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May 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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The award-winning author discusses how he shapes fantasy through scientific fact in his new rain forest series.
Animal characters are, of course, ubiquitous in the pages of children’s literature. But within that crowd of paws and claws, the creatures created by Eliot Schrefer stand out for their vivid, specific qualities, all grounded in science. His best-selling YA novels in the Ape Quartet, which started with National Book Award finalist Endangered (2012), are powerful, nuanced invitations to imagine the lives of our genetic cousins, from chimpanzees to gorillas. In his newly released title, The Lost Rainforest: Mez’s Magic, Schrefer introduces a new cast of entirely memorable animals. The start to a new middle-grade series, Mez’s Magic draws on science to create a fast-paced, magical fantasy about an alternate Amazonian rain forest under threat. A conservation activist and popular speaker in schools around the world, Schrefer shared insights about how science informs his writing and what kids can do to support animal habitats and a healthy planet.
ENGBERG: Why did you choose a world like the Amazonian rain forest for Mez’s Magic?
SCHREFER: I’ve always loved survival stories, and the jungle is one of those places where survival seems its very hardest. All those venomous animals, the unrelenting heat, the diseases and insects—thinking about spending time in it gives me simultaneous feelings of yikes and hooray. It’s very much a place where soft, city-dwelling humans like me are not meant to be, which is part of why it feels so fascinating.
In 2016, I took advantage of the fact that I was already doing a school visit in Lima to take a week-long trip into the Peruvian Amazon. After a flight and two boat trips, I settled in at the Tambopata Research Center, which is a lovely lodge constructed in the local style, with thatched roofing and no walls, for the use of researchers studying the local macaw population. I slept under a mosquito net, with nothing else separating me from the nighttime wildlife. Although Mez’s Magic has a panther as the main character, I was glad that that was one animal that did not visit me in the middle of the night.
There was a strange creaking sound from within my wall during the day, and I assumed it was from mice or rats living in there. I asked my guide, Oscar, if there were a lot of rodents in the lodge. He shook his head and examined my wall by making a small opening with his machete. When I looked through, I saw an adorable family of bats, snuggled all together as they slept away the day. The Amazon rain forest: where the rats are bats. This was an important moment for developing the character of Lima, the irrepressible bat who’s the jokester of the group.
Please tell us about the resources that helped you bring your animal characters and their rain forest world to life.
SCHREFER: The Planet Earth and Planet Earth II series from the BBC are wonderfully done, and each series has a superb jungle episode. There’s something magical about the intimacy of the camerawork, combined with the love for the environment, that suffuses the whole production. I watched both series many times over.
It’s easy to go down a winding path researching a particular jungle animal and lose track of the big picture of the rain forest. When I would find myself in those moments, I’d turn to the Mongabay conservation news website (mongabay.com). It’s a fantastic resource for classrooms, with constantly updated news about jungles around the world, mixing journalism about environmental threats with deep dives into the habits and lives of individual animals and plants. For book-length works, I used Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson’s The Ants as my ant bible. John Kricher’s A Neotropical Companion is great, too: it’s full of information about the Amazon as well as some hilarious anecdotal accounts of Kricher’s research travels.
ENGBERG: Although Mez’s Magic is set in an alternate world, readers encounter real-world science, from animal behavior to the interdependence among plants and animals. What were the challenges and fun of blending scientific fact into a fantasy novel?
SCHREFER: My editors (Ben Rosenthal and Melissa Miller at HarperCollins’ Katherine Tegen Books) and I made a decision early on in the editorial process not to have humans in the book. I’ve been writing about animals for many years, and I’ve become really curious about how often animal characters are simply vehicles for human dramas or desires. I feel like we humans have enough books about us; I wanted this rain forest tale to be about rain forest animals. That said, I also wanted to have young readers think about what the world would be like without—or after—us. Thus, the mentions in the book of the “two-legged” animals that died out long ago, and the mysterious ziggurat temple they left behind. The animals in Mez’s Magic know the two-legs only as legendary ancient creatures, implying that the book takes place in a time post-people. The 10-year-old me would have found that idea cool.
I found out so much fun info about the various animals I was researching, but my rule was that I’d only let myself put a bit of information in the book if it either helped reveal character or advanced the plot. For example, while I was in Peru, I found out that capuchin monkeys will often follow spider monkey troops because the spider monkeys are noisy and will distract any predator eagles from the capuchins. I didn’t have room to put that piece of info in Mez’s Magic, but as I plot future books in the series, I’m planning on having this factoid be the dramatic background for a scene, with Gogi the capuchin maybe rolling his eye a bit at the reckless spider monkey ruckus.
One pleasant surprise I had was discovering the importance of ants. They are all over the jungle, from tiny harmless ones to the two-inch-long bullet ants, whose bite will leave you writhing in agony for a day or two. They’re the most plentiful creatures in the rain forest, not just in numbers but in biomass. That’s a lot of ants. They’re also one of the few animals that are awake both night and day, able to cross what is otherwise an inviolable boundary between nocturnal and diurnal. Humans are the other rain forest inhabitants that can do so, and the similarities don’t stop there: we’re also these hypersocialized creatures that have outsize impacts on the geographies around us. As Abbott Lowell once wrote, ants, “like human beings, can create civilizations without the use of reason.” Once I started thinking of ants as humanlike, for good and for bad, it was easier to come up with an ant villain, and thus the nefarious Ant Queen was born.
