When I heard about today’s picture book, I just knew that I needed to know more!
Helen Taylor writes books that inspire kids to wonder about their world in new ways. Her favorite questions are How? and Why? even though the answers are rarely simple. As a kid, she loved science and storytelling, but it wasn’t until she grew up that she figured out how to combine the two. She started telling quirky science stories in the museum world, writing about polar bear hair plugs, catfish physicals, and other curiosities. Now, Helen writes books that make science and engineering fun and accessible for kids. How to Eat in Space is her picture book debut. You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Twitter or Instagram.
HOW TO EAT IN SPACE is a nonfiction picture book written in a “how to” formula. How has no one thought of this before? It’s also written in second person point of view which brilliantly brings the young reader right into space with the other astronauts who have specific rules to follow about food for a variety of reasons. Never once does all the information seem boring or too long. I never thought I’d be so intrigued by this subject, but the writing here just sings! And the illustrations by the amazing Stevie Lewis are just the icing on the cake. She brings to life exactly what making a pizza in space would look like. Fascinating doesn’t even begin to cover it!
Me: This is your author debut picture book. YAY! Congratulations! Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started writing picture books? What was your writing journey up to the publication of this book?
Helen: I got interested in writing picture books when my kids were young and we were reading lots of books aloud. I had writing experience from my previous job (I wrote about exhibits, programs, and behind-the-scenes happenings for a science museum), but knew nothing about the publishing industry or writing work that’s meant to be illustrated. So I signed up for a six-week online class, not knowing quite what to expect, and have been at it ever since. I signed with my agent about 2.5 years after that first class and How to Eat in Space was the first project we sold.
Me: This is such a fascinating topic that you have covered so well. I never thought about all the regulations around food in space. What gave you the idea to write a book about it?
Helen: A few years ago, I came across an article about experiments that astronauts on the International Space Station were doing to grow lettuce in microgravity. The idea of something so earthly happening up there was really intriguing to me.
At first, my research focused on growing plants in space. Pretty quickly, I came across the “why” behind those experiments—that it’s hard to meet astronauts’ nutritional needs on a diet of prepackaged foods alone. Fresh produce is a valuable (and tasty) supplement to the standard fare, plus it’s fun to grow. It turned out there was a lot more to feeding astronauts than I ever thought, and it was fascinating! So I shifted from a narrow focus (growing “space salad”) to a much broader one (how to eat in space).
Me: You share a lot of fascinating facts. Can you tell us about your research process? How much research did you need to do to write this book?
Helen: Yes, research is a huge part of writing nonfiction! I used footnotes as I was working to keep track of what information came from where, and saved copies of all my sources. That included books, articles, photos, interviews, videos, and podcasts. I also got in touch with a couple of subject matter experts at NASA and that was invaluable!
Fortunately there is quite a lot of information out there about life aboard the International Space Station (ISS). But it’s also an ever-evolving environment. When dealing with subject matter that is not static, it’s important to triple check not just where, but when your information is coming from to ensure it’s up-to-date.
Me: What was one of your favorite facts that you learned about food in space?
Helen: In 2019, an experimental batch of cookies was baked on the International Space Station, which is pretty cool! The oven they used was designed specifically for use in space, meaning it had to be compact, energy efficient, and extra-safe. The cookies themselves went into silicone pouches (so they wouldn’t just float around in the oven). I talk about space baking in the book’s backmatter, instead of the main text, because it’s not yet ready for “prime time.” But on behalf of future astronauts, I have my fingers crossed that they’ll get there eventually!
Me: The illustrations by Stevie Lewis are perfect! I love the silly things she includes in the pictures around the serious topic. Were there any illustration surprises for you? Do you have any favorite illustrations?
Helen: I couldn’t agree more! Stevie’s illustrations are amazing in so many ways. I love the cast of characters she created and the way she makes the station feel very inviting. There are so many details to notice—both silly and informative. One of my favorites is so subtle I actually didn’t notice it at first. It’s a sticky-note reminder that makes me smile every time I see it. (Psst…it’s on the ‘Save room for dessert’ spread, if you want to go find it.)
Me: With nonfiction picture books, the topics can include a lot of material from research only the writer did. Did you have art notes for Stevie or share your research? Was this a collaborative project between you both, or did she research on her own for the illustrations?
Helen: I can’t speak to what Stevie’s research process was like because, as is often the case, we weren’t in direct contact during that phase. But I can tell you what I did on my end. While I was writing the manuscript, I kept a running list of visual references (photos, screenshots, descriptions, and video clips) in the hopes that someday A) the text would be acquired and B) a real live illustrator would want to see such things. There were a couple of art notes in the manuscript itself but I placed the vast majority of that material in a separate file of notes and links that was organized spread by spread.
Me: Any advice for other new picture book writers?
Helen: I am a big fan of lists, so I’m going to go with that—lean into lists! There are to-do lists, of course, and to-read lists, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As writers, we have so very many things to keep track of . . . There are creative lists—story ideas, cool character names, unique settings, unusual words, character quirks, stand-out childhood memories, favorite book titles, interesting structures, mentor texts for specific craft elements, etc. And practical lists too—writers whose work you admire, illustrators whose work you admire (some editors ask for writers’ input on this), agents that are open/closed to queries, editors who acquire the kinds of stories we write, etc.
Back when I first subscribed to PW’s Children’s Bookshelf emails, I started a file where I copy/pasted book deals that really struck a chord with me. It’s one of my favorite lists because it’s so customized—it shows me what’s selling in the niche(s) I most care about, and which agents/editors are involved. It’s never too early (or too late) to start keeping track of such things!
What a brilliant idea! I’m going to start doing that myself! Thank you for stopping by my blog today Helen.
But wait, dear readers! There’s more! Helen has agree to giveaway one copy of her book HOW TO EAT IN SPACE to one lucky winner (just contestants in the US please). You can enter the rafflecopter here. Good luck!