The Noisy Puddle by Linda Booth Sweeney

Interview With Author Linda Booth Sweeney

Children's book author and systems thinking in education consultant Linda Booth Sweeney

You’re a children’s book writer with a focus on systems thinking and nature. Could you tell us a little bit about where this comes from? Why are you so passionate about these themes?

I reference systems thinking a lot so here’s a quick explanation: Systems thinking is an approach to learning, decision making and design that involves understanding the relationships and interconnections between different elements of a system.

Kids who understand living systems, look to understand how different parts of a system work together to create a whole. They are more likely to think and act in informed ways and less likely to jump to blame a single cause for the challenges they encounter.

By encouraging children to trace how the interconnections in systems create the results we see (in, for instance, their family, a pond, or a community), we help them learn empathy and problem-solving skills.

Here’s an example of a diagram I created to try to “map the system” of a vernal pool when I was working on my new picture book, Noisy Puddle:

The Noisy Puddle Anna Sketch White Board by Linda Booth Sweeney

As a kid, I used to spend hours in the fields near our house, just lying in the tall grass and watching clouds drift by. Since TV time was restricted to Sundays, nature became my entertainment hub.

In my twenties, I worked for Outward Bound and then went back for a doctorate at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. That's where I got to know Peter Senge, Joanna Macy, Fritjof Capra and learned about the work of Buckminster Fuller. All of these thinkers opened my eyes to the idea that everything around us, from nature to organizations like Outward Bound, is part of this big, living system.

It was a like a whole new world opened up for me.

Interior Image of The Noisy Puddle by Linda Booth Sweeney

The systems view helped me to look at interconnections instead of parts. I started seeing patterns everywhere. I could see that the way mint plants multiply in my garden was driven by the same pattern (or feedback loop) at play with the spread of a virus -- or even rumors.

As I learned more, I wanted to share these ideas with the teens I was working with (through Outward Bound), but I learned from the eye rolls I got at first that I couldn’t use jargon. I had to find simpler ways to talk about stuff like systems and feedback loops in ways they could actually understand and use it in their everyday lives.

That's when I had the idea to use games to teach systems thinking. We were already using experiential learning at Outward Bound, so why not?

That's how The Systems Thinking Playbook came about—30 games to help build up those systems thinking muscles.

Interior Image of The Noisy Puddle by Linda Booth Sweeney

And then I started to have children, and I realized stories were another way to make systems thinking accessible to everyone.

When a Butterfly Sneezes uses picture books and Connected Wisdom uses folktales from around the world to make systems thinking accessible to people of all ages.

For years I’ve led two parallel lives: teaching and writing about systems thinking... and reading and soaking in children’s stories and picture books. Now my journey has led me to the intersection of both children's books and systems thinking.

Whether I’m writing a simple concept book like Apart, Together, or a nature science book like The Noisy Puddle, I let the systems thinker guide what I write.

I was especially excited to see Betsy Bird's review of my picture book biography on Daniel Chester French. She so astutely noted, "...Sweeney is dedicated to introducing kids to the fact that the world is complex.”

That pretty much sums it up!

On March 12th you’re launching your book, NOISY PUDDLE – congrats!!! Tell us about the book. Where did the idea come from? What’s your favorite thing about it?

I love to walk in the woods to clear my head. The first few stanzas of this poem came on one of those walks in my hometown of Concord, Massachusetts.

Halfway down the well-worn path to Fairyland Pond, I saw one lone goose and then, about 20 feet away, one lone crow.

Both were standing silently next to a small row of bright, yellow daffodils. It was a serene and peaceful scene.

Suddenly, I heard a cacophony of quacking sounds from what looked like a small swamp, which I later discovered was a vernal pool. It was so loud I realized I couldn’t hear myself think!

I laughed, and wondered aloud, “What happened to the forest’s hush?  Why is everything in a rush?” 

From those few lines, this book was born. 

The Noisy Puddle by Linda Booth Sweeney

Who do you see as the audience for NOISY PUDDLE? How do you hope people will react to it?

I’m reading and loving The Creative Act - A Way of Being, a book by music producer Rick Rubin. Rubin produced LL Cool J, Run DMC, The Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Cult, The Strokes, Tom Petty, Metallica, Johnny Cash, and The Chicks, among many others and that's why the book is so intriguing!

