Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Q&A with Jane Kurtz




Jane Kurtz is the author of the new children's picture book The Bone Wars: The True Story of an Epic Battle to Find Dinosaur Bones. Her many other books include The Clues Are in the Poo. She lives in Portland, Oregon.


Q: What inspired you to write The Bone Wars?


A: Two of the great things about being a children’s book author are 1) staying in touch with your inner child and 2) following your curiosity in the wandering way you did when you were a kid.


I was 7 years old when my family visited Dinosaur National Monument, and I walked away with a treasure: a little metal Brontosaurus in my pocket.


Fast forward many years to when my picture book What Do They Do With All That Poo? (Beach Lane) had just been published. I happened to read about how scientists are making new discoveries through studying dinosaur poo—in a book by someone else who used to love Brontosaurus.


It turns out the confusion about Brontosaurus started in the rivalry between two men, a rivalry that got so intense that it’s often called the Bone Wars.


I couldn’t stop reading about that time in history when two hikers came upon bones (as one of the hikers wrote) “so monstrous, so utterly beyond anything I had ever read or conceived possible that I could hardly believe my eyes”—and when two curious scientists became determined to make sense of those bones.


In fact, they were so determined that they got into an epic battle because both of them desperately wanted every single ancient bone that might give them new clues to the puzzles.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I’m a voracious reader of nonfiction. It never quite feels like doing research. It’s more like what [rival paleontologists O.C.] Marsh and [Edward Drinker] Cope did: following my curiosity, putting together puzzles, and keeping my eyes out for clues.


I started by reading all about Brontosaurus (a dinosaur that scientists for about 100 years have said should actually be called Apatosaurus).


Eventually, I not only read everything about Marsh and Cope that I could find, I also read about things like the first artistic depictions of dinosaurs and about what happened next in American history when museums got into the act.


The most surprising thing I discovered was an intense anti-science attitude that went way back. For example, a U.S. senator in an 1861 hearing about the Smithsonian collection said, “I am tired of all this thing called science here. What do we care about stuffed snakes, alligators, and all such things?”


Q: What do you think Alexander Vidal’s illustrations add to the book?


A: It’s exciting when illustrators also do research and weave in whatever they find fascinating. The illustrations on one page sent me back to reading about the discovery of Stegosaurus.


Marsh named the species based only on a few vertebrae and one of the plates all dinosaur lovers associate with the dinosaur. (After all, he was in an intense race against Cope.) He thought the dinosaur must have looked something like a turtle until it emerged from the water and walked on its hind legs.

A scientific illustrator named Auguste Michel Jobin used Marsh’s description to create a picture of a creature standing tall with sharp spikes poking out of its back. This picture was used to show readers of several science magazines what dinosaurs were like when they were alive and walking around.


I had never seen that strange Stegosaurus until I saw Alexander Vidal’s art, but I immediately realized it would be a great way for young readers to see how scientists keep collecting evidence and filling in the gaps of what we know.


Q: How would you describe the relationship between O.C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope?


A: I stick with many revisions and failures whenever I think a story is something that readers will be gripped by—and I always thought kids would be able to relate to a friendship that turns sour because both people are fierce about being first.


The two men were both fascinated by science (at a time when not many people even knew what a scientist was) and by the fossil record that was just starting to reveal an ancient world that existed before humans.


That fascination drew them together. They each got to the point they could hardly think about anything else. We dinosaur lovers owe them a lot. But they were destroyed by their rivalry.


My sisters are happy to tell everyone just what a competitive child I was. Competition can fuel a lot of good things, but it can also destroy us. That’s the story of Marsh and Cope.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Women tend to get left out of the story of dinosaur discovery…except for the fabulous Mary Anning. Sadly for me, many writers got to her story before I did. I gave her a cameo appearance in my picture book The Clues Are in the Poo (Reycraft).


Reading about coprolites (fossilized dinosaur poo) led me to another woman who was part of the story of the very first dinosaur to get a name (before the word dinosaur had been invented).


It’s hard to find some of the delicious details of her life because women of that era tended to do their scientific work in the shadows, but I’m determined to put that puzzle together, too.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: A lot of educators have told me that science is getting short-changed in many elementary schools. It’s probably also true that many teachers (like me) didn’t love science when they were young and—even if they have time for science instruction--might not teach it with passion and flair.


For educators, parents, and grandparents, the wonderful nonfiction picture books being published can help fill in a lot of gaps. (In fact, Edward Cope mostly educated himself by reading books.)


Dinosaur science is a great example of how science inquiry works: curious people never giving up, looking for more and more evidence to widen and deepen our knowledge of the beautiful world.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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