Last week, I had the privilege of speaking to nearly 1,000 students about great white sharks and the process of making books. As always, I had a blast—school and library visits are among my favorite things—and as always, the students were armed and ready with an endless supply of excellent questions. Here are a few of the most frequently asked, along with my answers:
How did you learn to draw so well?
I’ve been drawing and sketching for longer than I can remember, and like any other skill, drawing takes practice, practice, practice. By junior high, I knew that I wanted art to be a part of my career path, and in high school I took four years of art classes while also participating in the district-wide commercial art program. For college, I received a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, majoring in illustration (with a minor in English), and an MFA from The Center for Cartoon Studies. But even with all this practice, I still feel like I barely know what I’m doing. Each new project is a challenge that pushes me to take risks and try new things.
Why did you decide to become an author?
I decided to become an author because I already loved telling stories with my drawings (read more on that here) and I wanted to tell stories with my writing, too. It’s more challenging to be in charge of both the words and the images, but it’s also more rewarding because the whole vision is my own.
Why did you write a book about sharks?
After college, I spent a season teaching environmental education as a deckhand aboard the schooner Adventuress on the Puget Sound. Spending those weeks hauling lines, singing shanties, and doing plankton tows with kids made me fall in love with ecology and marine biology forever. When I spoke about this experience with my soon-to-be editor during a meeting at Macmillan, he asked me if I would be interested in doing a book about sharks. I immediately said yes and jumped headfirst into the research. Six months later, I had a rough draft of Neighborhood Sharks and a fabulous opportunity to continue sharing my love of ecology and marine biology with kids.
How did you do the research for your shark book?
There’s only so much information you can get from reading books and watching documentaries, and I knew that in order to do this book well I would need to do more than research from the comfort of home. I wanted to watch shark researchers at work, and I wanted to see a great white shark in person, because those on-location experiences would inform every detail to help make the art and manuscript as accurate as possible. As the project began to take shape, I reached out to the Bay Area shark team to ask questions, check my facts, and lay out my intentions for the book, and once Macmillan agreed to go forward with publishing it, the shark team granted me permission to join them for a few days on the water at the Farallones. While I was with them I heard nearly two-dozen tagged sharks pinging the acoustic receiver, saw a white shark thrash a decoy, and witnessed several seal events from afar. On our three-hour trips to and from the islands, I asked the shark team my endless questions—about their methods, their findings, and their personal experience with sharks. Going to the Farallones and consulting the scientists improved the book beyond measure, and I intend to do my own on-location research whenever possible for all future books.
How long did your shark book take to make?
The draft took about six months to develop while I was also working on other projects and teaching, and then the research trip and making the final art took another 6-8 months of time. So, in total, the book took me about a year to make. That might surprise some of you. After all, 12 months is a big investment in just one book. My next book, How to Be an Elephant, took well over a year because, in many ways, it is a more complicated and difficult story to tell, and elephants are harder to draw than sharks. But I am committed to making work that is as accurate and beautiful and engaging as possible. And I’m willing to put in the time to make that happen.
I love these questions! If you’re one of my readers, feel free to use my contact form to send me other questions you might have, and I’ll do my best to answer them. Thanks for reading!