 In the short chapter on "Nature as Teacher," Rubin writes: “When we take notice of the cycles of the planet and choose to live in accordance with the seasons, something remarkable happens. We become connected.”

That is what I think is the promise of The Noisy Puddle: it celebrates the cyclical, magical, noisy world of nature’s pop-up spring pools, which are a tangle of interconnections.

It's an invitation for children, parents, grandparents, and teachers, to tune in to nature’s natural cycles. And feel connected.

My hope is that children will be curious about the world of vernal pools and fall in love with the unusual cast of characters that show up in them, like fairy shrimp, whirly gigs and quacking wood frogs!

The Noisy Puddle Interior by Linda Booth Sweeney

I want them to discover that, even when they don’t see them, these important ecosystems are there year round. As they grow older, my hope is that these same children will share the magic of these pop-up pools with their children.

Most people have never heard of vernal pools, so these pop-up spring ecosystems, which are often invisible at other times of year, face increasing threats from urban development and agriculture.

As they grow, I’d love for these same children to protect vernal pools, because they know vernal pools help protect our communities from floods, filter our water and help create health in surrounding ecosystems.

Sketch from The Noisy Puddle by Linda Booth Sweeney

NOISY PUDDLE is an obvious choice for storytimes about springtime, or wetland habitats, or the four seasons. What are some non-obvious aspects of the book you’d like teachers and parents to share with kids?

Non-obvious? Well, to me the biggest one is WONDER and AWE. Who would have thought there was so much life teaming in what looks like a simple puddle?!

I know you’ve already started doing school visits with the book. What activities do you do with the kids? 

I’m planning to have a lot of fun with the launch of this book! We’ve got a vernal pool March madness bracket in the works, vernal pool bingo, visits with Fred the turtle at Drumlin Farm (an Audubon Center in Lincoln, MA), a Noisy Puddle class play for grades K-2 (a huge parachute movement game that mimics pond life, created with nature educator Melissa Roberts), and a wonderful series of dance/movement activities created by environmental educator Layla Sastry.

Wow! That's a lot.

Are you already working on a new project now, or do you have a dream project in the future? If so, what is it?

I’m dreaming of a graphic novel series with a systems thinking twist that is so funny and action-packed that kids will devour it and learn something at the same time.

Okay, I’m working on that dream right now so maybe I can't call it a "dream" anymore. Stay tuned!

Where can people connect with you and find out more about NOISY PUDDLE?

I’d love for people to connect with me on Instagram or my website.


apart together-linda booth sweeney and ariel rutland-cover

Linda Booth Sweeney and Ariel Rutland on APART TOGETHER

apart together-linda booth sweeney and ariel rutland-cover

On Oct. 17th Balzer & Bray released your book, APART, TOGETHER – congrats!!! Tell us about the book. Where did the idea come from?

LINDA: "I can remember the exact moment this book idea showed up.  It was during COVID,  every open spot in my house was filled with someone online, either working or taking a college or high school class.  So I hid out in the basement where no one else wanted to work. I love it down there. Darker places help concentrate my thoughts somehow.  

I was taking an online class with children’s book author Kate Messner. She gave us a writing prompt: “What do you love?  I just starting making a list:  'I LOVE piano chords. I love how one note combines with other notes to make chords. Unlike one note, you can really feel a beautiful chord.'

I kept writing: 'I love what happens when you mix colors..  Red on its own is red.  Yellow is yellows.  But together they are an entirely new color.  Orange. Magic! / I love how apart, brooks babble, but together, they ROAR!'

There was more, but when I finished, I realized all my examples were about how 'the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.' 

Was it a crazy idea to write a kids book about emergence?  Kate encouraged us to trust what we wrote.  I loved that list so much, so I decided to work on it.  Eventually I found that it could rhyme quite nicely, and then I decided to start workshopping it in my writer’s group.  

I think what sealed it was the fact that we were all apart during COVID.  My little neighbor who was three wasn’t able to play with other kids on the playground. At some level, I wanted the book to celebrate the magic of being together too.

Linda, tell me a bit about yourself. How did you decide to become a writer? 

Linda Booth Sweeney, author of APART TOGETHER, and teddy bear and Roosevelt - Our Headshot

LINDA: I’m the youngest of four kids, all born within six years of each other.  As I kid, there was a lot going on in our house.  When I was 12, my sister gave me a diary with a lock.  I loved the idea of writing whatever came to my mind and I could lock them up and keep them safe.  I highly recommend it! 

