Animals

Steve Jenkins’ Books: a Middle-Grader’s Treasure

Author/Illustrator Steve Jenkins’ recent and sudden death surprised and saddened fans of his informative, engaging books about animals and the natural world

Now is a good time to celebrate and enjoy the many books we have by him (they never go out of print) and to share them with young readers. I’ll speak of Steve here in the present tense, because he is still very much alive in his books, and there are more to come!

Steve Jenkins’ career and  books combine in marvelous ways his life-long love and understanding of science, of art, and of children, how they think and wonder. He’s never lost his playfulness or his own childhood curiosity about the natural world. His book ideas often begin with an irresistible question that kids (including his own) have asked.  Or one that he has asked himself. How do different animals see? What do animals do on their first day? What animals are the stinkiest? What are tails actually for?

A great place to start reading or re-reading Jenkins is with The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest,Toughest,Cleverest, Shyest–and Most Surprising–Animals on Earth. Imagine a 208-page picture book! The Animal Book is a kind of Steve Jenkins compendium and masterwork. It combines hundreds of his stunning cut-and-torn paper collage images of animals–living, endangered, and extinct. His illustrations are so lively you expect to feel their texture when you touch the flat page. Facts in his clear language, both basic and believe-it-or-not, accompany these stunning animal portraits.

Jenkins expected The Animal Book to be one a reader could browse in, starting anywhere. But he has also organized it in a progression of themes and subtopics–from a definition of animal to family relationships, senses and defenses, to an outline of animal evolution in “Story of Life.” Jenkins always strives to lead his readers to an understanding of how the world works and how these facts fit into a larger picture. The time-lines and other infographics in the book are beautifully clear.  His seamless book design makes the topics and their subtopics easy to follow.

A real treasure comes as an extra at the end of the book.  In a section simply called “Making Books,” he shows readers how he gets his ideas and  how he does his research.

Photo by Kevin Moloney, NYT

Then he takes us into his studio, with his collection of textured papers filling color-coded drawers. We learn how he selects just the right paper to cut or tear for a jaguar’s fur or a toad’s belly, a terror-bird’s beak or a rhino’s hide.  He also includes a graphic timeline of bookmaking from idea to finished publication. This book belongs on every public, school, and home library bookshelf.

So what are the new titles  from Steve and his wife and collaborator Robin Page that we can look forward to in 2022? One of them obviously began with a question. The Animal Toolkit: How Animals Use Tools explores some surprising ways we’re discovering that animals solve problems and interact with the world.  Disasters by the Numbers came out this month, and there will be two more By the Numbers titles this year. The series has included Earth by the Numbers, Dinosaurs by the Numbers, Insects by the Numbers, and Solar System by the Numbers. These books are chock-full of accessible infographics and are a middle-grade trivia buff’s gold mine. The 2022 additions will be One Day by the Numbers and Animal Facts by the Numbers.

Steve Jenkins has always had great, serious fun deepening his knowledge of animals and the natural world. His readers will, too. When you buy a Jenkins book for a child–or for yourself–get the hardback version if you can. His books are keepers.

 

Diversity in MG Lit #28 June: Summer!!

wild horsesFriends, it has been a long and challenging year. I feel equal parts hope and exhaustion going into the summer break. Mostly I’m looking forward to being outside. I will be spending my summer going to wilderness to research my future stories. I’m so grateful for public lands and all the advocates who have made access to the wilderness possible.
At the same time I’m keenly aware that wilderness spaces can feel very unwelcoming to some communities of color and very inaccessible to the disabled. We all need open spaces. People of every race and continent have worked to defend the wilderness. I have just one book recommendation this month. If it were in my power I’d give this to every family in the world to encourage them to enjoy the wilderness and to do the work of protecting the earth.
Cover of The Wild World HandbookThe book is The Wide World Handbook: how adventurers, artists, scientists–and you–can protect earth’s habitats by Andrea Debbink, illustrated by Asia Orlando (Quirk Books). It introduces nine world ecosystems: mountains, forests, deserts, polar lands, ocean, fresh water, cities, rainforests, and grasslands.
Each ecosystem chapter includes biographies of people whose work impacted that ecosystem positively. A few of the people were well known: Wangari Maathai, Ansel Adams, and Jules Verne for example. Most were new to me. They included Bob Coomber, a wheelchair-using advocate for accessibility in the wilderness. Junko Tabei, a pioneering Japanese mountain climber and the first woman to summit Everest. And Rue Mapp, a black woman who created the blog Outdoor Afro. She encourages Black people to learn about the ways they have been denied access to public lands and encourages them to engage fully with the wilderness. She launched a movement towards inclusion that now numbers 35,000 members in 80 locations across the US.
I would have recommended this book if it only had biographies, but it is so much more. For each ecosystem there is a facts page, a natural wonder, and an environmental success story. I particularly appreciate this focus on the positive. Though we do need to learn all the ways we are harming the earth, we will never get to the changes we need if we don’t also include the things we’ve done that help.
high desert flowersThere are DIY projects for each ecosystem, including practical things like hiking sticks and bird houses, and also art projects using natural materials. Best of all there are suggestions for field trips and stewardship opportunities. I hope you read this book but more than that I hope you get outside this summer and spend sometime taking in all the wilderness has to offer. And I hope you all, teachers, students, and parents, return to school next year with renewed vigor and a heart for all the wild things of the earth.

STEM Tuesday– Symbiotic Relationships– Author Interview

STEM Tuesday–Symbiosis– Interview with co-authors Jenn Dlugos and Charlie Hatton

 

Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the last Tuesday of every month. Go, Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!

