STEM isn’t just for him: an interview with Meghan McCarthy

Photo: Meghan McCarthy

One of the biggest stories in children’s publishing this year has been the success of books empowering young women. Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo’s “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls,” a set of 100 brief biographies of unstoppable women, is among the highest circulating children’s books at the library this year, and similar titles like Chelsea Clinton’s “She Persisted,” and Rachel Ignotofsky’s “Women in Science” have recently joined “Rebel Girls” on the New York Times bestseller list.

I’ve enjoyed reading these books to my daughter and son, but even more we love the work of author/illustrator Meghan McCarthy, who has been telling stories of women and science for over a decade and was kind enough recently to answer a few questions about her work.

Q You’ve written several books about inventors of commonly used items such as (bubble gum and earmuffs). Have you always been interested in inventions, or invented anything yourself?

A I’m sending images from a booklet I made as a kid. I think this will answer your question.

Photo: Meghan McCarthy

Q Animal heroes are another common theme in your writing (Balto the sled dog, Seabiscuit the race horse, and Pale Male the city hawk). How have your relationships with animals enriched your own life?

A As a kid I rescued injured animals … or at least tried to. I brought an injured wild rabbit home once, multiple birds, turtles, you name it. What upset me is that those wild animals were injured because of human encroachment on once-wild spaces. I felt a responsibility to do something.

I’ve also had a number of pets. I grew up with our family cat Molly, who lived for 20 years. My current cat, named Lily, makes me laugh. She’s kind of crazy, but I like crazy. She’s a good little companion.

Q When you were a child, would you have predicted your future career as a children’s book creator? How did you start on this path, and who are some of your greatest influences?

A When I was in elementary school I remember starting a contest with my neighbor: who could get published first. I was convinced that I could create a picture book like Chris Van Allsburg and get it published. I really thought I could do whatever I wanted.

After college graduation, I had a different attitude. I realized how tough the competition was and how hard it was to get noticed and I convinced myself that I’d never publish anything. That’s when I got a job delivering pizzas.

One big artistic influence in my life is my dad. He taught me how to draw and paint. He went to art school for a year but unfortunately could not complete his art education. The Vietnam War was in full swing, and both students and teachers stopped attending class in protest. My dad was then forced to go back to work as a social worker. But he never stopped painting. I’d watch in awe as he painted and tried my best to copy him.

My mom and grandmother were also very encouraging. Without that encouragement, I may not have kept working on my art.

Q What are your all-time favorite books?

A I don’t have any favorites. It’s too hard to choose just a couple because there are so many great books out there. I’m really into reading graphic novels at the moment — especially memoirs. I have hope that one day I’ll be able to publish my own. If I had to pick one book that I loved as a kid and still love today it would be “Where the Wild Things Are.” I know that’s an obvious pick but the text and art work so well together that I have to say that’s top on my list.

Q So much of your work takes place in arenas traditionally dominated by men — (space travel, sports, inventions). What advice do you have for the next generation of “rebel girls”?

A My advice is to do what you love. If you love dresses, then great, be a fashion designer. If you love sports, then become a sports announcer. I don’t think there should be boundaries.

A memory from my childhood comes to mind. When I was a kid, I loved playing baseball. I was too old for little league, so the next step for girls was to start playing softball. I didn’t want to do that, so I tried out for an all-boys baseball team in the minor leagues.

My dad said that one of the coaches at the tryouts told him that I shouldn’t be there because the sport was for boys only. My dad let me try out anyway and I got onto a team. I was the only girl playing in the league. I had fun playing, and no one seemed to take issue with my presence because I proved my worth.

So if you’re a girl and really want to do a “boy thing,” then go do it. But I think it’s a lot better to prove the naysayers wrong than to complain yourself. That was Betty Skelton‘s attitude, and that’s why I liked her story so much.

— Dan Coleman is a collection development librarian at the Lawrence Public Library