Full STEAM Ahead with Eliot Schrefer, author of Endangered

Full STEAM Ahead

The past summer, I read Eliot Schrefer’s Endangered in one sitting.  (My review here). I’ve been thinking about it ever since, so when I decided to query authors for Full STEAM Ahead, Eliot immediately jumped to mind.  The research he conducted for the book took him all the way to a bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  You can’t get more hands-on in science than sitting amongst the bonobos and interacting with them and their caretakers! And what I really love is that the story began with Eliot researching where the name of his favorite store, Bonobos, originated.  Talk about real-life applications of research!

Eliot contributed some Q and A about the way science influenced his writing.  Specifically, he is here today to talk about the time he spent at Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  He has even shared some video clips of the time he spent at the sanctuary!

Q: Did you make any surprising observations about bonobos at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary?

A: One thing I discovered while I was at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo was that the orphans really don’t like men. I’m a smaller guy, so they didn’t mind me too much, but whenever I had an orphan on my lap and one of the larger men on the staff—a gardener or a guard—would come over, the orphan would immediately be on his feet and crying for her surrogate mother to come over and hold her.

Of course, it was mostly likely men who came into the forest and killed that orphan’s mother. The young creatures receive so much love at the sanctuary, and have such a good time playing with one another, that it’s easy to forget where they all came from. But the immediate, visceral fear on an orphan’s face in the company of men made it all come back. They are 98.7% human, and extraordinarily sensitive. They’re as likely to forget about losing a parent as we would be.

Esperance Tsona and Anne-Marie Ngalula, surrogate mother and nurse, respectively, at Lola ya bonobo, Kinshasa. (Video taken by Eliot Schrefer.)


Q: Did it concern you to write about animal welfare in a country with so much human suffering?

A: Jane Goodall, who no doubt gets asked this question all the time, wrote a wonderfully articulate response in her memoir, Through a Window:

Often I am asked whether I do not feel that it is unethical to devote time to the welfare of ‘animals’ when so many human beings are suffering. Would it not be more appropriate to help starving children, battered wives, the homeless? Fortunately, there are hundreds of people addressing their considerable talents, humanitarian principles and fund-raising abilities to such causes. My own particular energies are not needed there. Cruelty is surely the very worst of human sins. To fight cruelty, in any shape or form— whether it be towards other human beings or non-human beings—brings us into direct conflict with that unfortunately streak of inhumanity that lurks in all of us. If only we could overcome cruelty with compassion we should be well on the way to creating a new and boundless ethic—one that would respect all living beings. We should stand at the threshold of a new era in human evolution—the realization, at last, of our most unique quality: humanity.

I feel like being a sensitive adult leading an examined life entails a low level of guilt— this nagging feeling that we’re not doing enough to help others, that there’s so much to be improved but no clear way to help. Normally that guilt can be ignored, but it’s brought to the surface when we face suffering directly. One of the ways to hide that guilt back away is to say that some sufferings are outranked by others and can therefore can be ignored. But that’s a sure route to not doing anything about any of them. At some point you have to trust in compassion and the support of others, that someone else might take care of the rest of the world’s woes if I help this specific creature in front of me.

Bonobos also serve as the ambassadors for a number of less adorable species. Congo has one-eighth of the world’s forests.1 By protecting them for the sake of the bonobos and chimpanzees and gorillas, we’re also protecting the insect, amphibian, reptile, plant, and mammal species that reside there. Benefitted, as well, are the tribes that live within the forests and steward a huge plant biomass that tempers global warming.

Bonobos at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary, outside of Kinshasa, using rocks to crack nuts. Video shot by Eliot Schrefer.

1Wolfire, D.M., J. Brunner and N. Sizer (1998) Forests and the Democratic Republic of Congo. World Resources Institute, Washington, DC.

I love that Eliot Schrefer devoted so much time to the biology and zoology of the bonobos, determined to get it right for the book. It was certainly worth it!  I knew very little about bonobos before reading Endangered, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them since  I finished reading it.  The science and research aspects are so realistic and I imagine they will inspire many readers to learn more about the great apes.  Maybe Endangered will even guide some readers into conservation or zoology!  How great would that be- students reading about math, science, or engineering and then jumping into a career inspired by that reading!

But even if the reader doesn’t become a zoologist or an environmental scientist, Schrefer’s book (and the story behind the book) will bring the bonobos to the forefront in many readers’ minds.  STEM may seem like an overused buzzword, but it is vital that our students understand the world around them.  Reading about bonobos, an endangered species, will hopefully inspire our students to protect the world they will one day inherit.  And understanding science and conservation is vital to being someone those in charge listen to.  As English teachers, we can introduce our students to STEM, compassion, and empathy at the same time.

