Guest Post: Mary Quattlebaum on Nonfiction, Connections & Environmental Change

Mary with Border Collie Shine

By Mary Quattlebaum

At a recent book event, a little boy was nonplussed to discover that humans are animals, too.

“You mean, me?” he asked incredulously. “I’m an animal?”

Yup, welcome to the family!

I loved doing the research for Brother, Sister, Me and You (National Geographic, 2019), especially since this nonfiction picture book was inspired by my own tumble-bumble pack of three sisters and three brothers.

It was fascinating to learn how interactions between animal siblings—playing, wrestling, snuggling—help to prepare members of some species to function as adults.

Rather than privileging cute mammals, I wanted to feature the diversity of animals.

An initial list of about 40 possibilities was brainstormed and researched—and whittled down to 11 (including the surprise animal at the end).

And the verbs had to be carefully chosen for their accuracy in depicting specific animal movements—and to encourage kids to act them out.

For me, it’s always a pleasure and a challenge to craft the back matter, to choose facts that are relevant and intriguing. One cool fact: a female leatherback sea turtle swims thousands of miles to lay her eggs, about 100, in the sand.

For Brother, Sister, Me and You, I especially wanted to showcase an important insect from my country childhood: honey bees.

My siblings and I liked to watch the bees coming and going from my father’s hives, circling and murmuring through our small orchard.

Today their numbers are significantly diminished, their sound a faint hum—the fate of too many species of insects throughout the world, as they succumb to pesticides, pollution, climate change, and habitat loss.

As the latest environmental report from the United Nations makes clear, more than one million species of animals now face extinction, largely due to the factors mentioned above.

We’re all interconnected. Even small positive changes can have a rippling effect. I’m often inspired by the work of other authors and organizations who work to promote awareness and change. And I’m grateful for the many children eager to talk about their favorite animals and to share ways that their classrooms and families are helping the environment.

Recently I had a chance to team up at a bookstore with the talented Maria Gianferrari, author of Operation Rescue Dog, illustrated by Luisa Uribe (Little Bee, 2018), and other beautiful picture books; the rescue group Paws for Homes; and a number of young readers/nature lovers to celebrate and advocate for animals. Coming together in communities, large and small, may help us to act to an even greater extent on our shared concern—and hope.

Mary (in the back) at Bard’s Alley Bookstore, in Vienna, Virginia, with Maria Gianferrari, author of Operation Rescue Dog, young readers/animal lovers, and staff and dogs from Operation Paws for Homes, which in the past decade has rescued 7,500 dogs from high-kill shelters and found them forever homes.

Cynsational Notes

Mary Quattlebaum is the author of 27 award-winning children’s books, most of which feature animals and the natural world.

Recent nonfiction titles include Brother, Sister, Me and You; Hero Dogs (National Geographic, 2017); Together Forever (National Geographic, 2016) (about animal friendships); Mighty Mole and Super Soil illustrated by Chad Wallace (Dawn Publications, 2015); and the Jo MacDonald Nature series illustrated by Laura J. Bryant (Dawn Publications).

Mary teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, in the MFA program on writing for children and young adults, and she writes frequently for the Washington Post and Washington Parent.

She lives in Washington, DC, with her family and their elderly border collie and enjoys watching the wild visitors–rabbits, squirrels, insects, earthworms, and birds—to their backyard habitat.