the wow factor: a hungry leopard seal and a fish with a transparent head

Does the blond woman, second to the right, look like someone who once narrowly escaped a run-in with a leopard seal? Looks pretty relaxed, doesn’t she, in her comfy sandals and attire? That was not the case several years back, however, when she was doing research for an important project.

Before I get into the details of her near-death experience, let me introduce all the major players at the SCBWI conference I attended in Sioux Falls, SD, this past weekend. (SCBWI, or "squib" as some say, stands for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.) Above, from left to right, are: Chris Richman, book agent for Upstart Crow Literary; Lindsay Schlegel, editor for Simon & Schuster; Rebecca Johnson, local author; and Chris Browne, cartoonist of the nationally syndicated and long-running comic strip, Hagar The Horrible (his father was the originator of the cartoon).

Each of these presenters offered a phenomenal talk. Each brought wonderful insight into the room where we had gathered for the day to obsess over the business of children’s literature. But one in particular wowed me, keeping me on the edge of my seat. Going into the conference, I had no idea what was coming.

When I say she had me on the edge of my seat, I am not talking metaphorically. Though Ms. Johnson talked quietly in an even, eloquent fashion, this author of over 75 books for children and adults has literally gone to the depths of the earth to conduct research, and was all too happy to bring us with her (figuratively this time). What an adventure! If I had met this woman as a child, I might well have become a scientist, or a scientist writing books for children, as she has done so prolifically.

According to the conference brochure, Rebecca has written on "subjects ranging from climate change and polar exploration to carnivorous plants and new organisms discovered during the Census of Marine Life, a ten-year global survey of ocean life. To gather firsthand information, she has worked with scientists in far-flung parts of the world, including those studying volcanic dust trapped in Antarctic glaciers…as well as one of the world’s rarest birds, the kakapo in New Zealand."

Alright, stay with me here, because I’m getting to the really good parts. In the mid-1990s, Rebecca was working on a book, Braving the Frozen Frontier: Women Working in Antarctica, and was mesmerized by the leopard seal. Not long before the harrowing, above-mentioned incident, she’d been observing these creatures through a safe lookout, watching as they repeatedly seared skins off penguins just before devouring them. When an opportunity presented itself to take a photograph of one of the seals, Rebecca was game, having been assured she would be at a safe enough distance. So, at the appointed time, down to the edge of the ice she went with her trusty camera. "When leopard seals wait for penguins, they are very still," she told us. "I didn’t know it, but just below me one of these seals was waiting for the right moment to pounce." After a while of hearing and seeing nothing, Rebecca finally decided to retreat, certain her opportunity had come and gone. But just as she stepped back, the large beast rose out of the water, its mouth wide open and snarling, anxious for a taste of human. Just imagine it:

Meantime, some of Rebecca’s colleagues had been watching at a distance. "Run Rebecca!!!!" she heard, and she did exactly that as the leopard seal glided along the ice after her, angry and ravenous now. "I ran about 100 yards and he was gaining on me," she said, explaining how she eventually was yanked to safety — pulled to a high spot where the seal couldn’t reach her by the men who had been observing her earlier. "My camera dropped to the ground as they  lifted me up," she later explained, noting that, having lost its main entree, the seal settled on her camera as a substitute appetizer.

"Kids love it when I tell that story almost as much as the books I share with them," she said. I can see that. I’m just glad she was able to maneuver her clunky parka well enough to run and be hoisted to safety!

I thought her story rather amazing and dramatic, but then Rebecca calmly began telling us about her involvement in the Census of Marine Life, a project through which around 20,000 new organisms will have been recorded by its upcoming completion. Because of her involvement, Rebecca has helped produce a book, due out next month, called Journey Into the DeepDiscovering New Ocean Creatures, which will include photos of marine life that the world has never before seen. Rebecca showed us slides of photos from the forthcoming book, including one of an incredibly colored rainbow crab. "Think of how humbling it would have been for the scientist who held this new species for the first time, knowing you’re the first person to see it, ever." 

One of her favorites, she said, was the barrel-eyed fish, a fish with a transparent head. "It’s incredible. This fish hunts by looking up through the top of its transparent head," she noted. A "ping-pong ball sponge" was the next amazing sight; a creature that "sits in total darkness along the ocean bottom."

"I never apologize for writing non-fiction. It’s been such a source of inspiration for me!" Rebecca noted, addressing those who question non-fiction writing and its worthiness of being considered real writing.

You can be sure that when Journey Into the Deep comes out, I’m going to find a copy. This is assuredly a book that kids are going to look at and say, "Kewl!!!" Based on the preliminary photos and Rebecca’s explanation of the marine census and what is has accomplished, I will agree that, yes, it’s definitely that.

Rebecca wowed me because she expertly pulled us into her presentation, a little at a time, building to the climactic tale of the seal escape, then wowing us more with the astounding photos of species the world has never seen before but is about to be introduced to through her book.

WOW and COOL. To read more about Rebecca, visit her site here.

I’m thankful to all the presenters. They all infused moments of "WOW" and "COOL" into their talks. I definitely came away inspired to continue my journey into book-writing.

Q 4 U: When was the last time you were wowed? What was it that caused your jaw to drop?