Today we’re interviewing authors Jenn Dlugos and Charlie Hatton, co-authors of Odd Couples, part of their “Things That Make You Go Yuck” series. Although busy with lots of projects–Jenn writes and illustrates science text books, and Charlie is a computational biologist–they say they collaborate on their books to meet a “fundamental ‘need’ to be creative.” Self-proclaimed science nerds who met through stand-up comedy, they bring humor to their books. In a time when basic biology has revealed its scary side, it’s a relief to be able to laugh a little while enjoying the fascinating tales of interrelationships in this book.

(*I had a lot of questions and Jenn and Charlie had a lot to share. This interview has been edited for brevity.–CCD)

 

Pictuer of the cover of Odd couples.

Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano: What’s Odd Couples about—and what was most important to you in deciding to write it?

CH: Odd Couples is part of a series of “Things That Make You Go Yuck!” books, all about interesting and unusual critters and plants. This book explores some of the cooperative – and competitive and completely bonkers – relationships between organisms. With Odd Couples and all the Yuck! Books, we wanted to show young readers that even the “yucky” bits of nature can be fascinating, inspiring and sometimes oddly beautiful.

JD: Every second is life or death in the wild, and sometimes organisms have to work together to survive. Odd Couples covers everything from weird mating habits to strange friendships (and  frenemy-ships). From a crab that waves sea anemones around like pom poms to ward off predators to sloths that have strange friendships moths that lays eggs in sloth poop, Odd Couples covers the oddest of the odd.

CCD: You are two co-authors of a book named Odd Couples, so of course I have to ask: What kind of an odd couple are you? How would you describe your creative partnership?

CH: Oh, we’re odd. We met around fifteen years ago doing amateur standup comedy around the Boston area among a crowd of fellow misfits. We began collaborating on creative projects a few years ago, which has turned out to be much more productive than telling jokes at a coffee shop at midnight on a Tuesday. We’ve taken a “sure, let’s try it” approach to projects, leading to working together on writing books as well as short plays, producing a web series and short films, and various other oddities-in-progress.

JD:  In biological terms, we’re in a parasitic relationship. The parasite is whomever is not paying the tab that week.

CCD: What’s one of your favorite organism relationships from the book? Why is it a favorite?

CH: We researched a number of parasites for Odd Couples, which is a really… interesting way to spend your Saturday afternoons. My favorite is a flatworm called Ribeiroia that infects frogs during one phase of its life cycle. The worms’ next stage of development occurs in birds. To improve their odds of getting there, the worms affect infected frogs’ development, causing them to grow extra, gangly useless legs that hinder their hopping. These frogs are less likely to escape birds trying to eat them, which is good for the worms – though not as much for the Franken-frogs. It’s basically a Bond movie villain strategy for getting ahead.

JD: My favorite animals are spiders. (Yes, really. I had pet tarantulas when I was younger.) So, I have to go with the peacock spider. It’s an adorable little arachnid who basically does the Y.M.C.A. dance to attract a mate. Scientists recently discovered a new species of peacock spider that has markings that resemble a skeleton. You know, because spiders need to double-down on their creepy reputation.

CCD: Can you say a little about how your writing partnership works? For example, who does what when?

CH: On most projects, we discuss an outline and detailed plans for writing. I promptly forget most of it, and Jenn reminds me of the parts she says that we both liked the best. It’s not the most efficient process, but it works. While writing, we generally pass material back and forth – in the case of Odd Couples, we agreed on a format and researched the organisms we wanted to include, then split them up to each write about our favorites. Sort of like a fantasy sports draft, only with more spiders and parasites.

JD: Nothing happens until food and drinks arrive. It’s very possible that our waiter/waitress is our muse. Several hours later, we have something that resembles an outline typed out in Jenn-ese on my phone. I translate it to something that resembles English, and from there it’s a 50/50 split. We’ve been writing together for so long that we’ve developed a joint voice, and we sometimes forget which part each of us wrote. There have been more than a few times we have seen/heard a joke in something we’ve written and wondered which one of us was responsible for that nonsense.

CCD: What’s next for you as authors?

JD: Another infographics book (is) waiting in the wings after Awesome Space Tech.

(Awesome Space Tech, also an infographics project, is Jenn and Charlie’s latest book. –CCD)

CCD: Well, I’d bet that your humor and serious science creds have led to yet another book that will inspire, entertain, and fascinate kids. Your symbiosis certainly benefits others! Thanks so much for your time!

Win a FREE copy of Odd Couples

Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below.  (Scroll past the link to the previous post.) The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.

Good luck!

 

 

Snapshot of co-authors Jenn Dlugos and Charlie Hatton in a comic pose.

Boston-based collaborators, Jenn Dlugos and Charlie Hatton are co-authors of Prufrock Press’s series, “Things That Make You Go Yuck!” and, in Charlie’s words, “several other, far more ridiculous projects.”

By day, Jenn writes science textbooks, assessments, and lab manuals for grades K–12. By night, she writes comedy screenplays, stage plays, and other ridiculous things with Charlie Hatton. Her favorite creepy crawlies are spiders.

Charlie is a bioinformatician who slings data for a cancer research hospital–as well as a science fan and humorist. He enjoys working with genetic and other data to support cancer research, learning about new and interesting scientific areas, and referring to himself in the third person in biographical blurbs.

 

***

photo of author and STEM Tuesday contribuor Carolyn DeCristofanoCarolyn DeCristofano, a founding team member of STEM Tuesday, is a children’s STEM author and STEM education consultant. She recently co-founded STEM Education Insights, an educational research, program evaluation, and curriculum development firm which complements her independent work as Blue Heron STEM Education. She has authored several acclaimed science books, including Running on Sunshine (HarperCollins Children) and A Black Hole is NOT a Hole (Charlesbridge).