Martha Freeman is the author of the new children's book Born Curious: 20 Girls Who Grew Up to Be Awesome Scientists. Her many other books include Zap and Effie Starr Zook Has One More Question. A former reporter and teacher, she lives in Colorado.
Q: How did you choose the 20 scientists to include in your new book?
A: The trickiest thing about picking the 20 scientists was the balancing act. That is, I chose scientists who had done great things but whose stories were, for the most part, unfamiliar outside the scientific community. There are already many biographies of Jane Goodall, Marie Curie and Ada Lovelace, for example, so – accomplished as they are/were – I did not include them.
Of the 20 I finally selected, Rosalind Franklin (who did key work on the structure of DNA) is probably the most famous. (At the same time, when I ask students and even teachers if they’ve heard of her, most say they haven’t.)
I also wanted women with a variety of backgrounds – class, national origin, ethnicity - hoping that readers from similarly diverse backgrounds would see themselves in the book, too.
Finally, I wanted a variety of scientific disciplines, in part because it’s more fun for me to write about different things, but also – again - hoping to engage the most readers. One person might pick up the book because they love lizards, another because they want to know about spinning galaxies, and a third because they’re interested in math.
Best case: Someone picks up the book to read about one scientific endeavor or one scientist and discovers a new interest in the process.
Q: Given the book's title, what impact do you think curiosity had on these women's careers?
A: By calling the book Born Curious, we hoped to emphasize the every-person quality of scientists in general. That is, I believe every child is indeed born curious, and if you doubt it, take a look at a young child navigating the world.
For whatever reason, the women in the book stayed curious, and they also had faith that they could do the work necessary to answer – or make progress toward answering – the questions their curiosity led them to ask. Marine biologist Sylvia Earle, one of the 20, called scientists little kids who never grew up, and I think there’s a lot of truth in that.
Q: Do you think most of these scientists faced professional difficulties because they were women, and if so, how did it affect them?
A: Yes. And that part of their stories is included in the book. Some never received the recognition they deserved - or had a chance to take on responsibility they were capable of handling. Some received that recognition and responsibility very late in their careers.
Interestingly, though, a very few (atmospheric chemist Susan Solomon comes to mind) honestly didn’t seem to notice any discrimination based on gender. Whether you acknowledge discrimination or not, it takes a special kind of toughness to carry on and excel in what remain male-dominated fields.
Who knows how many excellent scientists were thwarted in their work because they happened to lack that particular grit? Who knows what discoveries were not made, what work was not done?
Anyway, I hope books like mine and more media recognition in general continue to normalize women's rightful place in the scientific community for the good of everyone.
Q: What do you think Katy Wu's illustrations add to the book?
A: Everything! She also had a difficult balancing act, to make the illustrations elegant and true to the sophistication of the scientific pursuits while also making them reader-friendly. I think she did a wonderful job. Also the illustrations are worth studying for all the fun details she sneaked in.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m between projects, which basically never happens. Between projects means I’m working on promoting the books I’ve already written and promoting myself as a virtual or (one of these days!) in-person visitor to schools and libraries to talk about the women in Born Curious and about writing in general.
Meanwhile, I just finished up a manuscript I have been working on for three years and sent it to my agent (yay, me!), and my editor and I just finished up the final, final, final edits on a middle grade mystery, Noah McNichol and the Backstage Ghost, which is set for release winter 2021. I have two other middle-grade projects in mind, but I haven’t written a single word of either one yet.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: A lot of writers with new books are anxious about attracting attention and generating sales given the pandemic and other news dominating both the headlines and our brains.
Strangely, the current moment seems particularly good for a book like Born Curious. Whether we needed it or not, the pandemic serves as a stark reminder of the life-and-death importance of science and, in larger terms, the disinterested search for truth.
The stories of the scientists in the book, all of whom overcame adversity of one sort or another to get the work done, are a good reminder of humans at their best – something many of us need right now.
Additionally, parents worried about their kids falling behind with school are looking for books with educational value. Born Curious is, I think, a great book for parents and kids to share – and everyone will learn something.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Martha Freeman.