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Ick!: Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings and Defenses by Melissa Stewart

Ick! Might be a word some educators might use when asked to describe parts of the remote learning experience. But one thing is for sure, remote learning has given us the opportunity to get to know our students in new and exciting ways.

I’ve learned that one of my students is a diehard nonfiction fan. He’s stated it on Flipgrid book buzzes, on our Google Stream, and explained his passion in writing assignments.

So, as I prepare my summer reading list, I’m committing to including as many nonfiction titles as fiction titles. Not only that, I’m going to make sure that my nonfiction reading list includes the five kinds of nonfiction, not just narrative nonfiction. That way my classroom library will appeal to all readers, not only students who gravitate toward narrative arc.

During our first book walk of the year, one lucky reader will snag the blended book Ick!: Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings and Defenses. While the other disappointed students wait for the first reader to finish the book and pass it on, they can read this delightful interview with Melissa Stewart.

What inspired you to write Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings and Defenses?

The story behind Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses traces back to a three-week research trip I took to Africa way back in 1996. During the safari, I watched with fascination as a mother black-backed jackal upchucked her partially-digested dinner to feed her three feisty pups. When the little ones had eaten their fill, she scarfed down the mushy leftovers.

A gerenuk on its tippy toes.

The next day, while observing a gerenuk standing on its tippy toes as it ate, our guide told us that it’s one of more than 150 mammals (including cows) that regurgitate their food and re-munch their lunch as many as four times. It’s their way of eking every possible nutrient from the tough plants they eat.

Right then and there, I started making a list of animals that vomit their vittles as a survival strategy. Over time, I added more than a dozen insects, birds, and mammals to that list.

But why stop there? I also made lists of creatures that use poop, pee, spit, snot, and other bodily substances in the most surprising ways. Many of those examples ended up in Ick!

Melissa Stewart’s Office

Tell us about your research process for Ick!

For a narrowly-focused concept book like this, there’s no quick or easy way to do the research. I collected examples in a burgeoning folder over the course of many years.

In my office, I have a large, three-drawer vertical file cabinet full of these folders—each one represents a potential book. Every time I read an article or hear an idea that fits one of my categories, I add it to the designated folder. Over time, the information adds up.

Let me share one example: the bombardier beetle—an insect that blasts enemies with a scalding spray that bursts out its butt. I observed the insect in action during a class I took at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, many years ago.

Short, engaging text blocks are perfect for a quick read aloud.

In March 2018, an article in Science News led me to an amazing video of a Japanese common toad vomiting an African bombardier beetle drenched with gooey mucus. For 88 minutes, the tenacious insect fought for its life by blasting the toad’s insides with nasty, sizzling-hot spray. Finally, the toad couldn’t take it anymore and spewed its supper. After a brief rest, the slime-covered beetle slowly crawled away.

You know you’ve chosen one of the world’s best professions when watching something so weird and wonderful is a legitimate part of your job!

Tell us about your revision process for Ick!

Ick! is a blended book. It has some characteristics of expository literature and some characteristics of browseable nonfiction.

Like most browseable books, each double-page spread in Ick! functions as a distinct unit made up of various text features. The text features in Ick! include a main text, a main illustration and caption, a Stat Stack, an Extra Ick! factoid, and a sidebar that incorporates a sidebar and caption.

Originally, each spread also had a Math Matters sidebar. My editor thought these seemed a little too “educational,” so we renamed them Putrid Puzzlers and I rewrote them to be more like puzzles or riddles that incorporate math. But then, at the next pass, the executive editor expressed the same concern, so we cut them completely. I was sorry to see them go, but of course, I wanted the best possible book.

For the other sections, some changed just a little and others changed a lot. Here’s a typical example of comments from the book’s editor, Shelby Lees:

Professional writers receive feedback on their work, too!

And the revisions made to address her concerns:

Then, professional writers revise their work and make it stronger than before. Keep reading to find out how long it took Melissa Stewart to get Ick! just right.

In about six cases, the editor thought my original examples weren’t gross enough. She asked me to replace those spreads with something else.

And then, when the photos came in, we made some additional changes so that the words and pictures worked well together. It took about 2 years to get everything just right.

There are so many fabulous facts in this book. So, I know this next question is difficult. What are a few of your favorite facts in the book? 

Oh my goodness, it’s so hard to choose! I’m not even sure I can pick a favorite animal, never mind a favorite fact. But, oh, I do have a favorite photo. Look at this close up of a honeybee sucking up a drop of nectar. Incredible!

In the back matter, you talk about how scientists discover and name at least 15,000 new animal species a year. You also mention the possibility that child readers may be some of the people who discover a new species. Do you have any tips for children who are interested in observing the natural world?

Find a group or an event in your area that monitors wildlife and get involved. Examples include the Great Backyard Bird Count or International Biodiversity Day. You’ll meet experienced citizen scientists who can help you learn about your local environment and the creatures that live there. Pretty soon you’ll be an expert too!

Melissa Stewart has written more than 180 science books for children, including the ALA Notable Feathers: Not Just for Flying, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen; the SCBWI Golden Kite Honor title Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs, illustrated by Stephanie Laberis; and Can an Aardvark Bark?, illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Steve Jenkins. She maintains the award-winning blog Celebrate Science and serves on the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators board of advisors. Her highly-regarded website features a rich array of nonfiction writing resources.

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