A Bat That’s Afraid of the Dark? How I used “fear itself” to connect readers to my beloved creatures of the night – by Dan Riskin
Think back to the last time you discovered something special, and how much you wanted to share it with the world. Maybe it was a piece of music that you really connected to, or a new book you just couldn’t stop thinking about. Or maybe it was something even bigger – a new person you’d fallen in love with and wanted to introduce to everyone you know. That’s how I feel about bats. Every time I see a new species in the wild, learn a new detail from a scientific paper, or push back the curtain on their secretive lives with my own research, I want to scream what I’ve learned from the rooftops! The problem, though, is that people are often too freaked out by bats to listen. So to help people hear what I have to share, I’ve written a book about fear itself.
I’ve never identified as a children’s author. I’m a scientist. So this is new ground for me. My specialty is the biomechanics of bat movement – understanding the physics and engineering principles that underlie the amazing things they do. For example, I once led an international team studying how bats land on a ceiling. We made dozens of high-speed videos like this one:
This video is a perfect example of something I want to share with everyone in the world – LOOK HOW COOL IT IS!!! But even though I published a paper about it in a scientific journal, and even though I shared it with the media – even the NY Times – I still felt like I was mostly reaching people who already loved bats. I was preaching to the choir. I needed to try harder.
Thirteen years later, I’m doing just that, with a book about bats for kids. Fiona the Fruit Bat is the story of a young bat (the same species as the one in the video, Carollia), who is about to take her first flight. But she’s afraid of the dark, and must unlock a secret hidden inside herself before she can fly. That fear of the unknown is exactly what keeps most people from loving bats, and more importantly, is something every reader can relate to.
And I know a thing or two about fear of trying something new! I’m terrified about how this book will be received! I worry about the kids’ reactions, the parents’ reactions, and how my colleagues in the world of bat research will react, too.
But I think it’s worth doing, despite how scary it is. I believe it will be a lot easier for people who don’t yet love bats to care when they can empathize with them. So I’m helping readers see what it’s like to be a baby bat.
The central premise of the book, Fiona’s fear of the dark, might sound like an anthropomorphic device, but it isn’t far-fetched at all. Everything in the book is based on the real biology of bats. When Carollia are first born, they don’t know how to echolocate – so their world really is dark.
Echolocation is a trick adult bats use to perceive their environment. You perceive the room around you when light bounces off things. Adult bats perceive a room when the sound of their own voice bounces off things. Baby bats can’t echolocate yet, and a cave can be too dark for them to see with their eyes, so they sense their world through smell, touch, taste, and sound. Like a puppy with its eyes closed, a baby bat can only be aware of the world immediately around itself.
But about four weeks after they’re born, everything changes. At that point their wings have grown big enough to let them fly, and it’s only then that they use echolocation for the first time. To me, that moment seems no less marvelous than when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Suddenly the far corners of that baby bat’s cave snap into view. It’s world explodes in size from a few cm around to the whole cave and forest outside. It’s Luke learning The Force. It’s Neo seeing the Matrix. But it’s REAL!!!
I’ve imagined what that moment must be like for them so many times. When I catch bats in nets, and hold them, as I have many times with Carollia in Costa Rica, Belize, and Trinidad, I like to look them in the eye. You’ve done the same with your pet dog or cat, so you know what I mean when I say there’s someone in there. There’s a sentient being looking back at you. One can’t help but imagine what they experience.
I hope this book does justice to the overall magnificence of bats. I enjoyed working with the talented illustrator Rachel Qiuqi on this project, and seeing the bat I’d imagined come to life in full colour on the page. And I was so grateful to my editor, the accomplished children’s author Kallie George, who kept pushing me to make the story clearer and more accessible. And to make sure the science was as accurate as possible, I even got a little help from Mirjam Knörnschild, who is the world expert on the development of echolocation in baby bats, and who happened to be there with me at a field station in Costa Rica, when we were both young students and I met a Carollia bat for the very first time.
The process of writing my first book for kids has been exciting, but like any new experience, it’s also been scary. I’d have been far more comfortable if I’d stuck to writing scientific papers for scientists. But if I ever hope to share the wonder of bats with a broader audience, I really have no choice but to follow Fiona’s example.
Biologist DAN RISKIN is obsessed with bats and has spent decades researching the biomechanics of how bats move, and making and appearing on TV shows (he was the former host of Daily Planet and readers will recognize him from his appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, CNN and more) to help audiences fall in love with science. Dan’s first book, Mother Nature Is Trying to Kill You, was a Canadian bestseller. This is his first picture book.
Fascinating. I will be looking for this book. Thanks for the post.
Love it! Can’t wait to find it on shelves.
Buying this book for our library RIGHT THIS MINUTE! I can’t wait to hand it to young readers and tell them the things you’ve shared here.