I’m delighted to have a guest on the blog today – Karen Romano Young. Her debut middle grade HUNDRED PERCENT is out this week, and it’s getting wonderful buzz, including a Kirkus starred review! Here’s a bit about Karen:
Karen Romano Young has dived to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in a tiny submarine, crunched through Arctic ice in an icebreaker, and visited labs, museum workshops, and research institutions across the U.S. to write and draw about science. She was a lead science communications fellow aboard Dr. Robert Ballard’s research ship E/V Nautilus.
Karen has written and/or illustrated more than 30 books for children and is the creator of Humanimal Doodles, a science comic. Her nonfiction books include Try This!and Try This Extreme! (National Geographic). Her fiction work includes The Beetle and Me: A Love Story; the graphic novel Doodlebug: a Novel in Doodles; and Hundred Percent. Her next book for Twenty-First Century Books is The Whale Watchers.
Karen lives with her family in the Connecticut woods. She has not yet traveled to space.
And an extra note – it turns out that Karen and I have lots in common – we’ve both been in submersibles! Here’s Karen:
Congratulations on your Kirkus starred review! Please give us a synopsis of HUNDRED PERCENT.
Thank you so much, Janet. I’m thrilled about the great advance notice HP is getting. This book gets into the secret lives of sixth graders — what it’s really like to deal with lifelong friends in a pivotal year when everything — relationships, bodies, interests — are changing so quickly. Christine Bernadette Gouda — also known as Tink by her family, Chris by her best friend Jackie (who’s trying to help her become cooler), and Hundred Percent by a weird, fascinating boy who calls himself Bushwhack — is looking for how she can be a hundred percent herself in this whirlwind time.
I love books with strong girl protagonists. In what ways do you see Tink as strong – and what are her vulnerabilities?
Tink is so self-conscious it hurts! She just can’t stop noticing where she does or doesn’t fit in, and worries a great deal about what other people think, but she’s also aware that her friends and classmates are in the same situation. It seems like every moment of sixth grade requires a new response, from Halloween to Valentine’s Day to the spring sports season, and Tink messes everything up simply by trying to fix it! Tink is an observer but she’s also a doer. This combination — action and reaction — characterize this book and also lie at the root of Tink’s strength. She’s always evaluating, testing, trying, screwing up, and starting the process over again. It’s tough, because Jackie — cuter, more worldly, and more mature (or so she thinks) — seems to have the answers. That Tink eventually finds a way to stay true to herself and Jackie and Bushwhack is the central struggle of the story.
You’ve written a number of books across age ranges and genres. Do you have a favorite age range – do you feel your voice most easily represents one more than others?
I am clearest on how it feels to be 11 to 15. I remember this time of my life very clearly as a time when the world seemed to be a continuous flow of choices — who and what to try, who and what not to try. When I look back now I feel that the things I did then put me on a path to the rest of my life, and I see that in kids of that age — my own kids and other kids I have met and worked with as a teach science, writing, and art. There is an openness and opportunity at this age that speaks strongly to me as a writer. I have immense respect for the intellectual capabilities and emotional response of middle graders, middle schoolers, and early high schoolers, and I want to write books — whether novels or nonfiction, graphic fiction or graphic nonfiction, that reflect the potential I see.
You’re also an illustrator. Please talk about how you balance your talents.
Uh, whoops — I fell over! Just kidding, but this balancing act is still a work-in-progress. My intention has always been to multitask between fiction and nonfiction, and I have now added graphic novels and science comics (short and long form), as well as ocean science outreach and education aboard ships! Whew. It’s exhilarating and I’m so pleased with all the different strands that my work follows. The balancing strategy is to let them take turns, to follow the projects that obsess me at any given moment, but also to gently add to and work on back-burner projects until they reach critical mass and begin to obsess me, too. I feel like I’m answering this question by showing how I don’t balance. But I’m happy with it so it must be okay!
Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
Yes! A full-length graphic nonfiction book about deep sea explorations; a novel about a girl who grows up in a library; a conventional nonfiction book about how whale scientists and citizen scientist whale fans and whale watchers are teaming up to advance our understanding of how whales live.
Bonus question: what’s your superpower?
I’m not afraid to be a total geek. I encourage you and anyone else to geek out on the thing or things in life that made you want to jump out of bed in the morning and shout hooray — and to be the opposite of shy about sharing not just the subject of your passion but the fact that you are madly, deeply passionate about it.
Karen, I enjoyed reading your story and can’t wait to get a copy of your new book.
How did you get into illustrating? I have a very talented daughter that I would like to help in this area.
Thank you Janet for sharing!
You’re welcome, Cindy! I’ll direct your comment to Karen. 🙂
Hi Cindy! Thanks for this question. I’m proof that you don’t have to go a traditional route to illustration. I didn’t go to art school and haven’t had much formal training at all, besides tool chest courses like Photoshop and InDesign. I’m primarily a writer, but I’ m a highly visual thinker, so I tend to see my books and the way text flows with illustrations, photos, etc. About ten years ago I was working on developing a nonfiction book with a strong illustration element. Since the text couldn’t exist separately from the art, I created a dummy for my book, using rough (I mean, REALLY rough) sketches and collaging in photographs. The editors ended up asking me to do more — initially some sketches and then the whole book. That turned into ACROSS THE WIDE OCEAN, and it got my gears turning. From that point on I have had strong opinions about visuals and how they work with text and other elements to tell stories or give information. I’ve turned my hand to graphic novels and now graphic nonfiction — and have begun doing more traditional illustration for a chapter book that’s under way.
I often wish I had gone to art school. It would have helped me to learn some technical stuff and to see how other people respond to the same text or concepts or assignments. But honestly I have made a life’s work of studying illustration by reading children’s books, and I continue to learn from the work of other illustrators. I wonder whether art school might be more important if I was illustrating other people’s books, but so far I’ve only done my own. I think I’m probably less flexible and light on my feet than someone who was trained, but I’ll never know! For me a big challenge has been learning my way around materials and figuring out what I like to work with. Style follows.
Good luck to your daughter! Draw every day!
Thank you Karen for responding and sharing all the great information. Your story is inspiring and encouraging.