Loree Griffin Burns and her friend Kelley Gillespie opened a lending library filled with Nancy Drew mysteries. They pasted a library card in each book and changed the numbers on their stamp to reflect the new due date. “We didn’t have as many patrons as we would have liked,” Burns says. “We strong-armed siblings into borrowing.” Next Burns and Kelley established the G & G Detective Agency. “We were into sleuthing,” she quips, but she admits they spent more time finding mysteries than actually solving them.
Burns was always “a sucker for a good story. That’s still definitely a part of who I am. Part of the reason I’m so passionate about telling stories is because of how important stories were in my childhood.” As a kid, she never would have guessed that she would become a celebrated author of dramatic nonfiction stories with science as the central focus.
Although research science defined Burns’ professional life, she also wrote fiction, personal essays and haiku for literary magazines in her free time. She even anticipated writing a novel one day. A 2003 article on oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer changed the path of her writing life. “Ebbesmeyer studies surface currents in the world ocean by tracking debris that falls into it, including 28,000 plastic bathtub duckies,” Burns says. The article was a revelation because for the first time she considered pulling children into the world of science through stories of actual scientific adventures. Ebbesmeyer’s story became Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion, part of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Scientists in the Field series.
Burns takes inspiration from the outdoors. “So many of my ideas come from things I see outside that I don’t understand. I always give myself the time to look into it. Very often those [observations] turn into books because what I found out is really cool and if I wondered about it probably someone else will.”
For instance, her newest title, Beetle Busters: A Rogue Insect and the People Who Track It, came from a report that trees in her central Massachusetts hometown were infested with Asian longhorn beetles. The beetles were native to China and had hitchhiked to the U.S. twenty years ago. Because they have no natural predators they have become established pests. To eradicate the beetles, trees are felled and chipped into tiny pieces. Burns had to find out more because she worried about her trees.
In another example, Burns and her family visited the Butterfly Garden at the Museum of Science in Boston. She learned that the butterflies that stock the garden are not allowed to breed, but come from a butterfly farm in Costa Rica. The pupae are imported, special delivery, and allowed to emerge as butterflies. When Burns wandered the garden with her kids, she saw butterflies mating “illegally” and asked the docent about it. Before she knew it, Burns had packed a bag and booked a flight to Costa Rica to find out more. “I give myself the gift of time to ask questions and look into the story. So often [my questions] lead to fun books. But my kids get so exasperated because they see me get to that point where I’m starting to ask questions and they roll their eyes and say, ‘We’re not going to get out of here any time soon. ’”
In an upcoming release for teen readers, Burns trades the outdoors for the world of the microscope and molecular biology. Her topic is the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA. “My research in graduate school was on understanding the regulation of gene expression.” In her doctoral thesis, she isolated DNA from eukaryotic cells, cut it, pasted it in another location, and studied the changes. “The DNA book is so interesting to me because I have a lot of experience in that kind of work.”
The Burns household is a busy one with three school-age children, a husband, seven hens, and a hive of 60,000 honeybees (acquired after Burns wrote Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe). On a good day, Burns rises before everyone else and with a cup of tea, spends an hour alone in her office. “A lot of the work [I do] is not putting words on paper. At least half the time is researching and organizing my thoughts. How I’m going to pull this [project] all together. It took me a long time to give myself credit for that work.”
Burns is driven to combine the drama and excitement of science into a broader understanding for her readers. “I don’t necessarily write for kids. I write for the people who are interested in what I’m interested in.”