Wednesday, September 23, 2020

From Research to Revision, Ick! Part 2

On Wednesdays this fall, I’m sharing the process of creating my recently-published book Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animals Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses step-by-step. (To learn about the whole process in one sitting or to share an age-appropriate version with your students, check out this new resource on my website.

Last week I discussed what sparked the idea for the book. You can scroll down and read that post. Today, I’ll focus on how I went about gathering information.

For a narrowly-focused concept book like Ick!, there’s no quick or easy way to do the research. I collected examples in a burgeoning folder over the course of many, many years. 

In my office, I have a large, three-drawer vertical file cabinet full of these folders—each one represents a potential book. Every time I read an article or hear an idea that fits one of my categories, I add it to the designated folder. Over time, the information adds up. 

For Ick!, I combined information from several files, including:
—animals that regurgitate,
—unusual animal homes,
—animals that use pee and poop in surprising ways,
—animals that spit
—cannibal animals 

I also gathered information by reading books, using the internet, observing things in nature (like the jackal and gerenuk), and interviewing scientists and other experts. You can see the range of sources I used for Ick! by looking at the Selected Sources list on pages 107-108.

Let me share one example here: the bombardier beetle—an insect that blasts enemies with a scalding spray that bursts out its butt. I observed the insect in action during a class I took at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, many years ago.

In March 2018, an article in Science News led me to an amazing video of a Japanese common toad vomiting an African bombardier beetle drenched with gooey mucus. For 88 minutes, the tenacious insect fought for its life by blasting the toad’s insides with nasty, sizzling-hot spray. Finally, the toad couldn’t take it anymore and spewed its supper. After a brief rest, the slime-covered beetle slowly crawled away. You better believe this incredible example ended up in the book. Check out pages 94 and 95.

You know you’ve chosen one of the world’s best professions when watching something so weird and wonderful is a legitimate part of your job! Observational research—whether it’s in person, through videos, or via webcams—is one of my favorite parts of being a nonfiction writer. It’s also one of the best ways I know to gather tantalizing tidbits that can transform a piece of science writing from okay to outstanding. 

Eventually, I realized I had enough information for the book, so it was time to move on to the next step in the process—making a plan. I’ll talk more about that next week.


  1. I am enjoying this series of posts about ICK! Great book, and always enlightening to see how the process played out.

  2. Research is so much fun!! Especially when it's hands on.