I finally get to share a book with you that I’ve been just waiting with suppressed glee to discuss: “Shark Lady” by Jess Keating. It’s a non-fiction picture book about one of the Ocean’s most fearless scientists. And you know how much I do love anything in relation to the ocean and the study of the creatures within it!
Jess Keating is fiction AND non-fiction writer who is also a zoologist with a love of animals and “goofy animal facts” (as she likes to say). She is passionate about connecting with kids, teaching them interesting things, and has even developed a free magazine called “The Curious Creative” for kids just like her. You can learn more about her at her website.
Her book “Shark Lady: the True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist” is her first non-fiction picture book biography (though NOT her first book). It follows Eugenie as a young girl discovering her lifelong passion through her early struggles to be taken seriously as a woman in her field (a rarity in the 40s and 50s). This is a book that takes time to dwell on some of her amazing discoveries and how they changed the way we think about sharks.
Thanks for stopping by today Jess!
Jess: Thank you so much for having me!
Me: You have been on a roll with two picture books out this summer alone (“What Makes a Monster?” comes out in August). I know you’ve written Middle Grade novels in the past, so what is it that draws you to writing picture books?
Jess: I love writing picture books and middle grade books equally, but there are definitely perks to each format. In the case of many readers out there, picture books were one of the first things we even learned to hold on our own! Because of the beautiful artwork and layout variations, picture books feel like a feast to me, so getting to play around with visuals and text in a this format is extra satisfying.
Picture books are also an incredibly sneaky way to inform and educate readers. I firmly believe that all nonfiction for kids should be digestible, relevant, and most importantly, ridiculously fun to read. Picture books provide a perfect vessel to showcase content in a gorgeous, unique way. Plus, they’re perfect for young kids who are just learning how to read, because there is always something to ‘snack on’ in the illustrations! The combination of visual and textual learning holds so many opportunities for writers.
Me: Almost all of your books to date are about animals. What came first, zoology or writing?
Jess: It’s true, all of my books involve animals in some way. These two fields came into my life at the same time, because I was fascinated by the natural world, and as soon as I learned something new about it, I would immediately turn around and want to tell others about it. I’m a seeker by nature, but I’m not satisfied until I can share what I’ve learned. Writing became a natural extension to express my own curiosity, and the more my knowledge of zoology grew, the more I wanted to keep pace with my writing skill, as a way to communicate all the amazing things in the world!
When I was in school, I distinctly remember several people saying I should “choose” one or the other. Science over the arts. Facts over form. I’m incredibly grateful that I was stubborn enough to ignore them! To me, science and the arts go hand-in-hand perfectly.
Me: I’m obsessed with all things involving the ocean, so “Shark Lady” has been on my radar for quite a while now. When did you first hear about Eugenie Clark?
Jess: I really wish I could remember the first time I came across Eugenie Clark, but she was one of those scientists so entrenched in my thinking as a kid, it’s impossible to pinpoint! Much like I would watch my brothers goofing around and pretend I was Jane Goodall (observing primate behavior, of course), I would also watch fish in streams and pretend I was Genie!
Me: LOL! I love it. The illustrations in this book are amazing! How did you get paired up with Marta Álvarez Miguéns?
Jess: Aren’t they lovely? Picture books are unique for an author because you really must take a leap of faith and let someone else bring your vision to life, and then it becomes your vision, together. I was so thrilled when Marta’s name was added to the mix of illustrators when I was speaking with my editor about the direction we wanted for the book. Her work is dynamic and bright, with just enough whimsy to draw readers in. She was also able to capture the real-life forms of so many animals in a way that kids would recognize in real life, while still keeping her style and vision. Not an easy task!
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Jess: The sheer number of Eugenie’s amazing scientific contributions surprised me! I had always known she was an incredibly accomplished scientist, but it was difficult to fit in everything I wanted to include. Thankfully, my editor encouraged me to include a fairly lengthy chunk of back matter. She also let me gush a little in the Author’s Note, which was a wonderful opportunity to share some more personal thoughts about Eugenie’s role in the world.
Me: Any advice for other picture book writers?
Jess: One thing that has helped me on my writing journey is letting my curiosity lead the way and leaving space for what wants to happen. I often hear that authors should treat writing as their job, and I totally agree with that. But, I think we should take it even further. Approach your career like school. Always follow your interests and curiosity. Expose yourself to a variety of ‘classes’, and create modules for yourself so you’re always learning something new.
If you want to get better at developing character, for example, create a reading list for yourself and put in those hours specifically doing that work and breaking down texts and characters. If you want to learn more about promotion and marketing, break out the research and devote specific focus to that, and take notes just like you would if you were in class. This way, you’re never stagnating, and bonus, you keep some semblance of control in an overwhelmingly ‘out-of-your-control’ industry!
Me: You have mentioned that you like to travel and have been to many different places. I also saw that you had an Alaskan malamute named Kovik. Have you ever been to Alaska? If yes, any great Alaskan animal stories to share? (I bet you thought I was going to ask what your favorite shark was, didn’t you? Ha! But you’ll find that answer, dear readers, on her blog in this video.)
Jess: Ah, yes! My dear Kovik! I haven’t been to Alaska yet, though it’s high on my list! But I do have some pretty fun animal stories. I’ve been chased by bull moose, which I don’t recommend, and sprayed by more skunks than you could shake a stick at. (Which, incidentally, does not stop them. Hah!) More recently, I was lucky enough to hang out with some humpback whales off the Eastern coast of Canada. Fun fact: whale burps smell pretty gross!
One of my coolest animal stories took place in what I would consider the opposite of Alaska, in Waitomo, New Zealand. When you think animal stories, insect larvae might not be at the top of your list. But, Waitomo is home to some of the most incredible glow worm caves on the planet and getting to float through underground passages on an inner tube with constellations of glowworms above me was absolutely magical. I think I will have to write a book about it one day!
Ohh! That sounds amazing! Thanks again for stopping by Jess. If you haven’t had a chance to read this book yet, be sure to track it down. It is a biography about an incredible woman told with amazing writing. THEN you can have a Shark Party of your own as you learn all about Eugenie Clark. Don’t forget to check out Jess’ free Activity Kit as well. There is tons of fun and knowledge to be had with this read!