I love new books. In fact, about every month I go to the library or book store to pick up a few to read. And before I knew who Jess Keating was, I was an avid fan of her books I had come across. So when I found her on Twitter and then BEGAN TALK TO HER (because she's super nice), I was over the moon. Moments like these really make you treasure the relationships you can make over the internet- and I definitely treasure our relationship. Which makes me excited to showcase her work (and motivation, and drive, and awesomeness, and...) for Behind the Fins. See what makes this author tick below!
The Fins United Initiative: So Jess, thank you for agreeing to chat with TFUI. We really appreciate it! Can you tell us a bit about what got you interested in capturing wildlife through writing?
Jess Keating: The short answer is: animals are the most fascinating things in the world to me. It also became
apparent very early to me that I not only wanted to learn everything I could about them, but that I wasn’t fulfilled until I shared that information with others. I now recognize that my job isn’t really to be a writer, it’s to help people see how amazing the world is, in whatever way I can. I’ve always loved writing, and did it constantly as a child. As I got older, I knew that writing was the perfect way to share what I love with others.
TFUI: As you already know, we are big fans of your work. I mean, one of your books is on our book lists!
JK: Thank you!
TFUI: So how did you get into your career?
JK: The road to writing was a winding one for me. I knew that my goal in life is to show people how amazing animals and nature are, with the hope that they will also fall in love with the world around them. When I was younger, I worked in wildlife rehab, and that hands-on experience helped lead me to study zoology in university. I had an great time getting my degree and my Masters of Science, and I figured I’d become a professor. Thankfully I was open to other alternatives!
TFUI: As one should be, I think.
JK: When I was in graduate school, I was learning so much about animals, but never truly felt complete, because I wasn’t able to share what I was learning the way I wanted to share it. Academic writing is great (and we need it!), but it also quickly became apparent that my personality and writing style were suited to sharing science in a different way.
TFUI: SAME. I feel you, amiga.
JK: I wanted to reach kids with my work. It also became obvious to me that there was no way I could study everything I wanted to study if I became a professor. I decided to rethink my path. I took a break from the academic life, and within days, the notion of writing books was bouncing around loudly in my head. I couldn’t deny it anymore, I wanted to write and publish books. But, surprise! The first story I wanted to tell was fiction!
JK: My first book, How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes are Untied, was how I dipped my toes into the world of children’s book publishing. It was fiction, sure, but it was also a coming of age story about a little girl who lived in a zoo with zoologist parents, who was struggling to find her voice. (Go figure!) I also had a blast infusing the book with real scientific facts about a whole plethora of animals. It was my perfect combination of science, humor, and brave, brilliant girls.
TFUI: We love that!
JK: This book turned into a trilogy and was really well received, and before I knew it, I was carving out a little niche for myself in the book world. I was a zoologist-author, and still absolutely in love with animals and nature. And I was finally growing a platform to say what I wanted to say. After publishing the second book in that series, I knew it was time to return to my roots: I wanted to write nonfiction and science again, and do it my way. For months, I’d been tweeting a series of #KeatingCreature posts, sharing amazing animal facts with my followers online. An editor (the lovely Katherine Harrison at Knopf) noticed these tweets and mentioned offhand that maybe the world needed a book out of all these fascinating animals. (And yes, I freaked out.)
TFUI: I mean, we would too, haha.
JK: I was working on my first nonfiction picture book, Pink is for Blobfish at the time, so that editor was on the top of our list when my agent and I set out to submit it to publishing houses. She bought it within days, and I was fortunate enough to sell it as a series, which we called The World of Weird Animals. The second book, What Makes a Monster? (all about how we judge scary animals), followed the year after, and the third book, Cute as an Axolotl is out this August (2018)! I’m also thrilled that the fourth book will be out next year (2019).
TFUI: This is so exciting!
JK: I feel particularly proud of these books because they aren’t just books about animals: they’re books about how we see animals, and how we make judgments about them. They’re mirrors for us, as well as windows into the natural world. It’s the way I wanted to write in grad school, and I’m fortunate that it resonates with so many readers! So, to sum up this (very long!) story, writing books allowed me the freedom to explore everything that fascinates me, share my message with readers all over the world, and the opportunity to be creative every day. It’s the perfect job for me, but I never would have found it if I’d stayed on the path I’d planned. I’m so glad for detours.
TFUI: Same! We think the world is really lucky to have an author like you. Now, you've written quite a few books about revolving sharks (such as "Shark Lady" and "How to outswim a shark without a snorkel"). Why did you feel the need to write these books?
JK: It’s true! Sharks seem to find their way into many of my books. I think sharks are incredible creatures, and they represent so much: physically they can be impressive or mysterious. Emotionally they can represent our fears. And even spiritually, sharks can teach us some pretty deep lessons.
TFUI: How so?
JK: I wrote Shark Lady because I wanted to tell the story of a real life hero of mine. Eugenie Clark faced so many obstacles in her life as a shark scientist, and she broke barriers every step of the way. Women in science are often erased from history, and I knew the time had come that I used my microphone (so to speak) to highlight her. She inspired so many people in her life, and seeing young kids read about her now and tell me that they want to be a shark scientist like her is absolutely wonderful!
TFUI: Tell us a little bit about "How to Outswim a Shark Without a Snorkel."
JK: How to Outswim a Shark Without a Snorkel is the second book my trilogy series. The main character, Ana, is volunteering at her local aquarium. She loves the animals, but despises the fact that she has to work with her sworn enemy from school! Sharks were a perfect foil to this developing relationship, because readers soon learn that there is more to these girls than we realize. It’s easy to see some people as scary, but deep down, they are complex and full of surprises (just like sharks!)
