Pamela S. Turner, the award-winning author of several science books for children, parlayed her high school love of science into a career in health planning, epidemiology and health policy research. She and her husband met as exchange students in Kenya, and traveled the world. Turner’s three children were born in three different countries. After a stint in Tokyo, Turner and her family returned to the U.S. “By that time I was doing policy research and I was not that into it,” she says. “I really wanted to go back to my original ambition, but I was scared to try it. Afraid that I wouldn’t be any good.”
As a child, Turner told anyone who asked that she wanted to write and illustrate children’s books when she grew up. “My mom used to buy shelf paper because drawing pads were too expensive,” she says. Turner was an avid reader as a child; the day she applied for her first library card stands out in her memory. “It was a big moment,” she says. “I had to be able to write my name.”
After returning from Japan, the desire to write was stronger than her trepidation so Turner studied the children’s book market and applied what she learned to her manuscripts. Her first book, Hachiko: The True Story of a Loyal Dog is based on a well-known Japanese story that was unfamiliar to many Americans. Turner approached publishers who had a history of publishing cross-cultural or Asian literature and a Harcourt editor plucked her manuscript from the slush pile.
Shortly after Hachiko was published, Turner mentioned to her editor that she’d like to write for Harcourt’s Scientists in the Field series. One of Turner’s friends is affiliated with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, and for two weeks, she visited Rwanda and Uganda following the vets who strive to save endangered mountain gorillas. “I don’t write about the things I know,” Turner says, “rather I write about what I want to know.”Gorilla Doctors: Saving Endangered Great Apes was Turner’s first nonfiction science book for children.
Using her own curiosity as a guide, Turner contacts experts in their fields and asks if they would be willing to talk to her about their research. The idea for her latest book,The Frog Scientist, came from a San Francisco Chronicle article about Tyrone Hayes, a Berkeley scientist who studies the effects of pesticides on frogs and ultimately the environment. Turner describes Hayes as “funny and thought-provoking. An ideal subject [for a book].” The first time Turner met Hayes he said to her, “Wow! I have those same earrings!”
A Life in the Wild: George Schaller’s Struggle to Save the Last Great Beasts is this year’s Golden Kite recipient. Turner describes Schaller as “the Michael Jordan of field biologists. I was scared to even approach him.” Schaller contributed a photograph to Turner’s Gorilla Doctors and refused payment when he learned that Turner donates half of her royalties to the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project. Turner was surprised to discover that no one had yet written a biography for children on George Schaller. He graciously consented to an interview, and his gorgeous wildlife photos grace the book.
Once Turner decides on a subject for a book, she reads dozens of books and articles as background material. “For the Schaller book,” Turner says, “there were 16 books written by other people and I read all of them.” As a nonfiction author, Turner is also responsible for providing photographs for her books. For The Frog Scientist, she hired Andy Comins, a professional photographer.
Turner interviewed scientists at the Tagging of Pacific Predators program (TOPP) to writeProwling the Seas: Exploring the Hidden World of Ocean Predators. The TOPP program tags and follows specific marine predators and records in-depth information on their habits. In the book, Turner follows one great white shark, one bluefin tuna, a pair of Sooty Shearwater seabirds, and one leatherback sea turtle. Turner relied on a variety of scientists and professional photographers for photographs, and requested responsibility for the graphics. “Normally I would never want to do the graphics,” she says, “but I felt they were really important because I wanted the tracks of the individual animals. I felt strongly about how they should look.” Turner hired the TOPP webmaster who not only had graphics experience, but had experience working with the predators’ tracking data. “The photos and graphics ate up my entire advance!” she says.
When Turner is not traveling the world researching her newest book, she writes from her home in Oakland. “Most of my books are directed towards the [twelve year old] kid I remember being,” she says. “I always loved the animal characters in my favorite books—something I had as a child that I never grew out of.” She says the biggest misconception about writing for children is “it’s easy because it’s shorter. Using a limited vocabulary to explain complex scientific concepts means I’m automatically handicapping myself.”