Little and Literary
When most people see a book about Onthophagus acumiantus, they might give it a pass. A book about a cheetah, a chipmunk, a chimpanzee, sure, but a beetle? And, written by a scientist? Dry, dense, info dump. No thanks.
But that bias was is old-fashioned. Come on people, this is 2023. The fact-filled books of today offer so much more.
Beetle Battles: One Scientists Journey of Adventure and Discovery by entomologist Doug Emlen could change a few minds. Let’s take a look at how this 170-page about a beetle the size of a pencil eraser could change minds about what a science book can be.
There’s nothing at all wrong about an insect book that sticks to the data—one that presents quantitative data for those who are looking—but what about those readers who aren’t quite so into numbers and charts? How can they enjoy science?
Let’s have story! Literary language! And a “So what?” that has implications about the next world war!
A Look at Language
Emlen starts his story:
Prologue: A Horrible, Hot Night
The South American country of Ecuador straddles the Andes mountain chain like a Band-Aid stretched over a knuckle. The capital city of Quito sits high on the knuckle (9,300 feet elevation), and a braided chain of bus routes threads north-south along the rugged mountain backbone, weaving in between towering volcanic peaks and a string of little cities connecting Quito with Columbian to the north and Peru to the south. The country plunges downward on either side of this backbone, steep mountainsides covered with cloud forest dropping to the scorching Pacific coast to the west, and into the sweltering Amazon basin to the east.
Can you picture it? We are not yet even in a scene—this is just the prologue—but already, I know that this writer is going to paint this story in such a way that I can feel it. I re-read the paragraph, seeking out how he did that. To me, the things that drew me in were:
- Verbs: straddles, stretched, sits, threads, weaving, connecting, plunges, covered, dropping. I thought I’d just pick out the vivid ones, but discovered every single one was.
- Descriptors: horrible, high, braided, rugged, towering, steep, scorching, sweltering. Not a weak one in the bunch. Bonus: all that alliteration! Someone was having fun with their writing.
- Nouns: chain, Band-Aid, knuckle, backbone, peaks, string, cloud forest, basin. Writing it out this way, I noticed how many of those nouns create layered analogies. Not a simple one-and-done simile, but a Band-Aid (analogy anyone can relate to) over a knuckle and the city Emlen wants us to focus on is high on that knuckle. What other layered analogies can you find?
A Look at Structure
Emlen gives us 24 short chapters organized into 6 parts. The narrative, in the main text, is supported by lengthy, expository insets. These insets are not ancillary, they significant enough to each have a place in the table of contents. In addition, Emlen give us 4 journal entries—what a cool way to experience research right alongside the expert!
A Look at Approach
Emlen turns “science book” stereotype on its head by writing in first person. Sure, there are middle grade books on science topics that follow the story of a scientist (see the brilliant works of Sy Montgomery, Mary Kay Carson, Patricia Newman and many more), but this is first person. This is “I was going to solve a mystery.” “I had that one lingering problem . . . “ “I realized with a thrill. . . This is scientific process where we are inside the mind of the scientist.
And this first person approach also gave the opportunity to turn the “scientist” stereotype on its head. Emlen intentional shows us his emotions throughout. Yes this book is about a beetle, about weapons and evolution and the human arms race, but the story is how one person followed a creature, stumbled through a long line of questions, and then tumbled onto a stage in front of the big wigs of the FBI, DOD and CIA. His message: if we want to overcome the number one threat to our country’s security we better start looking at the horns of itty bitty beetles.
Dry, dense info dump? Nope. Today, there’s nonfiction to lure in every kind of reader out there!
Heather L. Montgomery writes about itty bitty bugs too. She’s had a ton of fun writing first person narrative middle grade books about poop and roadkill among other unsettling topics. Be on the look out for Sick! The Twists and Turns Behind Animal Germs due out February 2024! www.HeatherLMontgomery.com
The O.O.L.F Files
Curious about inset/sidebar/call out terminology? Check out https://thebookcouple.com/2018/01/01/additional-typographical-features-of-a-book/ .