Interview: Patricia Newman

Newman-Eavesdropping on Elephants cover.jpg

First, can you introduce yourself to our readers?

Writing about myself is harder than any other type of writing that I do. My official author’s bio lists the titles I’ve written and the awards I’ve won, but I imagine you’d like to go deeper. Here’s a compromise—a snapshot list.

I like:

The ocean better than the desert

Sunshine better than rain

Thunder better than lightning

Research better than writing a first draft

Life science better than physical science

Dogs better than cats

Breakfast better than lunch

Pasta better than steak

Game of Thrones better than Westworld

Board games/card games better that role-playing games

Outdoors better than indoors

Reading better than…um, well, anything

Oh, and I’m a Gryffindor

Now to the new book: EAVESDROPPING ON ELEPHANTS. What’s it all about?

Elephants! (That was for the elephant lovers out there, because for us that’s enough.)

But for those of you who don’t already love these magnificent animals, Eavesdropping on Elephants takes you deep into the forests of Central Africa to listen to the little-known forest elephant.

You probably already know that elephants live on two continents, Asia and Africa, but did you know there are two species of African elephants? Savanna elephants (which get most of the attention in books and nature documentaries) and forest elephants. Instead of roaming the wide-open plains of East Africa, forest elephants hide in the dense forests of Central Africa.

The Elephant Listening Project studies these complex creatures by eavesdropping on their conversations. Scientists hope to understand how elephants use the forest and decode what they’re saying to one another to save them from extinction.

I included QR codes in this book because it’s difficult to write about sound without the benefit of hearing it. Scanning the QR codes will transport you to the forest for elephant audio and video just as the scientists saw it!

What did your research for the book look like?

The story of the Elephant Listening Project (ELP) spans many years and involves several people—most of whom I interviewed during a cold rainy trip to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Technically, ELP belongs to Cornell’s famous Lab of Ornithology. Are you scratching your head trying to figure how birds and elephants mix? You’re not alone. Actually, it’s more about the technology. The Bioacoustics Research Program is housed at the Lab, and bioacoustics recording devices are used by ELP to listen to forest elephants.

I spoke with ELP founder Katy Payne (who (with her former husband) discovered humpback whales compose songs for each other). Katy, now in her 80s, took me back to that first day she proved elephants communicate with infrasound, sounds too low for us to hear. The sort of discovery every scientist dreams of, and one that launched a significant body of elephant research.

I interviewed Peter Wrege, the current director of ELP, about his trekking through the forest to put acoustic recorders in trees, and Daniela Hedwig, a young German scientist newly hired to study the language of elephants. Liz Rowland showed me around the ELP lab where she analyzes the forest sounds that Peter brings back. And I met several student volunteers trained to listen to the sounds and categorize them.

I also spoke with Andrea Turkalo, an elephant researcher from the Wildlife Conservation Society who partnered with ELP. Andrea knows thousands of elephants by name. I studied some of her index cards on which she recorded their features, such as sex, tusk length and shape, ear markings, and family relationships. By the time I finished my research even I could identify some of the elephants!

Scientific studies are always part of my research, and I waded through my fair share. Best of all I watched hours of elephant videos, learning their behavior and listening to their conversations.

Each book I research is truly a labor of love because of the hours spent questioning, describing, writing, and revising. Meeting the scientists was one of the highlights of Eavesdropping on Elephants. They are dedicated, generous people who want the world to step up and save elephants.

What was the most surprising and/or fascinating thing you learned during your research?

I already knew elephants communicated using infrasound because my daughter volunteered for ELP as an undergraduate. But I wasn’t prepared for the variety of sounds they make. We’ve all heard elephants trumpet, but have you heard them rumble, roar, and aooga? You will if you read this book and take advantage of the QR codes.

Of course these sounds are cool from a novelty perspective, but they’re also cool from a scientific perspective. The Elephant Listening Project is trying to find out what the sounds mean in combination with one another. Does a roar-rumble mean something different than a rumble-roar? What sounds do infants make when separated from their mothers? The answers to these questions are important because they help scientists decode elephant messages when they can’t see their behavior in the forest.

Why do you think it’s important for kids to have non-fiction books as part of their reading diet?

By now we’re all probably familiar with how children’s fiction acts as a window and a mirror, but the same is true for nonfiction—especially science nonfiction. I’ve written about marine debris, zoo scientists who promote conservation, Ebola, sea otters that save entire ecosystems, and now elephants. Every scientist was once a child who rescued animals, loved horses, participated in Earth Day clean-ups, or geeked out on technology. I hope my readers see themselves reflected in these inspiring scientists and dream big dreams for their futures.

