Thursday, March 25, 2010

Something About Sea Turtles

The life of a book is a curious thing. It ripples outward into places you never expected it to go. Such as been the life of Turtle, Turtle, Watch Out! When I first wrote this book, I knew about sea turtles. But I hadn't lived turtles, not the way I have in the years since. Where the book has taken me and other readers has surprised and thrilled me.

Like many authors, I have always been intrigued by sea turtles and the sea turtle journey, particularly the way females find their way back to the beach where they hatched. But what also impressed me is how many people love sea turtles and what they are doing to help them: turning off beach lights, guarding beaches, avoiding driving on beaches, preventing plastic pollution, and installing Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) on nets. (As an intern at National Wildlife Federation in 1987, I wrote conservation articles to encourage people to enact TEDs laws.)

The first book came to me as a circle of hands. In fact, I called the first versions of my manuscript "Turtle and the Unseen Hands." Because that's the way I imagined this loving circle of people working hard to help sea turtles survive. The book title changed but it was this human participation and positive environmental message that made the book popular in a field that already had some lovely sea turtle books. Schoolchildren celebrated the book by crafting paper plate turtles, setting the book to music, tracking the turtle's journey, and writing turtle poetry. Sea turtles connect with people on some kind of heart level. I cannot count the number of sea turtle shaped necklaces that librarians have worn. (Okay, so I have turtle earrings and scarf!)

Yet the book went out of print years later when Orchard was slimming its backlist. Soon, anguished teachers contacted me to try to buy the book, which was at times going for $400 on ebay. (Wow, why didn't I keep a few cases of those ol' books around? Could have paid off my mortgage!) Extraordinary science educators Emily Morgan and Karen Ansberry were championing the book in their NSTA bestseller, Picture Perfect Science Lessons. Many of my nonfiction books have had this slow burn, where they catch on in multiple formats or languages several years after their release.

Fortunately Charlesbridge, then spearheaded by Judy O'Malley who'd loved the book years before as a reviewer, rescued the turtle—okay, turtle book—again. The book was reborn with luminous new illustrations by Annie Patterson and additions to the main text plus whole new swaths of endmatter on recent conservation action and profiles of all sea turtle species.

For me it is a fully new book. Yes, I loved the first one. But Patterson's illustrations are joyful in a whole new way. The editor and art director worked to craft a book that would appeal to older children who could really dig into the conservation message. The new text, and the comments I made on art stages were informed by experiences my family has had with sea turtles in the intervening years.

Late one night on a beach in Grand Cayman, we went out to meet sea turtle scientist Janice Blumenthal. As we walked out on the sand, my nephews said to me, "Look, look, Aunt April, it's just like in your book!" And it was, magically. The moon made a rippled track on the sea just as Lee Christiansen had drawn it in the original Turtle, Turtle, Watch Out! edited by Rebecca Davis. The book had come to life.

Yet there were fascinating aspects of sea turtle hatching that weren't in that original book. I had never quite understood, before that night, that the sea turtles spend days scrambling to the surface. They crawl over each other, using each other as stairsteps. We see them pop out of the sand as if their journey had just started. Yet their upward journey has already taken days of struggle!

In the time since that first book, my family and I have seen loggerhead hatchlings emerge from the sand. We have pulled 125 green turtle hatchlings out of a wire mesh cage and felt their tiny flippers slap-a-slapping at our hands. We have hiked miles and miles of beach, searching for turtle tracks and reporting nest sites to scientists. We have watched, by computer, on as the adult green turtle that was tagged by my family made its way through the ocean. We have obseved hawksbill turtles nibbling on sponges and swimming 40 feet deep in coral reefs. I have snorkeled with turtles that surfaced inches from my face and heard them intake breath. All these experiences informed the new Turtle, Turtle Watch Out! main text, illustrations, and endmatter.

Sea turtles are intimately tied with so many memories in my family's life. Fortunately, sea turtles are a part of other families' lives, too. Caribbean Conservation Corporation, Sea, the Leatherback Trust, and environmental conservation departments in many states have programs that get teachers, students, and families out doing hands on work to help these turtles survive. Lots of students I meet while doing school visits in South Carolina, my home state, have encountered turtles and turtle science. The wonder of it leaves a huge impression on them.

There's just something about sea turtles. Perhaps that's why I also have an almost-finished sea turtle novel in my desk drawer here plus an older science book about them languishing as well. I expect sea turtles will swim back in and out of my life (and I will swim in and out of theirs) over and over again.


Gretchen Woelfle said...

Thanks for the journey into the world of sea turtles. The love and passion in the book comes from lived experience, but it takes your writerly skill to communicate it to the rest of us.

Carmela Martino said...

Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and passion with readers everywhere, April. Your commitment shines through in everything you do.