Meet the latest super science hero — Alan Turing

My Super Science Heroes is a picture book series for children, ages 4-9, that highlights traits and characteristics — or super powers! — that all children embody.

Each trait is paired with a specific scientist who flexed that super power to great effect in their own life. The books are designed to inspire readers to draw on their own super powers to pursue their goals.

The first book in the series, MARIE CURIE AND THE POWER OF PERSISTANCE, came out last year. It explores moments in Marie’s life that demonstrate the power of persistence and how it played an important role in helping her discover radium and polonium. In her super science hero story, Marie must rely on this persistence to defeat her arch nemesis, Mr. Opposition.

The second book of the series, ALAN TURING AND THE POWER OF CURIOSITY, came out March 1 and looks closely at moments in Alan’s life that highlight his great power of curiosity, focusing on how this power was critical to his ability to decode and solve important questions of his time (and, in the process, lay the groundwork for artificial intelligence). In his story, Alan Turing must face off against the elusive Miss Enigma, whose task is to confound and confuse him every step of the way.

Karla Valenti

Karla Valenti wrote both these stories. Today, she joins Picture Book Builders to tell us how the series came to be.

How did the idea for this picture book series come about? What made you excited about it? 
I was living in Europe at the time when a friend forwarded a call for picture book submissions by a global science association. The Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA) was looking for an author to write a picture book about Marie Curie, but to do so in a way that emphasized how fun and engaging science can be for young people. 

There were already many great biographies of Marie Curie for young children, so I didn’t think there was a need for me to write another one. Rather, I wanted Marie Curie to be a source of inspiration for readers by focusing on how she pursued her dreams (more than on what she actually accomplished). Borrowing from the notion of a growth mindset, the story sought to highlight Marie’s ability to face challenges, persisting in the face of setbacks, and learning from the opposition she encountered in order to ultimately reach what she set out to achieve.

The premise was simple: The story would center on a specific trait, a skill, a super power Marie Curie embodied and which helped her grow into her success. In Marie’s case, that trait was persistence. 

To really demonstrate the power of persistence, I structured the story as a super hero narrative — with Marie Curie as a real-life super hero, using her power of persistence, to overcome her nemesis, a monster aptly named Mr. Opposition. Drawing on select moments of her life, Marie Curie and the Power of Persistence would highlight how she used persistence to reach her dreams.

I submitted the story to the MCAA, and to my great delight, they loved it! Not only that, we decided this should be a series. We selected an illustrator who could partner with us in developing the visuals for this concept (in particular, beloved super hero tropes), and Annalisa Beghelli joined the team. We then began working on an Indiegogo campaign to fund the publication of the book. Before the month was over, we had far exceeded our fundraising goal and (surprise!) Sourcebooks had made us an offer for world rights to the series.

The whirlwind that followed was magical, and MARIE CURIE AND THE POWER OF PERSISTANCE came out in April 2020. We are now launching book two in the My Super Science Heroes series, this time with a focus on the power of curiosity.

The brilliant Alan Turing is our hero, as we focus on select moments in his life that show his unfailing curiosity and how it helped him solve some of the most enigmatic challenges of his time (including battling his nemesis, Miss Enigma, who only speaks in code)!

What makes me most excited about this series is that we are showing (vs telling) the importance of a growth mindset, encouraging children to view themselves as ever-evolving beings, focusing less on the ultimate achievement and more on developing the inherent tools and traits they already have to achieve their dreams.

I especially love the idea of pairing personality traits with scientific success. How did you match up each trait with a scientist? How easy or hard was that?
With Marie Curie, it came about as I did the research for the book. I noticed a common thread that exhibited itself time and again in her personal and professional life — persistence. This showed up so often it seemed almost like a super power (which is how the concept unfolded in the first place)! 

For subsequent books, my co-collaborators at MCAA and I came up with lists of traits we want to showcase and scientists we might be interested in featuring. I did some preliminary research on the short list of scientists with an eye to highlighting the specific traits we are keen to feature. In Alan Turing’s case, it was clear from the very beginning that curiosity played a fundamental role in his life pursuits. And so, he became our next Super Science Hero.

When you write picture book biographies, you have to choose the parts of the person’s life that support the story you’re telling. There’s not room for everything. What cool facts did you learn that did not make it into the books?
Thank you for asking this! You’re right, especially in a book like ours that is not intended to be a comprehensive biography of the scientist. Because we are only looking at certain events in our superheroes’ lives relevant to the specific super power we are studying, a lot will be left out. 

In the case of Alan’s story, one of the defining and very tragic facts of his life that did not relate to curiosity was how greatly he suffered as a result of the criminalization of his homosexuality and the resulting punishment, which contributed to his untimely death (and the loss of a great super science hero) in 1954.

In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an important public (albeit posthumous) apology to Turing on behalf of the British government, announcing: “On behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, I am very proud to say: We’re sorry. You deserved so much better.”

Other interesting facts about Alan: He would chain his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by other staffers, Alan almost became an Olympic athlete, and he created the first computer chess program! 

These books have a science consultant. How did you, as the author, work with her? 
Dr. Micaela Crespo Quesada was my liaison from the very beginning when MCAA ran the call for submissions. The team at MCAA, Annalisa, and I will regularly discuss potential scientists and the traits we think would be good to highlight. Once we agree on a super science hero, I will write the story. My editor at Sourcebooks will then coordinate with Micaela and the MCAA team, making sure all the information is accurate. 

How do you hope families and schools will use these books? What do you want readers to take away?
I hope readers will be inspired by the superheroes in these books, seeing themselves in these characters, the challenges the super science heroes faced, and the tools they can leverage to succeed.  

How many books will be in the series? Which other scientists will be featured?
The series is open-ended at the moment, and we haven’t yet determined the next scientist.

What else would you like readers to know?
One thing I love about this series is that a portion of all sales supports the many research projects funded by the Marie Curie Alumni Association (with more than 17,000 researchers world-wide). It is a real privilege to partner with them and promote the development of so many important scientific endeavors. 

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10 Comments:

  1. Congrats, Karla! Such a great series idea!

  2. What an empowering series for kids! Congratulations!!

  3. Pairing superhero traits with a scientists is so brilliant! Total kid-appeal written all over it. I’m so happy it’s a series! I can’t wait to see who’s next after Marie Curie and Alan Turing. Pat and Karla, thank you for a wonderful interview. Congratulations Karla!!!

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    Jilanne F Hoffmann

    Looks like the start of a great series! And such a fantastic and creative way to approach biography! Congrats!

  5. Interesting books and thanks for sharing how they came to be. Congrats, Karla!

  6. These sound perfect for our readers at school.

  7. Karla, what a great series! I wish I had books like yours when I was a kid.

  8. Focusing on a single trait seems inspired. Congrats, Karla!

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    Pamela Harrison

    I love your first book in this series and so do my grandchildren. What a creative way to tell the story and include the the superpower that helped Marie Curie succeed! Not only is her story interesting, but it is such fun to read. I can’t wait to read your new book.

  10. These books look great. And such an interesting collaborative process. Congratulations, Karla!

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