Be sure to check in next Thursday, when another author will be sharing their experiences with STEM and how it may have influenced their writing!

Escape Under the Forever Sky by Eve Yohalem

I picked this book off my TBR pile because I could have sworn it was a middle grade Cybil nominee. Apparently, I have lost my mind (not a surprise if you know me) because it is not a nominee. However, it must have been fate because boy, am I glad I read Eve Yohalem’s gripping novel, Escape Under the Forever Sky!  I am always looking for great adventure novels to hand to my students and this one is perfect for middle grade readers. I finished it during reading workshop today and immediately handed it off to a student.

Thirteen-year old Lucy’s mom is the American ambassador to Ethiopia. At first, living in Africa sounds great to Lucy. She is a budding conservation biologist and dreams of spending her days on game drives and observing wildlife. Instead, she is practically held prisoner in the ambassador’s residence because her mother thinks the city and the country are too dangerous for Lucy to travel through. Instead, she is forced to go to boring state dinners and can only go on game drives every two weeks. So when she and her friends cut out of school to go to the city market, she knows she is asking for trouble. Her mother completely flips out when she catches Lucy in such a dangerous place and grounds her for a month. No game drives, no friends, no going out. Nothing but sitting on the verandah and sending sporadic emails to her friends.

Lucy is angry and resentful, so she plans an escape to a local coffee shop with her best friend Tana.  She even manages to send her “babysitter” home with the promise not to do anything stupid.  But when Lucy is kidnapped by Tana’s new driver, she realizes that her mother might have been right about the dangers she could face on her own.

Beaten and left to drink parasite-filled water, Lucy knows her only hope is to use her gymnastics training and her knowledge of the African bush to escape.  Otherwise, her kidnappers plan to kill her.  When she does manage to get away, she is alone and injured in the African wilderness and must avoid almost-certain death from a variety of means. I could not put this book down and found myself on the edge of my seat the entire time. Lucy is a normal 13 year old in an extraordinary situation. However, Yohalem makes it believable.

Readers will find themselves fascinated by the information about Africa and Ethiopia. I can see myself sharing with with adventure lovers and animal lovers alike. At a little more than 200 pages, this is a quick read that will keep students interested and on the edge of their seats. Highly recommended for classroom and school libraries!

This would also make a great read aloud because each chapter ends on a cliffhanger or leaves the reader wondering. The action-packed pages will keep even the most dormant reader’s attention and students will be left wanting to know more about Ethiopia and the African bush.


*Review copy purchased from Scholastic Book Clubs

Scat by Carl Hiaasen

Scat is Carl Hiaasen’s latest book for middle grade/YA readers. Nick Waters and some of his friends are pulled into an eco-avenger’s plot to save endangered Florida panthers and put a halt to illegal drilling going on in the Everglades. When Nick’s strict (and sort of crazy) biology teacher goes missing during a wildfire that breaks out on a class trip, no one is sure whether to be worried or elated. Even weirder, though, is that one of their more “infamous” classmates, Smoke, isn’t with the class when the fire breaks out. And he doesn’t show up for school. And he had threatened Mrs. Starch the day before. Did he set the fire to get rid of Mrs. Starch?!

Scat deals with a serious ecology topic (similar to Hiaasen’s other novels), but it’s also a very funny book. One of my favorite characters is a substitute teacher who follows very specific guidelines. For example, he always teaches page 263 on Fridays. No matter the subject. Without fail. Every Friday. And he wears a tuxedo and bow tie to class. As a teacher, this had me in stitches. I can only imagine how I would feel as a student reading it!

Unlike Hiaasen’s other books, this one has a bit more mystery. Readers are kept in suspense- I couldn’t put the book down. It is also very contemporary. Nick’s dad is a National Guardsman on tour in Iraq and Nick struggles with his feelings about the war. There are also passing references to Facebook and Myspace.

My favorite aspect of the book is the Florida Panther. This gorgeous animal is one of the most endangered in the world, with between 60 and 100 left in the wild. No one who reads this book can walk away without gaining a love for these majestic animals. And I think that is exactly what Hiaasen is aiming for.

This is a great book that I can’t wait to recommend to my students. I think it will appeal to boys and girls alike, and those who love mysteries and funny books. This is another slam dunk for Carl Hiaasen!

Poetry Friday

Earlier this week, I shared the following poem with my class.  It really hit home with them and we read it a few times over the last few days.  It brings tears to my eyes every single time.


from. . . Unleashed: Poems by Writers’ Dogs,
Edited by Amy Hempel and Jim Shepard. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1995.

