Excerpt From
Fifth Book of Junior Authors & Illustrators
edited by Sally Holmes Holtze, H. W. Wilson (New York, NY), 1983


[Autobiographical sketches of Alvin Silverstein and Virginia Barbara Opshelor Silverstein]

WE'RE KNOWN as a writing team, and we've been doing things together ever since we first teamed up on a project in the chemistry lab in 1958, so it seems logical to make these autobiographical notes a joint project, too. But first a little "prehistory," to cover the half of our lives before we met.


[Autobiographical sketch of Alvin Silverstein]

I was born in 1933, the youngest of four boys. My parents had emigrated to Brooklyn, New York, from Austria-Hungary (a part that is now Poland). Though they never had much education themselves, they placed great stress on hard work and education. I fit that mold perfectly, having a voracious interest in learning (as a child, I read encyclopedias in my spare time) and a workaholic capacity for single-minded dedication. My passions weren't all for academic pursuits: during high school I was an avid basketball player, and in college I spent each day hitting tennis balls against a wall and volleying with any experienced player I could corner on the court; I ultimately made the college tennis team. I began a lifelong hobby of "science watching" practically as soon as I learned to read. My first love was astronomy, but I also was crazy about animals. (I was the type who brought home stray cats and raised pet mice.)

I received a B.A. degree from Brooklyn College, an M.S. from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. from New York University. I actually started out in chemistry, although it was not my favorite subject, because I was interested in biochemistry, and that was taught in the Chemistry Department at Brooklyn College. I slid into biology somewhat by accident--a fortunate accident, since I am much happier in that field.


[Autobiographical sketch of Virginia B. Silverstein]

I was born in 1937, an only child, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My parents were American born, but had the same stress on hard work and education and looked forward to fulfilling their own dreams through me. (Both had wanted to go to college but could not afford it.) I have always been a voracious reader. (When I was seven or eight, I used to total up my money saved in terms of how many Thornton Burgess animal books it would buy.) I was never able to indulge my liking for animals in real life, because my mother didn't care to have anything messier than a goldfish in the house. I fell in love with chemistry in high school but also had a gift for languages, and for a long time I was torn between the two fields. Although practicality won out and I majored in chemistry in college, I ultimately wound up combining that with languages as a translator of Russian scientific works.

We met at the University of Pennsylvania, when I was a senior and Al was a graduate student. We were working on research projects under the same supervisor. Taking mixed melting points together and watching invisible spots move slowly down the paper chromatograms ultimately led to marriage, in August of 1958. (He proposed after I stayed up till 6 a.m. typing his Master's thesis.)

The next years were busy ones. Al went to New York University at night for his Ph.D. and worked first as a junior high school science teacher (for one brief and painful semester) and then as a college teacher, which he loves. He's now a Professor of Biology and former chairman of the department at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York. While Al was progressing up the academic ranks, I abandoned a brief and undistinguished career as an analytical chemist, taught myself Russian, and became a free-lance translator. I realized later that that was an idiotic thing to attempt, but it worked. I now translate close to two million words of Russian each year, mainly from scientific journals, but sometimes whole books. I am very embarrassed by the fact that I can't speak Russian (although, of course, I read it fluently) and keep vowing to learn, but I never seem to find the time.

We did find the time to have six children: Robert, Glenn, Carrie, Sharon, Laura, and Kevin. At the moment they all live with us on a hilly seventeen-acre farm in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, except for the eldest, who lives in New Brunswick but keeps threatening to move to California.

How did we get to be a writing team? Like most of the major shifts in our lives, that was somewhat of an accident. After Al finished his graduate studies, he had some time on his hands (you'd think a full-time job and a houseful of children would be enough!) and started writing a college textbook. While he was working on that, he happened to mention to a book salesman who had just become a literary agent that we had some ideas for children's books. The agent was encouraging, and we wrote Life in the Universe. That book was quickly signed up, and we plunged happily into children's science writing. Then followed twenty-three straight rejections. We would probably have given up if we hadn't already had a manuscript accepted. We kept on writing and submitting books, and by the time Life in the Universe was actually published (in 1967), we had four more contracts.

So far, we've written more than sixty published children's science books, as well as two college texts, a nonfiction book for adults, and a novel (actually, a series of three novels: a "family saga trilogy") that is out looking for a publisher now. The adult book, Conquest of Death, and the novels are based on an idea that has been an important part of our lives for many years: that scientists are making exciting discoveries that will some day make it possible to cure all diseases, turn back the clock of aging, and perhaps even conquer death. Then we would have what we've named emortality, a condition in which there is no more natural death, and people can stay young and healthy indefinitely.

Our children's books fall into several main groups: the Systems of the Body series and Story of Your . . .series. (We're now working on Hand.) Much of the material for these books was taken from Al's biology lectures, which he has always tried to make as lively and interesting as possible.

Our books on pet animals are the ones we most enjoy writing. We have raised mice, hamsters, gerbils, rabbits, guinea pigs, cats, and dogs, and we draw heavily on our own experiences in writing about them. So these books are more "personal" than some in which we act only as science reporters. We currently have five cats, a puppy, and two rabbits in residence. Our children contribute their experiences, too, and now our son Bob is taking photographs for us.

Our books on diseases have been very popular. Obviously they're not as much fun to write as books about animals or nature, but we think they can be helpful to many people. When we focus on a disease like cancer or diabetes, we try to explain as clearly and simply as possible what it is, what science and medicine are doing about it, and prospects for the future.

With our hobby of science watching, we keep up on what's happening at many frontiers of science. We've enjoyed surveying some of these fields in books like Germfree Life, World of Bionics, The Genetics Explosion, Future Life: The Biotechnology Revolution, and our newest book, The Robots Are Here.

Our nature books have also been fun to write. Our favorite is Nature's Champions, which tells about the "biggest," the "fastest," and so forth. In addition to the straight fact books, we've written two "life cycle stories." In one of them, The Long Voyage, we invented a radio tracking device to follow the migrations of the green turtle. The artist asked us for a reference he could use in drawing the device, and we told him there wasn't any--we had made it up. Then the next year we read an article about real-life biologists using just the kind of tracking device we had imagined.

One last footnote about our writing activities: For a couple of years in the early 1970s we were writing a column of children's stories called "Tales from Dr. A." It was syndicated by the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate and at one time it appeared in more than two hundred newspapers. We loved writing the stories, and the syndication experience was fascinating. Alas, the column was slain by the paper shortage. We miss it.

In case you're wondering how to pronounce our name: In Brooklyn, where Al was raised, it's "Silver-steen." In Philadelphia, where I come from, people say "Silver-stine." We spent the first dozen years of our marriage in New York as the Silver-steens. When we moved to neutral territory, in New Jersey, we thought of changing over but found we were too used to it. So pronounce it whichever way you like--we'll answer to either.

[End of a Autobiographical sketch of Virginia B. Silverstein]


Many of the Silversteins's books have appeared on lists of recommended science books for children. In one year, six of their books appeared on the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science's "101 Best Science Books" list. Three of their books were named Outstanding Science Trade Books for Children by the National Science Teachers Association: Animal Invaders in 1974, Itch, Sniffle and Sneeze in 1978, and Nature's Champions in 1980. Potatoes received honorable mention in 1976 for the New York Academy of Science Children's Science Book Awards. In the same "All About Them" series, Rabbits was named a Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies by the joint committee of the National Council for the Social Studies and the Children's Book Council. The Left-Hander's World was a Junior Literary Guild selection.