Full STEAM Ahead with Jen Bryant!

Full STEAM Ahead

I am a huge fan of Jen Bryant’s books. Her prolific career includes books like The Trial, A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, Ringside, 1925, and many others.  I always enjoy Jen’s books because they involve a great deal of research and often take place in my home state of NJ, or surrounding states.  When I started this blog series I immediately thought of Jen and I am thrilled that she was kind enough to contribute this week’s post.

Trial book cover 2The Trial is one of my favorite books because it follows the Lindbergh baby kidnapping from the viewpoint of a teen living through the news cycle at the time.  The Lindbergh baby kidnapping has always fascinated me.  Last year, while attending the Monmouth Junior Science Symposium, I was privileged to hear a talk by Robert Ferguson, a retired crime scene investigator.  His talk, “Real Life Crime Scene Investigation vs. TV’s CSI” focused on the science behind crime scene investigation, particularly the advances that have been made over the last 75 years or so.  The case he chose to showcase was the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.  I loved that I was at a science symposium and had a student turn around and whisper, “Just like in The Trial!” a few times during the talk.

That’s why I am glad that Jen Bryant decided to write about The Trial for her guest post today.  I love learning about the STEM work behind an author’s writing!

Technology & History: Telegraphs, Transatlantic flights, and a Missing Toddler.

It’s probably not the best etiquette to begin this post by quoting a previous one, but since I was never big on etiquette anyway, I’m doing just that:

“Science and literature, math and writing—I think sometimes we focus too much on the differences between these disciplines and not enough on their beautiful cohesiveness. It’s fascinating to explore how each subject overlaps and enhances the others.” (J. Khoury, 12-13-12 post)

Thank you Jessica Khoury! I couldn’t have said it any better, and Jessica provides the perfect segue into my own discussion of how science and technology literature and writing complement and enrich one another. And I’ll even take it one step further: In the writing life they are, in fact, interdependent, and in many cases, indistinguishable.

Charles LindberghWhen I write a work of historical fiction (The Trial: my novel based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, for example) the role of science, math and technology in the course of human history becomes hyper evident. When I visit schools to talk about that book, I pause in the middle of my presentation and ask the students and teachers to consider this: in 1927, LESS than one hundred years ago (which, in the course of human history, is a half-blink), no one had yet flown solo across the Atlantic Ocean. This year, 2012, we’re retiring the Space Shuttle! Putting those two things side by side should help us realize the ever-accelerating rate of technology and how it affects everything we do.) At the time that Charles Lindbergh—a shy mechanic, a “barnstorming” 25-year old pilot who was unknown to the American public—took off from New York’s Roosevelt Field and began the 3,500-plus mile flight to Paris, many people doubted it could be done. When he landed, “astonished” and sleep-deprived at Paris’s Le Bourget air field, the era of modern transportation had begun.

NYC Lindbergh parade

NYC Lindbergh parade

But so much more happened on that day and because of that flight. Transatlantic communication had recently improved, and for the first time ever, a written message could be sent across the globe, from continent to continent, in just a few minutes. (Again, stop to think that today, we can instantly email our photo, using only our phone, to China or Ecuador.) Why is this so important? What does this have to do with writing and literature? Well, for one, Charles Lindbergh became, for all intents and purposes, our first true “celebrity.” Expecting to see no one but the airfield crew upon his landing in Paris, his “astonishment” was as much because of the thousands who gathered along the runway and stormed the plane, once he’d landed. Upon his return to the U.S., huge crowds lined the sidewalks along Broadway in NYC to see him honored in a tickertape parade.

Think about that . . . . Today, we have thousands of people whom we consider “celebrities” in fields from entertainment to politics to athletics. And yet—the concept of “celebrity” itself is based on the ability to share an image and a message widely and instantaneously. No communication capacity—no sharing of image and message—no celebrity. See what I mean?

My writer’s awareness, and hopefully my readers’ awareness, of this interdependence between technology and human events deepens as the novel progresses. Lindbergh’s life changes forever on that day. His quiet mechanic’s life is exchanged for a life in the flashbulbs of reporter’s cameras and a lack of privacy that he finds deeply disturbing. He accepts a job with the government, marries the Ambassador to Mexico’s daughter, and they have a son, Charlie Junior. Craving some sort of “normal” family life (for they are, in fact, the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of their time), they build a weekend home in the woods of rural Hopewell, NJ, where they escape the demands of their celebrity status as often as possible.


first ransom note

first ransom note

Then, one windy night, March 1st, 1932, the Lindbergh’s nanny goes into the child’s bedroom to check on him and finds an empty crib. Between the hours of 7:30 and 10pm, someone placed a home-made wooden ladder against the side of the Lindbergh’s house, climbed into the child’s bedroom, lifted him out of the crib, put him into a sack, climbed down the ladder holding the sack, and drove off. They left the ladder, muddy footprints, and the first in series of more than a dozen ransom notes.

