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.)
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
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 led me to of a Japanese common toad vomiting an African bombardier beetle drenched with gooey mucus. For , 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.