How Great White Sharks Inspire Unique Voices: An Interview with Author Claire Saxby
Great White Shark (Candlewick Press) is the latest release from author Claire Saxby, illustrated by Cindy Lane. The book follows a great white shark in ocean waters allowing the reader to see life from a shark's perspective. Claire Saxby is a well-rounded author whose works include picture books, middle-grade novels, and poetry. Great White Shark is written in a way that only an experienced author could write, with a base of sound research that dialogues nicely with the narrative of the shark. It's a story that both children and adults can find intriguing, working with a quiet power to show the grace and beauty of sharks that is often not shown.
I was delighted by Great White Shark because it so expertly layered an artist's voice with science to accurately portray sharks. What a gift this is as a teacher when trying to show how science writing can be taken to new levels. Because of this, I wanted to ask Claire the base for her inspiration and how she saw research interacting with the creative mind.
You have covered a wide array of animals and habitats in your previous work, from a kookaburra, to a red kangaroo, to Antarctic waters. What inspired you to focus on the great white shark for this book?
Australia’s geographic isolation means that many of the animals who live here, exist nowhere else. Within the one country there are many environments, from deserts to rainforests, and I was keen to understand how animals adapted to their particular habitats. After writing Dingo, about a top order predator who has adapted to living across a range of Australian environments, I dived into the ocean. While great white sharks are not found only in Australian waters, Australia is one of the locations where they can commonly be found. I wanted to understand more about these majestic animals and hopefully help young readers to see how important they are in our oceans.
Research is a big part of preparing for a book like Great White Shark. What was the most eye-opening thing you discovered about sharks while making this book and what influence did it have on your writing?
I learned so much about sharks! They range in size from palm-size to the enormous whale shark. They navigate (and hunt) using a sixth sense, electroreception. They can detect movement of prey from great distances by reading their electrical signature. They have remained virtually unchanged for many millions of years. Great white sharks travel oceans using only 10 % of their muscle mass, reserving 90% for hunting (a bit like cheetahs, strong and super-fast but only for short strikes). The more I discovered, the more I wanted to know. By offering some of this in my book, I hoped to overwrite fear with fascination, and to show how important sharks are.
I love how Cindy Lane, the illustrator for Great White Shark, mirrors your fluid, poetic lines with her watercolor images. Can you talk more about how you see Lane’s artwork enhancing this book and your writing?
Isn’t Cindy’s art fabulous? There’s a silken richness to her imagery, that feels like being in the water, swimming. Her shark is realistic and beautiful, moving through the water with calm, energy-efficient movements. The colours are intense and depict a dynamic ocean ecosystem. I don’t use a lot of description in my text and Cindy’s art offers the reader the opportunity to ‘explore’ the ocean while reading (or listening) to my words. Her illustrations offer details not explicitly in the text.
The biography on your website (clairesaxby.com) mentions your base of curiosity and wonder as a writer. You also talk about helping others “shape their own unique stories”. What unique perspective do you feel like your background brings to telling the story of Great White Shark?
I hope that by exploring my curiosity and sense of wonder, I can ignite both in a reader. I don’t want the book to be an end point, I want it to be an introduction to the wonderful world of the shark (and other sea dwellers) and to stimulate discussion and further research. I have an applied science background, and I think that helps me understand the information I dig deep to find. I have been writing books for some years now and I love the challenge of distilling complex ideas into poetic language.
You do an excellent job within this book of blending together scientific facts on great white sharks while keeping the writing original and engaging. In what ways do you think an educator could encourage their students to focus on craft and creativity while teaching research and scientific writing?
Great White Shark has dual texts. The narrative non fiction tells the story of an individual female great white shark on a journey to grow and deliver her pups. The non fiction text seeks to answer questions about the species that might be generated by the narrative. Readers can explore the differences between the two texts and use their findings to model their own writing, perhaps featuring an animal that fascinates them. Individual sentences can be deconstructed and young writers can substitute noun for noun, verb for verb to build their own new sentences. An important skill is the ability to source good information and then to be able to rewrite that information in their own words.
In conclusion, what is one thing you hope your readers walk away with after reading Great White Shark?
I hope that readers who already love sharks discover something in Great White Shark that they didn’t already know and that it adds to their appreciation of sharks (and the knowledge they go on to share). I hope that readers who have been fearful of sharks, will become less fearful, because they understand more about the role of sharks in healthy oceans. Hopefully there’ll be moments of ‘wow’ every time they think about sharks.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
Thank you for inviting me to talk about Great White Shark. Here’s another fascinating information taster about sharks. Their skin is covered in dermal denticles which means ‘skin-teeth’ and different sharks will have different shaped denticles. Amazing!
Claire Saxby is the award-winning author and poet of several books for children to young adults, including Kookaburra (illustrated by Tannya Harricks), Iceberg (illustrated by Jess Racklyeft) and the historical novel Haywire.You can find more about Claire on Instagram at clairesaxbyauthor, as well as on twitter @SaxbyClaire.