The only problem with having so many writing friends is that there are not near enough Fridays for hosting them on my blog. What to do? Celebrate on a Tuesday, that’s what! I didn’t want you to miss out on learning about Sandra Markle’s work, especially since we share a passion for elephants (my latest Audacity Jones book involves a baby elephant). Sandra is a prolific nonfiction writer and her latest books are not to be missed: What if You had an Elephant Nose? (Scholastic, December 2016); and the brand-new, Thirsty, Thirsty Elephants (Charlesbridge; April 4, 2017).
So I’ll share a little known secret about me—I have a thing for elephants.
It goes back to my childhood, which you might find quirky if you knew I grew up in Fostoria, a small town in the middle of miles and miles of northern Ohio farmland. HOWEVER, when I was about ten years old Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus came to my hometown for one day.
AND they put up their tents in the field directly across the street from my house.
That meant the elephants marched from the train station past my house and spent the whole day, well from my point of view, visiting me. I definitely spent the day with them. I was intrigued.
Fast forward to the early days of my writing career. I was offered the opportunity to spend three days visiting Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus on tour while I worked on an article about world famous animal trainer Gunther Gebel Williams. Of course, I politely said, “YES!”
Besides his big cats, Guther’s animal troupe included elephants. I will never forget walking alongside him as he checked over and cared for his elephants. It was my first chance to see elephants up-close. And I learned they were gentle giants, clearly intelligent, constantly curious and genuinely elegant. I was impressed.
After that, I read all I could about elephants. I visited zoo elephants and nature park elephants. And along the way of my life’s journey, I became a mother with young children and a children’s nonfiction book author.
So, I shared my interest in elephants with my children and tucked elephants into my books wherever I could to share them with young readers.
Although there are more examples, elephants make a guest appearance in Math Mini-Mysteries (Atheneum, 1993), which interestingly was my last all black and white children’s nonfiction book before publishers FINALLY became convinced children’s nonfiction could be full color. Elephants also slipped into Animals Marco Polo Saw (Chronicle Books, 2009) and became the one animal that makes repeated featured appearances in my WHAT IF YOU HAD?! Series (Scholastic).
And thanks to the Scholastic books I had an opportunity to visit Baby Mike, a six-month old Asian elephant.
He made sweet baby elephant noises. And was intriguingly working on conquering using his trunk. When he reached out and wrapped his soft, wrinkly little trunk around my hand I was thrilled—that is right up until I discovered he was working on removing my ring and doing a good job of it.
But by now my relationship with elephants had become truly personal. I was enthralled.
Fast forward to my being a grandmother because, well, time does pass. And while I’d written over two hundred books for children, I was still on the lookout for a new elephant story to share. Then I found it. Somewhere in the vast piles of research I do all the time there was a fascinating story about a herd of elephants that totally survived when other herds suffered serious losses during the worst drought to hit Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park in nearly twenty-five years. With some more digging, I tracked down Dr. Charles Foley who was in Tanzania studying the Tarangire’s elephant herds. I remember listening intently during our Skype visits as he shared the details of that surviving elephant herd’s story with me.
I was especially interested because the herd had a hero–the elderly herd leader named Big Mama. She was known to be at least thirty years old—possibly older—and was a grandmother. The drought was extremely hard on all the elephants in the Park but was hardest on the little calves because elephants need to drink water daily. Can’t go more than two days without a drink. Amazingly, when most of the reliable water sources in the Tarangire dried up, Big Mama led her herd out of the Park to another water source. Dr. Foley is certain that wasn’t chance. He believes Big Mama is old enough to have been a young elephant during the last terrible drought. And he’s convinced she led her herd to a water source she remembered from that past drought.
What a great story! What an amazing elephant! I knew I had to share Big Mama’s story with children. Happily, Charlesbridge agreed and I wrote it, pouring in the sights and the sounds of Big Mama and her herd as they struggled during the drought, searched for water—found a little wherever they could—and kept plodding on. Grandma elephant (Big Mama) led them on and on with determination, persistence, caring and courage. And, at last, brought her herd to WATER.
It was nearly two years after I first discovered the story in 2012 and began to dig into it that my research became Thirsty, Thirsty Elephants.
And as is often the case in illustrated books, producing the finished art required another two years. But I believe you’ll agree the pictures are gorgeous, marrying with the unfolding story to bring it fully to life.
Finally, on April 4, 2017, Thirsty, Thirsty Elephants became available for young readers. But there was a breath-holding moment just before the book went to press, I needed to update the Author’s Note about Big Mama. Because of her age, I was nervous as I reached out to Dr. Foley again to catch up and to ask about the elephant who had become dear to my heart. To my great joy, Dr. Foley assured me Big Mama was still alive and doing well. In fact, under her leadership her herd had grown to be forty elephants strong—one of the largest herds in Tanzania’s Tarangire Park.
I was delighted!
Are there more elephants to feature in my books? Are there more elephant stories to tell? I’m absolutely sure of it!
SANDRA MARKLE is the author of more than 200 nonfiction books for children and her work has won numerous awards, including New York Public Library’s Best Books for Kids: 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing list, Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book, Orbis Pictus Recommended Book, Charlotte Zolotow Award, and many more. Markle has developed science specials for CNN and PBS and reported to schools from Antarctica for Scholastic and the National Science Foundation. She was also Ms. Whiz on TV in Atlanta and always includes science magicin her school and Skype visits.