Professor Emma Johnston, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sydney, has a genuinely encouraging life story.
“Emma was a sponge …“
She loved the beach, science and asking her parents questions about the wonderful world around her. She always enjoyed looking at the fascinating marine life under the water’s surface. Her curiosity and the questions her parents answered only gave her the thirst for more knowledge. Moving to Japan, she found the curriculum way more advanced, so she enjoyed the challenge and found class engaging. After returning to Australia, she was shocked by the discrimination against the girls at her high school and she moved to Uni High, a different school, accepted in with a music scholarship. She knew she loved science, communicating with others and playing music on her flute.
What did she do with her curious mind and knowledge of science as she grew up in this big world?
Find out in Dee White’s extraordinary biography of Emma’s inspiring story. Reading her life story motivated me to look more into science again and rediscover my passion for science I lost a couple years ago. It helped me to relate to Emma as we both love science and I can feel her struggles, opinions and feelings throughout the book.
I loved this book and would rate this book a strong 4 out of 5 for ten to thirteen year olds.
Dee White has published more than 20 books for children and young adults, and many articles, short stories and poems. Her writing and writing workshops have taken her all over the world and she’s prepared to go almost anywhere (even do a tour of Paris sewers) to track down a good story! Today we’re chatting to Dee about her latest book, Emma Johnston: Marine biologist and TV presenter, which is part of the Aussie STEM Stars series.
From the publisher:
Professor Emma Johnston is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of Sydney. From her earliest years growing up she has had a lifelong curiosity about the marine world and has a passionate commitment to finding ways to restore the health of damaged marine systems like the Great Barrier Reef.
How did you go about your research for writing about Emma Johnston?
The first thing I did was go online and find out as much as I could about Emma and the work she did. I watched a film she had made about her time in Antarctica, I read some of the things she had written about the environment, and I read her profile on the website of the university she worked for and interviews she had done about her amazing achievements.
From that information, I developed a series of questions that I asked her on Skype. We weren’t able to meet in person because of Covid restrictions and lockdowns.
I did a second Skype interview later to clarify some things she had told me and to get more information where I needed it. I also asked Emma to send me photos from when she was a child to help me imagine what life was like for her growing up.
What is your own favourite plant or marine creature?
I really love whales. I love the way they move and the way they interact with each other and with humans.
Emma Johnston shines a light on Earth’s precious underwater/marine environments. Did researching and writing this book lead you to change your own behaviour in any way?
Researching this book gave me a much greater understanding of the marine environment and the dangers it faces, but also how nature is fighting against threats caused by humans.
Climate change has caused temperature layers to form in the ocean, trapping cold water and nutrients in the deep. When whales move through the water, they help blend the temperature bands, and also bring species like plankton up to the surface so they can get more light to help them survive. We need plankton because they produce most of the oxygen we breathe.
This has actually inspired me to write a book about whales and how they help the world we live in.
One of the things that appealed to me about writing Emma’s story is that I’ve been concerned about the environment for a long time. We always compost at our house. We have solar panels to produce our electricity … and about four years ago, I changed to a plant-based diet.
Researching this book alerted me to even more things I could do to help the environment – particularly reducing my use of plastics and planting more indigenous trees and bushes at my house to provide an environment to bring back native birds, animals and insects.
Do you have a tip for children who’d like to try writing a biography?
If you can, interview the person you are writing about. In an interview, you can find out interesting facts that might not be available anywhere else in books or online. In an interview, you get to ask specific questions about the things you want to know about a person. You can email them via their website or the website for their place of work and ask if they would be happy to answer a few questions via email.
A COUPLE OF OTHER TIPS
Pick someone you’re really interested in writing about – someone who shares the same interests as you.
Find out as much as you can about them – then decide what to include in your biography. Pick out the most interesting parts about their life.
Think about what they might want to be remembered for and make this the theme or central idea for your biography. For example, with Emma Johnston Marine Biologist and TV Presenter, the theme or main idea is finding out about the marine environment so that we can help it.
Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on next?
I always work on lots of projects at once. At the moment, I’m developing a series of animal stories. I’m also working on a true story about a boy who climbed the Berlin Wall to escape from East to West Germany to go and live with his aunt. And I’m writing an action adventure about a boy who moves to Paris, uncovers a secret and sets out to find out the truth about his family.
Emma Johnston: Marine Biologist and TV Presenter is out now! Ask for it at your favourite bookshop or local library.
Deb Fitzpatrick writes for adults, young adults and children. She loves using stories from real life in her novels and regularly teaches creative writing to people of all ages. Deb lived in a shack in Costa Rica for four years where she became accustomed – well, almost – to orange-kneed tarantulas walking through her house, and sloths and spider-monkeys swinging in the trees outside.
Today we’re chatting about her latest book – Ajay Rane.
Professor Ajay Rane is the Director of Urogynaecology at Townsville University Hospital and Head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at James Cook University (JCU). Ajay has devoted his research and practice to treating women with severe childbirth injuries in the some of the world’s poorest countries.
How did you go about your research for the book?
First, I found every single article, interview and photo of Professor Rane online and printed it all out. As I read, I highlighted everything of interest. I had a big A4 notebook with me, which I filled with the most important information, best quotes and snippets from his life, and I tried to arrange the information in sensible ‘batches’, so that I could keep the huge amount of info manageable and sort-of orderly!
Then, once I felt I was across everything that was available about him in the public realm, I phoned Ajay and we had a lovely chat. I was SO nervous. He was SO lovely. And I asked him if I could start sending him questions about his life via email. Each email had about ten questions for him, and in asking these questions I was trying to fill in the gaps and ‘colour in’ the bits I didn’t know much about.
Despite being one of the busiest humans on the planet, Ajay was so patient and answered every single question, every time. He was an absolute champion to work with.
Was writing a biography/nonfiction book very different compared to writing your fiction novels?
Writing Ajay’s story was certainly different in some ways to writing one of my novels, because there was an existing storyline I had to follow. And frankly, that was a relief!! As a fiction author, I’m used to having to make everything up, and that can be exhausting! So this was wonderful. Having said that, because Ajay Rane is a narrative non-fiction, there are many scenes in the book which I essentially did make up. The books are designed to read like novels, even though they are about a real person’s life, so all the dialogue, for example, is made up, based on what I understood about Ajay and his life. And, of course, Ajay read every single word and I asked him to tell me if he felt anything wasn’t right. We were very careful to make sure everything felt true to life.
When you’re writing a nonfiction book requiring research, how do you know when it’s time to stop researching and begin writing?
Ha ha, well, deadlines help in that regard! I had four months to write this book and I can tell you it’s the quickest I have ever written any book! But once I had read everything I could lay my hands on, and chatted with Ajay, and seen photos of him as a child with his family, then I felt it was time to begin actually writing. And that was fun. Because, by that point, I realised how incredible this story was, and I was itching to share it with readers.
Ajay Rane is part of the Aussie STEM Stars series. What’s your favourite subject area when it comes to Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths?
I would have to say science, particularly conservation biology. This is an area I’ve long been interested in and is very close to my heart. Did you know that feral cats eat about two billion animals a year in Australia? Reptiles, birds, frogs, mammals … it’s heartbreaking. It’s an incomprehensible number. The work that conservation biologists do to protect our native fauna is critical. We have seen animals literally brought back from the brink of extinction due to their incredible work.
Can you tell us a bit about your next writing project?
I always have a few manuscripts on the go! I have a children’s picture book text that I’ve been working on for a while and a junior fiction novel that I’m just editing at the moment before my agent sends it out. Of course, I hope very much that I’ll be able to talk to you about one or both of those books sometime in the near future!
Ajay Rane is out now! Ask for it at your favourite bookshop or local library.
