Friday, October 6, 2023

Meet the In-betweeners

Nature's Rule Breakers: Creatures That Don't Fit In
by Jessica Fries-Gaither
32 pages; ages 5-9
Millbrook Press  (October 3, 2023)

theme: animal behavior, nature, STEM

People try to organize nature into categories. But nature doesn’t always cooperate. Sometimes it breaks the rules.

This is a book about in-betweeners. Animals that don’t fit precisely into one box or the other, or could easily fit into both. Take, for example, owls. They’re night flyers, right? But not the Eurasian Eagle-owl. It flies at dawn and dusk. What about something more … definite. Like fish – they’re either salt water or fresh water, right? Nope.

What I like about this book: Nature is messy, and sometimes defies our attempts to make sense of it. Even something as basic as whether an animal is male or female… some are both! And some change gender depending upon environmental conditions! This is great for nature, and animal populations that want to weather evolutionary changes. Not so great for scientists trying to pin down exactly how these animals live, what they eat, and how they fit into the ecosystem. Back matter discusses why we have in-betweeners, and provides a few more examples. A glossary and resources round out the back matter.

I wanted to know more about how Jessica came up with such an intriguing idea for this book, so I asked her a couple questions. All at once. Without even a breath in-between.

Me: So how did this book come about? Did you start collecting interesting facts and then decide to write a book? And what got you interested in "in-betweeners" anyway?

Jess: In early March 2021, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when I came across a tweet that simply read "Biology isn't binary." I liked the tweet, shared it with a couple of friends, and went on my merry way...but the words stuck. I started thinking about all the ways in which we (myself included) present biology concepts to kids as binary even though they really aren't. And I wondered, how could a picture book help address this issue and introduce a little grey into kids' thinking?

I started brainstorming binary categories (male/female, warm-blooded/cold-blooded) as well as examples of things that didn't fit neatly into one category (a platypus, for example) and then reached out to a friend and fellow science teacher (at my school, actually) to help expand my list. We talked about everything from bilateral gynandromorphism* to flowers with male and female parts vs plants that are male or female to many human traits that exist on a continuum rather than discrete categories (height, skin color, eye color). Her enthusiasm propelled me forward, and I started researching and writing. I shared my first draft with her just a few weeks later.

Her scientific feedback, along with the comments from my critique partners, helped me think critically about which animals and plants to focus on, and how to explain concepts to a lay audience. I also thought carefully about the order in which I presented the categories and exceptions. After much trial and error, I landed on beginning with more familiar categories (nocturnal/diurnal) and then moving to less familiar ones and ones that would be more compelling (male/female, dead/alive).

My next big milestone in the book's journey was June 2021, when I participated in SCBWI Ohio North's Triple Scoop Picture Book Revision ReTREAT (a three-week virtual workshop dedicated to revising a single manuscript). We were placed in small breakout groups with an author or agent as a coach; I was lucky enough to be placed in a science-focused nonfiction group with author Sara C. Levine. Each Saturday we had a virtual critique session and then worked to revise our manuscripts over the following week before our next session. Carol Hinz, Associate Publisher of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books (imprints of Lerner Publishing Group) joined our final session and gave us feedback on our work. She seemed interested in my manuscript, so I submitted it to her. She asked me to revise and resubmit and so I did, and a few months later, she took the manuscript to acquisitions.

*here’s a great article that helps explain gynandromorphism

Beyond the Books:

Visit an in-betweener! Some plants break the rules by eating bugs instead of getting all their nutrition from sunlight. You might find Venus flytraps and pitcher plants in a zoo or plant conservatory nearby.

Tardigrades break all the rules! They can appear dead for years, and then under the right conditions, re-activate. Find out more about tardigrades – and how they can survive in space – here.

Jessica is a member of #STEAMTeam2023. You can find out more about her at her website. Today we’re joining Perfect Picture Book Friday. It’s a wonderful gathering where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's website. Review copy provided by the publisher.

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