Friday, September 22, 2017

Q&A with Robin Stevens Payes

Robin Stevens Payes is the author of Edge of Yesterday, a new novel for kids focusing on a girl who wants to travel back in time and meet Leonardo da Vinci. The novel has an accompanying website that encourages kids to share their storytelling skills and learn more about science and history.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Edge of Yesterday and your main character, Charley?

A: I started a long time ago. I have three kids, and when the oldest was reaching the preteen years and I was being a carpool mom—soccer, band practice—I listened to their conversations, how they and their friends wanted to be everything, soccer players, diplomats.

I was thinking about it—in our society we make kids specialize in kindergarten. It began as a thought experiment. Can children growing up today become everything they want? Who was the epitome of that? Leonardo da Vinci was able to do all of that. If Leonardo was born today, could he be Leonardo?

I chose a girl because still, unfortunately, in 2017 there are [obstacles] for girls to get into certain fields, particularly STEM fields that are highly compensated and growing in demand.

Q: What inspired the interactive website that accompanies the novel, and what response have you had to it?

A: It’s been growing quite a bit. The story started as a screenplay. I’d never written a screenplay before. I realized I didn’t have the technology to make it plausible for Charley to travel back and forth through time. She needed an iPhone!

[Later] I had a screenplay and a book, and I started tweeting the novel out. I realized Charley’s voice was coming out. She started tweeting and she continues to do that to this day. It’s the 40th anniversary of when Voyager 1 and 2 launched, and we have a new article by an intern about the Golden Record. It can be very timely in that way.

All of these things seemed to be speaking to a larger need, learning through story. Stories are universal, they are vital for transmitting information, but they’re also for entertainment and inculcating moral values. It seems to be a timeless way to offer the idea that learning can be fun if it’s tied to a story.

Because Leonardo was the master of all things, there’s so much you can learn! We aggregated it on the website. The idea was to make it interactive and fun--here’s something you didn’t know—and include literature, math, science, history. That’s the way the real world works. It’s meant to be transdisciplinary.

Q: What age group do you focus on?

A: It’s designed to be middle-grade fiction, age 9-12. I feel it’s the older, upper end of the age group because some of the concepts are pretty sophisticated for younger readers, though on the website we have a word of the week and words are defined within the book to make it accessible. I’ve had older kids be engaged, and a lot of parents say, This is really cool!

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the novel?

A: For me, it’s wonderful because it’s a constant learning and growing experience. When I began, we hardly had the Internet. Research about Leonardo meant going to the library.

There has been a growth of “Leonardo-ana,” especially within the last five to six years; there’s been an explosion of Leonardo-related stuff. There’s just a perennial interest. He was an enigma in a lot of ways, though he was prolific, but it was focused on his work. Plumbing the inner Leonardo has been fun.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I didn’t start reading this series until I had finished the book, but the Outlander series, by Diana Gabaldon, is an epic; it’s rip-roaring fun, and is meticulously researched. I love her research and her attending to facts and her ability to recreate regular life in historic times…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I received a grant from the Montgomery County Arts and Humanities Council to start a new adventure, three books in a series.

The next adventure is with an 18th century French noblewoman. Emilie du Chatelet was a consort of Voltaire, a mathematician and physicist. She translated Newton into French for the first time, she laid the foundation for relativity, and she had four kids. It’s natural that Charley is dying to meet her. She was a kick-ass 18th century woman.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One of the pieces I’m really intentional about and proud of, part of what Edge of Yesterday is about, is promoting curiosity and creativity in readers and people who interact with the website.

The activities energize people to share their creativity with us and other people interested in the story. It’s how curiosity and creativity can express your ability to follow your dreams as a young person.

I started a hashtag, #eoymystory. I want people to share what they’re passionate about, what their dreams are, their story. I love engaging with these young people, and I hope they will enjoy sharing with each other.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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