Meet Hungarian American biochemist Katalin “Kati” Karikó. She became fascinated by science as a child and grew up determined to find a way to use messenger RNA—a copy of a part of DNA that provides cells with instructions to make proteins—to help fight illness. Never Give Up: Dr. Kati Karikó and the Race for the Future of Vaccines follows her journey from her childhood in rural Hungary to leading the way in the creation of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.

Today author Debbie Dadey and illustrator Juliana Oakley join us to discuss the inspiration behind their work and their hopes for young readers as they discover Dr. Karikó for the first time.

Front cover of Never Give Up

Why did you want to write about Dr. Katalin Kariko specifically?

Debbie Dadey (DD): I happened to read an article about a woman who worked for decades on the mRNA technology that directly went into making the Covid-19 vaccine. I thought someone should write a book about her. Then I said to myself, “Well, I am a writer!”

What makes biographical books special for you?

Juliana Oakley (JO): I think it has an ability to really inspire people, and to connect them somehow. The Name becomes a person and this person, in a way, becomes your friend.

You write mostly fiction, was it hard to write a nonfiction book about a scientist?

DD: Strangely enough, even though most of my 182 traditionally published books are fiction, I have always done research to find interesting facts to put into my stories. For instance, for Werewolves Don’t Go to Summer Camp, I learned many legends about how to become a werewolf! My Mermaid Tales series is fiction, but it has a nonfiction component since each book features learning a bit about a real ocean concept or creature.

What was the inspiration for the colour palette you used throughout the book?

JO: The colour scheme starts with the soft muted colours (like an old photographs) when we go back in time and gets more vivid as we approach modern days in order to give the reader a better understanding of the time scale.

Spread from Never Give Up in which scientists work in a lab.

What is your favorite part of Never Give Up?

DD: My favorite part in the text is when Kati chooses between going to a science competition and going on a fun vacation. I was proud of her that even though she didn’t win she was inspired her to keep learning more.

My favorite picture is the group of kids gathered around the microscope. The artist painted my son Alex in the group and truly captured him.

JO: Coming from quite similar background, I could very much relate to the childhood of Katalin Karikó, and to having to make some life-changing decisions of my own. And, of course, living through the pandemic, all of us have been touched by it one way or another.

You have written biographies about Will Rogers and Annie Oakley. Was it hard to write about a living person?

DD: Yes! There are a lot fewer references, but luckily I had the chance to communicate with Katie and her daughter, who were kind enough to look over the text and illustrations. They even provided some amazing family photos, some of which we were able to include with the timeline at the end of the book.

Did you find a subject of the book challenging to illustrate?

JO: Yes, it was a first biographical book I’ve illustrated, so I had to have a different approach to the illustrations, do a lot of research, but I’ve enjoyed it a great deal and learned a lot.

What do you hope kids (and adults) will take with them after reading Never Give Up?

DD: That life is not always easy and succeeding often means failing and trying again.

JO: No matter what country or time we live in, we are all facing our own difficulties, but I hope that the book shows that if one has a dream or passionate about something and chooses to follow those dreams, there is always a possibility for great achievements!

Free Educator Resource

Download the free teaching guide to use in the classroom. This file can also be found on the Lerner website.

Praise for Never Give Up

★ “Bright, beautiful illustrations are rendered in pencil and finished digitally. . . . Informative as well as inspiring, this book shows how Karikó’s tenacity is proof to never give up. A first purchase for all biography collections.”—starred, School Library Journal

“An engaging look at scientific dedication and the timely development of effective vaccines.”—Kirkus Reviews

Connect with the creators

Debbie Dadey

Debbie Dadey is an author of early readers and graphic novels including The Adventures of the Bailey School Kids Graphix Chapters Books. She lives in Sevierville, Tennessee, with her husband Eric and their dog Carmen.

Photo Credit: Don Fields

Juliana Oakley

Juliana Oakley is an illustrator based in Bahrain who loves to work with color. She draws inspiration from her family, from travels, from nature, and childhood memories. Her illustrations often start from pencil sketches and are then finished digitally.

Can’t get enough of our authors and illustrators? Find more interviews on the Lerner blog.

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