Nonfiction books also act as windows onto the natural and physical world, filling kids with TRUE stories, connections, and facts. We all know kids who recite shark facts or pour over all things outer space, but nonfiction also promotes diversity by forging bonds between kids of different ethnicities interested in things such as sharks or space. Nonfiction expands the perspective of young readers beyond home and family to the wider world. It points out connections between us and the STEM fields. By understanding these connections, kids realize their place in the world and how they affect it.

What about conservation do you hope readers take away from EAVESDROPPING ON ELEPHANTS?

Conservation is about connections and balance. How the natural world affects us and vice versa.

For instance, in Sea Otter Heroes, I show kids how sea otters have a huge impact on the food chain in a seagrass ecosystem. No sea otters? No seagrass. Without seagrass, baby fish (our future food supply) wouldn’t have a place to grow up, our shores would erode because of waves, and climate change would be worse than it is now.

Let’s take that to present day politics. The White House plans to scale back protections on threatened species (such as sea otters), and allow economic factors to be considered before protecting species or habitats. Would this mean that an urchin or abalone fisher would have the right to kill a sea otter eating from the fishery? No one knows. But if sea otters suffer, so do seagrass ecosystems, and ultimately us.

In Eavesdropping on Elephants scientists from ELP are desperately trying to save elephants from poaching, mining, and other human intrusions into the forest. Not simply because elephants are the largest living land mammal on Earth, but because as Andrea Turkalo says, “Elephants are the architects of the forest.” They range widely eating fruit as they go and their feces contain seeds that sprout new trees and keep the forest alive. While the forest lives, it mitigates the effects of climate change, supports a huge array of mammals, insects, reptiles, birds, and plants, and sustains the native people who call the forest home.

I want kids to understand that the planet is not ours—we share it. Sharing always means compromise and compromise is a balancing act. Economic gain is not a divine right, but must live in harmony with the natural world that sustains us. I hope that my environmental nonfiction provides the appropriate connections so kids not only find their place in the world, but are moved to ACT.

Patricia_Newman.jpgPatricia Newman’s books inspire kids to seek connections to the real world. Titles such as SEA OTTER HEROES, EAVESDROPPING ON ELEPHANTS, and NEEMA’S REASON TO SMILE encourage readers to act and use imagination to solve problems. A Robert F. Sibert Honor recipient, her books have received starred reviews, two Green Earth Book Awards, a Parents’ Choice Award, been honored as Junior Library Guild Selections, and included on Bank Street College’s Best Books lists. Her author visits are described as “phenomenal,” “fantastic,” “mesmerizing,” “passionate,” and “inspirational.” Visit her at

. . .

Haven’t had enough elephants? Check out the EAVESDROPPING ON ELEPHANTS book trailer here, and learn even more about the book here. You can also find Patricia on Twitter at @PatriciaNewman and on Facebook at Patricia Newman Books. Below is a bit more about some of her other books.

NEEMA’S REASON TO SMILE is the story of a young Kenyan girl who wants to attend school but can’t. Winner of a Parents’ Choice Recommended Award, this beautifully illustrated picture book includes themes of equal access to education and financial literacy.

ZOO SCIENTISTS TO THE RESCUE is about three remarkable scientists who use scientific investigation to save endangered species. The book is a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year; A Chicago Public Library Best of the Best Book; a Junior Library Guild Selection; and a Eureka! Gold winner from the California Reading Association.

SEA OTTER HEROES: THE PREDATORS THAT SAVED AN ECOSYSTEM is a Sibert Honor book; a Green Earth Book Award winner; and a Junior Library Guild selection about Dr. Brent Hughes’ discovery that the sea otter, an apex predator in Elkhorn Slough off Monterey Bay, helps protect the seagrass ecosystem. The book received a starred review in KIRKUS and made the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Longlist.

EBOLA: FEARS AND FACTS tells the story of the 2014 Ebola epidemic and the amazing healthcare professionals and volunteers who helped stop it. The book received a starred review in BOOKLIST and was ranked one of the Best Books of the Year by Bank Street College

PLASTIC, AHOY! INVESTIGATING THE GREAT PACIFIC GARBAGE PATCH follows three female scientists who are among the first to study the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The book received the Green Earth Book Award sponsored by The Nature Generation, is a Junior Library Guild Selection, and was selected as a finalist for the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Award.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s