Monday, March 30, 2015

Loree Griffin Burns, Author of Award-Winning Nonfiction

Loree Griffin Burns is the author of Beetle Busters: A Rogue Insect and the People Who Track It and four other award-winning nonfiction books for children, including Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Movement which won a coveted Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor. Loree has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and her books grow out of her passion for science and nature.

In Beetle Busters, Loree follows the Asian long horned beetle’s invasion of North America and she introduces the scientists and dedicated volunteers who track down and eradicate beetle infestations in an effort to save millions of acres of hardwood forests. 

Thanks to Loree for stopping by today to answer my questions!

It’s a pleasure to be here, Linda. Thanks for inviting me!

Loree, you were trained as a scientist. What led you to writing for children? Could you tell us a little about your career path?

When my first children—a set of twin boys who are now 16—were born, I knew that I wanted to take a short break from my career as an academic researcher. I’d just earned a PhD in biochemistry and the next obvious step was a post-doctoral research position. But for me, this type of work would be very hard to do while also learning how to be a mother. My thinking at the time was that I would stay home with my boys until they were old enough to go to school, and then I’d go back to the lab.

Like all the best laid plans, mine hit snags I’d never anticipated. First, we added another child to our family, a daughter. And then, when all three kids were very small, I stumbled across an article in my local newspaper that really piqued my interest. It described an accident in the Pacific Ocean in which 39,000 plastic bathtub toys (yellow ducks, blue turtles, red beavers and green frogs) were dumped into the sea. Eleven years later, scientists were predicting the toys would begin washing ashore where I lived, in New England.  How did the scientists know the duckies were coming this particular summer? Was someone following them? Who was that person? For heaven’s sake, HOW DID HE FOLLOW THEM?

I did a little poking around and learned that there was, indeed, a grown man whose job was to track those toys around the world ocean. What’s more, this guy, oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer, was using the information he collected from the tub toys to learn about surface currents in the ocean. I was in awe. I began researching his story and eventually decided to turn all my research into a book for young readers.

Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion was published in 2007. By then I’d begun to research another story that intrigued me: the world’s honey bee populations seemed to be in trouble. I convinced my publisher, Houghton Mifflin, to let me write about that story, too. My career as a creator of children’s books was officially underway. And to be honest, I was so intrigued by this work that when my kids were all in school and there was, finally, time to consider going back to the lab bench, I didn’t. Writing about science both engaged and fulfilled me … AND gave me the flexibility I wanted for my family. I still think it’s the perfect work for me.

You’ve come up with some pretty unusual topics. What sparked the idea for Beetle Busters? What convinced you it was a book-worthy topic? Was it difficult to convince an editor to buy into this project?

In 2008, I attended a community meeting at my public library. I’d heard that an invasive beetle had been found in our town and that in order to stop its movement, officials were going to start cutting down trees. Lots of them. I love trees, and the very thought of losing some of my favorites made me angry. I went to the meeting to learn more. I learned so many incredible things: the beetle was accidentally imported from China, it spends almost its entire life inside hardwood trees, it is hard to get rid of. I learned, in fact, that in order to save the hardwood forest of the eastern United States, my town and the towns around me were going to have to start cutting down our hardwood forests. It was an impossible dilemma. And I decided to write about it.

My editor was a little concerned that the story would not interest kid readers, and that it was too local. I was convinced that the book would grab kids, though, and I knew that the battle with invasive beetles was relevant everywhere. (Look up the emerald ash borer, for example. Or the gypsy moth caterpillar. Or even the bark beetle, a native that is becoming an issue as climate changes in the southwestern US.)

How do you approach the research for a topic like this?

I approached my research in two phases: 1) background research and reading and 2) experiential research. I started reading everything I could about the Asian longhorned beetle: its natural history, its life cycle, its invasions into North America. And I reached out to the scientists I’d met at the community meetings, setting up interviews and following them into the field to see how they tracked and studied the beetle. Over the course of the next two years, I conducted 35 of these field interviews!  

