This month I had the honor of doing my first interview for How to Be an Elephant with the wonderful Luann Toth from School Library Journal. Below, you can read our conversation on research, process, and the future of elephants.
Following on the heels of her Sibert Honor–winning Neighborhood Sharks, Katherine Roy offers a dynamic informational picture book, How to Be an Elephant: Growing Up in the African Wild (Roaring Brook/David Macaulay Studio, Sept. 2017), about what young pachyderms must learn in order to survive.
1) Did you know from the onset that the format you used so successfully in Neighborhood Sharks would lend itself to an exploration of elephant biology and habitat?
No, but I had hoped that it would because I wanted to write a companion book to go with Sharks. I got started by reading as much as I could about African elephants and making notes in my sketchbook about the features and facts that I thought were the most interesting. A few weeks later, I marked off my wall with tape to label where each spread would go and then started sticking notes and ideas where I thought they might belong [in the story]. As I continued to read and make notes, I pushed and pulled at the information, puzzling together the final framework for what would eventually become How to Be an Elephant.
Though, I should tell you that, right away, I ran up against a huge difference between writing this book and Neighborhood Sharks: the amount of scientific research that’s been done on African elephants is staggeringly huge compared to what’s been done on great white sharks. At the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, I had five guys to talk to about everything, whereas with elephants there were different teams working at different research institutions around the world, each one devoted to some specific aspect of elephant behavior or biology, like audio or chemical communication, or competing theories about seismic communication between herds. Early on, I quickly felt like I was drowning in information—it was way too much to pack into a 48-page book, or even a 480-page book!—but here again, the existing Sharks format came to my rescue because it gave me the means to edit down what I was learning. How to Be an Elephant could only be about one thing—the story of a baby African elephant growing up—and that guiding principle helped me finally find a workable rhythm for the book.
2) What came first, the text or the artwork?
The idea for How to Be an Elephant began with an image—a sketch of a brand new baby struggling to her feet—and the next logical thing in my mind was to follow the story of that baby’s progress from infant to adult. Just like humans, it takes years for a young elephant to learn what she needs to know in order to survive, and that social proximity was interesting to explore after doing a book about the physical proximity we share with great white sharks. How is this little thing going to grow up to be so big? What will it take for her to succeed?
Well, she has to get on her feet and get moving within a few minutes of being born, and she has to walk and nurse within a couple of hours. And then she’ll have to keep up with the herd as she starts learning the other basics, like smelling and eating and talking. Each of these moments came up as a mental image, and then I made sketches and notes as I read more about each skill. It’s hard to be a young elephant, just like it’s hard to be a kid, so I hope that my readers are able to relate to the baby’s struggles!
3) What do you feel you could convey through artwork, as opposed to nature photography?
I strive to do three things in every nonfiction illustration: to be biologically accurate, to explain some new piece of information, and to keep the story moving forward. Photography is great for accuracy but often falls short in the other two categories because it can’t capture multiple layers of information or easily show multiple moments in space or time. A photographer can also be severely limited in getting access to their subject matter; for example, it’s exceptionally difficult to witness an elephant birth in the wild because it happens so infrequently and often in the middle of the night. It might also be extraordinarily dangerous for a photographer to try and approach a laboring elephant mother while she’s surrounded by the herd.
However, as an illustrator, I can choose from infinite moments in time and capture scenes from an infinite number of points of view. Through illustration, I can stage and direct anything I want—like the spread with the trunks caressing the newborn—without worrying about how impossible the timing or the “camera” angle might be to capture in real life. With How to Be an Elephant, I was free to move around my cast of 10 elephant characters until I was completely satisfied with a composition. I also played with color, lighting, and gesture to my heart’s content. I never felt the need to anthropomorphize the baby or the herd because I knew that they were already so relatable. My job was to find beauty and vulnerability in each scene and keep readers turning the pages, even if at times the story led to something raw or unexpected.
4) You’ve captured the colors and light of the savanna to a tee and your loose line work makes the animals appear to be in perpetual motion. How many sketch books did you fill on your trip to Kenya?
Unfortunately, as it turns out, bouncing around in a jeep makes for very difficult drawing circumstances, but I did manage to do some work in my sketchbook along with shooting over 6,000 photos and videos while I was in Kenya. Once I returned, the field notes and sketches served as the basis for the first solid draft of the story, while the videos in particular were critical for capturing a sense of how African elephants move and behave. I would search through my digital albums looking for a helpful piece of footage—maybe a herd crossing in front of our vehicle, or a family grazing in the brush—and then draw while watching that particular section over and over again. This method led me to notice and include so many more details in the final artwork, like the flat underside of their trunks, and the structural differences between their front feet and their back feet, and the way that they curl their trunks when scenting the air, and shift their weight around when standing in the shade to escape the heat. Even though at times I felt like I had too much visual reference to work with (look at all of the amazing, beautiful things that I’m leaving out!!), going to Kenya was an invaluable part of finding this story, and the book would have been impossible to do without the trip.
5) Normally, the introduction of a diagram or scientific explanation of a concept or action can bring a nonfiction narrative to a grinding halt. You have turned the model completely on its head by making the diagrams as dynamic and visually exciting as the primary narrative. How do you balance how much to show and how much to tell?
I expect a diagram to continue telling the story; if it doesn’t fit into the narrative, or at least fit the tone, it gets revised or thrown out completely. I want young kids to able to learn from my books from just looking at them, so if there’s a way to make a piece of information more playful and expressive then, Yahtzee!, let’s run with that idea and see where it leads. And whenever I get stuck while trying to figure out a section, chances are that I’m asking the wrong questions or—as David Macaulay might say—I’m trying to solve the wrong problem. So I back up and look for a new way in for that piece; there’s just no room to be boring in a 48-page book.
As for “showing” versus “telling,” I want the art to carry the emotional thread of the story. That way, the text serves as a kind of voice over for the more abstract ideas that can’t easily be shown. For example, I can’t draw all 100,000 muscles in an elephant’s trunk, so that information needs to stay in the form of words. But the functions of the trunk—the lifting and pinching and breathing and bathing—why not let that be shown in the form of a metaphor, something clever and fun that matches the visual tone of the other art? If I keep my feelings in the drawings and let the facts do all the talking, then the information should be enough to create a compelling story.
6) You were totally forthright in your authors note about the prospects of these magnificent creatures surviving in the wild. Do you think we do a disservice to children, and to wild animals, to depict them as cute and cuddly creatures in our popular media?
I think that kids can handle a lot of real-world information and that we often do them a disservice when we water it down. Cute and cuddly can definitely help us connect to an animal in fiction, but when that animal is reduced to only its friendly characteristics, or given entirely human behavior within that animal’s body, then we can lose track of what an elephant actually is—and how important they are beyond entertainment. Elephants are cute, but they can also be fierce and terribly boring. Herbivores do a lot of standing around and chewing grass, but just by eating and walking and pooping, elephants have been shaping the African landscape for literally millions of years, and any number of species have evolved to rely on the changes that elephants exert on their habitat. All over the globe today, the environment is at odds with the economy, and the future of wildlife—and our future, really—is in the hands of lawmakers and world leaders. We have to choose who we’re going to be, and what kind of world we want to leave behind for our children. My hope is that this book, and helping educate kids about the way things really live, is a step in the right direction.
First published at School Library Journal in their July 2017 issue.