YA novelist Eliot Schrefer is perhaps the leading author of ecologically-themed YA, prompting readers of many ages to take a closer look at how we have taken care (or taken advantage) of the planet, with particularly attention to the other animals with which we share this world. Schrefer’s most notable books include two that are part of a projected quartet: Endangered (2012) and Threatened (2014) — both of which were finalists for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature. Gripping survival tales about great apes in Africa, the books feature a range of human protagonists and antagonists fighting either to preserve or profit off these animals. Young people also figure prominently as they grapple with their developing sense of what it means to live together — as partners — with animals and the environment. I recently sat down digitally with Schrefer to discuss how he got into writing about the environment and ecological issues.
JONATHAN ALEXANDER: How did you get started writing YA books?
ELIOT SCHREFER: I had an unexpected splashdown into YA Lit. I had published two novels for adults, then David Levithan, Scholastic editor and general YA-man-about-town, asked me if I’d be interested in writing a title for them. Well, actually, the title was the only thing I wouldn’t have to worry about: they’d generated a concept in-house called The School for Dangerous Girls and let me run with it.
Endangered is my fourth YA book, and the topic took me by surprise. I bought a pair of pants that were Bonobos brand, and I thought it was a nonsense word until I looked it up online. Then I found out that this fourth species of great ape is in fact tied with chimps as our closest relative, but they exhibit little of the chimps’ violent tendencies. The orphaned infants show up for sale in the markets of the Democratic Republic of Congo. I imagined how a teen might behave if she came across an emaciated bonobo for sale, and that became the first chapter of Endangered. Those who work in conservation, I should say, are careful never to pay money for an ape, as it encourages poaching.
How do you get young readers to be attuned to what’s happening in the natural world?
One thing I’ve discovered in talking to kids about my ape novels — Endangered and Threatened and now Rescued (out in May 2016) — is that numbers can be pretty numbing. The idea that only 6,000 Sumatran orangutans remain in the wild hits home intellectually but doesn’t have much emotional punch. But get to know one ape in trouble, and there’s a way to feel what the danger is to the environment. That’s the hope, anyway. My primary goal, though, is to tell the best story I can. Any increased awareness or empathy can only come if the narrative is working.
You set your books in areas facing not just ecological but difficult political issues too. What are you hoping to accomplish by introducing young US readers to such locales?
When I first started writing my quartet of ape novels, I was nervous about what I was doing. The apes all come from countries with plenty of human conflict and tragedy — was it moral, I wondered, to worry about animal welfare when humans were suffering, too? But once I was in Congo starting my research, I realized that that distinction was academic. The fact of the matter is that the same systems of power that endanger animals also endanger people. In Congo, for example, human starvation is directly related to the bushmeat trade — by thinking about one you’re really thinking about both. In Gabon, where Threatened is set, chimp orphans and human orphans are both being produced in great numbers. Examining one can be a way to examine the other. Again, though, if there’s one thing I’ve discovered about young readers, it’s that they can sniff out a goal-oriented book from far away. The adventure and narrative pleasure has to come first.
Do YA authors have a responsibility to be "pedagogic," to inform and help shape young minds?
I always focus first and foremost on telling a good story, and let any gaining of knowledge happen as a happy side benefit along the way. That said, I think kids are very much like adults in that it’s pleasurable to gain knowledge and learn something about the world, so the “educational” side of a book for younger readers, if handled well, can actually make them enjoy the book even more. We’ve all met that kid who rattles off facts all day — she knows that it feels good to learn and know things. I’m the same way as a writer; I’m feeling good when I’m broadening my knowledge on a subject, and ideally that good feeling gets communicated to the reader, too.
Besides YA, what else do you read, and why?
I do mostly read YA (or picture books, since I review children’s literature for USA Today), but when I’m not you can usually find me reading nonfiction as research for a book that I might have coming up. Right now I’m reading a ton of gorilla books. I’ve finished Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist and am on to some drier scientific texts. I’m considering setting a gorilla novel in a time before humans, and so I’m trying to read as much fiction set in prehistory as I can. William Golding’s The Inheritors and Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear, for starters.
