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February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Find more Books and Authors: Talking with Nic Bishop
Nic Bishop’s books have introduced children and young adults to a range of subjects including tarantulas, tree frogs, and tapirs. He has now taken his curiosity, scientific training, and skill in photographing animals and insects and presented them in a format for beginning readers. The Nic Bishop Scholastic Reader series features many of the subjects he has approached in previous titles, including the Robert F. Sibert Honor Book Spiders (2007), but there are significant differences, beginning with audience.
Designed for independent readers in kindergarten through second grade, the text in the new series titles is shorter and simpler than in Bishop’s previous books, and it highlights new vocabulary words, presented in colorful fonts. Bishop’s clear, crisp photographs invite even the most reluctant or emerging readers to dive in and learn about animal behaviors, life cycles, and physical features. In a recent interview, Bishop shared both the challenges of and his enthusiasm for creating books for beginning readers.
BKL: Your new series, part of the Scholastic Readers imprint, focuses on some of the same subjects as your previous books for youth. How do you pare down the text while still providing in-depth information for readers?
BISHOP: Before I start, I often dread the thought of having to pare things down, but once underway, it is a surprisingly straightforward process. Luckily, the main points are self-evident, and the text is written in less time than I anticipated. I think that the education I have had in the biological sciences helps me edit down to the salient facts. The shortened word count of children’s versus adult books is something I really enjoy. If you do a lot of prior editing to make sure that you stick to the most important and interesting facts, it is amazing how much good information you can include. Children’s books have to be clearer, to the point, and more interesting than adult books. If, as an adult, you want to learn about natural history, you can’t do better than to start by reading a few children’s books.
BKL: How do you compose your photographs?
BISHOP: I like my photographs to have a feeling of “being there,” as if you could jump into the picture with the animal. That immediacy is hard to create in a photograph, which is essentially two-dimensional. So, I try to emphasize the third dimension by having depth in my pictures. Achieving this means shooting horizontally, eye-to-eye with the subject, so that the background recedes into the distance. I do not want the background to compete with the foreground, so I make it relatively simple. But I do like to leave enough visual information to hint at the type of landscape the animal lives in, giving an important sense of place. In fact, I often spend more time in getting the surroundings right than I spend on the subject. It can often be the peripheral details that the viewer is not conscious of that are the most important. To give the feeling of depth, I have to get very low when photographing tiny subjects like frogs and lizards. It can be difficult, but when photographed this way, on their terms, small animals gain a powerful presence that they lack when photographed from a human perspective, looking down.
BKL: What comes first—the photography or the writing?
BISHOP: The photography always come first, because I can never guarantee which subjects I will be able to photograph, and I would not like to write something that ends up being impossible to take a picture for. Having said that, I do start by making a list of subjects and ideas to aim for. That way, I illustrate a variety of animals and behaviors in order to make the book comprehensive. However, there will always be items on the list I cannot get and others that turn up unexpectedly.
BKL: This series is excellent for independent reading as well as for reading aloud. Do you read your text aloud to determine if it flows?
BISHOP: Yes, I do. I think most children’s writers do this. I’m not the most patient reader myself and am soon irritated by text that does not flow, isn’t self-explanatory, or stalls in deadends. I assume my audience feels the same way, so I always do my best to organize content in a way that flows from one idea to the next. The one thing I don’t want is for my readers to give up partway through the book.
BKL: Sometimes you show a word in a different font or color, such as prey, which appears in Spiders. Do you determine which words to highlight?
BISHOP: The editor will usually pick these words out and ask me for feedback. There is always limited space, so we tend to be quite selective about what words to highlight and then include in a glossary.
BKL: Tell us about some of the design decisions that you helped make.
BISHOP: One thing that was important to me from the start was to introduce young children to reading nonfiction books. These sometimes rely heavily on factoids, sidebars, and other disjointed snippets of text. While I think that approach is fine, I wanted to encourage sustained reading from cover to cover by writing a single body of text. I think it is good to encourage perseverance with reading. After all, the best things in life come to those who have learned perseverance and patience. In some ways, the factoid approach seems a bit gratuitous.
I also wanted to hook hesitant readers, so we highlight a key sentence on each page in large, colored type. This was originally the idea of our book designer, who wanted to introduce a key color element, but it was immediately evident that this would be a great reading aid for emergent readers. As for the index, that becomes essential in a book that has continuous text. Some readers will want to research topics within the text, and it is so important to encourage this.
