Neuroscientist mom writes inclusive science adventure book for kids

In the spring of 2017, Theanne Griffith was a new mother on maternity leave with her first baby girl, is hard. Breastfeeding is more difficult than Griffith imagined, and sleep deprivation is no joke. Still, the hiatus from her daunting assignment as a postdoctoral neuroscientist at Columbia University gave her some time to think.

Throughout her life, Griffith had two consistent hobbies: science and books. She had always dreamed of becoming a children’s book author – a goal that had been put on hold as her scientific career flourished. But why would she let this happen?

“I remember sitting on the couch, breastfeeding my 1-month-old and thinking, ‘Theanne, you know what, just do this,'” Griffith, 34, told TODAY Parents. “I created a website and changed my Twitter handle Say I’m a children’s book author. …I just give it my all.

Those ambitious moves — which, in hindsight, Griffith attributed to ‘postpartum hormones’ — turned out to be accidental: A Random House children’s book editor spotted Griffith’s tweet account, and coldly called her to write a series of science-themed chapter books for young readers, and the Great Makers series was born.

Theanne Griffith was working on one of her “Magnificent Creators” books while conducting scientific experiments.Courtesy of Theanne Griffith

Griffith’s “Great Makers” book, published this year, tells the story of two great science-loving friends – Violet and Pablo – who are transported to another world, where they embark on an epic journey together adventures to solve scientific problems. Each book explores a different topic—such as ecosystems, brain biology, and the senses—while also addressing issues such as managing failure, demonstrating teamwork, demonstrating courage, and overcoming jealousy. As each story progresses, the third-grade characters begin to realize how curious, cunning, and smart they are.

“These are interesting novels set in science,” Griffith said. “Kids end up learning about science without even realizing they’re learning it because it’s baked into the story.”

Theanne Griffith’s daughter Violeta embraces the first book in Griffith’s “Magnificent Makers” series.Courtesy of Theanne Griffith

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On each adventure, Pablo, Violet, and their accompanying classmates solve puzzles and enter the “Maker’s Labyrinth,” a wonderful laboratory filled with robots, anti-gravity chambers, strange plants, Creepy bugs and more. Access to the Maker Maze was granted by Dr. Crisp, a tall woman with iridescent hair, bright purple pants, and a white lab coat—a modern-day Ms. Frizzle, the Science teacher in “Magic School Bus” books.

“Dr. Crisp is an eccentric scientist leading the way, but she lets kids do science by proxy,” Griffith explained, noting that she named Dr. Crisp after her CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology.

Theanne Griffith with her two young daughters, Violeta and Lila.
Theanne Griffith with her two young daughters, Violeta and Lila.Courtesy of Theanne Griffith

Illustrated chapter books tailored for 7- to 10-year-olds who can read independently are also popular read-aloud books for parents of 4- and 5-year-olds.

And, during remote learning during the global pandemic, the Great Maker books are a boon for parents looking to help their kids with science projects using things they may already have at home. Each book includes DIY instructions for hands-on projects, such as building a rubber band power boat, modeling an eardrum, or baking a “brain” (a brain-shaped cake)—and parents are eating it.

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In the book, Violet is a bubbly black girl with wild curly hair, and Pablo is a thoughtful and down-to-earth Latino boy with a variety of classmates who risk their adventures with qualities that might make them feel different. For example, in Harnessing the Sound Waves, the third book in the series, a character named Henry is on the autism spectrum and processes senses differently than other children.

“Kids end up learning about science without even realizing they’re learning it because it’s integrated into the story,” says scientist and author Theanne Griffith of the “Great Creators” children’s book series.Courtesy of Theanne Griffith

“I want everyone to feel the impact of these books,” Griffith said. “I don’t know if I have real words to express what it means to me to see brown and black kids reading science books with characters similar to them. … Seeing white kids reading and not even caring what Violet and Pablo look like , which also made me feel very warm. They also thought it was normal.”

Despite Griffith’s deliberate emphasis on inclusivity in her book, she never places too much emphasis on racial issues in any of her storylines.

“I want these to be carefree, happy books without the burden of racism,” she explained. “I just want these books to prove that science is for everyone, no matter where children come from, what they look like, or what their ethnic background or socioeconomic status are. All children have the potential to become scientists and become really good in science. “

Griffith and her husband, Jorge Contreras, and their two daughters, Violetta, 3, and Lila, 1, earlier this month Moved from New Jersey to Woodland, California. Griffith and her husband are both at UC Davis—Griffith is an assistant professor in the Department of Physiology and Membrane Biology, and Contreras is an associate professor in the same department.

Theanne Griffith with her husband Jorge Contreras and their two daughters Violeta and Lila.
Theanne Griffith with her husband Jorge Contreras and their two daughters Violeta and Lila.Gisele Salazar Photography

The fourth and fifth books in the “Great Makers” series—on germs and space—will be published in fall 2021 and spring 2022. Griffith describes the book series as a “dream come true,” a love letter to her young self, her two daughters, and various children around the world.

“Violetta and Lila, because of you, I’m writing again,” Griffith wrote in her acknowledgements at the end of her third book, “The Magnificent Creator.” “I want kids like you to see themselves on fun and exciting science adventures. I love you both so much.”

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