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Dowling librarian pens children’s book about biologist Edward Just

Posted on 28 October 2018 by calvin

The life of Edward Everett Just, an African American marine biologist whose career spanned the years from 1911 to 1941, is being celebrated in a new children’s book authored by Melina Mangal (photo right by Jan Willms), a librarian media specialist who teaches research and literature at Dowling Elementary, 3900 W. River Pkwy.

The idea for “The Vast Wonder of the World” came from Mangal’s daughter, who was in kindergarten in 2012 and had a coloring sheet on Just. “I know of a lot of scientists, but I had never heard of this person, so I wanted to know more about him,” Mangal said. Her researching instincts kicked in, and she began exploring his life. “Everything I learned just made him sound a lot more interesting,” she said. “He was honored on a postage stamp in 1996. His personal life was as interesting as his professional life.”

Mangal, who has written four other biographies and short stories for children, thought Just would be an interesting person for her first children’s book with illustrations.

She said a book about Just’s academic life and his search for funding, “Black Apollo Scientist,” had been written in the 1980s by Kenneth Manning, currently a professor at MIT. “It is a great, comprehensive book, but not for kids. And I thought kids should know more about this scientist.”

Mangal received a teacher’s study grant and traveled to South Carolina, where Just grew up. “It was fascinating to go to a place where his family had lived, see the water and the lowlands. It had sounded like he was awakened to science in college, but he was versed in it as a child. It was part of his upbringing,” she said. “What did he do as a kid? What did he see? What did he explore?” These were questions Mangal sought to answer.

Just’s father died when he was four, and he was raised by his mother, who founded the town of Maryville, named after her, and served as mayor and also started a school. “I also wanted to write a book about his mom after doing the research,” Mangal said. “She was a force.”

Beginning his studies in literature, Just was also a poet. But then he took a biology class and his life changed forever. As she researched Just’s life, Mangal said she worked with a couple of scientists who helped her get the facts right. She was also able to interview some of Just’s family members. “I talked with a niece of his, who is in her 80s. Just at one point lived with her family for a while.”

It took more than five years of research and writing to complete the book. Mangal discovered that Just went through real institutional struggles with segregation. He ended up doing a lot of his research in France, Italy, and Germany. “He found a better environment in Europe and felt more welcome there,” she said.

“The research and writing took a long time,” Mangal explained. “I had to write under 1,000 words. There were so many different versions I wrote before getting a publishing contract.”

She said that in working with a picture book, the editor is the one who works directly with the illustrator. Luisa Uribe, who lives in Bogota, Colombia, was chosen as the illustrator.

Mangal said Uribe’s sister lives in South Carolina and was expecting a child while they worked on the book. “Luisa was able to go out and visit her sister, and at the same time get a more concrete idea of time and place by visiting and walking the areas where Just lived; she was doing the same things I did.”

Uribe had her own vision of what the illustrations would look like, according to Mangal. “She did an excellent job in capturing some of the whimsical, spiritual nature of Just’s work and writings. He always had a mystical inclination about him…she captured that as well.”

The back of Mangal’s book includes a detailed timeline of Just’s life and some quotes attributed to him. “There was so much of that I had to originally leave out; I was so happy to be able to add it,” she said.

Mangal said she likes both the research and the writing when working on a book. “I’m such a research nerd,” she joked. “I love the process of going and digging through old research.”

She explained that she had more access to information than Manning had, who wrote his book before so much was digitized. “I was able to find new documents, and connect the dots. And the act of writing grounds me and cements so many things in me.”

When she first started researching the book, Mangal was working part-time and had more opportunities to work on her writing. “The last several years I am working full-time again, so I get up early and write before school,” she said. “I take the summers off and get into a stricter routine.”

She has several books in the planning stages. “I always have too many things going on in my head,” she said with a smile. “I never had writer’s block; I had dreamer’s deluge.” She has two biography ideas she is researching, a series of fiction stories she is finishing and a picture book completed that is being sent out to publishers.

“The Vast Wonder of the World” will be launched Nov. 3 at the Red Balloon Bookshop, 891 Grand Ave., St. Paul. Mangal will also have book signings at Barnes and Noble and Galleria. “This is new for me,” she admitted. “My other books were more educational and not trade books. I did not have book signings like I do now, and it’s a whole different ball game. I have to work on the speaking part. I am so used to talking about other people’s books; it’s different to talk about mine.”

Mangal said she hopes kids will be inspired by her book. “My big goal is to have kids think about their own backyards and explore what is around them,” she said. Another reason she wanted to write about Just is that a lot of books deal with applied science, but he worked on basic or pure science. “It’s a very important field, but we don’t hear about it that much.”

She also noted that black scientists are not so well known. “Just is a science hero, but also an American hero,” she noted. “He was doing his work at a time when it was difficult and could actually be dangerous and life-threatening in the places he was in, but he persevered.”

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