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February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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Many readers will be drawn to Suzi Eszterhas’ books because of the adorable animals peering from the covers. But there’s more at play in them than just cute faces and fuzzy fur. An acclaimed wildlife photographer, Eszterhas is passionate about animal conservation and rehabilitation, and that passion has inspired her to create books introducing children to such concepts.
Her scope is broad: the (so far) three-book Wildlife Rescue series (Koala Hospital, 2015; Orangutan Orphanage, 2016; and Sea Otter Rescue, 2016) takes middle-grade readers to various rehabilitation facilities, where orphaned or injured animals are cared for and one day, hopefully, released back into the wild. In Moto and Me: My Year as a Wildcat’s Foster Mom (2017), she shares a more personal story: a chance occurrence while she was living in Kenya led her to care for and rehabilitate an orphaned baby serval. Her most recent series, on baby animals (Baby Animals Playing, published in October), showcases many different animals and their family lives for younger readers.
Below, Eszterhas discusses conservation, her goals in creating children’s books, and her experiences in the field.
REAGAN: What inspired you to create children’s books?
ESZTERHAS: My love of children’s books began with children’s magazines. I do a lot with Ranger Rick magazine and National Geographic Kids, and since I focus on family life, it’s really a good fit for children. Beyond that, I strongly believe in the power of communicating to children the beauty of the natural world and why these creatures are so amazing, but also conservation issues. So much conservation work is aimed toward adults, which is obviously incredibly important in terms of making policies and saving habitats that are immediately under threat. We’re focused on the urgency of the situation right now, and obviously, adults need to make a change right now for so many species, but I think while we deal with all these crises and put out all these immediate fires, we lose sight of the long-term goal, which is getting our future generations excited about nature and the creatures that live both in their backyard and far away.
So I really believe it’s so important, especially now, that children are surrounded with imagery and stories about nature. Some kids just don’t grow up connected to nature. They don’t have a backyard to play in, or they’re busy with other things, and I think it’s important in our modern-day culture to keep that connection with nature, and children’s books and magazines are one very instrumental way of doing it.
I grew up with Ranger Rick and children’s books on nature and animals, and I can’t help but think that that shaped my interest in nature and conservation at a very young, formative age. It all comes back to my desire to connect kids with nature. It’s not just the importance of conservation but about getting them excited about these animals that we have. I think kids can really relate to baby animals because there are so many similarities between how baby animals grow up and how kids grow up.
REAGAN: The Wildlife Rescue series in particular has a ton of classroom value. What kind of feedback have you gotten from teachers and younger readers?ESZTERHAS: One of the things about the Wildlife Rescue series that I like is that we have animals that aren’t close to home, like koalas and orangutans, but we also have sea otters, which for some of us in the U.S. (California, Alaska) are in our backyard. Wildlife rescue is so important because it’s not an unattainable goal; children can be exposed to wildlife rescue in any community in the U.S. or Canada. It would be very hard to find a community that doesn’t have a wildlife rescue in some form, whether it’s just someone operating out of their backyard or somebody who actually has a proper facility. There are wildlife rescuers everywhere working very quietly, often thanklessly and without recognition.
In my community, there’s a lady who, at any given time, has 30 hummingbirds she’s working with at her house, because hummingbirds happen to breed year-round. These are people that our children can access. There are so many ways this is directly relevant to kids in the U.S. and Canada; it’s a way for them to connect with the wildlife that share their homes. I tell kids, and also teachers and librarians, that these animals are trying to make a living like us. They’re trying to raise their young and trying to eat, and that’s essentially what all of us are doing. They have a home like we do, and it just happens to be the same as ours; we share the same ecosystem. That whole idea of coexistence is one of my favorite themes in the Wildlife Rescue series.
REAGAN: Do you often have an idea in mind for a book—as with the Wildlife Rescue series—or do your experiences more often decide the content, as with Moto and Me?ESZTERHAS:
Moto and Me was kind of a unique situation that fell in my lap, and I was very fortunate to have that experience. The other stories have usually been for a magazine, and now that I’ve gotten into the children’s book world, I’ll often think in terms of a children’s book as I’m shooting the story. I spend a lot of time in these rescue facilities, and we’ve gotten a lot of feedback about how the imagery is so in-depth, that it’s a rare, special view of these animals. It’s rare and special because I spend so much time in these facilities. Sometimes, the projects are a few weeks long, and other times, a facility opens its doors to me one day a week for four or five months. I spend a lot of time with these people and am able to capture very intimate moments, moments that if you just go in for a couple of hours you won’t be able to get.
