RSS: RSS Feed Icon

3_6 (2).JPG

Probably the highest compliment I can pay a nonfiction book for children is that while it sat on my dining room table every adult who entered the room casually paged through it and quickly became fascinated by the story. Author Loree Griffin Burns' entry in the Houghton Mifflin Scientists in the Field series is an amazing look at pollution in the world's oceans. The amount of research she conducted for this book is awesome but more impressively the way she shares the work of the scientists she spoke with is a lesson in how to make science writing both scholarly and engaging. Tracking Trash is the perfect jumping off point for anyone - of any age - with an interest in marine science and global pollution. It will raise numerous questions about how we live and what happens to the many things we discard and in case you think I'm being melodramatic, consider that there is an enormous floating garbage patch that is twice the size of Texas floating around in the Pacific between Hawaii and San Francisco. I found this fact to be appalling and I'm still trying to wrap my head around the reality of its existence.

Loree had a lot to say about the Garbage Patch, ghost nets and thousands of lost rubber duckies and sneakers. She is a sharply smart writer and a fascinating author interview. I enjoyed her book thoroughly and look forward to reading the many other projects she is working on in the future. Now here's the interview:

How did you come to write a book on this specific subject? On all the marine bio subjects out there, trash is not the first thought that comes to mind when thinking about the oceans. How did you decide to write about it?

I learned about Curt Ebbesmeyer and his quirky research program from a newspaper article in spring 2003. The story blew me away: a shipment of 28,000 plastic tub toys had fallen into the Pacific Ocean in 1992 and scientist were now expecting some of them to wash ashore in New England. This astounded me. Who knew plastic ducks would float in the ocean that long? What route did they follow into the Atlantic? How was it that scientists knew precisely when to expect them in New England? And why, pray tell, were scientists interested in the ducks at all? I was intensely curious, and did a little research …

My original instinct was to write a picture book. The drama of a shipping accident, the silliness of the tub toys, a grown man whose job was to chase toys around the ocean … it seemed a perfect combination to share with very young readers in picture book format. (As it turns out, Eve Bunting and David Wisniewski had already done that in Ducky, published by Clarion in 1997.) The more I learned about Curt and his work, however, the more I leaned toward a format that would allow me to really delve into the science. Curt's work is the perfect example of how science can be quirky and fun and solid all at the same time … older readers (um, anyone over the age of ten!) are a great audience for this message.

I remember that article on Curt and the ducks - I think I read it on the internet (which wouldn't be surprising). And living here on the Pacific Coast just north of Seattle, this kind of news shows up from time to time in the newspapers. After you decided to write about him was it your general research that led you to the other subjects like the garbage patch and ghost nets? And how did you find the right people to talk to on these subjects? I'm curious as to how you came to meet them - and what they thought of participating in a science book for children.

I read about Charlie Moore's work (he and his colleagues are the ones out in the middle of the Pacific quantifying how much trash is in the Garbage Patch) in Beachcombers' Alert!, a newsletter that Curt Ebbesmeyer puts out quarterly. I came across the other scientists, believe it or not, on NPR. I blogged about this fortuitous development here.

As to how they felt about contributing to a book for children, to a person the scientists in Tracking Trash were marvelously supportive. Each of them took time away from busy schedules and important work to help me understand what they were doing and what their work meant—and what it didn't mean. They got that the science needed to be solid and could not (would not!) be "dumbed down�. I love that!

I learned a crazy amount from this book - in fact it was on our dining room table and my husband ending up reading it over breakfast one morning and then started telling everyone he knew about the big floating garbage patch. He was blown away (we are still blown away). What part of the book surprised you the most during research? What made you really stop and think?

To be honest, the environmental part of this story snuck up on me. I was still very focused on the science of ocean currents the first time I interviewed Curt. At some point during that interview I asked him how many containers fall off of cargo ships each year, and his answer shocked me: between one thousand and ten thousand. Ten thousand! That was the moment I began to wonder how much trash was actually in the ocean, and the direction of my research changed dramatically.

You met so many fascinating and committed people while writing this book. Whose research really piqued your curiosity and inspired you to learn more?

Honestly? Every one of them. What inspires me most is people of passion … and each scientist I profile in Tracking Trash — Curt Ebbesmeyer, Jim Ingraham, Charles Moore, Jim Churnside, Tim Veenstra, and Mary Donohue — is passionate about the ocean. That collective passion fueled the entire project, and I still feed off it today.

How do you feel about science books for young people? Do you think enough of them are written and subjects that appeal to teens and younger? What other subjects would you like to write about for this age group?

I am quite fond of science books for young people (surprise, surprise!). Are there enough of them written on subjects that appeal to teens and younger audiences? This is hard to answer. But I do think that books in this genre need to do more than just appeal to readers … they need to engage readers in the scientific method, too. My favorite science books for young readers do this in incredibly creative ways: The Boy Who Drew Birds, by Jacqueline Davies and Melissa Sweet; Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Mary Azarian, Snowflake Bentley; The "Giants of Science� biographies by Kathleen Krull.