R. SJones


You paused outside
to look into my cage.
I tried to play it right
wanting to catch your eye
with a shy glint in my own,
a soft bark,
that said, “Choose me,”
in a canine grammar
I hoped you’d understand.
Your face held nothing
(Pity maybe)
that let me believe
you would ever want
a dog like me.
You turned once,
a hundred times,
coming and going
the length of my cage.
(Coming and going
like you do now,
ten times a day.)
Then walked away.
I could not stand another day of
strangers coming to stare.
Passing me over for younger dogs who
knew too little to have the strange
look of longing
I could not keep from my eyes.
I could not stand another night
alone in that place
the cracked cement floor
the howls and whines that kept
me sleepless
(Did you know that sound is still the
one I hear
when you wake me kicking from dreams
sleeping in your bed?)

To read the rest, be sure to pick up the amazing compilation of poems written from the poets’ pets’ viewpoint.





Diamond Willow by Helen Frost.

Diamond Willow by Helen Frost is a short, concise story that packs a powerful punch. I finished it yesterday afternoon and it is still on my mind.  The action of the story takes place over the span of a few short days, but don’t make the mistake of assuming nothing happens.  Willow grows and changes more in those days than most middle-schoolers do in a lifetime.  

This is a gorgeous book, despite the fact that there are no illustrations. Instead, this verse novel is told in a series of diamond-shaped poems, based on the shape of the diamond willow. Within each poem, a few words are bolded and when from top to bottom, they form a poem-within-a-poem, the heart of the story.  Every single diamond is different, and the word choice in each poem is amazing.  I sometimes stopped on a new page just to look at shapes, which almost served as illustrations.

The story is simple and middle-grade students will easily connect with Willow and her family.  Willow is a 12-year-old part-Native Alaskan who lives in a very remote town, accessible by snowmobile, plane, and boat.  She is struggling with herself, with school, and with finding happiness. She begs her parents to mush the sled (with three of their six dogs) to her Grandparents house one weekend.  While they say no at first, she is determined to prove her maturity and they finally give in.  But on the way back there’s an accident. From there, it builds and to go on would spoil the rest of the story, so I will stop there.  but I will say you should pick this up immediately!

One of my favorite parts of the story was Willow’s connection to the past.  She struggles throughout the book, all the while unaware that the animals surrounding her carry the spirits of dead ancestors and friends who care for her.   I loved this aspect of the story, so simple and serene in it’s beauty.  It was comforting, and who hasn’t caught a glimpse of nature and felt the flicker of recognition, the momentary thought that someone or something is watching out for us?  I also loved the theme of respect and love of nature.  I seek out environmental themes in my books and this one did not disappoint.  

Diamond Willow is a must-have for middle school teachers, and I expect it may even get some Newbery love next month!

Intrigued?  Read the first few chapters here!

Dog Lost by Ingrid Lee

I first got wind of this book at a publisher’s preview back in May. When I discovered it was nominated for a Cybil Award in the Middle Grades category, I was excited that I would get the chance to read it.

Dog Lost is the story of a boy and his dog. But it’s more than just a fluffy animal story. Mackenzie lives with his dad, and he certainly isn’t a good dad. An alcoholic who hasn’t been the same since Mack’s mom died, he comes home drunk one night and dumps a puppy on Mack’s bed. Mackenzie is stunned, as is the puppy who has never had a decent home. The two quickly become inseparable, with Mack making sure Cash the puppy never bothers Dad.  Best friends from the get-go, the two spend hours at the park, chasing squirrels, and just cuddling at night.  Mack isn’t sure why so many of the neighbors in his run-down neighborhood run the other way when they see Cash coming, because she is just a big love-bug.

What Mack doesn’t realize is that Cash is a pitbull.

He also doesn’t know that the town is about to pass a law outlawing pit bulls.

Mack loves Cash and Cash loves him right back.  She is nothing but a gentle giant, and a baby at that.  But when his dad is drunk and angry one night and goes after Mack, Cash immediately jumps between them.  Growling at dad to protect her best friend she puts herself in danger.  Dad grabs Cash, stuffs her in the trunk of his car, and drives to an empty field where he dumps her.  Mack is heartbroken and Cash is lost and alone.

While Cash and Mack are separated for the next year and a half, the pit bull law is pushed through the town legislative bodies, Cash survives on her own (making new friends and enemies), a neighbor continues his dogfighting ring, and a downtrodden neighborhood narrowly avoids two tragedies.  

This is a beautiful, heartfelt book that will connect with any animal lover.  I think I can even get some of my sports fans to read, thanks to Michael Vick’s recent dogfighting conviction.  Dogfighting and pit bulls have been in the news a lot over the past year and this timely book will force readers to really consider their position on both.  And anyone who has ever had a pet will identify with the relationship between a boy and his dog.