Final Installment–Q&A with Jim Arnosky

In this last chapter of our conversation with Jim Arnosky, we talk about the author’s favorite animals, Frozen Wild, climate change, and giving nature a chance. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this series. It was a great pleasure to speak with Arnosky, and I hope his words provide value to budding artists everywhere. 

Basbanes: Your most recent book, Frozen Wild, explores what winter is throughout the globe. Did you travel into the winter landscapes? 

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Arnosky: Well, I couldn’t get to the Antarctic and couldn’t get to the Arctic. My concern wasn’t that yet another writer would go to the Arctic and see it and then turn around and tell us what’s there. My concern was, do children even know what this place is, or where it is? The biggest, most important thing I could tell children was that the Arctic is an ocean for the most part, with the North Pole is in the frozen center of it, and that Antarctic is a continent.

B: And that there are animals at either end.

A: That ‘s right. In the Antarctic you have the shoreline of this massive frozen continent, and in the Arctic you have this beautiful, incredible north country, all the way around the ocean up there. You also have the ocean in the Arctic, which has lots of animals in it. Whereas the heart of Antarctica is desolate. It’s so cold and it’s so uninhabitable—it’s an entirely different place, not just upside down Arctic.

I think children have to understand why we have winter–because of the tilt of our axis. What makes winter where you live? What makes winter where somebody in Argentina lives? When winter happens, what survives it? What’s under that ice? So you have all these different layers of one subject that I wanted to try and get in the book. I started at my home, and went out as far as I could go, and then came right back to my farm, my home, and my winter. I wanted to explain winter and cold weather to children, and how remarkable it is that animals can survive in these changes—you know, without having the benefit of heated homes or clothing like we have.

B: Well, some do, like the beaver, I had no idea they stay warm by building lodges.

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An active beaver lodge in winter. Public domain image 

A: Yes, they have a chimney in the thing because they don’t put mud around the top, so it’s just wood piled on wood from the center, but the beavers pack mud around the wood so that the air can’t get out. However, the air can go straight up. And when the temperature dips to ten below, which we get a lot of back here in northern Vermont, you can actually see the steam, the body heat coming out of the top of the beaver lodges.

When I wanted to sketch a beaver lodge in winter, I had to snowshoe down to it. Perhaps this was foolish, but when I got to the pond, I expected that the ice would be thick. As I snowshoed across the pond, the ice broke, and I fell in. I was lucky in the sense that I had always used this certain kind of a hitch—it’s a figure-eight hitch on my snowshoes rather than buckles. If those shoes had been buckled to my feet I would have drowned, but with mine, a circular turn of the foot releases you from the shoe. So I lived. This is all part of the experience of creating a story, and in my field as a naturalist, it’s doubly important to go out into nature and observe it firsthand.

B: You don’t mention climate change or global warming in the text, but you do cite quite a few books about it in your notes. Is that a conversation you think  children should be having? You don’t want to scare kids, but is a topic children should at least be aware of?

A: Well, unfortunately I think that global warming is a subject that remains misunderstood because a lot of people respond to it by things they see on television.

B: And it gets very political.

A: And politics boggles it all up in people’s minds. I’ve been asked twice to write a book about global warming, and in both cases I said no. You have to write about global warming properly. You have to write about what happens to our northern oceans and southern oceans when freshwater mixes with salt water in too large a quantity. You have to talk about whether or not people or animals are in danger in by it, because in some cases, the animals just simply migrate someplace else. You have to talk about whether or not we think animals like polar bears might move a little further south eventually, at least those that survive. We don’t know a lot about it. And I thought that’s an awful lot for me to squeeze into thirty-two pages of a picture book, when I’m just trying to tell children what winter is. This is a book about what we already know about, and that was my goal—to write a book about what makes it cold outside, and how the animals survive in that cold. So I thought talking about climate change in the middle of the book would throw the whole thrust off, which I explained to my editor. And she suggested I write about it in an author’s note at the end.

B: Do you have a favorite animal? 

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Wood duck image source: Wikimedia Commons.

A: I’ll always love wood ducks. I’ve painted them, and I’ve drawn them, but it’s never as beautiful as the actual wood duck. I can’t duplicate what nature has done. They have a plume behind their head, they have a multi-colored bill. There’s an iridescence to them. They can look black, green, very much like a mallard in that case, then they’re almost like the harlequin duck. Yet, when you see them in their habitat, they blend perfectly! The wood duck was on the verge of extinction because of its beauty. It made a wonderful mount for duck hunters. It came back because people kept private flocks of them on their property.  Their wings were clipped so they couldn’t fly away. And yet, some must not have been clipped right, because some of the wood ducks flew away, and they ended up repopulating their entire range.

There are lots of animal stories like that–crocodiles, beavers, deer. Anytime you give an animal a chance to rebound, they will, and in a big way.

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