Kim Doherty is an editor, storyteller, teacher, and a mum to two young children, who she hopes will be inspired by the amazing world of science and Alan’s story. Today we’re thrilled to chat to her about her new book, a biography in the Aussie STEM Stars series – Alan Finkel.
From the publisher:
As Australia’s Chief Scientest, our country turned to Alan Finkel for advice on everything from climate change to artificial intelligence, to the pandemic. But at a time when scientists have never been so important, Alan nearly didn’t become one at all!
How did you go about your research for writing about Alan Finkel?
I did a LOT of reading. It’s lucky that I love reading as well as writing, as there is so much to read about Alan – he’s always busy doing something interesting. I read all the speeches he’s ever given (and that is no small feat – there are hundreds) and a lot of his scientific papers. I confess, some of the papers were a bit too complicated for me to understand, but I did my best. I spent a lot of time interviewing Alan of course, but I also chatted to his colleagues, his friends and his family (his sister had lots of funny stories to tell. It’s a good reason to always be nice to your sister – you never know who she’ll talk to about you in the future!)
Did you meet Alan Finkel while you were writing the book?
Alan and I had grand plans to have lunch together in Melbourne, where we both grew up. Then he was so busy that we changed it to Canberra, where his office was as Chief Scientist of Australia. Then he was due to give a speech in Sydney, where I now live … but then something got in the way: Covid-19. There was no way of travelling or meeting face to face during the pandemic, so we did all our chatting on zoom. Which I have to say was fun! It was like being teleported straight into his living room in Melbourne, without ever having to walk out my own front door in Sydney. (And once, I was still secretly wearing my slippers. Ssshh!).
As Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel worked in many different areas of science – technology, biology, science education, the pandemic, climate change – and in the book we learn that perhaps his greatest passion is taking care of our planet. Which area of STEM do you find most interesting?
Oh I love all of it, I wish I’d studied more science at school. Alan is always fascinating to talk to, but perhaps my favourite of the many STEM topics we chatted about was how science can help look after our planet. For example, Alan believes that clean hydrogen can power our vehicles instead of dirty fossil fuels, and it turns out that Australia is a great place to produce hydrogen. You can make hydrogen from water, and instead of emitting nasty greenhouse gases, its only byproduct is water vapour! It’s exciting to think that, thanks to our scientists, Australia could play an important role in looking after our beautiful planet.
In addition to this biography about Alan Finkel you’ve also written a book for children about Mt Everest. Do you have a tip for children who’d like to write nonfiction?
Hmm, I’m sure your clever readers would think of this themselves but my advice is this: find a topic you’re really interested in, because it’s a lot more fun to read and write about a subject you love. It doesn’t mean you have to know a lot about it when you start, but you need to be ready to read a lot first, and then talk to people who know a lot, before you even start to write yourself. If you’ve really worked hard on the research, the writing bit is easy and fun. Go on, give it a try!
Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on next?
To be honest, I am still trying to work it out. I love writing about amazing people, and there are so many of them in Australia – scientists of course, but also people from all walks of life who are doing wonderful, brave things. It’s an honour to tell those stories, so thank you for reading them. I hope they inspire you too.
Alan Finkel is out now! Ask for it at your favourite book store or local library.
Eddie Woo, the award winning mathematics teacher, has an intriguing past with lots of surprises.
But was he always a superstar mathematician when he was young?
‘Catch you later,’ one of the boys hissed over his shoulder at where Eddie lay face down on the ground.
‘Drop you later, you mean!’ another one hooted over Eddie’s head.
Eddie Woo was one of the few Asian kids in his primary school. He was bullied for his short stature. Being known for studying didn’t help either. He had a lot of allergies and eczema which caused him to itch, only to be seen as a distraction in class by his teachers, who sent him to the principal’s office. He felt like no-one cared about him and he was neglected at school. He knew he was left out and overlooked, especially by his teachers. However, he always got high marks in English and History.
