he or she consulted with experts in that field?
  • Accuracy: Misinformation is sometimes worse than no information. The factual information contained in the text, illustrations, diagrams, charts, graphs, and so on should be accurate.
  • Appropriateness: Teachers for intermediate and middle-school grades should select books whose text flows well when read aloud. If the text contains too many scientific terms that are beyond or impede student comprehension, then it may not be the best choice.
  • Writing: Many nonfiction books are written in a narrative style with similes, metaphors, and visual imagery. Listeners want to hear information that piques their interest.
  • Appearance: Various formats, fonts, and features improve the appearance of nonfiction. Captioned illustrations, charts, graphs, maps, boxed facts, and other aspects add visual interest.

Sampling Ride and O’Shaughnessy

Mission: Planet Earth: Our World and Its Climate—and How Humans Are Changing Them. 2009. 80p. Flash Point, $19.95 (9781596433106). Gr. 3–8.

Mission: Save the Planet: Things You Can Do to Help Fight Global Warming! 2009. 64p. Flash Point, paper, $7.99 (9781596433793). Gr. 3–8. 

Cyndi Giorgis is a professor of children’s and young-adult literature at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas. Nancy J. Johnson is a professor of English education at Western Washington University. For more about Sally Ride Science, visit www.sallyridescience.com.