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First came the publisher’s call, and then came the book

By on October 29, 2018 in Arts with 0 Comments

Tom Robinson stands next to his three books. He recently learned The Everything Kids Science Experiments Book has been translated into Korean.

By Susan Lagsdin

Megan Robinson was about to apply for a plum teaching job at Seattle’s University Child Development School, and she was determined to wow the interviewers.

She asked her dad, Tom Robinson, to help her construct a science experiment. Not just any experiment, but the dazzling one about density that he’d first field tested on her and her brother Matthew 17 years before, prior to including it in his first publication, The Everything Kids Science Experiments Book.

“I think that’s a symbol of what’s most satisfying about my work,” said Tom, a Chelan teacher and author. “I love that she remembered that moment so clearly.” (Megan got the job)

Tom’s book was a success too: in 2001, 750,000 copies were sold; it had #12 ranking on Amazon. Elementary teachers bought singles for their classrooms, grandparents bought it for rainy-day projects and parents and kids clamored for it.

Tom, then teaching at Kentridge High School, realized that his love of experiential learning translated perfectly into publications, that he could reach and teach kids far beyond his own science and math classrooms.

That first book’s back story is untypical. Every yet-unpublished author of fiction or nonfiction who’s yearning to be read — pay attention: the publisher contacted Tom, a neophyte writer, and asked him to write the book.

Doesn’t happen.

But it, did, and here’s how:

By the late ’90s, Tom had been teaching interactive, story-based high school physics classes; his lessons were fun, and students learned the material — why not share this with adults who may be intimidated by physics?

With no prior publishing experience, he did his research into the industry — as a good scientist might — and submitted a partial manuscript of Forcing Out: A Guide to Better Physics Fitness to about 100 niche publishers. No go. They were interested but not interested enough.

But. Arbordale Publishing liked his approach and just then needed a hands-on science book to fill out their extensive Everything Kids series for elementary-aged children. Would Tom like to write it? Certainly. Success ensued.

Later, to ride the Harry Potter marketing wave, they asked for a second book about the magic of science, and Tom was happy to comply, but with a caveat: science is not magic, but he’d write about things that are puzzling and seem magical.

Publisher and educator were both pleased with The Everything Kids Magical Science Experiments Book.

Tom, who moved his family from westside to eastside and taught at Chelan High School for eight years, dexterously teaches what he loves to pre-college scholars and at-home toddlers and sees no contradictions.

He most recently published with Arbordale a picture book entitled The Fibonacci Zoo introducing primary-aged children to patterned math sequences as well as the scientific method. This one was a real stretch, but he learned about readability formulas and was able to tell his story, complete with alphabetized animals, in a total of 450 words.

“There’s a point somewhere in a kid’s early years where they stop loving science and math and start hating it. That shouldn’t happen. I want to catch them early and keep the pathways open,” Tom said.

When Tom’s now-adult children Matthew and Megan were toddlers, he’d try out his picture-book experiments with them, and this density demonstration enthralled them all.

Wisely, he kept his own pathways open and it worked out fine. The early physics book he just couldn’t sell to the bricks-and-mortar publishers? He self-published on Amazon in 2012 and says, “Looks like I have almost cracked the top 16 million in terms of sales.” He’s proud that the book is being read, that his initial impetus to clarify physics was sound.

Tom is passionate about solving the problem of children’s early disassociation from math and science, so he’s applying for a rigorous course of study with State University of New York in Buffalo, where he’ll hopefully earn a PhD with his dissertation.

“I had never really thought of teaching as a career,” he admitted, “but I started coaching a little basketball after playing for UW and found it really satisfying to work with kids.” (Currently he spends summers managing overseas travel arrangements and tours for college basketball teams; this year the job took him to Spain and Paris.)

Science and math have always been part of Tom’s life. After he graduated from college, he worked with computers at Boeing.

But while teaching a single classroom computer course for the company he was convinced to change careers. “I quit my job and got my master’s degree, so I could continue teaching.” That lead to 20 high-energy years in secondary classrooms.

How does Tom find the time to raise a family, teach, travel, write books, pursue a doctorate?

Though he loved his 20 classroom years, his early part-time work since 1997 with the late Paul Allen’s Apex Learning, a nationwide online school, lead to his current position where he administers its math program and teaches (currently overseeing 22 staff members and 197 active students).

He explained that the stay-at-home job gives him some extra breathing time.

It’s tough even for a mathematician to calculate the ripple effects of teaching and publishing, but personal feedback reassures Tom he’s definitely made a difference.

“A former student who’s now in his 40s said he took his 4-year old son to the Santa Barbara zoo, just after they’d read my book (The Fibonacci Zoo) together. He said the little guy was really excited, and he carried his trusty notebook just like Eli in the book, already acting like a scientist.”

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