Interview with Author Anita Sanchez
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 the amazing Anita Sanchez, environmental scientist and the author of Save The . . . Whale Sharks. The book is part of a series created by Chelsea Clinton about animals at risk of extinction. Anita’s book is a fascinating look at the one of the world’s most mysterious animals – one that may be at risk of extinction. Kirkus Review calls her book, “Eloquent and informative.”
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Christine Taylor-Butler: Anita, you are the award winning author of a number of books centered around our natural environment. You write with such passion for young readers and it shows in your body of work. What do you want readers to know about you?
Anita Sanchez: From the time I was a little kid I’ve been interested in nature. I grew up in a suburban apartment, but behind it was a belt of woods and I could wander off. So many children don’t have access to experiences like that. They walk out of their homes and they’re on a mowed lawn or a paved street instead of climbing a tree or swimming in a pond. I was lucky to be surrounded by natural things I could explore.
CTB: So you grew up surrounded by nature. Did you follow that passion towards a career in the field?
Anita: I did. I graduated from Vassar with a degree in Ecology and Conservation. Afterwards I worked for many years for the New York State Department for Conservation. I worked in the field taking people of all ages on nature walks and showing them how incredible the world around them can be. Over the course of my career I learned how to get kids excited about nature. I discovered that some kids are fearful about being out in nature. It’s interesting to read about far away rain forests, for example, but I try to get kids interested in the nature that surrounds them, in their school grounds and backyards.
CTB: Of course a natural extension of that became writing books to reach a broader audience?
Anita: Most of my books are an attempt to get people to appreciate the beauty of nature. To make people look at things in a different light. One of the things that happened during the quarantine was nature center memberships began skyrocketing. People discovered the healing power of nature. When I was teaching I would take children across the field and into the woods. It was a new experience for many of them. I’m very determined to make learning a hands-on experience.
CTB: You wanted to encourage children to stop and look closer at the living things that make up their environment.
Anita: Exactly! I wrote a nonfiction book about mud puddles. “Hello Puddle” is set in a tiny suburban backyard. It shows all the animals that come to visit the puddle: worms, slugs, bugs, and birds. We don’t look closely at them or see them as a habitat for other species.
I also wrote a book about dandelions. Many people loathe them and treat them like weeds to eliminate. But they are rich in nectar and can spell life or death for honey bees. So while people see them in a negative light, I try to explain they have tremendous value to nature and the ecosystem.
“Dermatologists have estimated that one ounce of urushiol would be enough to give a rash to thirty million people.”
Anita. Even poison ivy has value. Did you know that humans are the only species that get itchy from exposure to the oil? Yes, it affects only us. But out in the woods it’s a wonderful plant for wildlife. So in my books I teach readers “Here’s how you identify it and avoid it.” But I also explain about the animals that survive on it. Animals, birds and butterflies snack on the leaves and nectar without harm. It’s fascinating.
CTB: More recently you were both asked to write three books for Chelsea Clinton’s new Save The . . . (Animals) series. The first is whale sharks, followed by giraffes and gorillas. How did that come about?
Anita: Philomel reached out through my agent and asked me to write for the series. The books all needed to follow a specific format. I liked that the first two chapters were focused on learning about the animals instead of starting with their risk of extinction. I read a quote once, “In the end, we only conserve what we love.” I thought, “children have to fall in love with the animals first.” I wanted them to think “Wow, whale sharks are so cool.” I introduce their amazing habitats and how mysterious they are. The third chapter then talks about how and why they are at risk of disappearing. But we end with the fourth chapter that explains all the amazing things people are doing to try to save them and what kids can do.
CTB: Most people are surprised at how much research we have to put into books like these, even when they are aimed at younger readers. What was your process like?
Anita: Writing about animals was different because I usually write about subjects closer to home. With whale sharks I found there weren’t a lot of current books on the topic. In the old days I’d go to the library and read everything I could find. But now things are changing so much that scientists are discovering things every month. The internet is a wonderful tool for scientists to update quickly. There are many scientific papers that you can decipher to get the data you need.
CTB: Agreed. I found even with tigers pandemic shutdowns made sourcing books from libraries harder. And what I found often wasn’t current. But there was a lot of scientific research from organizations, museums and universities available. What was one of your takeaways from the process that teachers and students can learn from?