What happened to Eddie that changed him from a victim of bullying to becoming a superstar mathematics teacher? Find out in Rebecca Lim’s captivating biography of Eddie Woo’s life.
This is one of the most engaging biographies I’ve read because it is filled with surprises. Eddie shows his achievements and also his times of trouble. Throughout the book, you learn about Eddie’s emotions, feelings, thoughts and faith in God. Not only that, Eddie shows a few mathematical diagrams in the back of his book that emphasises how mathematics is everywhere in nature.
How did Gisela Kaplan, a young German survivor of WWII become a world-leading expert in the behaviour of animals?
This book is a biography of Gisela Kaplan written by Emily Gale. Gisela Kaplan had a hard life in Germany after the Second World War. Then after she immigrated to Australia, the book shows how other people helped her along in her career as she played a role in primate and bird science. In addition, there are notes to help explain words you don’t understand.
When she arrives in Australia what jobs could she take? How did she learn a second language, and how does she support her daughter? Read Aussie STEM Stars Gisela Kaplan to find out more and all the answers to these questions!
I like this book and for me, it is five-star rated because it shows an emotional story of immigration. It also shows how much practice has to go into work till you can fulfil your dream, as you can see how she consistently worked away from home, in the work field.
This book would be for ages ten and up to read by themselves although most children from the age of six to ten can read with someone to help the children understand. Go grab a copy of this amazing book either online or hard copy.
Today’s visitor is author Emily Gale, author of books for children and teenagers. You might have read her the Eliza Bloom’s Diaries series, or the novel The Other Side of Summer. Emily Gale’s latest book is Gisela Kaplan: Bird and Primate Scientist, part of the Aussie STEM Stars series.
From the publisher:
Gisela Kaplan’s story begins in post-World War II Germany. Despite incredible challenges as a child, she retained a profound curiosity, care and compassion for all living things. Her captivating, ground-breaking scientific research on Australian magpies, tawny frogmouths and other iconic bird species, as well as primates, make Prof. Kaplan a world-leading expert in animal behaviour, especially of Australian birds. Professor Kaplan is on a mission to spread the word about how intelligent and surprising birds are, before time runs out for many of them.
How did you go about your research for writing about Gisela Kaplan?
I love research and all the different pathways it can take you down. The first thing I did was to listen to a radio interview in which Gisela Kaplan talks about how she became so interested in Australian birds that it changed her life (Conversations, ABC: Talking magpies, grieving tawny frogmouths and canny galahs). She’s written several books on birds and animals so I got those out of the library and made plenty of notes. I searched the internet for research articles that she’s written, and I also found a clip from a documentary about her work rehabilitating birds (google Compass: Paws For Thought if you want to see some clips of Gisela with a tawny frogmouth and some juvenile magpies). To immerse myself in what Gisela’s early life might have been like, I watched documentaries and movies about Germany in the 1940s to 1960s, and I spent hours and hours walking by the river near where I live so that I could observe to birds, listen to their sounds, and make notes on their behaviour. Most importantly, I had lots of phone calls with Gisela. I asked her dozens of questions about her life and work. All the research helped me to know which questions to ask.
Have you meet Gisela Kaplan in real life? (And Pumpkin?)
I’m very sad to say that I have not met Gisela, or Pumpkin the sulphur-crested cockatoo, or the lovely tawny frogmouth who has lived with Gisela for over twenty years. I wrote this book during lockdown in Victoria when we weren’t even allowed to go more than 5km from our homes, whereas Gisela lives in NSW. While I was writing the book we spoke for two hours at a time over several sessions. The time would go so quickly because Gisela is a wonderful storyteller and has had such an interesting life. We also emailed each other regularly throughout the process, and we still keep in touch.
When you’re writing an autobiography about someone like Gisela (who’s had such a broad range of experiences and achievements), how do you choose what to put into the book and what to leave out?
