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Out to Sea: An Interview with Sophie Webb, Biologist, Children’s Book Author and Illustrator
Sophie Webb is a scientist and award-winning author and illustrator. She has written three outstanding scientific journals for middle grade readers including: Far from Shore: Chronicles of an Open Ocean Voyage, Looking for Seabirds: Journal from an Alaskan Voyage and My Season with Penguins: An Antarctic Journal. In addition she has penned two field guides: A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and North America and Marine Mammals of the Pacific Coast.
After reviewing Far From Shore, Debbie Glade was eager to ask the author about her fascinating work. Good Reads With Ronna is excited that Webb so generously offered her time to share her extraordinary travel, research and writing experiences with us.
Sophie taking photos at sea
Can you tell us how your work as a field biologist and ornithologist inspired you to start writing science books for middle grade readers?
I have loved and drawn wildlife all my life. At Boston University I spent a year in the School of Fine Arts but ended up changing my major, getting a degree in Biology. Post college I began working as a field biologist on various projects, studying birds that took me many places: the Antarctic, through the neo-tropics, the Galapagos and the Arctic. I really began combining my interest in art and biology by working on field guides of neo-tropical birds.
My first children’s book was My Season with Penguins. When I worked in the Antarctic I kept an illustrated journal on large watercolor paper sheets. After my first season there I showed them to some friends who had kids or were teachers, and they encouraged me to make it into a book for children. So I pursued finding a publisher, (which in my case I really fell into) modified the journal somewhat, and it was published. I enjoyed working on the book. I liked the writing, illustrating and figuring out how to lay it out. My Season with Penguins did quite well, which encouraged me to work on further books associated with field projects I was working on.
Temperate offshore Species A Field Guide to the Marine Mammals of the Pacific Coast, University of CA Press
You write in a language that is easy for children to understand, yet you manage to keep from talking down to your readers. Is it difficult to write about science for an audience of middle grade readers?
Generally I write in a fairly uncomplicated way, so it has not been too difficult for me to write for a younger audience. My editor and friends who have children have also been helpful advisors when I get carried away. Their feedback prevents me from imparting too much information and getting bogged down in language that is too complicated or lacks clarity.
You mentioned you spent a year studying art before changing your major to biology. It sounds like your natural artistic ability is a large part of your success. What medium do you prefer to use for your illustrations?
I use a combination of pencil, watercolor and gouache – easy mediums to travel with.
Do you illustrate while on your expeditions?
Yes I most certainly do. Sketching in the field is one of my favorite things to do – to wander about in a forest, marsh or beach, anywhere outdoors with a sketch pad and pencil in hand. While at sea I frequently work on larger watercolors, bringing with me a small kit with a paint box, pencils, tape, scissors, a variety of brushes and a hair dryer (to quickly dry large watercolor washes).
The author sketching in Brazil
Do you often draw from photographs you take?
I really enjoy photography as well, so I do take many photos on my trips both to be photos in their own right and also for reference when I get home.
Red-footed Boobies on the jackstaff McArthur II
Boobies and Jack Staff from Far from Shore, Houghton Mifflin Co
Amazing photo of a masked booby and his flying fish
In your book, Far from Shore, you chronicle your four-month voyage in the Eastern Tropical Pacific with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Can you tell us briefly about the goal of the voyage?
I was working for the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center on their research vessel, the McArthur II. The main purpose of the research cruise was to assess the population of spotted and spinner dolphins in the region, to set by-catch quotas for the international yellow fin tuna fishery. Secondary projects were to assess the distribution and populations of seabirds, fish and squid and to gather various oceanographic data – all of which will be used to try to gain a greater understanding of the ecology of the Eastern Tropical Pacific.
A beautiful illustration of dolphins at night from Far from Shore, Houghton Mifflin Co
That sounds like really interesting and important work. What was it like being on a ship for that long?
It’s great, and it’s difficult. There are days when it is incredibly beautiful and there is a lot going on; there are many birds and animals to record and photograph. On those days there is no place I would rather be. Other days are long and tedious, either due to bad weather, so we can’t work, or there just is not much wildlife about. On those days I wonder what I am doing spending months and months at sea!
Sophie’s painting corner aboard the Thompson
Did you disembark often during the voyage?
Every three weeks to a month we go into port for 2-6 days to resupply and refuel. The longer in-ports are usually halfway through the cruise, giving enough time for friends and family to come and visit, particularly if we are in a foreign port.
