This blog post first appeared as my essay for The Nerdy Book Club Trifecta with John Schu and Colby Sharp on 10/2/2014. And don’t forget—tomorrow night, 10/08, is my Bay Area launch party for Neighborhood Sharks at Books Inc. in Mountain View from 7 to 9 pm. Hope to see you there! Thanks for reading!
The steamer trunk in our living room is tagged with faded stickers, labeled “FIRST CLASS,” “NORWEGIAN AMERICAN LINE,” and “NOT WANTED DURING VOYAGE.” My husband gave it to me as a gift while we were dating, and what we know about its history comes from the stickers and a few printed words:
Name: MISS ALYA MAGNUSON
Class of Passenger: CABIN
Date of Sailing: 19 JANUARY 1948
I wonder about Miss Magnuson and her steamer trunk—who she was, where she went, what her trunk once carried. Surely its past is more exciting than its present, hiding our stuff while holding up the TV and the dish with our keys. Orphaned on a curb, a little scuffed and peeling, it’s not the most beautiful trunk in the world. But when I look at it I think of expeditions and oceans, and how a character named Charlotte Doyle taught me to be adventurous.
I grew up in the Silicon Valley with a brother and two risk-averse, nerdy parents. My father is an electrical engineer and my mother taught business, statistics, and accounting for forty-one years at a community college. If you ask her if she likes Bob Dylan she’ll say, “Of course…what songs did he do, again?” We didn’t go to concerts and we didn’t play catch, and it didn’t occur to me until junior high that someone out there read the sports section of the newspaper (You mean it isn’t just for lining the bottom of the hamster cage?). We’re a practical family, good at practical things, like repainting a deck or finishing all of our homework. Go to college. Get a job. Make sure you have health care—Do you know what it costs to break a leg?—and retire at sixty-five. It’s not that there was no excitement—we took road trips, went camping, spent days at the beach—but our family activities didn’t require any weaponry beyond a Swiss Army knife.
So as a skinny kid with an indoor life, I got my fix for adventure through a lot of reading. I became more and more obsessed with certain kinds of books, ones where the protagonist had to struggle to survive through two-hundred pages of orphaning by some middle-grade author. The characters were always industrious, and knew amazing things, like how to skin a deer or build a house in a tree. They were also clever, well read, and incredibly brave—even when facing extraordinary peril. My favorites were Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet and its sequel, The River, Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, and, above all, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.
Confessions is set aboard the Seahawk, a merchant ship sailing from London to Providence, Rhode Island in 1832. There’s Captain Jaggery, his mutinous crew, two months at sea, and one first-class passenger, thirteen-year-old Miss Charlotte Doyle, whose innocence and inquisitive nature soon lands her in the middle of a mystery. Who would Charlotte side with? What risks would she take? How would the voyage change the direction of her life forever? Her life was so different from mine, full of risks and free from parents, but I loved to pretend that she and I shared the same courageous heart. Through the pages I became her as she put aside a dress for breeches; I hardened my hands, cut off my hair, and climbed the main mast into the sky with a splicing knife between my teeth. I crossed the Atlantic with her so many times that the cover fell off my copy of the book.
Could I ever be as brave and as capable as Charlotte in real life? Could I ever have my own big adventures? By senior year in high school I wanted to put myself to the test. I also wanted to become a children’s book illustrator—a high-stakes proposition if there ever was one—so I went away to college at an art school on the East Coast, then spent the last year studying abroad in Rome. After graduation I waited tables to save money, then returned to Europe to backpack on my own. Those years were the first time I lived far away and the first time I traveled alone, and though there was some occasional crying (and isn’t there always?), I absolutely I loved it. Later, I even got to live and work aboard a 138-foot-long tall ship, the schooner Adventuress, and taught environmental education on the Puget Sound. All that time in the elements, up close to the gorgeous power of the natural world, left a permanent mark on my life. It was thrilling to discover that I could be brave—at least now and then—beyond my practical, suburban, inner-wimpy self. To date, I’ve lived in six states and traveled through seventeen countries, and I hope those numbers continue to grow.
As for becoming an illustrator, there’s no set route to follow; mostly it feels like hacking through jungle with a machete while friends with normal jobs fly overhead in jet planes. I suppose there’s a slightly safer, more parent-approved approach, like knocking out ghost work or doing corporate design. But, like Charlotte, I’m pretty stubborn, and I hoped that all the trying and failing would produce some sort of result. I just never dreamed that drawing would eventually lead me aboard a tiny boat surrounded by circling great white sharks.
It isn’t lost on me that my debut book, Neighborhood Sharks, brought me back to the Bay Area to have a practical adventure in the wild. My first day of shark research began with waking up at 4:15 am in my childhood bed (the same one I used to read Confessions in) and driving the family truck to a dock in San Francisco. I scrambled onto The Derek M. Baylis, met the shark scientists and the crew, and a few minutes later we motored out and passed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Suddenly we weren’t on the bay, we were on the Pacific, and exactly thirty miles ahead of us were the Farallon Islands, the hunting ground for some of the largest known white sharks on earth. I reminded myself that humans are not on their menu, gulped down a Dramamine, and peered into the dark. My upbringing and my sense of adventure had merged—I was about to meet my neighborhood sharks, up close, and with a sketchbook between my teeth, because it was my job. How scary and exciting…and perfectly practical.
I’ll never be as truly adventurous as Charlotte Doyle—I like having an address, and my personal library could fill a foc’sle—but her spirit has found a place in my life, and helped guide me towards becoming the person I wanted to be. Now I get to experience and share the natural world with kids, using information to tell stories, and take my readers below the surface to see animals and ecosystems they can’t yet reach. My first-hand research results in an accurate, up-to-date, original approach to the content, and my emotional connection to the material shows through in the drawings. I didn’t take science in college and I swim like a rock, but I’m good at asking questions, making friends, and translating data about the way things live into words and pictures. What species, scientists, and destinations await me? What mysteries and adventures? I can hardly wait to find out. And perhaps someday my work will even inspire a few readers to find their own Charlotte Doyle spirit, too.
I know it’s been years since Charlotte’s story was published, and many more middle-grade novels have been written since, but if you’re reading this, Avi, I thank you for your book. I could not have guessed exactly where these winds would take me, but as you said, “winds have a mind of their own.” As for the mysterious trunk in our living room, it may not be the most practical thing, but I’ll continue to make room for it wherever we live. I imagine it someday brimming with costumes for our future kids to practice their own future adventures. And, if one of them is a girl, I might even name her Charlotte.
Thank you, Nerdy Book Club, Mr. Schu and Colby Sharp, for hosting me as today’s Trifecta guest. I’m so excited to welcome my debut book into the world. Dear readers, get ready to meet your neighborhood sharks!