Welcome to my book blog, Blissfully Bookish. For this Q & A, please welcome author Patrician Newman, one of my nonfiction mentors. She discusses her writing journey with her books EAVESDROPPING ON ELEPHANTS and SEA OTTER HEROES, published by Millbrook Press/Lerner, She’s got some super interesting things to say, enjoy!
BUT first- YAY! Patricia is generously giving away a 20-minute video chat critique with an author OR a 20-minute video chat with a classroom! All you need to do is comment on this blog post. Contest ends October 20, 2020.
Where did you draw inspiration for the books EAVESDROPPING ON ELEPHANTS and SEA OTTER HEROES?
In Eavesdropping on Elephants, I featured a group of scientists from Cornell University’s Elephant Listening Project. I always knew I would write about ELP because my daughter worked for them as an undergrad. She sat in the lab with headphones on her ears listening to forest sounds, picking out the elephants amidst gorillas, crocodiles, frogs, and birds. On her weekly calls home, she told me more and more about ELP’s work. All it took was an email introduction on my daughter’s part, and I was off and running. Because Eavesdropping on Elephants is a book about sounds, ELP provided several video and audio files which we turned into QR codes to give readers an insider’s look at the forest.
These books have two very different back stories. After Plastic, Ahoy! was released, one of the scientists I interviewed invited me to present an all-day session about science books for children to a group of newly-minted PhDs at an environmental fellowship retreat. At dinner that night, one of the young scientists approached me to discuss his research. That scientist was Brent Hughes, the marine biologist in Sea Otter Heroes who unlocked the key to a new food web relationship featuring sea otters in the Elkhorn Slough off Monterey Bay in California. I knew in that moment his exciting research would become my next book.
Congratulations on receiving a Robert F. Sibert Informational Honor for SEA OTTER HEROES. How did you conduct your research for this book, and how long did the process take?
Thank you! The Sibert Honor was an important milestone for my writing career because it’s the ALA’s only award for nonfiction. By validating the importance of Sea Otter Heroes, the ALA also recognized the power of STEM to help us uncover the mystery in our world and to affect change.
Whenever I research a book, I always try to travel to the source. For Eavesdropping on Elephants, I visited the scientists’ lab in Ithaca, NY. For Zoo Scientists to the Rescue, I visited three zoos across the country. Because I had already met Brent at the fellowship retreat, he and I began communicating. He sent me research papers for my proposal, and I interviewed him and his mentor, Lilian Carswell, a sea otter expert with US Fish and Wildlife.
After the proposal was accepted, I scheduled a two-day on-site visit. My daughter came along as my photographer/assistant. On the first day, we were in a boat on the Elkhorn Slough. We observed otters, diving pelicans, jellies, egrets, and harbor seals. We tromped across muddy salt flats and leaned out of the boat for handfuls of seagrass. I kept up a steady stream of questions over the hum of the boat’s motor, my digital recorder capturing every word.
On the second day, we went to Brent’s lab. He explained each part of his experiment and showed us how marine biologists make mesocosms – ecosystems in buckets – that are easily testable.
I had two months from proposal acceptance to manuscript delivery to finish my research, write Sea Otter Heroes, and pull together and sort through photos from Brent, his team, and my daughter.
What attracts you to the world of nonfiction?
I write about people whose contributions are currently shaping our world, and I find that exciting and rewarding. I especially love the interconnectedness of my books with so many facets of our lives. In Sea Otter Heroes, Eavesdropping on Elephants and Zoo Scientists to the Rescue, we meet endangered species and understand how we are affecting them, sometimes from thousands of miles away.
Please paste a short and compelling excerpt from SEA OTTER HEROES.
The Elkhorn Slough is one of the most nutrient-polluted estuaries on the planet, so Brent Hughes was trying to understand why seagrass thrived when it should be dead. But none of his knowledge could explain the mystery. In the following excerpt, one of Brent’s volunteers suggested he talk to Yohn Gideon, a tour company operator who’d gathered several years of sea otter data from the Elkhorn Slough. Brent was skeptical otters affected seagrass, but he had nothing to lose by talking to Captain Gideon.
When Brent took a look at the sea otter data, Elkhorn Slough Safaris had compiled more than twenty binders stuffed with data sheets from as far back as 1996. The huge amount of data allowed Brent to graph a trend line. He compared it to his seagrass data.
“I overlaid Yohn’s data with the seagrass data, and it fit together like a glove,” Brent says. Otter sightings had risen and fallen in sync with seagrass abundance. “I’m like, what the heck. . . ?”
Clearly, sea otters were somehow linked to seagrass health. But could the otters, apex predators in the protected slough, actually be responsible for the thriving seagrass? The question thrust Brent into a vigorous scientific debate that had been raging for years. Did forces at the bottom of the food chain, such as nutrient levels, control seagrass health? Or was it controlled by the presence of a predator at the top? Brent had always approached ecology from the bottom up, focusing on how nutrient levels and physical conditions such as storms, waves, and temperatures affected the health of the ocean. Accepting the idea that sea otters helped seagrass would change his entire perspective. He would have to admit that both the bottom and the top of the food chain had power over a marine ecosystem.
Where do you see your career headed? Do you have other WIPs or projects in the pipeline you would like to mention?
Like most authors, I’m always thinking about the next book. I’ve found a niche in environmental nonfiction that excites and challenges me, and I think I’ll stay here for a while.
In March 2021, Millbrook Press/Lerner will release my new middle-grade title, Planet Ocean. Photographer Annie Crawley and I team up again after working on Plastic, Ahoy! and Zoo Scientists to the Rescue. But this time, we explore three ocean ecosystems and how pollution and climate change are affecting the sustainability of our seas. We feature indigenous people and several inspiring kids and teens who are working to save our ocean.
In the fall of 2022, Millbrook Press/Lerner will release a new nonfiction picture book currently titled The River’s Rebirth, illustrated by Natasha Donovan. The book is an uplifting conservation story about the restoration of the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington after the removal of two dams that nearly destroyed the ecosystem.
Please share your favorite books that have inspired you and served as mentor texts. Pick one classic and one contemporary book. What is it about them that moved you?
I’ve always loved The Magic School Bus series by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen because it makes science fun. Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart and Sarah S. Brannen inspires me with its beauty and simplicity, something I strive for in my middle-grade nonfiction even though I often deal with complicated subjects.
What is the best (one) piece of advice you would give to other writers?
Nonfiction is more than facts; it comes from the heart. Your book should meet an emotional need within you. And if your writing also resonates with readers, you know they’ve found the heart you’ve woven through the pages.
And a bonus question just for kicks! If you could be any flavor of ice cream, which one would you be and why??
Hands down, New York Super Fudge Chunk because it has a little bit of everything in it. I grew up in Vermont and went to Ben and Jerry’s first ice cream store in downtown Burlington when it was nothing more than a storefront with several ice cream makers churning away on the polished cement floor.
Patricia Newman inspires readers to seek connections to the real world and encourages them to use their imaginations to solve real-world problems and act on behalf of their communities. Her books have received the Robert F. Sibert Honor from the American Library Association, starred reviews, Green Earth Book Awards, and numerous other awards. Find out more at www.patriciamnewman.com.
Twitter: @PatriciaNewman (https://twitter.com/PatriciaNewman)
LitLinks blog series highlighting the natural connection between STEM and language arts – lesson plans for grades K – high school: https://www.patriciamnewman.com/blog-4/
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