GIVING READERS A FRONT ROW SEAT by Patricia Newman
When I was a kid, I loved science. It was so relevant. It helped me make connections to the rest of the world, like the time my second-grade class designed an experiment to understand the concept of one million by making Xs on graph paper during our free time. (It took us forever!) Or when my biology class injected chicks with hormones. The testosterone chick grew larger and developed an aggressive personality. A light bulb went on about why boys do the things they do.
I’m also a nature-lover. I remember our warm-up run for field hockey practice on the cross-country course that took us through the woods. The crunch of fall leaves beneath my sneakers, the earthy smell, the bird song, the peacefulness. I loved that run. And today, my ideal vacation takes me back to nature.
I think that’s why I gravitate toward life science topics—and specifically conservation—when I write for kids. The world is full of so many wonders that have a direct connection to us. And going outside to experience some of these wonders enriches my writing in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. So, I try to incorporate back-to-nature research trips for my books.
For Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators That Saved an Ecosystem, I traveled to the Elkhorn Slough, an estuary off Monterey Bay in northern California. There I met Brent Hughes, a marine biologist who had uncovered a puzzling seagrass mystery. Seagrass usually grows in tidal areas, like the slough, and supports us in a variety of ways. It protects coastlines from damaging waves, stores excess carbon, and provides a safe place for young fish to mature. Except seagrass in the Elkhorn Slough should have been dead because of fertilizer run-off from surrounding farmlands. Fertilizer causes algae to coat the blades of grass and prevent them from soaking up the sun’s energy for photosynthesis. Only the seagrass in Elkhorn Slough thrived. Why?
The answer to that question became the focus of a startling new trophic cascade discovery—a cause-and-effect relationship with the apex predator in the food chain, similar to the one involving the return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park.
When I arrived at the slough, I boarded a skiff with Brent at the helm. We motored along the winding channel and watched sea otters grooming, pelicans diving for fish, and seals sunning themselves on muddy marsh banks. Lush green seagrass swayed just below the surface of the water. Above the hum of the motor, Brent explained how he tried and discarded several theories that might explain the hardiness of slough seagrass. Finally in a curious twist, he spoke with the captain of a commercial tour company whose passengers record sea otter sightings. Brent found a surprising correlation between nearly twenty years of sea otter counts and seagrass, but he needed to prove it.
As the story of his discovery unfolded, the main characters and their roles came into focus: seagrass, algae, sea hares (not aquatic rabbits, but slugs), crabs, and of course, sea otters which splashed in the water around me. Brent’s passion for his subject made me feel I was with him when he made his important discovery.
Of course, when I returned to my desk, I sifted through a mountain of research, including studies on other trophic cascades; interviews with a sea otter expert; the history of Elkhorn Slough; sea otters as an endangered species; and how to rethink our relationship to wildlife. These tangential topics rounded out Brent’s findings and made them more relatable to kids.
When my readers open Sea Otter Heroes I want them to have a front row seat to a new discovery that demonstrates the relevance of science to their lives. If sea otters save seagrass, and seagrass provides important functions for our coastline, our air, and our food supply, then sea otters save us. Conservation is about applying science to our everyday habits, and I want young readers to think deeply about their place on the planet.
Patricia Newman is the author several books that connect young readers to scientific headlines, such as Sea Otter Heroes, which received at starred review in Kirkus and is a Junior Library Guild Selection; Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a Green Earth Book Award winner; and Ebola: Fears and Facts, a Booklist Editors’ Choice Selection. In her free time, she enjoys nature walks, the feel of garden dirt between her fingers, and traveling. She is a frequent speaker at schools, libraries, and conferences. Visit her at www.patriciamnewman.com.