You had a lot of information to coordinate in writing Beetle Busters. How did you organize it? Was there any information you were forced to leave out?

I’m pretty low tech, actually. I take hand-written notes in the field and I record interviews where I can. I type all these notes up daily. These notes are organized by date, but also compiled into one huge document for easy searching. I’m intimately familiar with this document by the time I am done drafting my manuscript!

You don’t back away from controversy in Beetle Busters, in fact, you say that you have some reservations about razing woodlands to prevent the spread of the Asian long horned Beetle. Can you tell us a little more about that?

This was the hardest book I’ve written, and in hindsight, I know it’s because this is a story I am intimately, inextricably involved in. The trees that have to be cut down are on my town common, in my friend’s backyard, in MY backyard. I’ve sat in the shade of these trees, my kids have climbed them, they add to the beauty of the place I live. Even though I understand what is at stake—namely, YOUR trees—it is hard not to be angry when the time comes to fell these trees. At last count, Worcester County has cut more than 34 thousand trees. We’ve replanted about a third of that. Our landscape, however, will not look the way it did before ALB arrived for decades. I may not live to see it.  This is a very hard thing to contemplate, especially because there is no guarantee that the eradication program underway here will work. Even if it does, there is no way to know how many other ALB infestations are out there, or at what point we as a society will decide we can no longer afford—financially—to conduct these eradication programs. What then? Will what we have done here in Worcester be for naught? (Do you know the story of our gypsy moth caterpillar invasion? It is hard not to see it as a cautionary tale.)

You just had another book come out, Handle With Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey, about
butterfly farming. I once wrote an article about this topic, and it was fascinating to learn how this conservation effort is helping butterflies, rain forests, and people in third world countries. Tell use more!

I’d love to read your article! This book grew out of a trip my kids and I took to the Butterfly Garden at the Museum of Science in Boston. (I blogged about the trip .) 

The idea that the butterflies landing on our heads in Boston, Massachusetts that day had been caterpillars in Costa Rica two weeks before captured my imagination and wouldn’t let go. I asked the curator of the garden, Lea Morgan, if she’d answer some questions for me and by the time our interview was over, I was planning to join Lea’s next trip to El Bosque Nuevo, one of her pupae suppliers in Costa Rica. 

Photographer Ellen Harasimowicz and I joined Lea at El Bosque Nuevo twice, actually, and we’re both thrilled to have the book out in the world mesmerizing kids. (You can read more about our adventures in Costa Rica .)

Beetle Busters is part of Houghton’s wonderful Scientists in the Field series, as are two of your other books, The Hive Detectives and Tracking Trash. What makes this series so special?

I was a fan of the series long before I had the nerve to pitch a book for it. As someone with a background in science, I appreciated the depth of content: readers get a look inside the daily life of a working scientist, including the ups (finally spotting that long-sought after tree kangaroo!)  and downs (leeches!) of field research, as well as the ups and downs of scientific discovery. Add to that incredible photography and gorgeous design and you have a series that readers of all ages simply respond to. There are more than forty titles in the series now, and I’m immensely proud to have made three of them. Many of the SITF authors share additional information on their books and research adventures on the series blog.

Have you had the opportunity to go out in the field for your research? What was your most exciting research trip?

Yes! This is one of my favorite parts of the work I do. In fact, I am currently making plans for my next field trip: a week on the island of Surtsey in Iceland. I will be joining a team of ten scientists on their annual visit to this sixty-years-young volcanic island, collecting the details I’ll need for my next Scientists in the Field book.

Would you like to tell us about any future projects in the works?

I’m also hard at work on a book for older readers that shares the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA. It’s called The DNA Affair: A Story of Science and Skullduggery, and its due out in 2017.

Thank you so much for visiting Lupine Seeds, Loree!

It was my pleasure, Linda. Thank you for having me!

If you’d like to find out more about Loree Griffin Burns and her work, you can visit her website or her blog

Photo credits for Loree's portrait shot go to Ellen Harasimowicz  who was also the photographer for Beetle Busters and Handle with Care

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