BKL: You include some interesting information about photography in your author’s note.
BISHOP: Children are naturally curious about photography, so I like to explain some of the stories behind the pictures. I also believe it important to be frank about how pictures are taken. Some were photographed in a studio rather than in the wild. Children do not judge this in any particular way. In fact, they think it is hilarious that I share the spare bedroom with tarantulas and photograph chameleons in my studio. I think children also enjoy being introduced to the wide range of creativity that can be involved in nature photography. My work is often an inventive process. I have to build all sorts of sets and devices, both in the field and back at the studio. I’m like a big kid building photographic things out of cardboard and wood.
BKL: You differentiate between photo-illustration and photojournalism. What type of photography appears in these series books?
BISHOP: Photojournalism is what I do when I document real events, such as the work of scientists portrayed in the books that Sy Montgomery and I publish in Houghton Mifflin’s Scientist in the Field Series. Sy and I are passive observers on a scientific expedition to some remote corner of the world. We do not try to direct any of the action, but simply document what happens.
By contrast, my photographs for the Nic Bishop Scholastic Reader series do not document a story. They show what each animal or animal action looks like in the most aesthetic way I can manage. Taking these photographs can be more directed. For example, I may encourage wild animals to “model” for me in the landscape by using food as bait. Or I may photograph a small frog indoors in my studio, painstakingly creating a natural setting and using multiple strobes for lighting. This allows me some of the artistic determinism available to an illustrator; hence, I consider this work to be photo-illustration.
BKL: Do you digitally manipulate the photos for the series books in some way? How do you determine what photographs you will take in the studio and those that need to be snapped in the field?
BISHOP: The series has a strong design element in that the photographs are often presented as full-bleed, double-page spreads with the text inserted in a “quiet space” in the photograph. I love to do this because it literally pulls the viewers into the photograph as they read. I bear the need for this text space in mind when I compose the photograph, but inevitably a small leaf or branch might intrude where the text needs to be placed. In that case, the designer will ask me to use Photoshop to move the intruding item.
The studio-versus-field question is interesting. Generally, larger animals, such as kangaroos, are photographed wild in the field, while some smaller animals, like insects and frogs, are photographed in the studio. For technical reasons, flash is mandatory for small animals. And creating good flash lighting means using at least four strobes at once, which is best done in a studio. One might think that studio photography would be easier than field photography, but this is far from the case. It takes days of painstaking work to create the setting and more days to gently introduce the subject to the camera. Added to that, there can be weeks of work if animal husbandry is involved.
BKL: What research do you conduct in order to both photograph and write about your subjects?
BISHOP: If I were just to write these books, I could do everything in the comfort of a library. But because I take photographs, I have to spend considerable time in close company with my subjects, sometimes in a remote part of the world. I need to learn a lot about animal behavior and natural history in order to get close to my subjects, which simply run away if they are alarmed. Prior research also applies if I photograph small frogs, lizards, and insects in my studio. I sometimes even raise these small animals in captivity, so I have to understand their exact requirements for warmth, food, and sense of safety. Each animal has its own idiosyncrasies, and you need to know these in order for them to be healthy and behave normally.
Learning these things requires patience, common sense, and years of experience. But empathy is the most important thing; I will walk away from any situation that might stress an animal. My academic training, combined with years of firsthand observation of wildlife, informs my writing. For added research, I consult research papers and other primary literature as well as university-level academic texts. That helps me include information that may not be widely reported as well as current discoveries.
BKL: Do you define yourself as a photographer who photographs and writes about science or a scientist who is a photographer?
BISHOP: I’m a naturalist and scientist first. Both my parents were scientists, so I was raised [with an emphasis on the natural world] and continued studying science until I completed my PhD. Photography was something I started as a hobby in my teens and became passionate about while I was working on my doctorate. In the end, I found I really enjoyed both the aesthetic and intellectual aspects of natural history, so I combined these by being a photographer and writer of nature books.
BKL: You must be extremely patient in your work.
BISHOP: It’s probably learned behavior. I’m not sure any of us is intrinsically patient. But unless you are prepared to wait, you will not succeed at nature photography because it’s always important to think of the animal’s needs ahead of your own. Photography often involves getting within the personal space of an animal, so it has to be happy about your presence. It’s really an honor if the subject allows you to be that close. You get “invited” to take a photograph only after you behave respectfully.
