An Interview with Author Eliot Schrefer!

51d01mxnc5l-_sx328_bo1204203200_They grew up together. Now they have to escape together.

Raja has been raised in captivity. Not behind the bars of a zoo, but within the confines of an American home. He was stolen when he was young to be someone’s pet. Now he’s grown up . . . and is about to be sent away again, to a place from which there will be no return.

John grew up with Raja. The orangutan was his friend, his brother — never his pet. But when John’s parents split up and he moved across the country, he left Raja behind. Now Raja is in danger.

There’s one last chance to save Raja — a chance that will force John to confront his fractured family and the captivity he’s imposed on himself all of these years.

Today I am thrilled to be able to chat with Eliot Schrefer, a young adult author making waves with his heart-wrenching, conservation-focused Ape Quartet.  The third book, Rescued, is out on 4/26.

I’m not the only reader who loves Eliot’s books.  Jane Goodall, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, says about Rescued, “This is a book that combines skillful interpretation of orangutan character, the cruelty inherent in keeping apes as pets, and the plight of the wild orangutans. Eliot has created unforgettable characters in Raja, the orphaned ape and his human “brother,” John. Moving, fascinating and eye opening.”

My students also love the ape books.  I’ve been using Endangered alongside Things Fall Apart, The Purple Hibiscus, and the documentary Virunga in my English class for the last three years.  It’s the perfect read-aloud as we study imperialism and its effects on the African continent through economics, politics, health, and conservation.

I’m excited to share with you some of Eliot’s thoughts on science and young adult books.  I highly encourage all English teachers to include Rescued, Threatened, and/or Endangered as part of your curriculum.  They are the perfect interdisciplinary books!

Sarah: Welcome, Eliot!  Thanks for taking the time to chat today. Rescued is the third book in the Ape Quartet.  Many of your readers know that you were first inspired to research the great apes after wondering where the clothing store Bonobos got its name, but what keeps you writing about the great apes?

Eliot: I had the weird experience recently of looking at my bookshelf and realizing that almost all of our stories are about humans. It’s the most obvious thing, but then, when you think about it, is there any reason we homo sapiens should be so overrepresented in our own storytelling? Even the many kids books with animal main characters are, for the most part, about people—in The Three Little Pigs or The One and Only Ivan or Charlotte’s Web, the animals talk and act like humans. We’re a tiny part of the biomass of the planet, and yet it would seem we’re only interested in stories about ourselves. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, and my attempt in the Ape Quartet has been to give a bigger role to non-human characters, to try to get them into view a little bit, too.

Wow! I’ve never looked at my bookshelf from that perspective but it’s true.  Even our animal stories are human stories at the root. I love what you are doing in the Ape Quartet because the primates are not anthropomorphized.  Instead, we get the story of humanity alongside animal life.  And sadly, we (as a whole) tend to be more detrimental than helpful.

Rescued is a little different from Threatened and Endangered in that it mostly takes place in America.  What made you want to write an ape story set a little closer to home?

Partly I wanted to avoid going back to the same well too many times. Endangered and Threatened are both jungle survival stories, and to make the storytelling different enough I wanted the third book to be neither of those things. I also was inspired, strangely enough, by Justin Bieber’s monkey. Pop stars get exotic pets all the time, and teens especially often think it’s cool. But what happens to the monkey once Bieber gets bored with it? I wanted to explore the human-animal relationship—for good and for bad—on the home front.

How do you go about researching animals like bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas?  Do you spend time with the animals you are writing about? Do you reach out to experts? How does this enrich your writing?

For Rescued, I spent a summer in Indonesia, at orangutan rescue centers in Sumatra and Borneo. It didn’t tell me a whole lot about orangutan behavior that I couldn’t have gotten from the excellent books on orangs that are out there, to be honest. But what I gained was a snapshot of the local specifics of how conservation works on the ground. I couldn’t have written the characters of Adhi and Diah, Sumatran conservationists in Rescued, without meeting some of the inspiring Indonesians I got to know who are working tirelessly to save the apes.

How can student writers emulate your writing process?  If a student wanted to write about animals or plants a little closer to home, what advice would you give them?

