Geometry is one of my favorite math units to teach in kindergarten. Kindergartners mold playdough shapes for ages, chatter about sides and vertices, and become suddenly fascinated with rectangular tiles—tiles, people! And the books! We have enough shape books in our classroom library to fill a big ole’ basket. But can I resist adding one more?
Of course not! Especially when it comes to AGAIN, ESSIE? by Jenny Lacika and Teresa Martínez. First of all, unlike most geometry-focused picture books, in this one, 3-D shapes are the stars. Though they are not named in the text, my students will gladly name them for you, mostly because “rectangular prism” is just fun to say.
In AGAIN, ESSIE? Rafael just wants to keep his baby sister, Essie, away from his toys. He builds a wall from objects he finds at home, thinking about how to orient and organize them, taking size and balance into consideration. As he does this, Rafael learns about not just math, but about empathy and inclusivity.
Jenny Lacika is here with us today to talk about the creation of this book.
SA: Welcome, Jenny! Thank you for being here on Picture Book Builders today!
Can you share what sparked the idea for AGAIN, ESSIE and how this story became a part of the Charlesbridge Storytelling Math series?
JL: Thank you so much for having me! I saw a call for submissions for math-based picture books with a cultural element and knew I had to submit something. My husband and I are both MIT grads, so I was already interested in ways to get our kids engaged in math, and the series goals aligned wonderfully with my personal goals of making math fun and relevant for kids. AGAIN, ESSIE? was inspired by my own experience as a sibling, and the same challenges and joys emerging in my own kids. The push and pull of sibling dynamics had just enough tension for the series.
SA: What tips do you have for writers interested in merging narrative writing and STEM elements?
JL: I wrote AGAIN, ESSIE? specifically for the Storytelling Math series, but this was not the first manuscript I submitted to the series. I had several others that were not acquired, but I learned a lot in the process of writing and editing those stories. I think the main thing I learned is that story comes first. I went into those first few manuscripts knowing what mathematical concept I wanted to address, but couldn’t quite create a story that fit seamlessly around that. Working the other way, starting with a story framework, helped the math fit in more organically and playfully. But I didn’t give up on those other mathematical concepts, I kept them in mind as I worked on new stories, and thought about new ways to fit them into my writing.
SA: The back matter includes an author’s note and glossary from you, AND a note on the math in the text and suggested activities by Teresa Lara-Meloy, a math educator. Can you talk about how this back matter was developed? Were the author’s note and glossary always a part of the manuscript or did this evolve after the manuscript was acquired?
JL: This series has a goal of showing that all kids can be mathematical thinkers, by expanding the idea of what mathematical thinking looks like and also expanding the image of mathematical thinkers to include historically marginalized communities. Each book in the series has a note from the author and a math extension note from an early childhood math expert.
My author’s note was added after the manuscript was acquired, but the general idea was already present in the manuscript. I wanted to address the idea of belonging in the context of my experience as a Chicana, and particularly a Chicana in STEM. The author’s note adds some historical context.
SA: What do you hope readers take away from AGAIN, ESSIE?
JL: I have a couple things I hope readers take away: that math can be fun, that it’s okay to make mistakes, and that sometimes people are not what you expect.
SA: I enjoyed how layered this book is and all of these things that you mention came up when my kindergartners discussed your book. It also inspired some block building later that day, when children turned over the bins that hold the building materials and incorporated them in their structure. This is not something that I see regularly and I think they got that idea from Rafael and of course, you!
So, what’s next for you as an author?
JL: Thank you so much for sharing your experience with your students! I am excited that AGAIN, ESSIE? is coming out in a Spanish bilingual edition in October, and I feel so fortunate to have more picture books in the works for 2024 and beyond. I have several more with math as a core element, but also some nonfiction and a book I am so excited has already been announced, a lyrical celebration of lowriders and the cultural importance they hold in Chicano communities called TAKE PRIDE IN THE RIDE, with Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Congratulations on all of these projects! I will be keeping my eyes out for them.
Jenny is giving away a copy of AGAIN, ESSIE? to one lucky Picture Book Builders reader. Comment below by June 30th to enter. For an extra entry, tweet this post and tag @sara_h_ackerman and @JennyLacika. U.S. domestic addresses only please.
Thank you, Jenny, for this generous offer!
And congratulations to Susan Benton for winning a copy of HIDDEN ANIMAL COLORS by Jane Park in last month’s giveaway.