BKL: You’ve advised kids to be curious and to read. Were you that kid growing up, and are you that adult now?
BISHOP: No, I’m afraid not. The curiosity part was true. I always wanted to discover more about the world as I grew up. But I did not read many books. That’s because I was introduced to reading through fiction, which was disillusioning for me. When I first went to school, I thought I was going to learn about the world I found so fascinating, but all I was given to read were books of imaginary stories. It seemed a waste of time, so I gave up on reading, and my early education suffered severely. I was close to the bottom of the class for years and only caught up in my teens when I discovered nonfiction. I realize I am being provocative here, but I think there is too much fiction in schools. If you are going to read, why not learn about the world at the same time? I think bright young inquiring minds can be turned off to both reading and learning by being forced to read fiction.
BKL: What is the most unique setting you have experienced while attempting to take a photograph?
BISHOP: I have spent days lying down, partly submerged in swamps, waiting to photograph aquatic birds. You would never want to do this unless you were a very keen photographer, but it is actually quite amazing to observe the world from a completely different perspective. When wild animals become relaxed around you, there are all sorts of interesting interactions and behaviors to watch: things that nobody else would ever witness.
BKL: What’s next in the Nic Bishop Scholastic Reader series?
BISHOP: Recently, I was in the wilds of Botswana photographing big cats. There are cheetahs and lions there, but best of all, there are leopards. Leopards are extremely stealthy and hard to find, let alone photograph. But the other day, we tracked an individual for hours; eventually sitting just 50 feet away on a small rocky outcrop at sunset. There was a group of impala in the distance, and although the leopard was not hungry, it seemed to be entertained just watching them. It was one of those moments, where after hours of patience, I was invited to take my pictures.
Sampling the Nic Bishop Scholastic Reader Series
Butterflies. By Nic Bishop. Illus. by the author. Scholastic, paper
Frogs. By Nic Bishop. Illus. by the author. Scholastic, paper
Lizards. By Nic Bishop. Illus. by the author. Scholastic, paper
Spiders. By Nic Bishop. Illus. by the author.
Cyndi Giorgis is a professor of children’s and young adult literature at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
The following are suggestions for implementing the Common Core State Standards with titles in the Nic Bishop Scholastic Reader series. You can find more information about the standards at www.corestandards.org.
In the Classroom: Tell students that they are going to have the opportunity to read a book that’s written and photo-illustrated by Nic Bishop. Use any of the books in the Nic Bishop Scholastic Reader series as a starting point for the following activities:
•Identify the title and author. Discuss the role of the author and the fact that Nic Bishop is a photo-illustrator. Ask students what the term photo-illustrator means.
•Create an anchor chart to list what students know about the book’s subject.
•Conduct a book walk to point out that some words are written in another font or in a different color. Ask students why those words are printed differently.
Common Core Connection
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.6: With prompting and support, name the author and illustrator of a story and define the role of each in telling the story.
In the Classroom: As a whole class or in small groups, have students pose questions related to the vocabulary words that they find in one or more of the Nic Bishop Scholastic Reader series titles. Then generate a three-column table. In the first column, labeled “Ask,” have students record questions about a vocabulary word in the text. In the second column, labeled “Answer,” have students use the text to find answers. Finally, in the third column, labeled “Learn,” students can list other vocabulary words that explain the concept or word initially posed.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.K.4–2.4: Ask and answer questions to help determine or clarify the meaning of words and phrases in a text.
In the Classroom: After reading one or more books in the Nic Bishop Scholastic Reader series, have students describe what they learned from the titles and write each fact on a chart. Ask students if they gleaned that information from the text or from a photograph, and write down a T for text or P for photo next to each item. Revisit the book(s), and have students identify additional information that they learned.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.R1.6: Distinguish between information provided by pictures or other illustrations and information provided by the words in a text.
In the Classroom: Pair one of the titles in the Nic Bishop Scholastic Reader series with one or more books on the same subject. Using a Venn diagram or another graphic organizer, have students compare and contrast information presented in the text and illustrations from each of the books.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy. RI.K.9–2.9: With prompting and support, identify basic similarities in and differences between two texts on the same topic (e.g., in illustrations, descriptions, or procedures).
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