This is human tragedy at its most intense—and yet all of it is true. And all of it, the kidnapping and the way the criminal investigation unfolds in the months to come (I would argue,) happens because of the presence–and the lack of–technology. Lindbergh’s historic flight, his immediate and ubiquitous fame, and the hunger of the American public for news of any kind to distract them from their daily worries during the Great Depression, combine to create a media frenzy around this event. That’s one view. You can say, I think, that Lindbergh’s fame (unwelcomed and unwanted as it was) made his first-born son the target of a heinous crime.


And yet . . . it took more than two years for the local, state, and federal investigators to locate and apprehend a suspect. Today, with advanced methods of fingerprinting, chemical testing, and DNA analysis, a detective could send a stray hair from the

Lindebergh case files at NJ State Police Museum

Lindebergh case files at NJ State Police Museum

baby’s nursery floor to the crime lab in Trenton, and be knocking on the suspect’s door in less than a day. Period. End of case. But because there existed very few reliable scientific methods of doing criminal investigation at that time (especially because the crime scene was not immediately quarantined and members of the household trafficked through the room and the house for hours after the kidnapping occurred) based on physical evidence, and because no one actually SAW who climbed into that window on that windy night in 1932, this case, and the subsequent execution of the suspect Bruno R. Hauptmann, the German carpenter accused of kidnapping and murdering “Little Charlie,” continues to be the subject of fierce debate.

This is just one example of how human history and technology are enmeshed, intertwined and interdependent. I could cite dozens more, just from my own novels and biographies. As Sarah pointed out in her initial post for this blog, many of us who write or who teach writing for a living, do not consider the humanities and the sciences as separate entities; on the contrary, as we research our topics and create characters, settings, and dialogue for stories spanning the decades and centuries, we’re constantly made aware of their interdependent nature. In doing my research, I cross back and forth over innumerable imaginary boundaries between disciplines that our educational system classifies as either an art/ humanity or a science. In reality, however, these boundaries are blurry waves of light— moveable, overlapping, and often indistinguishable.




profilephotoJen Bryant writes biographies, poetry, picture books, and fiction, including the novels Pieces of Georgia and Kaleidoscope Eyes and the picture book biography A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, illustrated by Melissa Sweet and awarded a Caldecott Honor. Jen and Melissa have recently collaborated on A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, about the self-taught African American painter who was also a wounded WWI veteran. A graduate of Gettysburg College, Jen grew up in Flemington, NJ but now lives in Pennsylvania with her family. To learn more: jenbryant.com

Full STEAM Ahead is Back Tomorrow!

After a brief holiday break, Full STEAM Ahead will be back tomorrow.  Our special guest will be Jen Bryant, prolific author!


I am also looking to line up more authors for Full STEAM Ahead.  Are you an author with a book that involves science, technology, engineering, or math in some capacity?  I’d love to hear from you!  Please email me- thereadingzone @ gmail(dot) com if you are interested!

Full STEAM Ahead with Chris Howard

Full STEAM Ahead


Chris Howard, author of ROOTLESS ...

I am thrilled that Chris Howard, author of the fascinating Rootless is here today for Full STEAM Ahead.  I first read Rootless a few months ago and fell in love with the world Chris built.  As I read, I was swept into Banyan’s world, full of mechanical trees, pirates, and genetically-modified corn.  I had nightmares about locusts with a taste for human flesh.  And I wanted my own mechanical tree.  Thankfully, we still have real trees so mine would only serve as decoration.

When I finished the book, I found myself thinking about the genetically-modified corn that plays such a big part in the book.  I first heard about genetically-modified food during my first-year composition course at Rutgers, when our TA had us read an article about the Monsanto Company.  I’ve kept tabs on them since that time (2001) and it amazes me that science continues to progress but that humanity has not come to a consensus on genetically modified crops.  Talk about a human issue!  Are genetically-modified crops safe for human consumption?  How do they affect the ecosystem around them? Do they disrupt pollinators? Do they contribute to climate change? How do they affect the economy?