I think writing about the environment means a lot of peeling back of our human expectations. As a child, Jane Goodall once sat in her family’s barn for hours, waiting for a chicken to lay an egg so she could observe how it worked. Though she wound up in Tanzania studying a very different sort of animal, watching that chick lay an egg was also the essence of her life’s work. I think a great exercise would be to observe an animal in the everyday world and write a narration of its actions and a description of its person, without mapping a whole host of human feelings on top. I’ve felt invigorated the few times I’ve been able to drop that deep into observation. It’s an almost zen exercise of loss-of-self.

All of the Ape Quartet books include lots of science and ecology information.  Were you interested in science when you were in school? 

Yes! I applied to college as an Evolutionary Biology major. Somehow I got sidetracked into Literature instead, though. (I think I was intimidated by all the pre-med students in the Bio Intro courses, to be honest.) I regret not studying science in college, actually. I wish I’d had a better conception of science and scientists, going in—I think I believed the white-lab-coat stereotype. Also, I could have read literature all the rest of my life, but a lot of science work is nearly impossible without the support of institutions.

Wow!  I had no idea.  So it makes sense that you’ve managed to find the sweet spot between English and science class in your books. Have you met any interdisciplinary teams that share your books with students?  

Yep. My favorite school visits are ones where I talk to a bio class, then a history class, then an English class, going from conversations about bonobos, say, to Congo, to how to write a book. I enjoy touching on all those different subjects, as it prevents the conversation from ever feeling stale. It’s also an easier pitch for librarians or teachers who want me to visit, I think, because it’s not like bringing me in involves only one department. I visited one school that had an Endangered-themed day where all classes stopped and all conversation was about the book. It was very moving. Even the PE classes got involved, by having the students run an obstacle course with a big of flour on their backs decorated like a bonobo!

It’s not easy to write middle grade or young adult books that include science without straying into science fiction territory.  I am always looking for great YA science books but sometimes it’s a struggle!  What other science books do you enjoy?  

You’re right, it’s a hard search! Picture books have science all over them, but it largely drops out by middle grade and YA. I’d love to hear your response to this question, as you’ve been questing for these books long and hard, I know. One of my favorite reads last year was Terrible Typhoid Mary by Susan Bartoletti. Fascinating use of population science to track down the origin of an epidemic. The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin did a wonderful job of subtly incorporating facts about the jellyfish into the narrative, too. I love Kathi Appelt’s work, as well, for its strong engagement with the natural world. You tell me! What should I be reading?

Hopefully, that’s what I can do here on the blog.  Slowly, but surely, I’ll be reviewing and sharing books and stories that English teachers and science teachers can use together.  

Thanks so much for having me, Sarah, and for your great questions! It’s been a pleasure.

Thank you, Eliot!



What should Eliot (and all of our students) be reading?  Comment with the title of your favorite environmentally-focused book and you will be entered to win a copy of Rescued! If you win, you will be contacted via email so please be sure to leave your email address!  Winner will be chosen on 5/3/16

(USA addresses only, please).


If you are looking for a way to bring your science and English classes together, an author visit with Eliot Schrefer is the way to go.  Eliot visited my high school a few years ago and his talk enthralled my 9th and 10th graders.  They loved his passion and humor (and of course, the apes).  From an administrative end, it was an easier sell because it involved the English department, social studies department, and biology department.  For information about booking an author visit with Eliot you can check out his website.



If you are in the NYC-area, you can celebrate the launch of Rescued on 5/4.  Eliot Schrefer will be in conversation with the acclaimed author Patricia McCormick at Books of Wonder. 

Wednesday, May 4th, at 6pm
Books of Wonder
18 W 18th St.
New York, NY 10024 

Eliot’s books are also available from an independent bookstore near you.


Some Poems to Read in Honor of Earth Day

Happy Earth Day!  What a great time to share some nature poetry with students, seeing as it is National Poetry Month, too. Below are a few of my favorite nature poems to share with students.


