Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Q&A with Peggy Macnamara and Katie Macnamara

Peggy Macnamara is the illustrator and her daughter, Katie Macnamara, is the author of the new children's picture book Rosie the Tarantula: A True Adventure in Chicago's Field Museum.  Peggy Macnamara is an adjust associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an artist in residence at the Field Museum. Katie Macnamara teaches at John Abbott College in Montreal and Carleton University in Ottawa.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Rosie the Tarantula?

PM: I have been Artist in Residence at the Field Museum since 1990, and have been painting there years before that. I did a book on Illinois Insects (University of Chicago Press 2005) and got to know Jim Louderman. He has lots of live insects in his office including tarantulas. 

Now what is great about Jim is how he interacts with the public. For years he let the kids at the Field Museum hold tarantulas and whatever else he was nurturing. But about five years ago one of his tarantulas, Rosie, got loose.

Our offices are on the third floor and the Field Museum public exhibits are on the ground, first and second floors. Rosie was missing for about three months. No one knows exactly where Rosie went, but she was in good shape when she was found about 100 yards from Jim’s office.

I had taken a couple years to do paintings of the various scientists’ offices and collections, a “Behind the Scenes” series. I wrote a rough copy of Rosie’s adventure, much like my own, wandering around the Field. I wanted to tell a few stories about how collections support present-day scientific research to promote conservation and education. 

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the book?

PM: I have been around scientific material since I began working at the Field.  I have done books on insects and bird nests, migration, the peregrine falcon’s return, so I am familiar with what research is being done at the Field.

KM: I did most of my research online, careful to engage with the most authoritative websites and diligent about having my text and notes reviewed by Jim Louderman and Mary Hennen at the Field.

(I first drafted the notes while my baby twin daughters still took morning naps and I enjoyed my year of paid maternity leave here in Canada. I refined those notes while my daughter Dorothea — super sleepy from a heart condition that kept me by her side with the twins in daycare for the first few months of her life—slept soundly. Hurray for paid maternity leave again!)

Q (for Peggy): How did you and your daughter collaborate on the project?

PM: My daughter Katie has a Ph.D. in English Literature. I send her texts all the time, but this one intrigued her. She researched specific details and rewrote the text.

Katie lives in Ottawa, Canada, and I am outside Chicago so we communicated by phone and email. Her writing was great so all that remained was to get someone to lay out the book. That took about four years. 

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?

PM: I hope kids see the wonder and worth in a Natural History Museum. The collections and research can solve things like the DDT problem. So many bird species are back in force because of the egg collection and researchers’ endeavors. 

KM: I hope the book can be used interactively by parents to speak to children of different ages. When I originally did the research about tarantulas, other relevant animals, and the museum, I started keeping notes of interesting facts.

As a lapsed academic (who now focuses on teaching rather than research at John Abbott College after having dissertated and published essays on modernist literature during/after graduate school), I still have a passion for footnotes, which have inspired past scholarly pursuits and marked their completion (since I always fine tune the notes at the end of a project...so satisfying!).

But I resisted polishing up and showing these notes to publishers until Northwestern asked me to produce a glossary. I’ve read many glossaries in books my 6-year-old son brings home from school or the library, but I often find them less than illuminating. So if I really want to answer my son’s questions, I end up googling.

Instead of a glossary, therefore, I drafted detailed endnotes that parents can turn to (with a glass of wine?) when storytime is over to mine for material to ad lib about during their next reading session.

This can help parents do the kind of interactive work speech therapists and literacy experts recommend. But it can also, more simply, save them from boredom when a child asks to be read the same book for the 20th time. As children get older, they can possibly explore the notes themselves. And even adults may be inspired by them.

(When a mom-friend of mine was asked to experiment with a cricket-based diet and write about it for a magazine, she texted me immediately to tell me it reminded her of one of my Rosie notes about the human cricket-eating craze, which I’d discussed at a reading. I like to think that she went forward with the experiment and the article despite major squeamishness partly because of my footnote).

Right now, my just-turned-4 twin daughters enjoy reading the book with me, but they certainly don’t “get” everything. And given how amazingly interactive museums are these days, my kids don’t fully understand part of my motivation for telling the story I did.

When I went to a darker (and let’s face it, drearier) Field Museum with my mom as a kid, I was kind of freaked out by the dead-ness of the place. The dioramas I mostly saw had been constructed, in part, out of animal carcasses (some of which had been killed by late Victorian natural historians). And the artifacts had belonged to people long dead.

Oh yeah, and those mummies in the basement Egypt exhibit? Spooky! I was frankly a bit more creeped out than curious. Why couldn’t I just see live beasts at the zoo? (Now, of course, zoos bother me with their animals in captivity).

All this is to say that when my mom sent me her take on Rosie’s adventures, I wanted to make the tarantula’s musing somehow mirror my own as a child.

Some kids may still ask why we have museums like these in the first place. But most probably aren’t asking this as a giant special exhibit animatronic t-rex bares its menacing teeth (but such tiny arms!) before them.

Hopefully our book helps them answer questions they might not even have realized they had. Hopefully it enables them to see how they can help many of these historical animals and cultures live on both literally and figuratively. 

Q: What are you working on now?

PM: Katie has written another kids book extending exploration of the Field. It is about octopuses and other wild fish species. I have been painting the relevant material.

I am also working on a book about painting in a natural history museum for 35 years and what it has taught me about art and science.

KM: The octopus book for sure. Also thinking about a book for kids with physical challenges ever since I wrote a blurb about my daughter Dorothea’s challenges with the low muscle tone, loose ligaments, and developmental delays exacerbated by cardiac abnormalities more common in kids with Down syndrome.

Q: Anything else we should know?

KM: She doesn’t think this fact helps her prove her dedication as an artist, but I’ll share it: Peg is the mother of seven, grandmother of 21, aunt of 53, great aunt of...who knows how many. She entertains them (and ALL their friends — anyone who shows interest) with tours at the Field Museum.

Although I had my first of four kids at 36 — the age at which my mom gave birth to her sixth and seventh...twins! — she has been an amazing working mom and teacher role-model to me despite our differing circumstances.

Work and love and life and kids can be so hard to balance. With my dad’s (and her dad’s) adoring support and her mom’s (and her own) practical wisdom, she found a beautiful balance. I’m striving to do that too. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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