My first-year composition course was through the English department, but my TA was a science minor.  I was lucky to have a TA who shared my interest in STEM and he brought that passion into our writing class.  Debating the Monsanto Company’s policies was a great intro to argumentative writing and helped many of my classmates dive into science when they might have avoided it in the past.  And I think Chris Howard’s book can do the same.  It brings up big questions about climate change, conservation, human progress, and genetically-modified crops that will keep readers thinking long after they finish the book.

I had a few questions for Chris Howard and he was kind enough to answer them for today’s edition of Full STEAM Ahead.

Hi Chris!  First, I am wondering- What made you focus on trees? Did writing Rootless involve any extensive research on tree species or anything like that?

My background is in ecology and environmental sciences. I studied Natural Resources Management at Colorado State University, before working for the National Park Service, teaching Forest Ecology, and leading wilderness adventure trips for teenagers. I took a lot of classes in college about trees and forests, and my love for them, as well as my education, certainly informed the writing of the book. The initial idea for ROOTLESS came when I was hiking in the mountains of Colorado and found myself surrounded by lodgepole pine trees devastated by the Mountain Pine Beetle (a big problem in certain areas of our state). I started to imagine a world where every tree, as well as all the plants and grasses and animals, had been wiped out by insects. That initial idea led to a fantastical story, but it’s definitely rooted in my scientific background 🙂

And what about the mechanics of building trees? Where did that idea come from? It must have STEM roots somewhere along the way. 🙂

Banyan (the main character who builds trees from scrap-metal until he uncovers a clue to the whereabouts of the last living trees) certainly has strong engineering skills. His forests are not just beautiful works of art, but real feats of ingenuity: towering above the dusty plains, his trees come to life at night with elaborate lighting, and the branches and leaves create music as they turn in the wind. I must admit, I have no idea how to build such forests myself! But there are people out there who do! Check out this guy!

And I think this is fascinating – these huge new artificial trees in Singapore generate solar power, act as air-venting ducts for nearby conservatories, and collect rainwater.  

The idea of a “tree builder” occurred to me almost as soon as I imagined a world without trees or nature… I thought people would build trees as a way to remember the world that once was.

Finally, I’d love to hear more about the GenTech corn in Rootless. Did you spend a lot of time researching genetically modified food? Do you have any thoughts on GM food in our world?

You know, GenTech and the corn are, at the end of the day, intended as metaphors. But as soon as I imagined locusts consuming everything in their path, I pictured one thing surviving: genetically engineered corn. I imagined it becoming the only source of food and fuel. And I imagined a single corporation controlling it…

I do believe we’re losing biodiversity as a result of corporations developing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Such companies engineer crops to be resistant to disease, insects, even pesticides. Then they slap patents on their GM seeds and release them into the environment where they outcompete and interbreed with non-GMOs, reducing biodiversity and increasing the patent-holders’ control over our food supply.

It’s too serious a subject to play around with in story-form and not do any research. And one of the most interesting things I found was this “super worm” that’s evolved to be able to resist the pesticides that Monsanto has put INSIDE corn. The GM corn in question is engineered to produce a protein that’s fatal to the rootworms that ingest it. Yet pesticide-resistant rootworms are now showing up – outsmarting the genetic engineering that was supposed to keep them away. That’s similar to how the all-consuming locusts in ROOTLESS evolved in response to GenTech’s corn.

It’s a very complicated issue, but I hope ROOTLESS will inspire some readers to think about the potential dangers that can arise when we overly-manipulate the natural world. To me, it’s not so much about the science, it’s what we do with it that’s important.



17-year-old Banyan is a tree builder. Using salvaged scrap metal, he creates forests for rich patrons who seek a reprieve from the desolate landscape. Although Banyan’s never seen a real tree–they were destroyed more than a century ago–his missing father used to tell him stories about the Old World.

Everything changes when Banyan meets a mysterious woman with a strange tattoo, a map to the last living trees on earth, and he sets off across a wasteland from which few return. Those who make it past the pirates and poachers can’t escape the locusts . . . the locusts that now feed on human flesh.

But Banyan isn’t the only one looking for the trees, and he’s running out of time. Unsure of whom to trust, he’s forced to make an alliance with Alpha, an alluring, dangerous pirate with an agenda of her own. As they race towards a promised land that might only be a myth, Banyan makes shocking discoveries about his family, his past, and how far people will go to bring back the trees.


Before he wrote stories, Chris Howard wrote songs, studied natural resources management, and led wilderness adventure trips for teenagers. He currently lives in Denver, CO, and ROOTLESS is his first novel. Join him at http://www.chrishowardbooks.com/