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.
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.