Neuroscientist mom writes science adventure books for all kinds of kids

During this time of remote learning, the books are a boon for moms and dads who want to help their kids do creative science projects.
/ Source: TODAY

In the spring of 2017, Theanne Griffith was a new mom on maternity leave with her first baby girl, Violeta. It was hard. Breastfeeding was so much more challenging than Griffith ever expected, and sleep deprivation was no joke. Still, the pause from her demanding role as a postdoctoral neuroscientist at Columbia University gave her some time to think.

All her life, Griffith had two consistent loves: science and books. She’d always dreamed of becoming a children’s book author — a goal that kept being put on hold as her scientific career flourished. Why was she letting that happen, though?

“I remember sitting there on my couch, breastfeeding my 1-month-old, and I thought, ‘Theanne, you know what, just do it,’” Griffith, 34, told TODAY Parents. “I started a website and changed my Twitter handle to say I was a children’s book writer. ... I just went full throttle ahead.”

Those ambitious moves — which Griffith attributes in hindsight to “postpartum hormones” — turned out to be fortuitous: An editor from Random House Children’s Books spotted Griffith’s Twitter handle and cold-called her about writing a series of science-themed chapter books for young readers, and “The Magnificent Makers” series was born.

Theanne Griffith works on one of her "Magnificent Makers" books while doing a science experiment.Courtesy of Theanne Griffith

Released this year, Griffith’s “Magnificent Makers” books feature two science-loving best friends — Violet and Pablo — who get transported to an alternate world where they have epic adventures solving scientific problems together. Each book explores a different subject — such as ecosystems, brain biology and senses — while also tackling issues such as managing failure, demonstrating teamwork, showing courage and overcoming jealousy. As each story progresses, the third-grade characters come to realize just how curious, crafty and clever they can be.

“These are fun fiction books where science is the backdrop,” Griffith said. “Kids end up learning the science without even realizing they’re learning it because it’s woven into the story.”

Theanne Griffith's daughter Violeta hugs the first book in Griffith's "Magnificent Makers" series.Courtesy of Theanne Griffith

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In each adventure, Pablo, Violet and accompanying classmates solve riddles to gain entry to the “Maker Maze,” an awesome lab complete with robots, an anti-gravity chamber, strange plants, creepy bugs and more. Access to the Maker Maze is granted by Dr. Crisp, a tall woman with rainbow hair, bright purple pants and a white lab coat — a modern-day version of Ms. Frizzle, the science teacher who took students on adventurous field trips in “The Magic School Bus” books.

“Dr. Crisp is the kooky scientist leading the way, but she gives the kids agency to do the science,” explained Griffith, noting that she named Dr. Crisp after the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology.

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

Tailored for 7- to 10-year-olds who can read independently, the illustrated chapter books also are popular read-aloud books for parents of kids as young as 4 and 5.

And, during this time of remote learning amid a global pandemic, “The Magnificent Makers” books are a boon for moms and dads who want to help their kids do science projects using stuff they likely already have at home. Each book contains DIY instructions for hands-on projects such as building a rubber-band-powered boat, making a model eardrum or baking a “brain” (that is, a brain-shaped cake) — and parents are eating it up.

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In the books, Violet is a vivacious Black girl with wild kinky hair, Pablo is a thoughtful and pragmatic Latino boy, and the various classmates who join them on adventures have traits that might make them feel different. For instance, in “Riding Sound Waves,” the third book in the series, a character named Henry is on the autism spectrum and processes senses differently than other kids.

“Kids end up learning the science without even realizing they’re learning it because it’s woven into the story,” scientist and author Theanne Griffith said of “The Magnificent Makers” children's book series.Courtesy of Theanne Griffith

“I wanted everyone to feel seen by these books,” Griffith said. “I don’t know if I have the actual words to say what it means to me to see brown and Black kids reading science books with characters who look like them. ... It also really warms my heart to see white kids reading the books and not even caring what Violet and Pablo look like. They’re seeing this as normal, too.”

As deliberate as Griffith was about inclusivity in her books, she never makes an overtly big deal about race in any of the story lines.

“I want these to be carefree, joyful books without the burden of racism,” she explained. “I just want these books to demonstrate that science is for everyone, no matter where kids are from or what they look like or what their ethnic background or socioeconomic standing might be. All kids have the potential to be scientists and to be really good at science.”

Griffith moved from New Jersey to Woodland, California, earlier this month with her husband, Jorge Contreras, and their two daughters, Violeta, 3, and Lila, 1. Griffith and her husband are both taking positions at University of California, Davis — Griffith as an assistant professor in the Department of Physiology and Membrane Biology, and Contreras as an associate professor in the same department.

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

The fourth and fifth books in “The Magnificent Makers” series — about germs and space — are due out in the fall of 2021 and spring of 2022. Griffith described the book series as a “dream come true” and a love letter to her younger self, her two daughters and to all sorts of kids everywhere.

“Violeta and Lila, I started writing again because of you,” Griffith writes in her acknowledgements at the end of her third “Magnificent Makers” book. “I wanted kids like you to see themselves going on fun and exciting science adventures. I love you both so much.”

Related TODAY video featuring Theanne Griffith: