Michael Hearst makes his children’s book debut with Unusual Creatures (Chronicle, October, 2012). His definition of said species? “An animal that looks, sounds, smells, or acts in a way that makes you stop and say, ‘Whoa, dude!’ What’s up with that?” Here Hearst discusses this highly visual look at animals from around the globe and his fascination with these offbeat creatures.
How did you arrive at the 50 animals in the book?
It was tricky. I’d constantly jot down animals I learned or read about. I’d mention the book to friends and family, and people would say, “What about this animal? Have you heard of this one?” With 5200 species listed, I had to whittle it down for the book. If there’s a sequel, I have more.
There’s a nice balance of the air, land, and sea animals….
I released my album, “Songs for Unusual Creatures,” first, so I knew I wanted to include those 14 animals. Looking at my selection, I tried to see if there were too many of one or the other—amphibians, reptiles, etc.,…it wasn’t as easy to find unusual birds!
How did you decide on the narrative voice? There’s lots of information—and humor—here.
It’s just me. It’s not different from my conversation with you right now. I wrote this book to entertain myself. The book was originally pitched [as an adult title]. I’m 8 going on 40. I’ve come to grips with it.
You approach the factoids through poems, “platyfacts,” pop quizzes, etc. How did this happen?
When I was in junior high in Virginia Beach, VA, I loved to flip through Ripley’s [Believe it or Not!], which had information in diagrams and bubbles. That was something I wanted to go for. Do you remember safari cards? They had an animal on the front, with a section highlighted and scientific classifications. I sent my designers [Arjen Noordeman and Christie Wright] a package of them, as a reference.
The design of the book is really distinctive.
I’ve worked with Arjen Noordeman and Christie Wright on several projects over the years. Because I had already done the Unusual Creatures CD with them, I had to negotiate authorship and packaging. I wrote all the text for an animal and sent them instructions, such as: “Here’s where I want the animal to be, a bubble, here, a factoid in the lower right hand corner with this info,” and they took over.
You make extreme facts easy for kids to relate to, such as the bee hummingbird’s ability to drink eight times its body mass as equivalent to “if you or I drank four bathtubs full of water every day.”
I owe that to my wife. She was constantly reminding me, “Put that into perspective for a kid.”
And in the book you’re not afraid to say that you—and scientists—aren’t sure why something exists in nature.
At the book release last month, someone asked me about the hagfish. Is it in the fish family, or is it in the eel family? I didn’t know, I said, “Let’s look it up.” It’s not in either, as it turns out; it’s in its own family. A skull with no spine. The truth is, a lot of these species were dead ends.
So, what’s your favorite animal?
There are a few I really have become attached to. I went down to the Lemur Center in North Carolina to work on a film about the aye-ayes. They were so fascinating to me. I kept looking at the slow loris [nearby] and completely fell in love with them. They’re slower than a sloth. To reach out and grab a piece of food takes them three minutes. Then they come slowly back, place the food in their mouth and chew.
The [inclusion of] the anteater in the book was the result of conversations with Maia Weinstock, [she had a picture of Salvador Dali with his giant anteater] who sold me on the animal, plus the fact that they line up with their young and walk on their knuckles.
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