Doing intensive research in preparation for a work of nonfiction is par for the course these days for children’s book authors, but for Katherine Roy, this doesn’t just mean tracking down hard-to-find primary source material—it’s entailed getting to know sharks in intimate detail. Roy, whose debut book Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands (Roaring Brook) is released this September, spent time in 2012 with a team of scientists, accompanying them on boats as they studied great white sharks in Farallon Bay off San Francisco’s coast.
Though Roy did plenty of reading prior to the trip on sharks, she says that the trip was invaluable. She was able to interact with two key researchers, Sal Jorgensen and Scot Anderson, who have been working with the sharks for years.
“It helped me make the book a lot more accurate,” she said, “being there, having that hands-on experience, seeing the colors of the water, asking a million questions about the sharks, as [the scientists] tagged them, and [about] the water clarity, seasons, birds, all these different things that contributed to the atmosphere of the book.”
Roy used the opportunity to inject her book with the most accurate information possible. For instance, she dispelled the belief that great white sharks hunt by detecting the scent of blood in the water. Though the sharks do use their sense of smell, Roy said, they rely primarily on their strong sense of vision when hunting.
“When they actually zoom in on and target a seal, they’re using their eyes,” she said. “They have great eyes.” Roy saw an example of this in action when scientists used a fake seal made from carpet to lure the predators to the surface—something that would never have happened had the sharks only been using smell.
Hands-on learning was key for Roy. She took the opportunity to dissect the body of a baby hound shark at the California Academy of Sciences, getting a detailed look at the shark’s gills, which are very similar to those of a great white.
Roy learned, too, that though fieldwork is immensely rewarding, it presents its own challenges. “It can be really slow, depending on whether the animals feel like coming up,” she said. “It takes extraordinary patience….I didn’t really realize that until I was out there.”
But the benefits are great for those scientists who have devoted their lives to studying the animals. Roy described how Anderson has observed the same group of sharks since 1987, and she says that he and his colleagues are often content to spend a single afternoon merely watching the water for signs of the animals. It’s an endeavor the artist admires—and one to which she can readily relate, as an author who also “labors over something for so long” and must wait to see the fruits of that hard work.
And Roy hasn’t stopped with sharks. She’s planning a picture book on elephants, set to release from Roaring Brook next year, called How to Be an Elephant and recently returned from a trip to Kenya, where she visited the Sheldrick Orphanage (a rescue and rehabilitation center for baby elephants), the Mpala Research Centre, Giraffe Centre, Amboseli National Park, and the Samburu National Reserve, as well as Tsavo West National Park, Tsavo East National Park, and Lake Nakuru.
Much of what she’s observed has truly been by chance. She was lucky enough to see a bull elephant get collared (or tranquilized and fitted with a tracking device) at Samburu, a moment she describes as her own Jurassic Park experience (referring to a scene in the film where a paleontologist gets up close with a sedated triceratops).
Though the event sounds simple, a lot of planning went into it. “[The elephant] trumpeted and ran off, [and] the other females near him and the babies took off,” Roy said. “For the next ten minutes, we kept our distance in the jeep, but also made sure that we monitored him, [because] he could fall asleep in a bad position.” She also notes that the elephant was in musth, or heat, making aggression more likely. However, the process went off without a hitch: the elephant fell asleep quickly, the Kenya wildlife service was on hand to watch for poachers, and the team quickly got the collar on.
Spending time with elephants gave Roy a better sense for what the herbivores are like. She spoke of how much time the animals spend eating, from 15 to 20 hours a day to support their great bulk. They reminded her a little of big cows, but they can shift gears quite fast when they need to, said Roy, mentioning a moment when the animals felt their calves were threatened.
“I was surprised at how they can shift from being like any herbivore to being highly aware beings.”
The fieldwork has clearly been exhilarating, but Roy also finds it allows her to apply real nuance to her books, from the ability to perfect the hues of blue in the ocean to the anatomy of these creatures. Getting the details right is essential, she believes, citing the example of a researcher at Mpala looking at one of her sketches and pointing out that the forehead of a female elephant is more angled and the back more curved than that of a male elephant’s, something Roy herself wouldn’t have realized.
“That’s why you go,” she said, “so that kids are getting the most up-to-date information on these animals.”
At the same time, she’s passionate about bringing a creative vision to her art. “Drawings can go where photographs can’t go, to reveal something new or teach something differently. I’m excited about that as an author/illustrator, to try something new in nonfiction, a new approach to animals.” Neighborhood Sharks is full of metaphor and innovation, such as an image of a shark’s body drawn to resemble an airplane to emphasize its speed and efficiency in the water or an illustration of an eye chart with pictures of seals, sea turtles, and other things sharks identify while hunting.
For Roy, nothing can replace the experience of visiting the sites she’s writing and drawing about. “You have to go. You’re going to learn things you’d never learn [otherwise]. You’ll get clarification on things you’d never know.”