TFUI: Do you think exposure to nature through literature can lead to better conservation initiatives in the long run?
JK: I do! I think any exposure to nature will help conservation initiatives. Every person connects to their world in different ways, so the more methods we have to showcase the amazing natural world, the better. There is no substitute for hands-on nature exploration, but in many places (especially with kids), there isn’t the opportunity to see a whale up close, or a tiger, or even an earthworm. Books can open doors and show readers parts of the world that are so far removed from their daily life.
TFUI: We 100% agree.
JK: When I was a kid, I had a whole collection of books that let me travel around the world and meet animals that I would otherwise never encounter. In a way, those books acted as seeds to me, planting an idea of the world that grew as I did. I fell in love with wild creatures and wild spaces through books, and that led me to be curious about the real-life nature around me. It’s also a case of “to solve the problem, we must know the problem”. Through books, readers are able to learn about what’s out there, and the challenges that exist in conservation. Not everyone will be inspired by books, but for those that are, they can be the first step to a lifetime of curiosity and
empathy for the natural world.
TFUI: What do you think is the best way to get the general public interested in the natural world?
JK: I think we need to expose the general public to nature in any way we can, but also help people develop mindfulness, because that’s where we’ll find a true appreciation for the natural world. We live in a fast-paced, highly commercial society, and it’s easy to get overthrown by the momentum of our lives. It’s also very easy to take simple things for granted, like trees, soil, bodies of water, and animals. But spending time in nature, or focused on nature, is a way to reconnect with the beating heart of our world. We need nature to survive, and it feels good to be
part of it, so developing ways for everyone to experience it is so important. Education, opportunity, and a collective and intentional effort to grow the connection between ourselves and nature are all part of the solution.
TFUI: Do you think people in your country have a good relationship with the ocean environment?
JK: I think there is always more we can do to cultivate a relationship with the ocean, no matter where we live. I’m in Ontario, Canada, so I wasn’t exposed to a lot of oceans as a kid. But, we did have a big emphasis on the Great Lakes and their ecological importance when I was in school. One thing that I would love to see is more outreach about the global effects of ocean stewardship and awareness. So many people believe that because they aren’t living beside the ocean, that it doesn’t affect them. Of course, they couldn’t be further from the truth!
TFUI: In your opinion, what can be done to strengthen this relationship between the people of Canada and the ocean?
JK: Coming from a children’s publishing and education standpoint, one thing that I’ve noticed in the past few years is an increase in virtual visits with scientists in classrooms. I think this is so important for young people to experience, and getting to meet real life ocean scientists can go a long way to introducing these kids to the world outside their normal environments. Technology can be an incredible force for good, so seeing more teachers actively seek out ocean-related scientists to enrich what kids are learning about in class would be wonderful. Day to day, I’d also love to see more education and outreach about sustainable food options, so people can think more responsibly about their fish consumption!
TFUI: YES. That last point especially is why we created our page all about sustainable seafood option apps for people worldwide to use! [throws hands up in the air] Woo sustainable fisheries! [laughs] What do you hope 2018 changes for sharks in regards to their image in the media?
JK: I hope that we can continue to chip away at the “nasty shark” narrative that’s pervaded our society for so long. I hope people (especially kids) have access to quality science to show them how diverse sharks are, and how beautiful and crucial they are to our global ecosystems. My way of doing this is to write engaging books that get kids thinking critically about how they view sharks and other animals, but I think anyone can use their talents to help the cause. (And because I can’t miss the opportunity to recommend a book, your readers should check out Why Sharks Matter, by Lily Williams!)
TFUI: She's another one of our favourite authors! She does great work. What do you hope people take away from your work, Jess?
JK: Above all, I hope my work inspires people to stay curious about the world around them, and empowers them to take positive, mindful steps to create what they want to see out there. I want to help them fall in love with the natural world, science, and their own ability to create amazing things that express what fascinates them. If I can give them a laugh or two while doing it, that’s even better.
TFUI: What do you find the most rewarding part of what you do?
JK: Honestly? I used to think the most rewarding part of my job was seeing one of my books on shelves. But now I realize that it’s the feeling after I see my book on a shelf: I want to grab my notebook and start something new. When it’s all said and done, and the books are out there meeting readers, my happy place is learning, exploring, and sharing it all with others in creative ways. I especially love it when someone tells me their child wants to be a shark scientist because of one of my books!
TFUI: Hearing that just makes my heart glow. So what's next for you?
JK: So many books! I’ve recently sold a series of picture books with Scholastic called Ask Me Anything with Dr. Sugarpaws, about a sugar glider with a PhD, running an advice column for her fellow creatures! I’ve also got another picture book called Ocean Speaks on the way, all about oceanographic cartographer, Marie Tharp. Marie mapped the ocean floor (and receives very little credit for it in history!), so I knew she was the perfect scientist to follow up Shark Lady.
TFUI: Definitely sounds like the perfect follow-up!
JK: I’m also returning to middle grade fiction and comedy writing, with a new series that revolves around science, and the great thinkers of history. I’m not allowed to say more than that, but I’m so excited to blend science with funny fiction again!
TFUI: Where can TFUI readers keep up with you, Jess?
JK: If readers want to learn more about my upcoming work, they can find me online at www.jesskeating.com, or tweet me @Jess_Keating. I also write a free monthly ezine, The Curious Creative, that blends science and the arts for kids. To subscribe for your kids or classrooms, visit my website! You can also check out some educator videos for some of my books below!
TFUI: That you so much for chatting with us, Jess! You rock!
JK: Thank you so much for having me, Melissa!
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK jess FOR HER TIME AND
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
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