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 Brenna Maloney, author of Buzzkill: A Wild Wander Through the Weird and Threatened World of Bugs. This book is for anyone who’s ever watched an ant crawl across the kitchen counter and wondered, huh, where is that little creature going. And why? Brenna follows her own curiosity and relates her own up-close-and-personal moments with insects in a book that heavy on humor and fun facts.
Andi Diehn: I love the tone of this book! How did you come to choose an informal, conversational voice for this book?
Brenna Maloney: I actually had to fight for this. I had a very specific tone in mind for this book—I wanted it to feel like the reader and I were having a conversation. A lot of nonfiction is written in a way that keeps the writer out of it. Largely because the writer doesn’t want to become part of the story; the writer wants to present facts and sound like a voice of authority. But, I’m no authority. I’m not a scientist. I’m not an entomologist. I didn’t want to appear as if I was claiming any specialized knowledge that the reader can only have access to through me. I’m just a regular person who was curious about how insects are vital to our world. So, I asked a lot of experts questions and I had a lot of interesting first-hand experiences with insects, and I wanted to share those with readers and let them know that they can try these things, too.
When I wrote the book proposal, I wrote it using that voice—very conversational, a little conspiratorial with the reader, playful and fun and excitable. Because those really were the things I was feeling, and I didn’t want to cover that up.
I had a handful of rejections. A lot of publishers thought I was too weird or that the book wouldn’t sell because readers didn’t want to have a conversation. But there were two publishers who expressed interest. I spoke to each at length about the voice. I said: This is how I want it to sound. And of the two, only one said: Yes, we know. We like it. Be you.
It’s a wonderful and rare blessing when a publisher says that and means it. Luckily, mine did.
AD: I’m fascinated by the discussion of African killer bees – what a story! Why is it important to learn about different species that were created through human intervention?
Brenna: Terrifying, isn’t it? That poor fellow. He was trying so hard to build a better bee. His intentions were good. But Mother Nature has a way of doing her own thing. So, when those bees escaped….
This story is important, though, because it reminds us of how interconnected everything on our planet is with everything else. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and nothing happens without consequences. If you don’t understand these things, you can do more harm than good.
AD: It’s so interesting to read about your personal connections to different insects. Are these stories where you got the idea to create a whole book?
Brenna: No, actually! Most of these things happened as a result of me wanting to directly experience things I was learning about the insect world for the book. The more research I did, the more I wanted to interact directly with the natural world. To read about something gives you one experience. To connect directly with that thing gives you a different perspective. A personal connection. And this is something that I hope I passed along to readers. I know insects aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. That’s okay. But readers are probably interested in something. And you can learn a lot about your something if you just seek out information, which is what I did. I wanted to know. So, I made an effort to find out.
AD: A very predictable question: what’s your favorite insect and why?
Brenna: Impossible to pick! There are so many insects that I still don’t know about.
AD: Love your story about making cricket cookies because it shows us that eating insects doesn’t have to be crunchy. Can you talk a bit about this and why you framed it that way?
Brenna: More than anything, I wanted to make what I was learning accessible to other people. Eating bugs sounds gross. And, well, it certainly can be. Or, it can be tasty and even a little thrilling to try something new. I think we grow as people when we step out of our comfort zones and try to expand what we know.
Many people are quick to reject ideas or experiences because they seem too different from the things they know and are comfortable with. But, when you open yourself up—even a little—to something new, you gain so much. If you eat a cricket cookie and you hate it, that’s okay. But you’ve now tasted something that people in other parts of the world rely on as a food source. And because you were “brave” and tried it, you won’t judge it in the same way as you might have before you tasted it. That builds your understanding and your empathy.
AD: OMG – boiling the deer head! How important are insects as decomposers?
Brenna: Well, if you read Chapter Four, you know that insect decomposers are absolutely essential to life on Earth running smoothly.
Things die. All the time. Animals, yes, but plants, too. And what happens to those things when they die? Nature needs to clean up after itself. A good number of insects play the role of decomposer. By breaking things down, valuable substances—like water, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, phosphorus, and calcium—can be used again. You can start to see why decomposers are critical in the flow of energy through an ecosystem. Without insects, all this dead stuff would pile up and keep piling.
AD: The section on climate change, extinction, and the dangers to various insect species was hard to read, but important. Why include this kind of topic in a kid’s book?
Brenna: Ah. Well. I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I didn’t write this book for kids. Not really. A lot of kids already understand the perils our planet is facing and already acknowledge and value the importance of balanced ecosystems. I really wanted to reach adults because adults are the ones whose behaviors need to change the most. One industry expert I talked to said: “No adult will ever buy this book.” He said that adults don’t like to be told what to do, and they would never listen to my advice. I think that fella is wrong. I think most people—adults and young people—want to do good things. They want to help solve problems. But they may not always know how. So, I thought if I could get them to understand how important (but at-risk) insects are and then if I could offer some ideas of how we can change our behaviors to help insects, it would be a winning combination. But I couldn’t get anyone to believe in the project for adults. Everyone said a book like that would only sell to children. I still don’t really understand that. But book publishing is kind of a weird industry.
There’s some hard stuff in this book. You can’t shy away from talking about things because they are hard. Or because they aren’t as entertaining. I believe that people are smart, and they can handle difficult, complex information. My hope was that readers would either finish this book knowing more than when they started OR that they’d have enough of an interest in insects and our planet to pursue more knowledge from other resources.
AD: I’m so glad you included citizen science opportunities in the back matter! How does citizen science benefit both the world at large AND the people doing the science?
Brenna: We all live here, right? It’s our only planet. So, we have to take care of it. I think people do care, and most people would like to help, if only they knew what to do. I tried to write as many examples of engagement that I could think of—really simple things and more involved things—so that everyone who reads the book, if they are so inclined, could try to do something. We have some amazing scientists and researchers who are studying our planet in as many ways as they can. But it’s a big job. Having data really helps. Our observations as regular citizens can contribute to their data-driven work.
I also tend to believe that little things matter. If each of us does one small thing, then together those small things add up to a bigger thing. You only need to look at bees to see that this is true. A bee is a tiny thing. During her time on this mortal coil, a worker bee will produce about one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey—barely enough for you to taste. The smallest of things. She’s one bee. Yet she and her sister bees work together. To produce one pound of honey, those bees will visit two million flowers. One trip at a time.
That’s our path too. You, me, and anyone else we can get to help us. Each of us has to Be the Bee. We have to work steady and work hard and contribute in whatever ways we can to help Mother Earth until she feels more in balance. If we do enough small things, it starts to add up. I know small things matter—just ask the bee.