Swimming with Sharks by Heather Lang and illustrated by Jordi Solano explores the true story of Eugenie Clark, a groundbreaking female scientist from the 1940s who studied sharks and changed how we viewed the creatures.
We were luck enough to sit down with Heather and discuss Swimming with Sharks, the importance of biographies about strong women, and her own experience with sharks.
Q: Why did you decide to write books about strong women?
A: My first picture book biography, Queen of the Track: Alice Coachman, Olympic High-Jump Champion, came from a search for personal inspiration. I’d received tons of rejections for my fiction and was on the verge of giving up on becoming a children’s book author. Researching and writing about Alice Coachman, a woman who overcame poverty and segregation and discrimination, inspired me to hang in there and follow my own dream.
The women I write about motivate me every day to step outside of my comfort zone, be brave, and persevere. My hope is that my books will inspire boys and girls to do the same.
Q. How do you do research for your books?
A. Every book is a different research adventure! I always search for historic newspaper articles, photos, videos, and oral histories. And I try to do experiential research. For this book, I learned to scuba and went diving and snorkeling. Sure there are tons of underwater videos online, but there’s nothing like experiencing it first hand!
Experts in the field can also be so incredibly helpful. In the case of Swimming with Sharks, I had the luxury of meeting and emailing with Eugenie Clark—an honor I will never forget.
Q: What’s the easiest and hardest part of creating a book?
A: The easiest part for me is diving into the research. The hardest part is directing my research. It’s amazing how short a thirty-two or forty page picture book becomes when you are looking at a person’s life. The challenge is determining how to focus the book.
For example, while researching Swimming with Sharks, I discovered so many amazing stories from Genie’s childhood that shaped who she became, and those alone could have been a book. I also considered focusing on the obstacles and the discrimination she experienced early in her life as a woman and as a Japanese-American. But when I met with Genie, it all became clear. She didn’t like to dwell on the discrimination. She wanted to talk about her work as a scientist and her love for and fascination with fish. I knew I needed to focus on her curiosity and her daring discoveries—specifically her work with sharks. That was the legacy she hoped to leave. Luckily there is room for some of the other information in the back matter, and I rely heavily on my website to share the rest.
Q: Were you ever afraid of sharks?
A: YES! I grew up with the movie Jaws, and my fear of sharks was intense. If I couldn’t see the bottom of the ocean, I didn’t like to put my foot down. And forget about swimming out into deeper waters. My own fear is what attracted me to Eugenie Clark. She was never afraid of sharks and spent her life trying to replace fear with facts. It was challenging and rewarding to research and write about a personal fear—a fear I discovered was completely unfounded.
Q: What did you learn about sharks while doing research for Swimming with Sharks?
A: I learned so many cool and interesting facts about sharks. But most importantly I learned from Genie that sharks are “magnificent and misunderstood.” Sharks are an essential part of our ecosystem, yet approximately 100 million sharks are killed every year. Yes, 100 MILLION! That’s an astonishing number to me.
Many are killed just for their fins, because in some countries people believe they have special healing powers. People also kill them out of fear. As Genie said, “Very few people are ever attacked by sharks. It’s safer to dive with sharks than to drive in a car . . . Sharks should be more afraid of us than we are of them.”
Q: What do you hope young readers will take away from Swimming with Sharks?
A: In addition to learning the truth about sharks, I hope kids will follow Genie’s example. She didn’t judge sharks based on what others said about them or the way they looked. She had no factual evidence to believe that sharks were vicious, unpredictable eating machines. She set an invaluable example to us all not to judge others based on rumors or appearance.
Q: Are you working on any other projects?
A: Always! My next book with Albert Whitman comes out in the spring—Anybody’s Game: The True Story of the First Girl to Play Little League Baseball. I’m busy creating and adding content to my website for kids and teachers to learn more about Genie and sharks. I’m also working on a new picture book biography as well as a lyrical narrative nonfiction picture book about an animal. And I’m channeling the women I write about by challenging myself and writing some humorous fiction!
Thanks so much, Heather! Dive into Swimming with Sharks on our website, where you can also find a downloadable teacher’s guide. Plus, discover more about the beautiful illustrations created by Jordi Solano by returning to the blog on December 12 for insight into his creative process.