Ariel, tell me a bit about yourself. How did you decide to become a designer and illustrator? What type of work do you create?

ariel rutland-illustrator of apart together

ARIEL: I live with my husband and our three fun-loving boys (6, 3, and 1) in the suburbs outside Philadelphia. We live on a quiet tree-lined street near a walking trail along the Delaware river and a sweet downtown. It’s a lot like my cozy hometown of Metuchen, NJ, where I grew up.

Becoming a professional designer and illustrator was a natural landing along a path I started following as a child and never really veered from. As a kid I was also coloring, painting, and crafting. It was an expressive outlet for me that came naturally.

I studied art and design in college, landed a job at Martha Stewart in NYC and began my design career. Though my work was print-based, I was lucky to have a desk feet away from the craft department and textile department.

I explored a lot of hands-on art making during this time, creating surface pattern design for home goods like notebooks, wrapping paper, and pillows. From there I worked at a design studio specializing in gourmet food brands and packaging. The clients and products were incredibly varied. There was chia pudding, handmade pasta, Mexican cookies, macadamia milk and on and on.  

Ariel Rutland textiles for baby

When my 6-year old was born, I left the studio for freelance life, and today I continue print design and branding work with a handful of dear clients within the gourmet food market and in the education field.

I’m thrilled to be working with Linda again on our second book with Balzer + Bray (forthcoming). And I’m busy creating sample art for a book pitch in the new year, this one written by one of my childhood best friends.

As you know, Linda, we originally pitched the book to publishers as a manuscript, but didn’t have any luck. When I originally suggested partnering with Ariel what did you think?

LINDA: I thought that was brilliant!

If you think about it, I was trying to create pictures of change. Ariel was able to highlight the different parts like seeds, soil, sun and water, and then celebrate in a beautiful illustration what happens when those parts combine. 

ArielRutland-ApartTogether-honey interior spread

When I originally suggested partnering with Linda, Ariel, what did you think?

ARIEL: It was a dream opportunity and I said yes without hesitation!

At the time you suggested it, my freelance jobs had a strong illustration lean: creating patterns for Birchbox and illustration spots for ApartmentTherapy. My work was becoming a satisfying mix of design (order, problem solving, structure) and artistry (intuitive, full of expression, loose). I was rediscovering myself as a drawer, painter, artist and it was invigorating being on this path.

ArielRutland birchbox packaging

When you presented the manuscript, I knew I had to pursue it. I was certain it would be a positive experience, that I would learn and grow as an illustrator, no matter if there was a book deal in the end.

Ariel, what’s your process of approaching the visual expression of written text by someone else? How do you develop the illustrations?

It wasn’t an easy process! In all of my past work for clients, it was important to set aside my personal aesthetics, especially when working within an existing brand style guide.

This was the first project in my career that literally had my name on it. So, this was an opportunity to dig deep and embrace my own style.

ArielRutland-ApartTogether-foam bubbles illustration

Linda, after you collaborated with Ariel on the pitch, we got multiple offers on the book! What do you think her work brought to the table?

LINDA: When I think of Ariel’s work I think of not just brilliant color, but the masterful way she combines color. Brilliant orange next to a robin’s egg blue, hot pink next to a deep lemon yellow. 

She’s like a jazz musician except she’s riffing on the color wheel. Her drawings, her fabric, her art is clean, graphic, child-friendly, whimsical, and in many cases, inspired by nature.

What has been your experience of the writer-artist partnership? How do you complement each other?

LINDA: We have a lot of mutual respect for each other and listen to each other’s ideas.  

OK, sometimes I may have too many ideas!

Ariel and I compliment each other because she listens really well, and while she’s amazingly creative, she’s also discerning and practical, which means we ultimately pick the best ideas and then go for it!

I think it’s really interesting how the concept underlying APART, TOGETHER is reflected in your work together. The book is about how sometimes, separate things come together and result in something completely new, something that’s not 1+1=2, but rather 1+1=5, or something like that!

How would you say that this fundamental concept of “systems thinking” shows up in human collaboration?

LINDA: Absolutely. But first a story. 

