Monday, October 11, 2010

The Bat Scientists Part 1: Interview With Mary Kay Carson

It was a coincidence that Mary Kay Carson and I worked on bat books for completely different publishers at the same time. She and her husband Tom Uhlman were very helpful when I researched to do my red bat illustrations.

Now that both books are out, it only makes sense that we are doing book events together!

If your child loves Little Red Bat and wants to learn more about bats or is too old and wants a bat book that is for an older audience, The Bat Scientists is perfect!
So, here is part 1 of 2 interviews first with Mary Kay about writing The Bat Scientists and then with Tom about taking the photographs.

CW: Tell me a little about how you started writing and how you got into writing non-fiction.

MKC:  I’m not one of those people who has been a writer since childhood. I was a kid who loved animals and a biology major in college. I had no interest in writing until my mid-20s, truthfully. It wasn't until I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer overseas that I began to appreciate and enjoy writing. I lived in a village with no running water, no electricity, and no telephones so started writing lots of letters and then some articles for the volunteer newsletter. When I returned to the US, I looked into science writing programs and ended up at New York University. From there I was hired by Scholastic to write for SuperScience, a classroom magazine for grades 4-6. The magazine really hooked me on writing for kids. It's soooo much more fun than writing for big people! Writing nonfiction for kids lets you be a generalist, and not be limited to one topic. Right now I'm writing about the Titanic, weather, and salamanders. I love that. If I start getting tired of one subject, I can switch to one of the others!

CW: How did you get involved writing The Bat Scientists?

MKC:  The Bat Scientists is a book in Houghton Mifflin’s award-winning Scientists in the Field series. My photographer husband Tom Uhlman and I did another book for this series called Emi and the Rhino Scientist and pitched the Bat Scientists book proposal to the series’ editor. The idea for the book came from reading some information on bat scientist Merlin Tuttle and his organization, Bat Conservation International, while writing about bats for a different project years ago. The scientists we featured in the book are tirelessly leading the campaign to change hearts and minds about bats. And young readers are a perfect audience—they love mysterious, unusual, and bizarre animals! Bats are always a favorite part of the presentations I give during school visits.

CW: How do you research for this kind of book? It looks like there was some interesting travel involved.

MKC:  I wanted the readers of The Bat Scientists to feel like they were there alongside the scientists working in the field with bats. For me, the best way to convey this is to write scenes that set a place and have some action. Being able to tag along during field research is the best way to capture the details, conservations, and atmosphere that end up in the book. We traveled to Austin, Texas, where Bat Conservation International is headquartered to meet up with a number of the scientists in the book. We spent a night netting bats with a researcher in the Texas Hill country, poked around under bat filled bridges with another, and spent many hours meeting and photographing bats at a bat rehabilitator’s barn in Austin. A big part of the trip to Texas was spending time at Bracken Bat Cave. Its 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats make up the largest colony of mammals in the world! Tom and I went to the cave one evening to get to know the area a little before our scheduled next day trip into the inside of the cave. We had the place to ourselves pretty much and were sitting near the mouth of the cave when the bats started flying out. All of the sudden we found ourselves in the middle of a tornado of bats as they started flying out of the cave. A stream of bats circled to gain speed and flew up to join a ribbon of flying animals all the way to the horizon. Truly amazing! The trip inside the cave was as astounding, but uncomfortable. It was super hot, we had to wear respirators because of the ammonia and mud boots to not be chewed on by carrion beetles and long sleeves and hardhats to not get covered in biting mites falling from the bats which covered every wall, rock, and ceiling.

CW: Is there anything you learned about bats that surprised you or was unexpected?

MKC:  I learned tons about bats I didn’t know! One of the biggest surprises was how long-lived they are. Some can live thirty years or more. This is very unusual for an animal of such small size. Also, the fact that there are more than 1000 different species is pretty fascinating.

CW: Your husband Tom did the photography for this book. How many books have you done together? Was he involved in this book from the beginning?

MKC:  Tom was onboard as the book’s photographer for The Bat Scientists from the beginning. Having a professional photographer that an editor knows will produce high-quality stunning images is a big asset to a book proposal, I think. Tom has had art contracts on two of the books I’ve written—The Bat Scientists and Emi and the Rhino Scientist. And he’s also contributed photos to a number of my other books—including The Underground Railroad for Kids and The Wright Brothers for Kids. Hopefully, we’ll get to do more books together soon. We’re been pitching some books ideas to different publishers, so fingers crossed!

CW: What are you working on now?

MKC:  I’m finishing up a book called Inside Weather that will be out in fall of 2011. I’ve just started working on a new fun history series of books for younger kids. The first one will be about the sinking of the Titanic, the 100-year anniversary of which is April 2012.

CW: You mentioned several books you wrote are suddenly coming out. What are they and when will they be available? Do you and Tom have any upcoming collaborations?

MKC:  Besides the Bat Scientists book, I’ve a number of other newly released books. Two are about natural disasters, Inside Tornadoes and Inside Hurricanes. They are large format books with ten foldout pages—both vertical and horizontal. The pages are packed with photos, diagrams, and lots of dramatic eye-witness accounts of storms. A 12-book series I’ve been working on for a long time is finally out, too. It’s called the Far-Out Guide to the Solar System and the titles include the eight planets, sun, moon, asteroids & comets, and the icy dwarf planets. These books focus on recent discoveries and missions, which was a lot of fun to research and write out. I love space stuff.

CW: What is your advice to aspiring writers of children's non-fiction?

MKC:  Tell stories! Just because it’s non-fiction doesn’t mean it should read like an encyclopedia. True stories of people’s lives, history’s happenings, and scientific discoveries make for dramatic tales.

CW: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions!

Next week: Part 2: Interview with Tom Uhlman about this book and his adventures in photgraphy.

Mary Kay and Tom will have a Launch Party at Blue Marble Children's Bookstore this Saturday 1-3 PM with batty fun, treats and crafts!

Spooky joint bat events:

Saturday October 23rd: Blue Manatee Children's Bookstore aith a live bat program from Echobats 4-6 PM

Saturday October 30th: Bat Fest at the Cincinnati Museum Center

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