KN: William Beebe explored many different habitats and discovered many animal species. Please tell us about a time you visited one of these habitats and/or observed one of these animals.
DS: As a kid, I was very fond of exploring the habitat down the street... our neighborhood forest, in Maryland. It was an enchanting world to me and still is. I used to love exploring it, scrambling around the creek boulders, looking for anything I could find. There was an enormous crayfish under one moss-covered boulder, overhanging the water, that became kind of a legend with my friends and I. We would rustle the fellow out with a long tree branch to have a look – he looked as big as a lobster to us.
Another time, all by myself, I got down on my hands and knees and explored deep under some bushes at the edge of the forest. I came upon a dead red fox. I don’t know how long it had been there, but it was beautiful to me. I felt honored to have encountered it, hidden away as it was. I felt part of the secret world of animals – if only for a moment.
Regarding the ocean: One time I was camping on the southern tip of Italy. My friend and I were amazed by the sheer rock cliffs that jutted out along the shore of Mediterranean Sea. We went into town and purchased a simple mask and snorkel. I went in first. There were beautiful sea anemones and corals covering the rocks along the shore. Pitch-black sea urchins with sharp needles were everywhere. You had to be careful-as getting one of those needles in your foot was very painful. I already had a few lodged in mine. I got to the edge of the rocks and dove in.
I was awestruck. Turns out, the cliffs jutting out, were just the “tip of the iceberg” - underwater, I saw that they went way down deep into the murky abyss. Several large fish swam lazily just below me. I’m not sure what type of fish they were, but they were quite large. I scrambled out of the water, letting out a huge yelp of glee. My friend thought something was wrong – but I was just overwhelmed with the thrill of what I had just seen. I’ve snorkeled whenever I’ve gotten the chance and always get the same rush of excitement.
One time off the island of Hawaii, I followed a sea turtle until it started heading out into open ocean and I got the jitters just looking at that deep water. Someday I’ll go scuba diving!
KN: You came across the Bathysphere at the Coney Island Aquarium. Have museums, aquariums, and zoos inspired your work in other ways?
DS: Living just outside of Washington, D.C. as a kid, my father used to take us down to visit the Smithsonian museums. Those museums became like a second home to me. Imagine living at the Smithsonian! I was amazed by everything, the dioramas showing animals in their natural habitats, the dinosaurs, the amazing gems, rocks and meteorites, the great blue whale and other ocean creatures – on and on. Washington has a great zoo and aquarium as well. And nothing excited me more than going to those places. I still go and take my kids.
When we lived in NYC, it was regular trips to the Natural History Museum, the Coney Island Aquarium and Bronx Zoo.
Now that we live in the mountains of western North Carolina, we’re surrounded by Nature. So Nature, whether its through a museum or just the bird outside my window at the bird feeder, is always a source of inspiration for me.
KN: Did you write and illustrate the story simultaneously, or did you do one before the other?
DS: I tend to work simultaneously, as the images and words help each other along. A lot of times, the image of a particular scene comes to me as I’m doing my research. So I’ll build up a whole library in my head of different compelling scenes.
As a kid I was always wanting to be captivated by books – picture books in particular, but sometimes a book might have too many words or be boring visually. A lot of science books had wonderful pictures, but there were too many hard words for me to read. Now, when I make a book I remember all that. So I keep the words just enough for a young picture-book reader to enjoy and also understand clearly the subject matter. And I want them to feel like they’ve been on an adventure themselves by the time they get to the final page. So I try to go “all out” with colors and details to really give the young reader an “amazing journey”.
KN: Which of William Beebe’s books did you enjoy the most and why?
DS: I really enjoyed reading “The Arcturus Adventure” - all about his exploration of the Galapagos islands. Beebe had a wonderful way with words and expressing his thoughts on Nature. I felt right there with him as he tried helmet diving for the first time, witnessing the extraordinary colors of the myriad fish and the strange forms of the invertebrates. I can understand how the experience changed his life, making him want to explore the ocean from that moment on.
KN: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
DS: I always tell kids, when I visit schools, that you don’t have to go to exotic places to find the wonders of Nature. Whether you’re living in a big city, the suburbs, or out in the country, there’s always something amazing to be found, maybe right at your feet, or just around the corner, or up over your head. Be on the look-out – Nature’s full of surprises.
I remember one night, waiting in line at a suburban movie theater, something caught my eye. I walked over to one of the columns of the movie theater colonnade. On the other side of the column was a huge, beautiful Cecropia moth, pulsating with life. I’d never seen one before and I’ll never forget it.
KN: Thanks for the interview.
DS: Thank you, Kate!