2730 years ago, a philosopher named Aristotle was puzzled. He thought about the parts of a tiger, like the heart and stomach and brain. He knew that separately, the parts made a heap or pile. Together, though, they created something different: a fierce, fast, powerful Tiger.  

So he famously said: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Scientists now call this “emergence.” 

Our health, the speed of your bike, the song you love, a growing garden, love between family and friends and human collaboration --  all are the result of interactions that produce something greater than the sum of the parts.    

Typically, real collaboration takes time.  If you think about little kids playing soccer, they're more like a heap or a swarm. There’s not a lot of collaboration or cooperation. 

But as they grow, they learn how to play together. And with time and practice, something new that is the result of their interactions over time begins to emerge: teamwork, cooperation, and even success.

ARIEL: The magic comes from working together.

In our case, Linda needed pictures, and my pictures couldn’t have existed without her words.

Linda, you’re actually a systems thinking expert. Why do you want to bring systems thinking to very young readers? What’s important about it?

LINDA: As adults, we intuitively understand how tightly interconnected our world is. (Certainly the last few years have demonstrated that acutely!)

Sometimes these connections and the systems that govern them can be invisible to us, though, until we take the time to really look and trace how “this” influences “that.”  

Whether you’re five or fifty-five, systems thinking begins with imagining how different parts of a system work together to produce the results we see. By doing this, we become more curious and learn to think critically about the world around us.

Early exposure to systems thinking can help children feel more confident when dealing with complex problems as they grow older. At the same time, they are practicing important abstract thinking skills like prediction, cause and effect, and transformation. These are also developing a growth mindset and building neuroplasticity!

The premise APART, TOGETHER is simple. We teach our kids about objects: Truck. Duck. Cat. Bat. We teach our kids our individuals: Mom. Dad. Grandma. Teacher.

But when do our children learn to look at interrelationships, between objects, parts or people? 

APART, TOGETHER invites children and their grownups to read, discuss, play, imagine and together, be curious about the connections that make up their world.

Having these types of conversations helps children build the muscle to see not only objects — a bee, soil, a soccer player — but to imagine how the interconnections and interactions among those objects can create something entirely new. 

Early childhood researcher and author Ellen Galinsky, in her book Mind in the Making, calls this “cognitive flexibility.” That means developing the ability not just to sort, categorize and name parts, but also to make multiple connections, a skill Galinsky notes “becomes possible during later preschool and early school-age years as the prefrontal cortex of children’s brains mature.” 

“Systems thinking” might be a new concept to some early childhood educators. How do you help them incorporate it into their work with children?

LINDA: I tend to focus on everyday scenarios and language when I teach systems thinking. 

In the book I use familiar scenarios like mixing paint, building with blocks, and playing soccer as examples of how interactions produce different results that are often quite different from or greater than the sum of their parts.

For little ones, APART TOGETHER simply asks:  what can happen TOGETHER that doesn’t happen when things (or people) are APART? 

Ariel, you have very young children yourself – the exact target audience for APART, TOGETHER! How does your experience as a mom inform what you do as a children’s book illustrator?

ARIEL: It informs everything, whether I’m conscious of it or not!

Being around these three growing humans and witness to all their developmental changes, tiny and big, has added new levels of perspective. I try and take cues from their approach to life and apply it myself. To be open, be curious, be playful, be willing to try big things and make mistakes and try again.

Kids reading apart together by linda booth sweeney and ariel rutland

This practice was essential when embarking on illustrating this book, and continues to guide me through new drawings, especially when I’m feeling stuck.

In a very literal sense, being a mother informed how I imagined another caring adult would read this book out loud to a child.

How would a child look through these pictures, what nuances might they appreciate? What can I incorporate that would spark an idea, or might prompt the adult reader to point out something to the child?

The final spread of the book (a family of birds in a nest) was very much the result of letting this mom energy flow. The ginkgo tree depicted on the page is a real tree that stands like a friendly giant in our front yard. I get a perfect view of the canopy from the window over my desk and I spent many many days looking out at it while i drew the book.

ArielRutland-ApartTogether-birds illustration

Where can people connect with you and find out more about APART, TOGETHER?

LINDA: Visit lindaboothsweeney.com/APARTTOGETHER!

ARIEL: You can find me at www.arielrutland.com and www.instagram.com/arielrutland/.