Today is National STEM/STEAM day, so on the Math Is Everywhere blog, we have a super special guest: Ishta Mercurio!
In honor of this wonderful holiday, Ishta has been kind enough to offer a SIGNED copy of her newest picture book, Small World, check out the end of the post for details.
Ishta Mercurio is an author and actor. Raised in Cincinnati, she has traveled to England, Scotland, Italy, France, and all over the United States. She now lives in Brampton, Ontario, where she films and photographs plants and wildlife, from the tall to the small, in her backyard. Small World is her debut picture book.
Ishta, thank you so much for joining me today on the Math Is Everywhere Blog. It’s so great having a fellow STEM-minded woman on the blog, especially today on National STEM/STEAM day!
Kaitlyn: Small World is an absolutely beautiful book, what inspired you to write it?
Ishta: Just like Nanda, the main character, I was in a plane. (I wasn’t flying it, though!) I looked down at the water beneath me, and started thinking about all the creatures swimming along down there, and how many there were, and how big they would be if I were in a boat but how I couldn’t see them at all from my vantage point in a plane 35,000 feet up. And I wanted to unpack that a little–the idea that the world is so vast and so rich and so full of wonders, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s just one planet hurtling through the Universe. I wanted to explore how a child might come to terms with those seemingly contradictory ideas–that the Earth is both big and small at the same time–and make sense of them.
Kaitlyn: I think you definitely accomplished what you set out to. I really like that you addressed that in your author’s note, which I ADORE your author’s note just as much as the book. At the end of the note, you ask your readers some questions, ending with the most powerful: “What do you want the world to look like?” I’d love for you to share what you want the world to look like.
Ishta: Oh, gosh. What a big question!
I want boundaries to disappear: social boundaries, economic boundaries, and political boundaries. I want every child to have equal access to opportunities, and to be given whatever they need to achieve their dreams, which means supporting each individual child in different ways because different children need different things. I want a world like the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation, where each person does a job that they find challenging and fulfilling and in return, they are given whatever food and clothing and shelter they need without any talk about the economy. Is that possible? I have to believe that it is.
Kaitlyn: That sounds like an amazing dream. Speaking of dreams, would you like to be like your main character, Nanda, travel to other planets someday?
Ishta: Yes! I’d miss my dog, though.
Kaitlyn: As a math person, I adore that you included shapes, fractals, building, etc., how did you decide which math and science to include?
Ishta: Great question! I love that you asked this because I had Way. Too. Much. Math and science stuff, and I had to leave out a LOT! Deciding what to include was really hard.
In the end, it came down to figuring out what fit within the framework of the story I wanted to tell. I made thumbnails for each page spread in order, like this:
And I made a list of all the mathematical and scientific concepts that I WANTED to include, which was too many, in order from simplest to most complex (which is basically the same order that we learn them in school). And I asked myself what each illustration would look like, what would be visually interesting, what would drive Nanda’s story as she explores mechanical engineering specifically… All those questions. And I let those questions guide my choices.
Kaitlyn: There’s such thing as too much math?! Just kidding. I definitely see you point, and it’s wonderful to hear how logically you worked your way through it. Do you have a favorite math or science concept (like fractals or certain formulas)? If so, which one and why?
Ishta: Ooooh, tough one! I don’t think I can pick just one thing, but I can say this: the thing I love about math and science is that they are nothing more than the way we understand and explain the world around us. “The Fibonacci Sequence” is a really fancy phrase, but it’s just a recognition of a pattern that repeats over and over in nature: in the spiral of a nautilus shell, of the shingles in a pinecone, of the center of a black-eyed Susan. Pi is a number that was derived from repeated measurements of actual circles. Arches are an architectural structure, and there’s math that explains how and why they don’t collapse, but before we uncovered the math, arches existed and we could measure and observe them. This means that science and math aren’t mysterious; they’re accessible to everyone who has the curiosity to go out and explore the world.
Kaitlyn: Yes! You explained the beauty of math so well. In your interview with Matthew Winner, you also spoke very eloquently about how illustrator, Jen Corace, did a wonderful job with the patterns in the book. What other wonderful things did you enjoy about working with Jen to make this book really shine?
Ishta: Gosh, I loved having that conversation so much. I want to echo something Matthew said, which is that the juxtaposition of that almost photorealistic smoke billowing out as the rocket blasts off with the extremely painterly, much more stylized approach in the rest of the spread absolutely blew me away. I don’t think there’s anything Jen can’t do. (You should all go listen to it if you haven’t already. It’s here.)
But as far as working with Jen goes, I didn’t! There’s a rule in publishing that most of the time, the writer and illustrator aren’t allowed to talk to one another while the illustrator is working on the book. It might seem weird, but if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense: I’m not an artist, so any ideas I have are liable to be less original than what an illustrator would come up with. But if I share my ideas, they might get stuck in an illustrator’s brain–sort of like when I write a terrible draft, but the longer I stare at those words, the more firmly fixed they feel. So I gave the manuscript to my editor, and she and the art director gave it to Jen, and the three of them talked amongst themselves while I left them alone to do their thing.
Kaitlyn: Yes, what a great reminder. I know some people have mixed feelings, but most authors I’ve spoken with say only the best about writers and artists working separately to create an exquisite book. Your first book that you wrote with Kari-lynn Winters is an awesomely educational book about bloodsucking creatures and how we need them in our ecosystem. What prompted you to write such an interesting book?
Ishta: I love learning new things, and I loved the idea of sharing that with kids. And I’ve always had a thing for vampires, real and otherwise. They’re fascinating!
Kaitlyn: I agree bloodsuckers are fascinating, just like your job history. It’s incredibly well-rounded and diverse, can you share what you’ve enjoyed most about some of them and how they’ve helped you in this next phase of being a writer?
Ishta: I’ve always loved story, and I’ve always been fascinated by how children develop from brand new tiny humans to full-fledged adults with opinions and interests and ideas about how the world works, and how it should work. Working with young kids taught me a lot about how we process emotion and how we see the world when we’re young, and I learned to have an immense respect for the minds and hearts of children. I couldn’t write well if I didn’t have that.
Kaitlyn: Working with kids is amazing and definitely gives good insight into writing for them. Do you have any other insight or advice you’d like to share with writers based on your experience with writing, editing, and marketing your books?
Ishta: Writing is about finding the right combination of holding on, and letting go. Hold on to the heart of your story, and hold on to your desire to tell a story well. Let go of everything else.
Kaitlyn: So well said! I think I’m going to print that out and put it on my wall. Finally, if you could spend the day with your favorite author, would you rather go outside and fly a kite or sit by a fire with tea?
Ishta: I’m a go-with-the-flow person, so I’d let them decide. Unless the weather was terrible.
Sounds lovely! Thanks so much again for joining us today, Ishta.
For those of you who haven’t read Small World yet, here is my review:
Small World is a beautiful and empowering picture book. Through it’s lovely pictures and lyrical language, this story follows a strong girl whose world starts small and grows with her as she achieves one amazing thing after another. This book is one that everyone should have on their bookshelves to remind readers and listeners that our world is all about perspective and that we can do anything we set our minds to. –Kaitlyn Leann Sanchez
Find Ishta and Small World on the web:
For those of you who would like to get in on the giveaway for Small World, (US only) make sure to follow Ishta and me on Twitter and comment on this blog post. You can get an extra entry if you share retweet this Tweet on Twitter and tag both Ishta and I in it.
Thank you all for joining us and happy STEAM day!