Author and animal lover Jess Keating knew from the start that she wanted to tell Eugenie Clark’s story. Clark grew up as the only biracial student in her class in 1930s New York and became a world-renowned ichthyologist who worked to improve the reputation of sharks. Having been trained as a zoologist, Keating understood how challenging it was for women to become scientists. In her book Shark Lady (Jabberwocky (Sourcebooks), June 2017), Keating brings to life Clark’s dedication to studying sharks and pays tribute to Clark’s courage and passion.
Read on for an in-depth interview with Jess Keating about her inspiration for the story, the research behind the scenes and more.
Baker & Taylor: What was it that made you decide you had to write this book?
Jess Keating: On a personal note, I was moved by the obstacles Eugenie faced in her work, because they were so similar to the obstacles faced by sharks! As a woman in science, Eugenie faced prejudice at every turn and people made assumptions about her abilities. Likewise, the reputation of sharks was completely unfounded—they were seen as mindless, evil killers. Eugenie’s work shed light on the true complexity of shark behavior, and in doing so, showed the world that women can play a role in the field of science. It’s not often that there is such a fitting and meaningful overlap between scientist and subject, so I couldn’t resist digging into her story!
GM: How did you decide which details to include?
JK: The hardest part of writing about the incredible lives of women in science is that there is so much material you want to include. For me, the most important part of Eugenie’s journey wasn’t simply her scientific discoveries, it was the perseverance and curiosity that drove all of her choices and life’s work. I didn’t want this book to be a snapshot of her life, rather a longer view that encompasses some of the real scope of how impactful and strong she was. I also knew I wanted to include the moment she was awestruck by sharks as a child, because such moments happen in real life all the time and are crucial to so many future scientists.
Most importantly, I wanted to present Eugenie’s life in a way that would resonate with young readers. Kids are natural scientists and want to know about everything, so right off the bat, they understand why science exists and what drove Eugenie to pursue her dreams. They also know what it feels like to be misunderstood and misjudged. Paired with the fact that most kids are absolutely enchanted with sharks and sea life, I knew I wanted to let that sense of wonder take the lead in telling her story.
GM: Did you do fun research?
JK: As with most nonfiction, my process was a blend of digging deep into primary sources for accurate material and visiting some real life venues to develop the right feel for the book as a whole. One of my favorite research moments was visiting the sharks at the Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto. I could spend hours there! One thing I didn’t need to research was that feeling of wonder and awe that we get when we watch marine animals, especially something as massive and impressive as a shark! I’ve been fascinated with sharks and whales ever since I was a child, and I knew I wanted the book to visually depict that aura of mystery and excitement.
— INTERVIEWED BY KERRY SINGE, Growing Minds June/July Issue
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