“Izzy Newton and the S.M.A.R.T. Squad: Newton’s Flaw” Interview with Valerie Tripp

“Books stretch children’s brains and hearts and give them a sense of themselves as unique beings with contributions to make. Books spark interests, feed passions, ignite ambitions.”

– Valerie Tripp

Many of author Valerie Tripp’s books, including her latest novel, Izzy Newton and the S.M.A.R.T. Squad: Newton’s Flaw, achieves all these things in the context of girl power and science as “a way-of-being-in-the-world.”

I had the pleasure of sitting down (virtually) with Valerie who kindly took the time to chat to me about writing experiences, serendipitous discoveries, resolving differences, that ping moment of recognition and connection, friendship, and her intriguing and important view that, “there’s something about being involved in children’s literature that nurtures optimism.”

This optimism, as well as Valerie’s great intellect and insight, is something we can all learn from. So, without further ado, read on!

Valerie, many of your fans know you from the American Girl book series. We know – and love – that those books are fiction books about girls who live in different periods in history. Tell us a little bit about how you came to work on that series, where your writing career has taken you, and some of the things you have learned along the way.

A year after I graduated from college, after I’d worked as a saleslady and a copy editor in Boston, I was hired by Pleasant Rowland to write songs, stories, plays, nonfiction essays, and skills book pages for a reading program called The Superkids. While Pleasant and I worked on the reading program together, we talked about the books we had loved as girls. Then Pleasant married and moved to Wisconsin and I married and moved to South Carolina. One day the phone rang and it was Pleasant. “I’ve had a great idea!” she said. Her great idea was American Girl: books about girls who lived in different periods of history written for readers of the same age as the characters. It has been my life’s privilege and delight that Pleasant trusted me to be the first “voice” of American Girl. In 1983, I wrote the first outlines of the stories for Kirsten, Molly, and Samantha. As the years went on and American Girl grew, I wrote about Felicity, Josefina, and Kit as well as the characters’ best friends: Emily, Nellie, Elizabeth, and Ruthie, and Maryellen! So, I began writing my American Girl books before American Girl existed, in a way, and it was all due to my friendship with Pleasant Rowland, the creator of American Girl. By the way, Pleasant and I still work on The Superkids; we’re revising it, which is tremendous fun.

Though I’ve always loved thinking up stories, writing is hard work for me. I’m persnickety and slow. I think I came to writing as a job because my favorite thing in the world is reading. (Don't you love books and stories and just immersing yourself in the world of a book?) Writing allows me to use my imagination, and I am grateful to have a job that requires me to create something new all the time. It’s a great challenge.

That does sound like hard work! Similar to American Girl, the Izzy Newton and the S.M.A.R.T. series is inspired by various geniuses throughout history. What gave you the idea to embark upon the adventures of Izzy Newton, Allie Einstein, Gina Carver, Marie Curie and Charlie Darwin?

The idea for the Izzy Newton and the S.M.A.R.T. series originated with the WONDERFUL and brilliant team at National Geographic Kids. Becky Baines and I met at a librarians’ luncheon and later, when Becky described the idea for the series to me, I said it would be a dream come true to write, and it has been!

We love that you have fashioned these characters as part of a best friend, female science squad. During a speaking engagement in 2018 you said, “Those books that you put in children’s hands are going to have an enormous influence on them their whole life long.” Can you elaborate a little on this and perhaps tell us what writing stories about girls for girls, and also for young people generally, means to you?

I write for young readers because I think that there’s something about being involved in children’s literature that nurtures optimism. You just can’t help it. Children are the very embodiment of promise and potential (wacky though they are) and those of us lucky enough to be involved in children’s literature are right there, right on the spot, to witness how books and stories nourish their growth. I know that writing for children in-and-of-itself is an optimistic act of cheerful trust in transformation, a leap of faith that out of chaos will emerge order, story, maybe even that ping moment of recognition and connection. And all of us who are lucky enough to hand books and stories to children know that we are changing their lives. Is there anything more wonderful than saying to a child, “You’re going to love this book! And guess what? There’s more where that came from!”?  

