Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!
Today we’re interviewing Patricia Newman, author of Eavesdropping on Elephants: How Listening Helps Conservation. This fascinating book is a 2019 Outstanding Science Trade Book for Students: K-12 (National Science Teachers Association and the Children’s Book Council) and won a Eureka! Gold Award from the California Reading Association.
Mary Kay Carson: Why did you write Eavesdropping on Elephants?
Patricia Newman: Back in the 1980s I visited Kenya and saw elephants in the wild for the first time. I watched the way they moved, observed their family groups, and experienced how fiercely the matriarch protects her herd when she charged our safari van. One day we took a hike outside the national park and came across a massive elephant skull. Any child who has seen The Lion King understands the circle of life, but it wasn’t at all clear to us how this elephant had died. Natural causes or poaching? The tusks were gone. Did a park official or a poacher take them? The idea that a poacher carried away the tusks under cover of darkness gave me shivers.
I must have passed my interest in elephants on to my daughter Elise, because she worked for Cornell’s Elephant Listening Project as an undergrad. She had daily contact with Katy Payne, Peter Wrege, and Liz Rowland. She explained their research to me and described how she sat in front of the computer cataloguing forest sounds. And she told stories of snatching the headphones off her ears when an elephant trumpeted a very loud alarm call. I knew then I wanted to write about them. Elise handled the introductions, and the rest…well, you know.
MKC: How did you research this book? Did it involve travel?
Patricia: I did not spend time with forest elephants. The scientists were not at their research station in the Central African Republic when I wrote this book, but I did sit in the Elephant Listening Project’s lab and listen to forest sounds. I had headphones on my ears and for hours I watched video and listened to sound files.
You might think listening to sounds is a poor substitute for actually being in the field, but it wasn’t. The sounds were transformative and immersive! I felt elephant rumbles and roars deep in my chest. I heard water sloshing as elephants walked through it. I literally swatted away a mosquito buzzing in my ear. I could imagine the forest mud sucking at my feet. And I learned how to identify the sounds of frogs, buffalo, parrots, gorillas, and chimps.
By allowing my ears to take over, I learned to appreciate the forest in a whole new way. And I wanted my readers to have the same experience. Eavesdropping on Elephants tells the story of field scientists helping an endangered species, but it’s so much more. Through the power of video and audio QR codes, the book allows readers to walk in the scientists’ shoes inside the forest. I always ask kids to tell me what they see in the videos or hear in the audio. Their responses would make Katy and Peter proud.
MKC: To whom did you imagine yourself writing to while writing the book?
Patricia: Throughout, I imagined my daughter at age ten. What would she want to know? Elephant facts, for sure. But she was also interested in the “how” and “why” of the world. This book was a challenge because the narrative unfolded over the course of many years. How would I squeeze in Katy Payne’s early work with infrasound, sprinkle in some Elephant Listening Project history, and still keep the ten-year-old Elise engaged? I decided to use the passage of time to my advantage.
Science is not performed in a vacuum, nor is a long-term investigation quick. I thought the story of how Katy’s work on infrasound at the Oregon zoo morphed into ELP was a great example of real science in action. Questions and observations often lead scientists down unexpected paths and to unexpected conclusions.
Also, scientists sometimes age out of their work. When Katy retired from ELP, Peter carried on her vision but added his own flair. I thought the staff change was a great example of the inclusiveness of science—how different individuals can contribute to and build on the same project.
MKC: For readers who loved Eavesdropping on Elephants, what other middle-grade books would you suggest?
Patricia: A tough question because I don’t know of any other books about forest elephants for children (or for adults for that matter). They are just coming into their own as a species and few people know about them. Young readers interested in elephant research might consider The Elephant Scientist by Caitlin O’Connell and Donna M. Jackson, which features Caitlin’s work with savanna elephants. Also, consider Bravelands #3: Blood and Bone by Erin Hunter, the author of the Warriors series. The third installment of Bravelands is told by the African elephant—but it’s a savanna elephant, not a forest elephant.
Win a FREE copy of Eavesdropping on Elephants!
Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. 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.
Your host this week is fellow elephant fan Mary Kay Carson, author of Mission to Pluto and other nonfiction books for kids. @marykaycarson