Do you have pets?
My husband is allergic! Big bummer. But once friends knew I was writing about apes, stuffed primates became the go-to gift. We have two stuffed chimps, a little monkey, what appears to be a red-and-blue gibbon wearing a NY Rangers jersey, an orangutan, and a stuffed penguin (who frequently complains that there are too many primates in the house). It’s a very high stuffed-animal-to-grown-men ratio to have in a household, but you know what? It’s just about impossible to throw a stuffed animal away.
What are you working on now?
Of course I’ve embarked on a quartet of novels about the great apes. (A “quadrology”? We considered calling it The Great Ape Quartet, but that sounds a little too much like a barber shop quartet composed of apes.) These are not sequels, but thematically related — each one is about a young person’s relationship with a great ape. The third book, Rescued, is about an orphan orangutan that’s smuggled into the United States and grows up alongside a human brother. When baby apes grow, they get much stronger and less cute, and they usually wind up locked away. When this happens to the orangutan, his human brother goes on a quest to get him back to Indonesia. That book’s just gone into production and is due out in May 2016.
I’m also working on the first draft of a book for younger readers about a gentleman fox who runs an animal rescue agency. That’s just in its earliest phases, though.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
I think the biggest thing I had to learn when I was writing as a kid was how to unlock the pleasure in it. You face your demons when you’re facing the blank page, and they can keep you from entering a state of real flow, from truly getting lost in your imagined world. Most important thing, I think, is to let yourself write drafts free of judgment. Just rocket forward, enjoying scenes as they come, writing through tricky moments, just producing and imagining without any editing, rereading, or judging. Then go back later and fix it. If you’re evaluating your work as you go, that’s a recipe for misery. Just write it. You can figure out if it’s any good later.
What YA or YA-friendly books about animals would you recommend for our readers, young and older?
Children’s literature has a long history of animal writing, of course. When picture books are included, it just might be that the majority of children’s literature is about animals. In books for the youngest readers, animals usually serve as cute furry exteriors with human beings secretly zippered inside. Like the three little pigs: they live in houses, wear overalls, speak to one another. It’s a little harder to find animals presented as they are in the real world. I list my favorite books below, and they’re a mix of the anthropomorphic and realistic representations of animals.
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
I just reread this one a little while back, and (Wow) this could be the closest I’ve read to a perfect book. What White has done here is create a story that manages to be both incredibly simple and incredibly huge. It was a totally compelling read when I was a kid, even though I’m pretty sure I didn’t get all the juice out of it that I do now. It’s about what it means to be alive — nothing less than that.
The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt
Set deep in the bogs, this book manages a combination of voice and language and plot that combine to create a world that feels rich and real and delightfully specific. Appelt has crammed such joy into this book — but equal amounts of breadth and depth, too.
The Unnaturalists by Tiffany Trent
In this steampunk novel, science and religion have swapped significances in Victorian London, and it’s the naturalists who attract fervent, dogmatic followers. There’s some saving of the world, too. A great thought experiment about man’s relationship to the environment — and a romantic adventure, too.
This Side of Wild by Gary Paulsen
This slim collection of Paulsen’s personal writings has an easy candor that would make it easy to mistake as being slight. It’s anything but. By recounting his fascinating episodes with the natural world, Paulsen investigates the complicated relationships between human and nonhuman animals.
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Speaking of Gary Paulsen, this book is one I read in fourth grade and that has stuck with me ever since. I reread it as I began writing my own survival stories and was struck by the compelling divorce plot running underneath the action. It’s a good reminder that, even when writing survival stories, what’s going on inside the main character is just as important as what’s going on outside.
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
On the topic of survival stories — this one was foundational for me in thinking about Endangered. Specifically, Rosoff nails what it would be like for a teenager of today, who would feel totally at home in any quiet contemporary tale, and had her face the worst of human nature as war breaks out and society falls apart. All in a brisk, tightly constructed little book.
In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall
Really, any of Goodall’s memoirs could be swapped in here. The prose is elegant and evocative, and the stories she tells, of the rise and fall of ape heroes and villains, are riveting. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend her books to any young adult who’s curious about the animal world.