Children’s books leave an indelible imprint. They shape and color and influence the way a child perceives the world. The books we read as children serve as a measure of all the books that follow. Children’s books construct the readers’ characters, their view of the world, their ideas of the purpose and challenge of life. Books stretch children’s brains and hearts and give them a sense of themselves as unique beings with contributions to make. Books spark interests, feed passions, ignite ambitions. They are an ongoing reliable source of entertainment, education, rest, and refreshment. The books you give children introduce those children to characters and therefore, teach the children empathy and compassion.

I saw where a recent study says fiction improves one’s ability to understand others. And so does nonfiction, of course! Nonfiction stories have heart and emotion, in addition to of course providing facts that give a child a sense of mastery and curiosity, and give children a sense that they, too, can contribute to their community, whether it’s friends and family or the world. Nonfiction can teach children about other cultures, religions, tastes, mores, senses of humor so that they will connect and feel and hear and experience the excitement of discovery.

Writing books for children also helps them learn how to express themselves in written language so that they may connect with others and discipline themselves to articulate what is in their minds and hearts.  

Couldn’t have said it better! As for nurturing optimism, it appears to cut both ways! For you, as the passionate and optimistic writer, and for the child, as the curious and optimistic reader. The second book in the Izzy Newton series, Newton’s Flaw, was released on November 23. How do you feel about sending this book out into the world?

I am VERY excited. Truly, truly: I have been a writer for 48 years. I’ve written countless stories, plays, poems, and nonfiction essays. And still when I see a new book for the first time I am so delighted that I am holding it in my hands that my hands shake! To think that an idea – sweetly floating, invisible—has become a story that can be shared still seems like a miracle to me. May I say here that I believe that the illustrations add another whole 100% to the story? I love Geneva [Bower]’s illustrations for Izzy. She brings a whimsical, physically delightful air to the characters that tell us as much – if not MORE—about them than my words do.

Besides the real-life science geniuses themselves, what other sources did you look to for inspiration for this story and series?

Research is always my favorite part of writing because it involves reading, of course, and because it is full of serendipitous discoveries. So, while I begin by reading everything I can get my hands on about the subject I’m writing about, I am also just open to every source that may be helpful. I have learned that the universe is FULL of the information I need; I just need to be paying attention to it!

For example: One of the things I love best about writing is that you never know where your best ideas and best help will come from. I spoke to a great group of students at Seneca Ridge Middle School, where my friend Ricky Peck teaches 6th grade science. It was Ricky who told me about mapping the brain on a bathing cap, an idea I love. I’ve dedicated [Newton’s Flaw] to my friend and neighbor, Don Vannoy, who is a forensic engineer. We were chatting at a party, and when I mentioned mold, Don immediately nodded and said, hydrostatic pressure. I’d never heard of it. Don proceeded to provide me with excellent, useful, and detailed information, including sketches. Just the help I needed! (Thank you, Don.)

[Newton’s Flaw] is also dedicated to my niece, Helen Heuer, whom I love and admire, and to whom I will always be grateful. Helen generously spoke to me for a long, long time about playing ice hockey and being on a middle school ice hockey team. It was Helen who explained the vocabulary, the equipment, the drills, how to make a slap shot, and why being small is an advantage. With humor, patience, enthusiasm, and specificity, Helen educated me. Again, she gave me just the help I needed. (Thank you, Helen, with all my heart.)

I’m also grateful to my wonderful, articulate middle school adviser, Maggie Walsh, and my Lunch Bunch—the bright, bouncy girls at St. John the Evangelist School in Silver Spring, Maryland—who spoke with insight, empathy, and kindness about Izzy’s fear of public speaking, and who provided me with creative and clever solutions to help Izzy overcome that fear. (Thank you, Arsema, Kika, Nora, Madelyn, Baeza, Caroline, Emily, and Colleen, and thanks to your teacher, too, Maureen Rossi. All of you give the S.M.A.R.T. Squad books authenticity.)

What key takeaways or themes resonate most with you from the Izzy Newton series and why?

The most important take away for me and I hope for my readers is: We are all scientists. Science is a way-of-being-in-the-world, a lens, an energy, an attitude, that makes us curious and engaged. There’s a great, big, magnificent, world out there, and science is our door to it! Go through!

In Newton’s Flaw, as in all the S.M.A.R.T. squad books, I use the scientific phenomenon as a metaphor for the group dynamic. For example, a flaw/crevice/crack/ divide happens in the Squad that must be resolved. Also, Izzy has a flaw – a fear of public speaking—that she must find a bridge over. The theme of resolving differences in friendships and overcoming personal foibles resonates with me – always has, and always will!

Who is your favorite character in the series and why?

Oh, I love ALL the characters! I feel lucky to be able to write about five equally smart, funny, kind, and quirky characters. I love putting them together, presenting them with a challenging problem, and seeing how they work it out together, each one contributing her own unique ability, interest and talent for the good of the whole Squad.

What relationships were important for you to explore in the series and why?

I am very – and I mean, VERY – interested in each character’s relationship to herself. I’m 70 years old, and I am faced daily, hourly, with the conflict between self-expression and assertion, and my love and feeling of service to my family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and community. Aren’t you? Aren’t we all? The balance between who we are in our separate souls and who we are as a happy, willing part of a group – that’s a balance we all seek forever.

I have never thought of it quite like that but you are absolutely right. Without giving too much away, what is your favorite scene or chapter in Newton’s Flaw and why?

I like the scene where Izzy has to make a speech in her Forensics class. She decides to talk about hockey. She is so nervous and miserable – she HATES speaking in front of people – that she says, “Hockey is my spavorite fort.” Oh, I laugh but my heart breaks for Izzy every time I read that scene. Don’t worry! It’s not easy but in the course of the story Izzy finds a way to stand and speak and win the respect of her Forensics class!

What was the most rewarding part about writing this story? What was the most challenging part?

The most rewarding part about writing this story was drawing the metaphorical connection between the science (hydrostatic pressure) and the group dynamic (a divide between the Squad.) The most challenging part was – as is ALWAYS the case for me—honing the story to its essence, paring it to its bones. I’m chatty, my manuscripts are rambling, and I always have more to say than I have room for!

How did your process for writing this book differ, if at all, from American Girl and other projects you have undertaken?

The biggest and most delightful difference in my process was working with my absolutely fabulous Lunch Bunch, my group of insightful, articulate, kind, compassionate, and very, very funny girls at St John the Evangelist School in Silver Spring, MD. We met over three years, and EVERY time I came away inspired both specifically with ideas for plots, language, and character interactions as well as globally inspired by the Lunch Bunch girls’ sweetness and smarts. We’re meeting for a reunion on Dec 11 and I can’t WAIT to give the girls copies of Newton’s Flaw – a book THEY inspired in so many ways!!

Can you share with us how many books are in store for Izzy Newton and the S.M.A.R.T. Squad?

I have already completed the third book in the series in which Izzy will be the key character. That book is called Izzy Newton and the S.M.A.R.T. Squad: The Law of Cavities. I LOVE it!!!! The girls go on their Environmental Outdoor Education weekend and oh boy, the adventures they enjoy!! After that, I think there will be three more books. They’ll have a different character as the main character. I won’t tell you who that will be. You’ll have to wait to find out!!

What else is on the cards for Valerie Tripp? Any other writing projects we can keep our eyes peeled for?

I have three adaptations coming out from Starry Forest Publishers: one of Sherlock Holmes stories, one of Tom Sawyer, and one called Goddesses and Gardens that is adaptations of the myths about Demeter and Persephone, Echo and Narcissus, and Circe. I also have two new Welliewisher books coming out from American Girl, and a new historical fiction book from American Girl, too.

During the pandemic, I worked on a project called The Things They Carry, in which I helped front line workers write about their experiences. I’ll continue that, as well as (I hope) helping out at the Food Bank at my local elementary school.

Never a dull moment! That is kind of you to help out at the Food Bank. Finally, what do you ultimately hope readers get out of Izzy Newton and the S.M.A.R.T. Squad?

Laughter! Joy! A piqued curiosity about physics and the infinite applications of STEM. A boost to self-confidence, a pleasant reading experience, and a deep, deep appreciation for the great gift that friendship is to us all.

Izzy Newton and the S.M.A.R.T. Squad: Newton’s Flaw is now available.