As the book is for children aged 10 and over I wanted to include plenty of information about what Gisela was like at around that age. She was born during the Second World War, in Germany, and had a challenging childhood in many ways involving poverty, hunger and bullying, so I wanted to spend time showing how she overcame those struggles.
You can’t always guess what career a person will go into, or what twists and turns there will be along the way, and I wanted to show young people that even if the journey to being a great scientist doesn’t start when you’re very young, or if it gets off-track, it doesn’t mean you’re not going to get there in the end. Gisela’s career path has gone from opera singing to teaching to roaming the jungle in search of orang-utans, and that’s all before we get to her world-famous research into Australian birds. So my aim was to write about those life-changing decisions.
Of course, life also contains boring bits, or sad times like losing loved ones and suffering illness. In science there can be long periods of time when your research is frustrating or slow. I skipped all of that and focussed on the highlights and plot twists.
You also write fiction for young readers and teenagers. Did you find it a faster or slower process to write a nonfiction book?
I wrote the book quickly for two reasons: first of all, I had a tight deadline, and there is nothing like a deadline to make me get on with it! Second, when you’re writing fiction the possibilities are endless. In one way this is an incredible freedom and something I enjoy, but it also means you can go down all sorts of wrong pathways or tie yourself in knots finding the story (you have a sense of what that is, but it’s like playing hide n seek without knowing what you’re looking for). But when you’re writing about someone’s life, the possibilities are limited and you have to work with the facts. So it’s a case of collecting the facts, looking at them and shaping them into a narrative that people will enjoy reading just as much as they’d enjoy a made-up story.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on another middle-grade novel similar to the one I’ve just written with Nova Weetman (Elsewhere Girls) in the sense that it takes place now but also has a strong connection to the past. The story is about a girl in Year 6. It starts during 2020 and the setting is a Melbourne school, so I’m writing about lockdown and all the upheaval of remote school, and how strange our lives were during that time. And then come the ghosts . . . I’ve written novels with ghost-like characters before and it’s something I keep coming back to because I loved stories like that when I was roughly 10–14: this one is a little bit more creepy and mysterious than The Other Side of Summer, but there are three lovely dogs, two cats and an eccentric grandmother to balance out the haunting. Since writing about Gisela Kaplan, I decided that the novel also needed a bird or two.
Georgia Ward-Fear: reptile biologist and explorer, Wild Dingo Press, ISBN 9781925893342
The publisher provided a review copy of this book.
Do you want to visit rainforests and discover new species of animals, hold anacondas and pat great monitor lizards? You can find out a way to be that kind of person just by reading this fabulous Aussie Stem Stars book.
This book is written by Claire Saxby, an author from Melbourne. She moved to Newcastle when she was a toddler and the to Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. Claire is an amazing author for the Aussie Stem Stars series. Claire is such a good author that she makes the reader think they are a part of the story.
Georgia Ward-Fear is an outstanding reptile biologist and explorer. Since she was a toddler she loved animals and the world around her. Soon she became a reptile expert and daring explorer. And before you know it, she was an expert reptile biologist and adventurous explorer. Georgia didn’t become so excellent as quick as light although; with years and years of passion and practice, she got there in the end and she accomplished her goal. The lesson is that even though you might be good at something it takes passion and practice to be truly good at it.
I feel that this book will be most helpful to children willing to be an explorer or animal biologist. Also, I like how the Aussie STEM Stars books give a little quote from the science genius or animal expertise, this book’s quote is:
Follow your curiosity, express your unique self and always stop to observe the wonders of Nature; we are just one among millions.
I think this quote is completely correct and that you will appreciate that this book was made and published.
Dianne Wolfer lives on the south coast of Western Australia, but she grew up in Melbourne, Bangkok and Albury. Dianne’s love of books is one reason she became a writer. She writes picture books, novels for children and teenagers, and nonfiction for all ages. Her stories are about many things; different cultures, the environment, friendship, being brave, turns in the road and taking chances. Today we’re thrilled to have Dianne visiting to chat to us about her latest book, which is part of the Aussie STEM Stars series.