Anita: I discovered scientists don’t always agree. When researching giraffes, for example, I communicated with four different groups of scientists who were passionate about their information, But their information didn’t always agree with what other scientists were saying (how many species, etc.) If you ask ten different scientists you’ll get eleven different answers!
CTB: Even with scientific research the data was not always in agreement. At school visits I always tell students to use more than one source when writing classroom assignments and if they don’t agree, find out why.
Anita: Young readers think scientists know everything. But there’s so much changing about what we know in the moment and so much left to learn. Here’s a good example. Whale sharks are fascinating and mysterious. I tried to make that the theme of the book. Scientists haven’t even scratched the surface on their research. We don’t know why whale sharks go where they go. Or how deep they swim. No one has observed whale sharks giving birth. And here’s another mystery: whale sharks have thousands of teeth but they don’t chew anything.
CTB: You and I have the same philosophy about why we write STEM for young people. That books are a jumping off point. It’s not about reading to get answers for the test, but to use the information to better observe the world around you.
Anita: Yes. I want to tell young readers, “This is what you can do when you become a wildlife biologist. This is the mystery you can solve.” For instance whale sharks are so elusive. They will dive a mile deep in the ocean and then turn up a thousand miles away. So it’s not about reading to answer questions on a test, it’s about thinking, “I can do that when I’m older. Search for answers to mysteries we haven’t solved yet and ask questions we haven’t thought to ask. That’s what I hope for when readers dive in to my books. That’s what I love about this current series. We present the animal, show where the problems are that are putting them at risk, then showing readers ways to be part of the solution even at a young age.”
CTB: You’ve been a great asset to the field of conservation and to children’s STEM literature. Are there other books on the horizon that we should be watching out for?
Anita: I’m excited to have several books coming out that were delayed due to Covid-19 and supply chain issues:
Melt Down (Workman publishing) is my book about glaciers and how they’re impacted by climate change. There are more than 100,000 glaciers and they hold 75 percent of Earth’s fresh water. But they’re at risk now. This was a hard book for me to write because there is a lot of bad news about what is happening to them. But I do suggest action kids can take. I want them to feel like they have the power to be activists. I suggest career possibilities they can pursue if they’re interested in saving the planet. It debuts on November 1 Workman.
The Monkey Trial is a book about the Scopes Trial in 1925. With all the book banning this will be timely. A teacher was arrested for the crime of teaching about Darwin’s theory of evolution. Two years from now will be the centennial of that trial. We risk repeating that era now: teachers and librarians being turned into the bad guys and dragged into the court for teaching. John Scopes read aloud from an authorized textbook. It was a single paragraph. But that violated Tennessee law and he was put on trial.
The Forest in the Sea comes out February 2023 from Holiday House. I write about about seaweed and how it can provide solutions to planetary problems. Not only is it a habitat for aquatic life, but it can remove toxins so it has possibilities for water filtration. Seaweed also creates half the air we breathe. It can be feed to livestock to reduce the methane gas. So the book is about seaweed and how to think about it creatively for solving problems. I show readers how to find types of seaweed where they live. I want them to put down the book and go out and explore nature.
CTB: Note to readers. Anita’s books are well worth exploring and acquiring for young readers. She’s a STEM trained conservationist who practices what she talks about in her books. Looking beyond the obvious to explore the mysteries in our living world. But also, showing how each of us can find solutions to keep the planet healthy for future generations.
I would like to especially recommend her blog: The Unmowed Corner. with years of essays and articles inviting you to take a closer look at the often unloved plants and animals in nature that surrounds us.
Win a FREE copy of Save The . . . Whale Sharks.
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Anita Sanchez has written about everything from animals and insects to plants and mud puddles. A graduate of Vassar she started on a life-long career after a summer job leading nature walks. Now she’s an educator who develops curriculum for schools, librarians, museums and arboretums. Her awards have included the Cook Prize Honor book, The American Horticultural Society “Growing Good Kids” award, finalist for AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books, and Bank Street Center for Children’s Literature Best Children’s Books of the year. She has traveled all over the world in search of knowledge about the environment, including diving at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and more recently exploring Egypt. And here’s a fun fact: she’s explored 48 of the 50 states.
Your host is Christine Taylor-Butler, MIT engineering nerd, retired college interviewer and author of 95 books for children including Save The . . . Tigers, and many other nonfiction books for kids. She is also the author of the STEM-based middle grade sci-fi series The Lost Tribes. Follow @ChristineTB on Twitter and/or @ChristineTaylorButler on Instagram