Cincy is Creative: Mary Kay Carson's science-meets-adventure books inspire kids to read, explore

CINCINNATI - Cincinnati and the greater Tri-State region are home to people who excel in artistic and other creative disciplines. Each week, we focus on a creative individual who is bringing new perspectives to our lives and enriching our cultural diversity.

Mary Kay Carson

WHAT: Author of nonfiction books for children
WHERE: Home office in Cincinnati
LATEST: “Park Scientists: Gila Monsters, Geysers, and Grizzly Bears in America’s Own Backyard”
GREATEST: “Emi and the Rhino Scientist”

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have a job studying nature and wildlife at Yellowstone National Park? Or have you wondered if any other planets exist beyond our solar system? These are the types of questions Mary Kay Carson addresses in the nonfiction books she researches and writes for young readers.

Since becoming a freelance writer in 1994, Carson has written more than 30 books for kids and teachers about space, weather, animals, and social studies topics such as the Underground Railroad and the Wright Brothers.

Carson, who has a degree in biology, knows that even very young children are eager to learn about animals and nature. To help get more students interested in science, she finds fun and creative ways to stimulate their innate fascination with the world around us.

Two of her most recent works are:

  • “Beyond the Solar System: Exploring Galaxies, Black Holes, Alien Planets and More,” released by Chicago Review Press (2013)
  • “The Bat Scientists,” published by Houghton Mifflin (2010)

In “Beyond the Solar System,” Carson outlines the history of our knowledge of astronomy and how it has advanced to the point that scientists now have telescopic proof of planets orbiting stars outside our solar system.

“Bat Scientists” documents how Dr. Merlin Tuttle and his colleagues at Bat Conservation International work to save bats from threats such as White-nose Syndrome is infecting and killing millions of hibernating bats in North America.

Research on location

Except for her space exploration books, Carson does most of her research on location. She interviews scientists in various fields, then explains their work in terms that young audiences can understand.

For the past few years, she has been collaborating on books with her husband Tom Uhlman . He is an experienced freelance photojournalist and videographer who enjoys photographing everything from mother bats in a Texas cave and geologists on the slopes of a volcano in Indonesia to kids and pets in backyards and CEOs in office settings.

Uhlman not only shoots photos to illustrate the print versions of Carson's books, he also supplies extra photos and videos for interactive ebook editions. Plus, he produces the book trailers that help promote the books online.

Carson’s next book, “Park Scientists,” is scheduled to be released by Harcourt Brace Company in mid-May. In this work, she compares America’s National Parks to giant, nationally protected outdoor laboratories in which scientists can conduct long-term research on everything from “salamanders the size of thumbnails to gigantic, geothermal geysers.”

In addition to profiling the scientists monitoring the large volcano that exists beneath Yellowstone, Carosn and Uhlman followed park scientists who are studying grizzly bears in Yellowstone, Sagauro catci in Arizona, and fireflies in Tennessee.

Carson says the book’s “science-meets-adventure” approach lets kids see that “not all scientists stay in the laboratory or work in front of a computer all day.”

From biology to books

After returning from the Peace Corps and studying science writing at New York University, Carson started her writing career on the editorial staff of SuperScience, a classroom magazine published by Scholastic, Inc. While writing science news and feature stories, she got insights into the topics that book publishers seek.

Since the mid-1990s, she has worked with publishers such as Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, Sterling, HarperCollins, Enslow, and Chicago Review Press. Carson's books have been honored by the American Library Association and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Her book "Beyond the Solar System" one of 20 books chosen for the 2015 and 2016 "Choose to Read Ohio"  (CTRO)  book list project of the State Library of Ohio, Ohioana Library Association, and Ohio Center for the Book. CTRO encourages libraries, schools, families, and book clubs to build communities of readers and an appreciation of Ohio authors, illustrators, and literature.

On April 6, Carson was one of four panelists who discussed “The Writer’s Life,” at an event at The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (pictured above, second from right). The event recognized the 109 Hamilton County authors who had books published in 2013. It was sponsored by the Ohioana Library Association which collects, preserves, and promotes the written works of Ohio’s authors, artists, and musicians.

Coming up with ideas for books isn’t a

problem, Carson told the audience: “My inspiration is the world around me.” As she writes each book, she gets additional ideas for future books.

A busy life in research, writer

In any given week, this busy writer works on multiple projects. In addition to researching, writing, and revising manuscripts, she must promote new releases and propose future projects.

Carson and Uhlman recently returned from Arizona, where they did research for a book about the Biosphere 2 earth-systems science-research facility operated by the University of Arizona. After the biosphere book, Carson plans to write about the Pluto.

She feels fortunate to get assignments from publishers, while also pitching book ideas of her own. All the technology-driven changes that have disrupted the publishing business have made it more difficult for newcomers to get published by the consolidated, major firms.

“I was lucky to break in when I did,” Carson said.

As an author, Carson strives to appeal to a child’s sense of wonder. She approaches each book like putting together a puzzle. The scientists she meets talk to her like a fellow scientist. But when she writes, she must closely examine each sentence and paragraph to make sure they don’t contain terms that a child under age 12 might not understand.

In striving to simplify technical terms, it can be very easy to make factual errors. Before each book goes to press, Carson verifies accuracy with her sources.

To stay in touch with young readers, Carson makes school visits with presentations on a topics ranging from writing and publishing to bats, tornadoes, or the Wright Brothers.

Her most popular presentations have titles such as “Why Are These Animals So Weird?” and “Ride the Underground Railroad.” So far in 2014, Carson has been busier with presentations than last year. She believes there is a resurgence of interest in nonfiction, possibly because of the new Common Core standards. Details on how to schedule presentations for your school, library, or organization are posted on her website.

“The culture of books and reading is alive and well in schools,” she said. “At least the ones I’ve visited.”

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(Photos by Tom Uhlman)

Follow WCPO Contributor Eileen Fritsch on Twitter: @EileenFritsch

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