From the publisher:
Munjed is a humanitarian and world-leading pioneer of surgical osseointegration. The book follows pivotal moments in Munjed’s life: becoming a surgeon under the regime of Saddam Hussein, fleeing from war-torn Iraq and arriving at Christmas Island in a rickety boat, being held in the Curtin Detention Centre, his hard-gained medical success, and his acknowledgement as the 2020 NSW Australian of the Year.
On with the questions!
You’re a writer of fiction and nonfiction. What’s different about writing nonfiction compared to writing a fiction novel?
Writing fiction is just me and my imagination. There is some research, for example in The Shark Caller I wanted to find out more about Papua New Guinea and the practise of calling sharks, but with nonfiction you have to always check and double-check the facts that link to your book. When it’s biography, like Munjed Al Muderis from refugee to surgical inventor, and the person is alive, it’s super important to not only get the details correct but also to capture the ‘voice’ of the person you are writing about. That’s not easy. Historical fiction is different again, it sits between the two and some people call it ‘faction’. With the Light series, set in WWI, I imagined the characters; both real and fictitious. For example, when I began work on Lighthouse Girl in 2005, very little was known about Fay’s life on Breaksea Island in 1914. As time passes research sometimes uncovers interesting details that I wish I’d known way back then. Each genre has its own challenges and its own fun.
Your latest book is part of Aussie STEM Stars – a new series for kids celebrating Australia’s experts in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Had you met Munjed Al Muderis before you began writing the book?
No, sadly I still haven’t met Munjed. He lives in Sydney and soon after I began work on his amazing story, COVID happened.
How did you go about your research for writing the book?
Munjed has co-authored two books for adults, given TED talks, been painted by Anh Do’s ‘Brush with Fame’ and been on many media shows, so although I could not meet him in person, I was able to watch Munjed on screen and listen to him speak about his life and surgical achievements. Munjed often spoke about pivotal life moments, like when he had to choose between probable death and cutting off the ears of prisoners, and coming to Australia by boat, and being locked in Curtin Detention Centre where they called him by a number instead of his name. These were some of the life-changing moments I pieced together to create the book. As I wrote I often asked myself, ‘How did these experiences shape the man Munjed has become?’
Australia is now the world-leader in osseointegration, a surgical technique that allows amputees to feel the ground as they walk, because of Munjed and his team’s surgical work. He’s the current NSW Australian of the Year and his resilience and positive ‘glass half-full’ (rather than ‘half-empty’) attitude inspired me as I drafted and re-drafted his story. “Life is about making a difference,” Munjed says. “We all have a mission in life, to leave behind a legacy.”
Do you have any tips for kids who would like to try writing a biography?
So many … capturing someone’s ‘voice’ is important. The more research you do, the better chance you will have of doing that. Then start writing and keep going until you get to the end. You can make notes along the way about things you’ll need to research in following drafts. When you’re finished a read-through, reread and let the story settle.
Then ask yourself questions like:
What is the heart of this story?
Why has my character made the choices she/he has?
Are there important turns in the road when they could have taken another path? Why didn’t they? Would their life have been very different if they had?
What does my character care most about and what drives them?
Who are the important mentors for my character?
Thinking about smaller things like the kind of clothes they wear, favourite music and the food they like is also a fun way to bring a character to life.
If ever I go to Iraq I will definitely try Gaymer & Kahi for breakfast.
Can you tell us a bit about your next writing project?
I thought I’d finished writing about WWI but one story kept calling me back. It’s a little like the ‘Light’ series but it’s also different (a special animal is the hero). I’ve done a lot of research and I hope I can share more about it soon. I’ve also completed a middle-grade novel which is on a publisher’s desk. Lots of other ideas are swirling about but these are the ones I’m working on.