ENGBERG: What were the differences you’ve experienced in writing a middle-grade fantasy and writing a realistic novel for young adults?
Mez’s Magic is different from my YA ape novels, like Endangered and this year’s Orphaned, in a couple of ways. First off, it’s middle-grade, so I’m imagining a 10-year-old reader, say, instead of a 13-year-old. Beyond that, though, there’s also a big tonal shift. There are a lot more laughs, and the animals have dialogue with one another—and magical spells. It’s true fantasy, though with an interest in the real lives of animals.
ENGBERG: Conservation is a strong theme throughout Mez’s Magic. Please tell us more about how you balanced that with a fast-paced adventure.
SCHREFER: I’ve wrestled with this issue for years. The dangers our environment faces are urgent, and pressing, and my impulse when writing about the natural world is to pause and say: “SAVE THE PLANET RIGHT NOW, KIDS!” But I’ve seen often enough how taking on a scolding tone has the opposite of its intended effect. Once readers feel accused, they wall themselves off.
People who grow up to be the environment’s most stalwart defenders will usually have a love for animals or nature that developed in childhood. When I’m feeling most desperate about the problems the natural world is facing, I have to take a moment and remember that without love, without wonder, there won’t then be the passion to make things better. My guiding philosophy in writing Mez’s Magic is to get kids excited about the rain forest, with just the softest undercurrent of ecological menace, so that they will look into ways to be of help, either in classrooms or on their own. I also just want them to enjoy a good story!
ENGBERG: You’re a conservation activist yourself. What’s your advice for kids who want to take part in efforts or learn more about the rain forest
SCHREFER: I have loved all my interactions with the Jane Goodall Institute, which emphasizes empowering young people, most notably through their Roots & Shoots clubs around the world. With support from JGI, kids in the clubs undertake local projects to improve the environment where they live, as well as examining more global concerns. It sends an important message, I think: it’s just as valid to fight for the security of your local groundwater as for chimps in Tanzania. Instead of kids just thinking, “I wish I could be like Jane Goodall and go help animals in Africa,” they’re empowered to help care for dogs at the local shelter, for example.
I’ve gotten great feedback from schools that adopt a bonobo from Lola ya Bonobo (lolayabonobo.org), the ape sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo. You get a photo of the ape and a personality description, and for $20 a month, a club can pay for the upkeep of that animal—and help employ lots of local Congolese people. It’s a great goal for an environmental club hosting a car wash or bake sale.
Would you please tell us about your recent experiences visiting schools?
SCHREFER: I’m about to head out on a school-visit tour for Mez’s Magic, and I’m excited about getting the chance to meet younger readers. (In the past, I’ve mainly visited middle schools, and I’ve loved them.) Elementary-aged kids are such troves of energy! I’d love to see the results if a teacher had each kid pick a rain forest animal, give a presentation on it, and then fictionalize it as a magical shadow walker, like the characters in the book. What magical power would a glass frog have? What role would it play in the events of the book? What stories would it have to tell?
Mez’s Magic ends with such a cliff-hanger! Can you tell us about what’s next?
SCHREFER: Sorry not sorry about the cliff-hanger! My goal in a book like this is to resolve 9 things out of 10 and leave the last one to be broached in the next book. I do and don’t have the whole series plotted out. The major mysteries of the magical rain forest—why are the animals of day and night magically separated? What happened to the extinct two-legs?—I do have answers for, but other aspects I’m exploring as I go. I can tell you that each book will have a different character’s viewpoint. In book two, it’s Gogi the capuchin monkey’s turn. He’s super goofy, and I loved getting to spend time in his head. What can I say—I’m a monkey guy at heart.
Endangered. 2012. Scholastic, $18.99 (9780545165761). Gr. 8–12.
The Lost Rainforest: Mez’s Magic. Illus. by Emilia Dziubak. 2018. HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen, $16.99 (9780062491077). Gr. 3–5.
Orphaned. Sept. 2018. Scholastic, $18.99 (9780545655057). Gr. 8–12.
Rescued. 2016. Scholastic, $18.99 (9780545655033). Gr. 8–12.
Threatened. 2014. Scholastic, $18.99 (9780545551434). Gr. 8–12.
Amazon Adventure: How Tiny Fish Are Saving the World’s Largest Rainforest. By Sy Montgomery. Illus. by Keith Ellenbogen. 2017. HMH, $18.99 (9780544352995). Gr. 5–8.
Lifesize Rainforest. By Anita Ganeri. Illus. by Stuart Jackson-Carter. 2014. Kingfisher, $16.99 (9780753471906). Gr. 2–5.
Rainforests. By Toby Reynolds and Paul Calver. 2015. Barron’s, $6.99 (9781438005812). Gr. 3–6.
Saving the Rainforests: Inside the World’s Most Diverse Habitat. By Diane Bailey. 2017. Mason Crest, $23.95 (9781422238806). Gr. 7–11.
The Wonder Garden. By Jenny Broom. Illus. by Kristjana S. Williams. 2015. Wide Awake, $30 (9781847807038). Gr. 3–5.
Schrefer mentions several online environmental resources. For further classroom engagement on conservation, check them out at the links below.
Conservation news service Mongabay:
Bonobo rescue organization Lola ya Bonobo:
Jane Goodall’s youth service conservation program, Roots and Shoots:
Gillian Engberg, the former Editorial Director of Books for Youth at Booklist Publications and Editor of Book Links, is currently a freelance editor and consultant in New York City.
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