My works-in-progress are all on science topics. I am writing about a man who spent the last forty years of his life watching insects in his backyard and performing simple experiments to understand the behaviors he observed. I'm also working on a book that explores the odd creatures scientists use in the laboratory (microscopic worms and fruit flies, among others) and another that profiles the dream team of scientists who are frantically trying to figure out what is killing our nation's honey bees. Fun stuff!

How long does it take a book like this to be written and what kind of travel did you do? It reads as something effortless, but it's clear that you must have traveled to a lot of different places to meet people and witness their work first hand. How much of a project was Tracking Trash and how personally invested in it did you become?

Effortless? How I would love to tell you writing this book was effortless, Colleen. The truth is that bringing Tracking Trash into the world was one of the most intense, gratifying, and terrifying experiences of my life!

I submitted my proposal to Houghton Mifflin in June 2004 and was offered a contract—my first—in August. I had estimated it would take me six months to write the book, but since Tracking Trash was going to be part of an existing series (Scientists in the Field), it was assigned the next available publishing slot … Spring 2007. At first I was disappointed at what I thought would be an overly long timeline. But when my single research trip grew into three trips, and the realities of photographic research and editorial exchange finally dawned on me, I was oh-so-glad to have that extra time.

It was impossible for me not to become personally invested in Tracking Trash. I began the project because of my own interest and passion for the story, and I have spent the past year bringing it into classrooms for the very same reasons. I am constantly amazed at how completely students of all ages get the environmental issues at play in the book, and it is a joy to share with them the things I have learned about protecting the ocean. My entire family has become involved in The Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup (we are running a cleanup event in Massachusetts next weekend!), and this involvement is a direct result of having worked on this book.

From your book I know you have a PhD, but the author info states it is from Univ of Mass Med School (I'd just like to interject here "Go Red Sox"!). Do you have a general science background and is that why you are drawn to writing on such a variety of scientific subjects (from Tracking Trash to your works in progress)? What do you think a science writer needs to know to write books for kids?

Oh, I love my Red Sox. Especially this time of year and especially when we get to this time of year and my boys are behaving themselves!

My background is in biochemistry and molecular biology, of all things. Every bit of my research was done inside a laboratory, much of it with single-celled yeasts. (I've got a book planned about them. They are super-interesting and useful buggers, you know!) While I enjoyed doing basic bench science, I struggled with the intensity of focus required. That is, I knew an incredible amount about a very small subject (the regulation of gene expression in yeast cells) … and there was not much time left over for exploring the fascinating science going on in other areas. And I was always drawn to other people's fascinating science.

And, so, I did some freelance work in my free time (my graduate advisor thought I was a nut!) for the public affairs office, interviewing scientists at the university and writing about their work for a lay audience. In hindsight, this was the beginning of my move away from focused research and toward a broader mission of exploring (and sometimes explaining) science for a general audience.

What do science writers need to know to write books for kids? I think meeting kids where they are is important. This does not mean "dumbing down� content, it means making the content, the science, relevant to their lives.

You mentioned going to classrooms - what has the response from students been to Tracking Trash? What parts of the book seem to capture their attention the most?

I've had good response from kids as young as Kindergarten and as old as eighth grade. The part of the book that grabs their attention is the same part that seems to grab adults: the Garbage Patch. The kids hate the very idea of it, and most want to do something about it. I always leave schools humbled and pleased with the environmental ethic that seems natural to this generation of kids. The hard part (and this is not just hard for kids, it is hard for ME, too) is making the connection between what outrages us about Tracking Trash and the very difficult lifestyle changes that will be required for us, as a world community, to correct those problems.

You can read more about Loree's work at her site and also see a recent article on a possible clean-up of the Garbage Patch in the SF Gate.

[Post pic credit to "Courtesy NOAA Fisheries" - and the little guy is a Monk Seal!]


This is such an awesome book - people were charmed by the cute picture book Flotsam, but this one is what grabbed me - it's a book you can go back to over and over to get the facts straight, get the feeling of impetus and urgency refueled, and get started on what you can do in your own little corner.

That makes it a classic, in my book.

Flotsam makes the subject cute - it's the old "put a message in a bottle and see where it goes" idea and I like that too, but I think what Loree did is say "hey - there is nothing romantic about this!". The part that really blew me away was the ghost nets. They should be (and can be) cleaned up, but for centuries it has just been easier to let them go wheverer.

I mean really - would people treat their own houses the way we treat the oceans?

Classic indeed!!

Just wanted to add "Go Red Sox", too. I also have an advanced degree from UMass, and am a Red Sox fan. I think that makes Loree and I soul sisters of some sort. Thanks for a great interview.

Post a comment