Did you know . . .
· anteaters are always only children?
· Gould’s long-eared bats are almost always born as
· African elephants are taken care of by their big
sisters when danger comes too close?
Steve, how did your father, a scientist, influence your choice of career and what you like to write about? We are close, and I probably modeled myself on him. More overtly, he gave me books and brought me age-appropriate scientific gear (a rock hammer, chemistry sets, an outdated oscilloscope from the physics lab at the university, etc.). We took family trips to fossil collecting sites, rock shops, zoos, and natural history museums.
You both obviously really love working on nonfiction books. What accounts for that special interest? Steve Jenkins: Honestly, I wouldn’t mind writing fiction also. I haven’t yet worked up the courage to try . . . I do think that nonfiction books can be pivotal in encouraging a child’s natural interest in the world—I know they were for me. Nonfiction books are one of the helpful tools we can give kids. I believe that a cross-curriculum approach to science education that incorporates a variety of nonfiction literature is the one of the best ways to help kids understand science.
Robin Page: I think I always wanted to make children’s books. My first books were counting and ABC books, probably because I was approaching them as a designer and these subjects gave me the familiar structure of a design problem. Nonfiction, especially in a book about animals, offers great visual possibilities. And my own children have all been interested in the natural world.
You feel that it’s important to get young readers excited about and interested in science. How did you become interested in this theme? The children. They’re the best things we’ve got going. Kids are naturally curious, fascinated with the physical world, and excited about learning new things. If we can only get their attention and give them a few tools for making sense of the world, they’ll take it from there. Writing these books has reinforced my belief that children can grasp even complex natural science ideas. They just need to be engaged, and new information has to be presented with an appreciation of what they already understand. It’s similar to presenting new vocabulary words in such a way that their meaning can be deduced from context.
Which animal relationship most mirrors your own relationships with your brother(s) and/ or sister(s)? Steve: I’m almost seven years older than my (only) brother, and my relationship with Jeff was often protective or instructive—babysitting, showing him things I’d found or made. Perhaps some primates, baboons or chimpanzees, interact like this. Though it’s usually the females that take on these roles. Now that we are grown we’re a bit like the wild turkeys—friends for life—except that there is no wingman and no dominant brother.
Robin: I grew up on a farm in North Carolina, and from the age of five or six my brother and three sisters and I all did farm work—rounding up stray cows, weeding, driving tractors (scary). I guess we were like a beaver family. Now that we’re grown, we may be more like a family group of whales, communicating across great distances.
What surprised you the most about the animal relationships you researched? Steve: I think the most striking and consistent thing was the way that individual animals so often devote themselves to the survival or reproductive success of a sibling. Their interest in passing along their own genes—commonly considered a primary goal for most creatures—was subordinate to helping the strongest or most assertive sibling reproduce. Siblings share many genes, so this makes sense if a creature’s genes are “acting” in their own interest and maximizing their chance of being passed on, which is exactly what modern evolutionary theory suggests.
Robin: I hadn’t realized that so many animal siblings are bonded for life—turkeys, elephants, and cheetahs. In a surprising number of animals, the sibling relationship is stronger than that with a mate or even a parent or child.
Are there certain things a parent/teacher/adult can do to keep the love of science alive in kids? As parents, what do you do to encourage that love and curiosity in your own children? Listen to their questions, and if you don’t know the answer, look it up together. Buy lots of nonfiction books! Or get them at the library, and read them together. Like so many things—diet, physical activity, a love of art or music—children pay more attention to what we do than what we say. So the first step in encouraging a love of science in children might be to cultivate an interest in it ourselves. And there is so much going on right now, so many amazing things being discovered, that it’s not hard to become interested. Our family watches lots of nature programs, such as Richard Attenborough’s BBC-produced documentaries. They are a great entry point to natural science.
You have worked on more than thirty-two books—do you have a particular favorite, and why? Steve: It sounds like a glib answer, but the fact is that my favorite book is almost always the one I’m working on at the moment. There always seem to be so many possibilities . . .
I think Life on Earth, which is about evolution, is one of the more significant books I’ve worked on, and I’m fond of Actual Size because the concept is so simple.
Robin: I think I might say I See a Kookaburra. It was an especially challenging design problem, and I’m pleased with the way it came out.
You do a fair number of presentations for kids—has that changed the way you work at all? Steve: Interesting question. I’d like to say that I’ve gotten all kinds of ideas from the questions the kids asked, but I don’t really think that’s true. What the presentations have done is give me a subtler sense of what children find interesting and how they think about some of these things. It’s also forced me think about and articulate what I do, which I’m sure has an effect — though I can’t put a finger on it—on the book-making process.
Where do you find the different papers you work with? Steve: Mostly from art supply stores with large imported paper collections. We have begun to make some of our own paste papers, which is fun. We also collect wrapping paper, paper bags, pieces of tree bark, and other things that might somehow make their way into a collage.
Many couples find it difficult to work together. How has the collaboration experience been for you? We have been working together, formally, for twenty-five years. We started our own graphic design firm in 1982, and began collaborating on children’s books some fifteen years later. We’ve never found it difficult to work together. We’ve done it for so long that we can skip over a lot of stuff that would need discussing or explaining to a new collaborator. It’s more fun, in many ways, than working on a project alone.
What did you read as a child? Steve: Books about animals, fossils, volcanoes—just about any book about nature. I also liked myths and fairy tales, and, a little later (fifth or sixth grade), science fiction.
Robin: My mother read us lots of folk tales and fables. I remember a series of books called Book Trails, which contained collections of these stories. I went through a serious Laura Ingalls Wilder phase, reading all the Little House books.