I want to use these books to educate children, but I also want to help the facilities, because almost all of these wildlife rescue facilities around the world are underfunded and have very little resources. A portion of the proceeds for every Wildlife Rescue book is donated to a facility. With Moto and Me, it’s a little different—I didn’t have a facility, so I’m donating to the Mara Conservancy, which is Moto’s home, his protected area, and that will go to antipoaching patrols and things like that. My goal is to create an educational resource and something that’s actually going to help facilities get the word out about what they’re doing.
REAGAN: Do you research these facilities beforehand?ESZTERHAS: I definitely do. I do a lot of research to make sure that I’m going to a facility that is accredited, that is respected, that is doing things under the law, and that is doing things the way they should be done. Working with good people who are doing responsible rehab is very important to me.
REAGAN: What makes rehab responsible? ESZTERHAS: It differs from one country to the next—countries have different laws about the way rehab is done—but for some species, like the orangutans, reintroduction is very complicated. I worked on a raccoon-rescue story, and that’s a lot simpler in terms of the reintroduction, in terms of the skills a raccoon needs to have to survive in the wild. An orangutan is a lot more complicated. This is an animal that spends seven years with its mom and learns everything it needs to survive slowly over that seven-year period. Part of responsibly rehabilitating orangutans is ensuring that, once they’re reintroduced to the wild, they’re doing OK.
For this particular species, part of the responsible rehabbing is to make sure that the animals are able to properly care for themselves. This means the facility has a team that monitors the animals after they’ve been reintroduced to the wild. In successful reintroduction, you’re not just releasing the orangutans and saying, “We’ve released x number of orangutans; yippee for us.” Responsibility is making sure it’s working, and making sure that the facility will take the animal back in if it’s not. In Sea Otter Rescue, an otter pup did not go back to the wild because it didn’t learn the skills it needed. The responsible ending for that story was that the sea otter went to live in the Seattle aquarium with other sea otters.
REAGAN: One of the most effective things about Moto and Me was how you told the story without being overly sentimental. Did you make a conscious decision to use a more neutral tone, or is that practicality just a side effect of your career?ESZTERHAS: It’s intentional. I adored Moto, and of course I missed him tremendously. I was heartbroken without him. But at the same time, that heartbreak was tempered with the end goal: my ultimate happiness for Moto was that he would be successfully reintroduced to the wild, that he would be able to be a proper wild serval. That was the goal the entire time. I believe so strongly in wild animals not being a pet; one of the challenges that rehabbers face is that balance. You have to show the animals love and affection when they’re young—almost all animals need it, and mammals particularly need physical contact—and then, at some point, cut it off. In the situations where they go back to the wild, they have to be independent wild animals, which means the bond with you has to be broken. For Moto to go back to the wild and not need me and not want me was an incredibly beautiful, very happy thing that I wanted desperately.
REAGAN: Can you talk about some of your experiences in the field?ESZTERHAS: When you’re out working with these animals, particularly documenting baby animals, it’s pretty fun, pretty warm and fuzzy most of the time, but you are in nature, and there are adventures. The Wildlife Rescue series is a little different because I’m spending time in a facility with people, but when I’m working with wild animals, like for the upcoming Baby Animals series, the way that I’m able to get the kind of imagery that I can, the way that I’m able to show intimate moments between baby animals and their parents and siblings, is by spending a lot of time in the field with one family. I followed a lion pride for three and a half months. I followed a mom and baby orangutan for a few weeks. It all depends on the species, but the bottom line is that in these long hours in the field, you have these sort of unintended adventures all the time.
I was sitting at my desk in my tent in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, in Kenya, and I was working on my computer, and a movement caught my eye in the corner of the desk. I saw a cobra coiled up, and it raised its head and its hood fanned out, which is not a good thing, and I sort of slowly moved back in my chair. I was very lucky because the cobra did a sort of spitting thing with its mouth but no venom came out. So that was my close call with a snake. I was also chased by a green mamba in Uganda, and that was a pretty close call as well. I was charged and slapped by the alpha-male chimpanzee when I was working with chimpanzees. You have these adventures.
The vast majority of my misadventures, though, have actually been with people. Animals are a lot more predictable than humans, and so my greatest fears are usually about humans rather than the elements or the animals I may encounter. Having said that, you have to be very cautious and give animals respect. As a wildlife photographer, I always have to be vigilant. Many times, when people get into trouble with wild animals, it’s because they’ve done something foolish.
REAGAN: Do you ever work with collaborators?ESZTERHAS: I do. I try to bring a lot of natural history and science into these books, because I work with researchers. For the wild animals, I work with a lot of researchers and do a lot of research ahead of time about animal behavior. It’s always a joy to work with a researcher in the field because it makes my job a lot easier. Local guides, too, are invaluable for finding different species, and when it comes to knowing animal behavior, they’re just as good as researchers.