Three Foxes by the Edge of the Field at Twilight by Jane Hirshfield

This is a new favorite of mine because I’ve spent the last few months researching coyotes and red foxes.  Most recently, I’ve been observing a litter of fox kits near my home and it’s my favorite part of every day.  This poem captures a lot of my feelings as I watch the kits run and play with each other, ever vigilant and alert. Students could read this poem and then talk about the species they’ve noticed in their own neighborhoods.


Photo of my local foxes

The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is my favorite poet.  I can sit down and read her poems any time and they make me sigh with happiness.  I love her nature poems most of all and “The Summer Day” includes my favorite lines written by Mary Oliver.  The last two lines are great for starting discussions with students and often initiate some great reflective thinking.  But the entire poem is beautiful.  Students can mimic Oliver’s writing style by writing their own poems about summer in their neighborhood.


A local Monmouth County Park

“Nature” Is What We See by Emily Dickinson

What is nature?  What does is look like in a city? In the suburbs?  In a rural area?  What does it sound like?  Who lives there?  These are questions we rarely stop to think about in our busy modern lives but they are questions that students can ponder and write about.  This is a deceptively simple poem (and short, which is perfect for those extra few minutes at the end of class).


Red-tailed Hawk at a Monmouth County Park

Waterfall at Lu Shan by Li Po

If you want to share gorgeous imagery and figurative language, Li Po is your poet.  His nature poems are short, simple, and magical.  Have students practice creating their own metaphors based on what they see in the schoolyard.  What can they compare grass to?  Flowers?  That tall tree?  The birds in the sky?


Wickecheoke Preserve, NJ

Monarch Butterflies by Judith Beveridge

In 2009 I was able to travel to the monarch butterfly overwintering grounds in Mexico.  It was one of the most amazing and spiritual experiences of my life.  That fellowship brought me back to science after thinking that English teachers can’t or shouldn’t “do” science.  Taking the Monarch Teacher Network workshop was an enlightening experience because this science workshop was really all about interdisciplinary work and cross-disciplinary projects.  Today I teach at a school where my colleagues are excited to cross those lines and work together.  Science and English naturally go together….look at how many scientists have also been poets!


A photo I took in Michoacan, Mexico, while visiting the overwintering grounds.

Nature poetry is a great way to bring nature to your students in English class. It’s also a great excuse to get those kids outside during English class, too!  For more great poems, be sure to check out National Geographic Book of Nature Poetry: More than 200 Poems With Photographs That Float, Zoom, and Bloom! (great for K-12) and The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science (Teacher’s Edition): Poems for the School Year Integrating Science, Reading, and Language Arts (review coming soon!).

Book Review: Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life by Richard Louv

51evtj2knkl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Richard Louv is credited with coining the term “nature deficit disorder” and the world became familiar with it in his bestselling book Last Child in the Woods.  This month, Louv released a new book meant to serve as a guide for parents and teachers who want to get children and adolescents engaged with nature.  Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life  includes 500 activities to inspire adults and children alike.

Unlike Louv’s other books, this one is meant to be approached from any angle.  You can pick up the book, flip to a page, and choose a random activity to try.  Alternately, you can read it from cover to cover, picking and choosing the activities you want to use.  Some of the most valuable activities are those aimed at children with sensory dysfunctions.  While the activities in that section would be fun for any child (or adult!), Louv cites research that shows that playing in mud puddles, rolling in the grass, and climbing trees can help children learn to regulate play and stimulation.

Looking at my own students I can see how stressful it is to be a teen today.  Their lives are scheduled down to the minute, more micromanaged than mine ever was.  Spending even a few minutes outside can help students destress and decompress while also building environmental knowledge and values.    Louv’s Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life  can help teachers and parents find ways to get kids outside and having fun.  It’s a quick read but keep a pen or some post-its nearby because this is one you will want to mark up!  I have a list of activities I want to try in my classroom and most of them only take a few minutes (which is great for busy teachers who may not be science teachers).  Teachers will be particularly interested in Part 7 which focuses on how to be a Natural Teacher  at school.

Highly recommended for parents and teachers.   Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life  is a great guide for non-science teachers who want to find ways to incorporate nature into their classes.

What about your English class?

Is nature a vital part of your classroom and teaching?  Fill out the poll below and see how your answers compare to other English teachers.