By Susan Lee Roberts
Patricia Newman’s books inspire kids to seek connections to the real world. Titles such as Sea Otter Heroes and Eavesdropping on Elephants encourage readers to act and use imagination to solve problems. Award-winning Sea Otter Heroes is “a fascinating book [where] clues unfold as the researcher discovers them. The reader feels as if he or she is experiencing them in real time …” —National Science Teachers Association
Patricia is excellent at breaking down the science, explaining the processes in kid terms and in a format that scientists follow. She shares enough details to keep kids reading, holding back the mystery to give readers an opportunity to “participate” in the thinking. The research done in Sea Otters Heroes shows how much work is involved in solving a science mystery.
When you were a child, did you want to write books? How did you start writing?
I wasn’t much of a writer as a child. I recall several new diaries with tiny keys and gilt-edged pages waiting to be filled, but alas, they each have only a few pages of scrawled thoughts (with little hearts dotting the “i’s”). Not for a lack of imagination. I always had some sort of project going. In fact, Patti’s Projects are a standing family joke even today.
I guess I was more of a do-er than a reflective child. I read a lot and spent most of my time outside, but that never translated to writing stories. I wrote reports and papers for school, and according to my grades, I was good at it. I was a nerd unwilling to hide my intelligence before “smart girls” were in vogue. But in late elementary school and middle school, I was actually afraid to share creative writing assignments with classmates. As a bullying victim, sharing was a sure way to invite more ridicule.
I bided my time, and as an adult with two children I finally started writing. I credit my mother-in-law for providing the necessary push. To my surprise, I found I have a lot to say.
Writing has never been easy for me. Although I might be wiser about the market and more confident in my abilities than when I began, I still have to find my way into each book. Usually I begin in the middle and work my way toward the edges.
How did you come to write a book about sea otters?
After the publication of Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Chelsea Rochman, one of the scientists in the book, invited me to a retreat of conservation fellows. I presented a day-long seminar on how scientists can break into the children’s book market by publishing their research.
In the audience were marine biologist Brent Hughes and his mentor Lilian Carswell, the Southern Sea Otter Recovery Coordinator for US Fish & Wildlife. After my session, they approached me with Brent’s discovery of a trophic cascade involving sea otters and seagrass—a relationship in which the apex predator affects the health of organisms at the bottom of the food chain. I immediately knew we had the makings of a great story.
You seemed to be following a “scientific process” when you wrote Sea Otters Heroes. Can you share the process and how you came to write the book that way? What challenges did you face doing so?
I wrote Sea Otter Heroes as a mystery, purposely following Brent’s path to discovery so readers could be in on the ah-ha moment. He started with an observation: the seagrass of Elkhorn Slough (off Monterey Bay in California) lives in the most nutrient-polluted estuary on the planet. The slough borders the Salinas Valley—the nation’s salad bowl. Based on current scientific literature, the seagrass should be dead, yet it thrived. Why?
The process of scientific discovery involves observation, questions, experimentation, analysis, more observation, more questions, etc. Science also involves failure. The mystery format allowed me to show Brent’s thought process as he tried, failed, and tried again to solve a perplexing ecological mystery.
Sea Otter Heroes is basically a kid-friendly edition of Brent’s scientific study published in PNAS. I discuss in detail two experiments he designed to prove sea otters as apex predators affect the bottom of the food chain rather than the reverse. Brent’s journey of discovery is fascinating. Most adults don’t know what a trophic cascade is, but when I explain it to kids I love watching their faces when the light bulb of understanding shines.
Tell us about your research and writing process for the book.
Aside from reading scientific studies and articles, I visited Elkhorn Slough in November 2015 with my daughter, Elise, who acted as photographer and research assistant. Brent planned a fabulous day on the water in his research skiff, and Lilian joined us. Brent steered us up the slough and talked about seagrass. Lilian chimed in with sea otter information. Perfect weather allowed us to see a host of native wildlife, such as pelicans, seals, jellies, egrets, and herons.
Throughout the trip, my hand-held digital recorder ran. Elise and Lilian took photos. Occasionally we jumped out of the skiff to walk the mud flats, but Brent had provided us with tall rubber boots.
On the second day of our research trip, Elise and I toured Brent’s lab to see how he processed his seagrass samples and how he designed the two experiments that proved his hypothesis that sea otters affect the health of seagrass.
Because my contract specified a February 2016 manuscript delivery date, I sat down to work the minute I returned, transcribing hours of interviews, organizing the material, sweating over a first draft, revising, revising, and revising again and again. Then my editor offered comments. Trust me when I say she wasn’t shy. But I truly love this collaborative part of the process. We trim away the fat to make the book’s strengths shine.
By July 2016 we had a solid narrative. Then the book designer worked her magic. My editor and I discussed the merits of individual photos, and I wrote captions. By November, we had a final digital galley that went to the printer.
Your daughter took photos for the book. How was it working with your family on the project?
Elise has always loved animals and promotes conservation everyday in her job as a zookeeper, so we made a great team. The photos were a challenge, though. As we glided across the water, the outboard motor vibrated the little skiff, making it difficult for Elise to focus her camera. She thought she’d failed me. That night in the hotel room, we looked at her photos and realized she had some great shots. Nine of her photos made the final cut in the book.
Your book covers a number of hypotheses used in the scientist’s research, but “Citizen Science” turned him in a new direction that ultimately solved the mystery. Can you share how that came about?
Brent was stymied by the healthy seagrass in Elkhorn Slough. He’d dug deep into everything he’d ever learned about marine ecosystems and came up empty. Finally, a long-time friend and volunteer for the slough suggested Brent speak with the captain of Elkhorn Slough Safari, a commercial tour company. The captain distributed hand-held counters to his passengers to count sea otters, seals, and various species of birds. After every cruise, he recorded the counts on a sheet of paper and stuffed it into a binder. He’d amassed nearly 20 years of data. Brent compared the sea otter counts against seagrass abundance and found a startling correlation.
Technically, the captain and his passengers weren’t citizen scientists because they weren’t working on a specific project and hadn’t received data-gathering training, but the data provided a useful starting point for Brent to design his own experiments.
Can you share what “Citizen Science” is and how community members participate?
Scientists thrive on data, but gathering field data is often expensive and time-consuming. Recently, scientists have turned to the public for help. Individuals with a passion for science attend training sessions or learn to use technology to help scientists gather data. When writing Plastic, Ahoy! I came across NOAA’s Marine Debris Tracker. The app allows us to pinpoint for scientists where we found plastic on our coastlines or waterways.
Can you share highlights from your latest non-fiction book, Eavesdropping on Elephants?
Eavesdropping on Elephants is the story of some unusual scientists who study forest elephants, a virtually unknown species. Scientists from the Elephant Listening Project record elephant conversations, and then listen to figure out how elephants use the forest. The scientists also try to decode what the elephants are saying to one another. We all know elephants trumpet, but they also rumble, roar, and aooga. What does it all mean? And can we use the information to save them from extinction?
One slick new feature to this book: I’ve incorporated QR codes into the narrative to give readers a peek inside the forest by listening to audio and video gathered by the scientists.
A Robert F. Sibert Honor recipient, Patricia Newman’s books have received starred reviews, two Green Earth Book Awards, and a Parents’ Choice Award; they have been honored as Junior Library Guild Selections and included on Bank Street College’s Best Books lists. Her author visits are described as “phenomenal,” “fantastic,” “mesmerizing,” “passionate,” and “inspirational.” Visit her at www.patriciamnewman.com and stay in touch via Twitter: @PatriciaNewman.