Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Learning About Neighborhood Sharks with Katherine Roy

Many Vermonters will be familiar with Katherine Roy's work through her illustrations for the popular fiction series The Expeditioners by local author S.S. Taylor. Katherine also works in the nonfiction realm and was one of the first authors added to the new David Macaulay Studios imprint at Macmillan Publishers. Her first book with this imprint, Neighborhood Sharks, recently won the a Sibert Honor Award for informational children's books (you can read reviews of Neighborhood Sharks in this earlier post).

On February 7th, Katherine spoke at Bear Pond about how she combined visual storytelling skills and careful research to tell the story of sharks. You can see how carefully she makes information relevant to young readers from the start of the book:

"Every September the great white sharks return to San Francisco. Their hunting grounds, the Farallon Islands, are just 30 miles from the city. While their 800,000 human neighbors dine on steak, salad, and sandwiches, the white sharks hunt for their favorite meal."

These sharks live in a particular place, next door to humans, and are, in fact, the "Neighborhood Sharks" for San Fransisco area where Katherine grew up.

"From sunup to sundown sharks circle the shores, stalking their unsuspecting prey."

The sequence of illustrations show quiet circling, quiet circling, until the shark leaps from the water to catch the seal in sudden, furious movement.

The question then is: how do they do it?

It's a launching question that lets Katherine get into the biology and ecology studied by shark scientists. Answering how sharks eat includes answering why they're hunting elephant seals, where and when they visit the hunting grounds, how they identify, catch, and consume their prey, and how this all fits into the functioning of the Farallon Island ecosystem . . . and along the way it answers misunderstandings and myths about sharks, because the "how" of their hunting also includes reasons why they don't hunt humans. (For one thing, we don't have enough blubber).

Careful reading of Neighborhood Sharks shows how Katherine pulls together picture, story, and fact to bring us through learning about great white sharks. Not as obvious is the process that went into creating that final book. We got a glimpse into that on Saturday.


Katherine learned quickly that running a simple Internet search for sharks turns up a lot of incorrect or incomplete information. Books for kids about sharks reflect this to some degree - there are many more books of shark stories than books of shark facts.

Research for Neighborhood Sharks began with "binge watching shark movies" plus reading stacks of scientific papers. Katherine discovered that a large congregation of breeding pinnipeds (sea lions and seals) at the Farallon Islands draws so many sharks to the area for feeding that it's known as the "Red Triangle" and the high time of feeding, fall, is "Sharktober" when scientists congregate to study the otherwise-elusive great whites. Katherine looked for the scientists who published papers most frequently from that San Francisco area, and contacted them with questions. This research, which began in fall of 2011, gave her enough information to create a dummy of a picture book to send to the editor at David Macaulay studios in February of 2012. When the editor decided to buy the book, then the hands-on research began.

In the fall of 2012, Katherine flew out to San Francisco to go out on the water with a team of scientists studying great white sharks. She was nervous contacting the scientists, who get many requests from people interested in accompanying them on the water, but they were enthusiastic about having a picture book that tells the real, complicated, story of how sharks eat.

The next phase of research for Neighborhood Sharks included traveling on the water searching for sharks (some of which were longer than the boat), luring sharks to the surface with a seal-shaped carpet and chunks of blubber, inspecting shark jaws and their bite patterns (on a surf board . .  used to getting bite patterns on purpose), and dissecting fish to get an up-close look at gills. You can see photos from this trip on her website if you scroll down this page.

This is not a stock photo, it's a pile of Katherine's notes.

Creating the Book

Collecting a lot of information, especially a lot of firsthand information and original research, prepared Katherine to write with authority about great white sharks. But she had to turn those facts into an interesting story.

One thing where the details of the research show is in the details of her drawings. Maybe no one would notice but the scientists who were there, but she can still draw true to the experience of studying sharks in this particular place. In one scene she shows a receiver that communicates with the shark tags; it's anchored on the ocean floor with a train wheel, and Katherine knows its a train wheel because she was there when the scientists dropped it. She populates her pictures with backgrounds full of moon jellyfish because the videos the scientists took underwater were full of moon jellyfish images. Elephant seals have bright red blood - it's an unexpectedly vivid shade, likely because extra hemoglobin helps them in long, deep dives (if you want to see it, here's a link). Katherine's illustrations gain depth from the number of details she can include.

Katherine brought her visual art skills to providing more easily understood representations of the scientific information contained in journal articles. Her book includes diagrams that can be easier to read than the typical illustrations to a scientific paper, meant to supplement data or detailed technical descriptions. Katherine also uses visual metaphors. For example, a shark could be described as moving through the water like a bullet, torpedo or jet plane - and so Katherine draws a shark-shaped jet plane in that section. In another place the rich, diverse ecosystem of the Farallon Islands becomes a "soup."

Even if you aren't a visual artist, you can see how this image-based context helps. Take a tape measure and pull it out across a room (or rooms) for 21-feet, the length of an adult female great white shark, and you can appreciate how a shark would not just fill but burst out of the average living room.

As she puts together these images, Katherine uses her cartooning skills to arrange them in a way that tells a story. She thinks about sequence, where the page turns occur, how a reader takes in the picture (where the eyes go first), and how much information can be layered into the drawing. She draws thumbnails, sketches, pages arranged on her wall, and many (in this case, eight) dummies of how the final book might look.

The process of executing final drawings includes sketching, scanning, planning out pages and color values on the computer, tracing, and a final water color. Katherine provides a lot of detail about this process in a recent interview from the Picturebooking Podcast. She talks about how she uses both her classical art education and digital tools to create her books. You can also see her at work painting a spread in this time-lapse video on her website.

The shark scientists who helped Katherine with her research also signed off on the final text. . . making particular changes so that, for example, the text would not read "the largest great white sharks" but instead the more accurate (if less precise) "some of the largest known great white sharks." Finally, everyone -- author, scientists, editor--was happy with both the accuracy and the interest level of the book.

 Following Sharks. . . Elephants

Neighborhood Sharks is the first of three books Katherine will be publishing with David Macaulay Studios. She's already well into the research phase of her second book How To Be An Elephant, which follows a baby African elephant as it grows up.

The research process for this book is different from Neighborhood Sharks. For one thing, there is simply a lot more information out there about elephants and that means there are scientists doing more highly specialized fields of study.  For Sharks she found a group of scientists focused on sharks visiting a particular island ecosystem. . . for the elephants, researchers have specialties like "seismic communication." Also, the elephants she's studying live in Kenya, a lot more difficult to reach than San Francisco. She did travel there recently and you can read about her trip on her "7 Amazing Highlights From My Trip to Kenya" blog post.

If you're interested in how the process of researching and creating How to Be An Elephant unfolds, you can follow along on Katherine's website www.katherineroy.com. She also has a regular e-mail newsletter, which you can sign up for on the site. 

From Katherine's Blog Post: The Very Beginning
The third book (in case you're wondering) will be a longer one about reproductive biology. The things you can learn about barnacles are. . . astounding.

Related Links
  • Katherine Roy's Website: www.katherineroy.com
  • Earlier blog post on Neighborhood Sharks
  • Center for Cartoon Studies: http://www.cartoonstudies.org - You can check here for public exhibits, talks, and workshops for anyone interested in learning more about cartooning, visual communications, and sequential art. 
  • Jason Chin, who visited the store in November with Deirdre Gill, also spoke about field research for nature- and science-focused picture books. You can read about his workshop here.

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