A small percentage of my work involves working with a researcher, and the vast majority of the projects I do are solo. But it’s important to know that I don’t just go into these projects blind. I do a lot of research ahead of time on the behavior of my subjects so I know what to expect. So much of wildlife photography is knowing wildlife behavior and knowing what an animal might do next so you can be in the best position. I’m very good at knowing if my subject is relaxed enough around me. For me to get these intimate moments, my subjects need to trust me and trust that I’m not going to hurt them.
REAGAN: Has there been a subject that you especially enjoyed shooting?ESZTERHAS: The Wildlife Rescue series is really important to me. Prior to that, all of my work was with animals in the wild, and there’s definitely a beauty to that. There’s a profound, almost spiritual experience that happens when you’re working with animals for long periods of time. There’s a beautiful flow. But Wildlife Rescue was really special—and I continue to work on it—because I’ve been able to add a human connection and to bridge that gap between wild animals and humans. And that to me was profoundly beautiful in terms of capturing these moments between these animals and the people who have dedicated their lives to helping them.
Kids need positivity. I think we all do. It’s really easy to feel hopeless about what’s going on in the world. So for them to be able to see these happy moments of people helping animals is important: we can help them; we’re not powerless; we can have careers helping animals; that’s attainable. Wildlife Rescue has been enormously special for that reason. But I will always love working with animals in the wild. That, to me, is just a beautiful experience that I go back to all the time, one subject after another, and luckily for me, the world is just full of subjects.
REAGAN: What advice do you have for kids interested in a career like yours—especially for those who may not be science-inclined?ESZTERHAS: I always knew that I wanted to work with wildlife. Originally, I grew up idolizing Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, and I thought I would be like them. Early on, I really started to gravitate more toward the arts, and I went toward photography rather than science. In middle school, they start really talking to you about what you want to do with your life, and I used to tell my mom that I was going to go live in a tent in Africa.
When I was six or eight, my parents bought me a little point-and-shoot camera, and I would go to zoos and take photos of the animals in zoos and pretend they were wild animals. I was very lucky because I grew up with parents who did not put pressure on me to enter a certain field or make a certain amount of money. But it was still sort of a pipe dream, to have a job that worked with animals. Nobody really did that, nobody encouraged that at school, and I think my biggest piece of advice would be to stick with it no matter what.
I did have teachers tell me that what I wanted to do was not going to work and that I wouldn’t be able to make a living. I had a lot of rejection early in my career, from editors and agents. So many kids, when they’re really young, say they want to do something with animals, and then somebody along the way tells them they can’t. By the time they hit middle school, they’ve changed their minds. To me, that’s tragic and quite devastating, because there are so many opportunities to work with animals. You can be a wildlife photographer like me, a wildlife rehabilitator, a biologist, a veterinarian.
REAGAN: We’ve talked about the conservation slant—what else do you hope kids will take away from your books?ESZTERHAS: For me, the most important thing children can take from my books is just how incredible these animals are and how beautiful nature is and to realize that it’s completely accessible—it doesn’t have to be tigers; it can be the grasshoppers who live in your backyard. We are surrounded by nature and surrounded by its beauty, and all we have to do is open our eyes and dedicate our lives, because it’s there. We’re very lucky in the U.S. and Canada because we live with so many animals around us. I think that for so many children, animals are only something that live in magazines and books. But they live in our yards, they live in our national parks, they’re out there, and kids can experience that themselves.
REAGAN: What’s next for you?ESZTERHAS: I’m pretty deep in the Baby Animals series. I’m moving off rescue at the moment and moving into the series for the young ones. It’s really nice weaving that together based on themes: playing, moving, eating, raising families. I’ve been able to incorporate some of my new work in those titles—I just got back from doing panda cubs in China, and that was my first time working with pandas. I think I’ll keep going on these titles for really young kids. It’s great for me, too, because of the diversity and the variety instead of just single-subject titles. Being able to have 10 different species in a book makes it really fun.
Below, find links to the rescue facilities, game reserves, and foundations from Eszterhas’ books. These websites provide additional background on the facilities themselves, the animals they rescue, and further educational information for both teachers and students.
Baby Animals Playing. 2017. Owlkids, $14.95 (9781771472975). Gr. 1–3.
Moto and Me: My Year as a Wildcat’s Foster Mom. 2017. Owlkids, $17.95 (9781771472425). Gr. 3–6.
Wildlife Rescue Series
Maggie Reagan is a Books for Youth Associate Editor at Booklist.
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