Interview With Shirley Duke and You Can’t Wear These Genes

Big news! Did you know that this week is Shirley Duke’s 100th blog post at SimplyScienceThere’s no better way to celebrate than to review her book You Can’t Wear These Genes. Plus, I am extremely pleased to report Shirley stopped by for an interview. Grab your coffee, tea or hot chocolate, and let’s chat.

About the book:

You Can’t Wear These Genes by Shirley Duke is part of the Let’s Explore Science series from Rourke Publishing. It is a wonderfully concise overview of genetics geared for middle grade students.

What child hasn’t wondered how he or she came to have blue eyes or an extra long second toe? Here’s a book that will reveal the answers. Shirley gives explanations of terms commonly used in genetics, like chromosomes, alleles, and defines what a genome is. Complementing the text are crisp, clear illustrations of important concepts, like the structure of DNA for example. Not only does Shirley review the background of what we know so far in the field of genetics, but she also allows us a glimpse of the future by looking at the Human Genome Project, genetic engineering and cloning.

Interview with Shirley Duke, Author

Shirley, can you tell us how your new book, You Can’t Wear These Genes, came about?

I had just completed and turned in my YA horror, Unthinkable, when an editor contacted me that day and asked if I’d be interested in writing two science books. I had sent writing samples for nonfiction to several places, and this was one of them. Of course I said I would! It was my first time to write science for a series. I started on the research for both books and decided to do the easier topic first. That was Infections, Infestations, and Diseases. Then I tackled the You Can’t Wear These Genes book. I interviewed scientists for the latest data and did a lot of research, since things have progressed since I had genetics in college (and made a C for that course!). It took several editing rounds to get the reading level down to fourth grade and make enough cuts to fit the book’s needs.

What an amazing coincidence that the request came in right after you had completed you last book! I’m not sure diseases would have been an easier topic for me.

At SimplyScience blog, you review exciting new science books and suggest activities to accompany the books. How did your blog get started?

I talked with Anastasia Suen a couple of years ago about blogging and she encouraged me to try it. I said I’d never blog, but ended up taking her blogging course. I was hooked. I’m on a review committee at Texas Women’s University chaired by Dr. Sylvia Vardell and loved all the new science books I saw there. I realized I could combine my love of books and science, and I hoped to inspire an interest in science in some small way. I also wanted to show science as the fun subject I knew and loved.

My SimplyScience blog led me to an invitation to guest blog for NOVA on their “Secret Life of Scientists” website. It’s been lots of fun to do and they interview and show fascinating scientists who have a special life interest outside their science. (See Shirley’s posts at Nova)

You mentioned your interest in science, do you have a scientific background?

I majored in biology and my master’s degree is in education. I taught science and ESL in elementary school, middle school, and high school, and then retired so I could begin writing for children. It took a while to get the first book accepted, but it started my next career.

I recently read at the Cybils website that you would be interested in working on a nonfiction book about mollusks.  Do you have something about mollusks in the works? And I have to ask, what is your favorite mollusk?

I took a nonfiction writing course and researched mollusks. I loved the information I found. While the book I wrote for that class didn’t work out, I saw that there were lots of cephalopod (octopus and squid) and gastropod (snails and slugs) books, but the pelecypods, or bivalves, were underrepresented. So I focused on the bivalves (oysters, clams, scallops, and mussels). What’s not to like about such a delicious group?

My favorite mollusk? I love oysters. I interviewed Dr. Sammy Ray, known as the Texas “oyster man,” who also founded Sea Camp. I also learned that oysters have a glue gland in their single foot and use it to attach to something hard. Also, they are gregarious and settle near other oysters. What a wonderful set of characteristics!

I am working on a science book for the trade nonfiction market. It’s one I discussed with Peachtree, who publish lots of good nonfiction, but it isn’t finished yet. It’s another subject dear to my heart, and will include a short section about mussels and their ability to attach themselves with their “beard” from a special gland to hard surfaces, along with many other curious and fascinating creatures.

That is fascinating. I had to ask, because our family has a fondness for snails and slugs, which I guess can also be delicious. 🙂

You have written an incredible range of books, from a YA horror book, Unthinkable, to nonfiction science like this one, to an adorable fiction picture book, No Bows. Do you have any insights into how you have been able to show such versatility? Do you think it is because you were exposed to children of different ages while you were teaching? Do you think that over time you will settle into one genre or will you continue to look for diverse projects?

I began writing for the YA market, but wrote the picture book during a picture book writing course, also taught by Anastasia Suen. I started sending it out, along with the YA story, but the picture book was accepted. I’d taught in the lower elementary grades, so I was familiar with young children. I was a picture book writer.

Then I had the opportunity to write one horror book in the Night Fall series, a new line in Darby Creek, which is an imprint of Lerner. I’d never written horror, but I’d worked with high school ESL students and taught biology, so I knew that market. I was a YA writer.

All along, I loved science and the two books I wrote confirmed that I enjoyed writing nonfiction. The years I spent teaching science made those books fit. Now I’m a science writer.

I do think teaching in the different levels had something to do with the variety. It seemed natural to change grade levels, but when I look back at my teaching years, I’m surprised that I ended up teaching students in every grade but first! I suppose my restlessness translated to my writing.

I think I’ll keep trying in the genres I’ve worked in so far. Right now, I’m leaning toward science.

I’m happy to hear that. I’ll be looking forward to seeing more of your books.

Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to tell us about?
I’m speaking on a panel of nonfiction authors next summer at the ALA Conference. I was honored to be included with such a well-known group of nonfiction writers and I’m so excited about that presentation. I’ll be featuring You Can’t Wear These Genes (Rourke). I love the titles of my first two science books, but they are a mouthful!

I am also writing two new books for Rourke. I just signed the contract with them and they are both science. I’ll be writing science lessons for another company soon and that’s a new experience as a writer, although I’ve written science lessons for years! I’ll also continue to work on my nonfiction book. Maybe that’s my calling after all.

Thank you for interviewing me. I love your blogs and I am so glad we got to know one another better through our blogging!

I appreciate your willingness to set this up on what was really quite short notice. Enjoy your 100th post and congratulations on all your new books.

(See more about Shirley Duke at her website.)

Be sure to check out You Can’t Wear These Genes.

Reading level: Ages 9-12
Paperback: 48 pages
Publisher: Rourke Publishing (FL) (August 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1615905634
ISBN-13: 978-1615905638

And I have a related post with an activity -Extracting DNA From Strawberries – at Growing with Science


Nonfiction Monday is a blogging celebration of nonfiction books for kids. We invite you to join us. For more information and a schedule, stop by Anastasia Suen’s Nonfiction Monday page. This week’s post is at Shelf-Employed.