Illustration of sea life under the log from Far from Shore, Houghton Mifflin Co.
Did you ever experience seasickness while on board?
I do occasionally get seasick, but it has been a long time since that has happened on a large ship. Sometimes when I work on boats smaller than 60 ft, I can feel pretty crummy the first day or two.
Jumping Adelie Penguins
That must be rough! I love that your journal depicts the interior of the ship, complete with the living quarters and dining spaces. Did you set out initially to give your readers such a comprehensive experience of scientific expeditions? Or did that part of your story telling just evolve over time?
The books do sort of evolve over time, I have an idea of what I want to write about, but the books often take on a life of their own. A part of what I want to portray to younger readers is not just the natural history and some of the science but also what it is like to work in the field, whether on a ship or camping in the Antarctic.
The lab aboard the Thompson
I think it is so important that young readers understand the life of a scientist – both the exciting and mundane parts (i.e. collecting data) – and that’s what impressed me most about Far from Shore. I am sure there are many adults out there who do not realize what it takes to do research like you do.
You traveled to Antarctica for two months and wrote My Season with Penguins: An Antarctic Journal. It would be fascinating to hear a bit about the research you did there.
I worked in the Antarctic for 5 field seasons. The project I worked on has now been funded for 16 years. The main focus of that project is to look at how Adelie Penguins and the ecology of the Ross Sea are affected by climate change. You can learn more about the project at www.penguinscience.com.
We spent our days catching, counting, tagging and observing penguins, to collect fairly basic data which has been invaluable to determine long-term trends over the past 16 years.
Sophie sketching penguins at Cape Royds in Antarctica
Adelie adults and chicks from My Season with Penguins, Houghton Mifflin Co
I cannot imagine having that experience! What was it like to be there, and how did you stay warm?
We were provided with extremely warm clothes and camping gear by the National Science Foundation (the project funder). We each had a separate mountain tent (small domed tent) to sleep in and also a larger Polar Haven, semi permanent tent. The larger tent had standing room. We also cooked in there, ate our meals and entered data in there. It had a propane heater, but we surprisingly didn’t have to use it much except for when it was windy and or overcast. The tents, due to the 24-hour daylight, acted like solariums, so were often quite warm inside.
Field camp, Antarctica
What a fascinating adventure! As a scientist, what concerns you most about our environment and the animals you study?
Climate change and pollution are my greatest concerns. For the marine environment, currently plastics and oil are perhaps the biggest issues, maybe also overfishing in some fisheries. No one really knows what will happen as currents and weather patterns change due to both anthropogenic (caused by humans) and natural changes to our atmosphere. So that is another concern.
Unfortunately there seem to be so many environmental problems throughout the world due to our shortsightedness. There are, however, a few success stories close to home here in CA. Some of the latter I hope to include in my next book.
Illustration of cotingas and fruit crows from a Field Guide to the Birds of Peru, Princeton University Press
That would be quite fascinating to read. Do you have an opinion about the shortage of scientists in our country?
There are more women in science these days, at least in the natural sciences, but there seems to be an odd rejection of science in a number of communities in the U.S. This is unfortunate as we become more and more dependent on technology, medicine, energy and understanding and dealing with climate change. Perhaps the problem has to do with a failure in our education system. I really don’t know.
Sophie with a lost Purple Martin, Eastern Tropical Pacific
What advice do you have for someone who may be interested in doing what you do for a living?
These days higher education, which I don’t have beyond a BA, is important. That being said, I think also getting experience in the field through internships or working as a field biologist, to have hands on experience with the your study subject is also important. This will also aid in one’s decision. A lot of biological fieldwork is tedious, (it’s not all like a National Geographic special although over the years there are those moments), requiring a good deal of patience. Also, one has to feel passionately about what one studies. It’s not a high-paying or very secure career choice unless you can get permanent work with a university or the government. So you better truly love it as I do!
Painting aboard the McArthur II
What do you like to do when you are not working?
I like to hike, run, go birding, sketch and read. I used to ride horses (have since I was a kid) but given the amount of time I am away from home this has been put on the back burner for the past years.
Sophie, thank you so much for sharing your life’s work and your fabulous illustrations and photographs with our readers. You are truly an inspiration. I am sure there are many budding scientists out there who would love to do what you do. Please let us know when your next book is published; we’d love to share it with our readers!
To learn more about Sophie Webb, her work and her books, visit her website here.