Monday, January 25, 2010
The Frog Scientist by Pamela S. Turner is a Scientists in the Field book from Houghton Mifflin Books for Children (2009). The amazing Dr. Tyrone Hayes is an African American scientist studying the effects of the pesticide atrazine on male leopard frogs. Dr. Hayes' studies show that atrazine-contaminated water feminizes male leopard frogs (the frogs develop eggs in their testes instead of sperm).
What is the significance of learning that pesticide-contaminated water harms frogs and the frog population? This is the same water that people drink and use to water their crops! According to Dr. Hayes, "Environmental health and human health are one and the same."
The Frog Scientist is not just about Dr. Hayes and his specific work with frogs. The Frog Scientist is also about frogs in general and science experiments in general. In the hands of a lesser writer, all of this information would soon bore many young readers. But Pamela S. Turner makes all the information very accessible and even fascinating to kids. They won't be able to tear themselves away from the book! Plus, it is not just the text that is fascinating. The Frog Scientist is filled with cool photographs of different kinds of frogs (taken by Andy Comins). This book is a treasure for teachers, librarians, and curious kids!
And now I am pleased to present an interview with author Pamela S. Turner!
Hi, Pamela! When did you first find out about Dr. Tyrone Hayes and his study on the effects of pesticides on frogs? What compelled you to write a book about him and his study?
I first learned about Tyrone from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle which described how he'd learned that pesticides could feminize male frogs. I'd finished a Scientists in the Field book about gorillas, and I thought it would be great to do frogs--a 'backyard' creature kids can relate to. Writing about the intersection of science and public policy appealed to me, as well as the opportunity to write about a scientific experiment from start to finish. Tyrone also has a great personal story that I thought might resonate with kids, particularly kids of color.
I took the clipping and sent it to my editor at Houghton. She didn't seem interested, much to my disappointment, and it might've ended there. But after that editor left and Erica Zappy took over, Erica pulled my clippings about Tyrone out of an old file and called to up to say: "This is great! How soon can you have a proposal on my desk?" I said, "Whoa, he doesn't even know I exist. Let me see if he's interested." And also I was thinking, "I want to make sure I actually like this guy and can feel I can work with him."
I called Tyrone and we set up a meeting in his lab. I was wearing long, dangly, sparkling blue earrings when I pulled open his door. The first thing he said to me was, "Hey! I have those same earrings!" So obviously the book was meant to be.
Hahaha! That's a great story, Pamela!
Can you guide us through your research and writing process for The Frog Scientist? How long did it take you to research and write the book? Did you get to handle any of the frogs and help out during Dr. Hayes' experiments?
In terms of research and writing, I decided right away that I wanted to take one experiment of Tyrone's and report on it from beginning to end. I went out into the field with Tyrone in August 2005 (to Wyoming) and then visited the lab several times that fall; also I kept visiting to see how the analysis of the results was progressing. The actual writing I did over perhaps 3 or 4 months. I had the entire book written and my photographer, Andy Comins, took all the photos...and then the book marinated for over a year until Tyrone had time to analyze the results of the experiment. I didn't handle any of the frogs at Berkeley because the experimental protocol has to be followed very strictly. However, I did end up buying a White's tree frog as a pet because of The Frog Scientist and I've had Dumpy for over 3 years.
What is the best thing about writing nonfiction for young readers? Is there a downside to writing nonfiction for young readers?
The best thing about writing nonfiction for young readers is getting to meet so many cool scientists and getting to go out into the field with them. The worst thing about writing nonfiction is that some people look down on it as not being 'literary' and think it's inferior to fiction.
What is your response to people who think that nonfiction is inferior to fiction? I've actually never heard this before, but I have heard of nonfiction writers thinking that fiction is inferior! Do you think that people sometimes think that nonfiction for kids is inferior because it is for kids?
I do think many people consider nonfiction to be inferior to fiction. One reason is because there's a larger market for children's nonfiction than for fiction because of demand from schools and libraries. Publishing companies try to fill this demand by hiring writers to churn out nonfiction series books. With any luck the publishing house hires an outside expert to review text and photos, but I don't think this always happens, and both the writers and the editors don't necessarily have any deep and abiding interest in the nonfiction topics being developed. I know many of these people work hard but the quality's often not there. Schlocky fiction certainly exists, but there are more schlocky nonfiction because overall there are more nonfiction books to be schlocky. So nonfiction has developed something of an inferior image. But even when nonfiction is extremely well written, it has a second hurdle to overcome. Most of the gatekeepers of children's literature (the editors, agents, librarians, etc.) got into the field because they loved fiction. I don't think many people say, "I love the mathematical elegance of physics...I think I'll become a librarian!"
In the larger universe, including the larger literary world, writing for kids is considered inferior. "It's shorter, right? So it must be easier." Ha. A sonnet is short, but that doesn't mean it's easy to write a good one! So as a children's nonfiction writer I get the double whammy.
It's too bad you get a double whammy as a children's nonfiction writer. :o( Your work is WONDERFUL and EXCELLENT.
One of your next books, Project Seahorse, is about seahorses and coral reef conservation in Bohol, Philippines. Can you tell us about your time in the Philippines for Project Seahorse?
I visited Northern Bohol and Jandayan Island in June 2006 to write Project Seahorse. We went out snorkeling to look for seahorses at midnight (they come out in the dark) and there was a thunderstorm on the horizon...it was so wild and pretty! Later I also went diving with the seahorse scientists and watched a traditional fisher going out to feed his family.
Is there anything about Filipinos, the Philippines, or your time here that surprised you?
I lived in the Philippines from November 1986 through June 1988 and absolutely loved my time there. I was honestly surprised by the condition of the reefs off Bohol. I used to dive in beautiful Anilao (south of Manila), and although I knew the reefs where Project Seahorse worked were degraded, I wasn't really prepared for all the rubble and dead coral left from blast-fishing. I found it very depressing. Hopefully Project Seahorse's efforts to help local communities develop Marine Protected Areas will bring these reefs back.
Thank you so much for answering my questions, Pamela. I wish you the very best for The Frog Scientist and Project Seahorse!
For more Nonfiction Monday blog posts, visit Playing by the book.
[My copy of The Frog Scientist was provided by Pamela S. Turner.]