Who knew a racerback sucker, a minnow, and a porcupine could be so cute? The answer is Dan Shaw, BEMP co-director and US science teacher. He thought they were so loveable that a children’s book needed to be written about them. With the support of the BEMP team behind him, he began writing Fishy Climate: A Wild Adventure Along a Changing Rio Grande. Since it was a children’s book, it needed illustrations too. That’s how Bosque School’s Class of 2017 alum, Reese Bice, became involved.
Mr. Shaw explained, “We knew that we wanted to have a second children’s book in the BEMP series of books, so we put out a request for proposals. We asked people to submit a sketch about a porcupine, a minnow, and a racerback sucker.” Any student from the area could respond, from high school students to graduate students. More than a dozen artists applied with one concept image. “We took the artwork, made sure there was no identifying information on it, and presented those sketches to a committee of people who had expertise in wildlife and art, and the actual target audience of 4th graders.” He continued, “They looked at all of the selections and would say which one appealed to them the most, and Reese’s was one of three that was identified as most appealing.” The three top finalists were then interviewed by a BEMP committee and the final artist was chosen—and that was Reese.
At that time, Reese was a junior at Bosque. Mr. Shaw said, “Reese beat out, in a blind survey, graduate students pursuing MFAs.” Reese said the application process wasn’t easy, but thought, “I’ll just do it for fun. No harm, no foul if I don’t get it.” When first considering the proposal, Reese grappled with the thought of “How are two fish and a porcupine supposed to get around?” Inspired by the red wagon in Mr. Shaw’s classroom, Reese came up with a solution that developed into the concept image: a porcupine pulling the two fish around in a red wagon by its tail. However, Reese also said that drawing the porcupine proved to be a challenge as well. “They’re so amorphous. They have these tiny, little faces that are totally black, so you can’t see any of their defining features.” Reese added, “They’re so hard to draw, so I did not think I was going to get it at all.”
Mr. Shaw knew he wanted to incorporate a porcupine in this book since it was the main character in the last BEMP book, Porky’s Quest. However, the inspiration to integrate a racerback sucker as a main character in this new book came to him while on a river trip along the Green River. With him on the trip was a lawyer who worked for the department of interior and dealt with endangered species and federal policy. Mr. Shaw spoke with the lawyer about a wonderful fish that he knew that inhabited the river: the racerback sucker. The lawyer was familiar with the fish but said that no one cares about it because it’s not “charismatic.” This gave Mr. Shaw an idea. He responded to the lawyer saying he would prove that the fish is charismatic by writing a children’s book about one. “That’s where the first version of this book popped in my head,” said Mr. Shaw.
Just as the porcupine was a difficult creature to capture in illustration, the racerback sucker was no easier. Reese commented, “That was one of the challenges because they’re really weird looking. I was like, ‘How am I going to make this cute?’” Dan shared that even a famous naturalist writer, Ellen Meloy, described racerback suckers as a “cross between a baguette and an orthopedic shoe.”
These difficult-to-draw animals led Reese to spend the first few months on the project researching. They studied specimens in the BEMP office, went to the biology museum at UNM, and studied wet specimens. While wanting to be detailed and scientific, Reese also wanted to make sure the illustrations were clear, recognizable, friendly, and entertaining. Mr. Shaw shared, “What Reese brought to this was the ability to be biologically accurate while still maintaining personalities, which I think is a really hard line to walk. Reese did that with grace.” Reese responded by saying, “So much to reference, so many Google image searches. Constantly, my computer had a million tabs of trying to find a porcupine from a specific angle, so I’d know its face looks normal.”
After four years of hard work and dedication, Reese and Dan’s final project has come to fruition and the book has been published. “All of the feedback I’ve gotten for this has been overwhelmingly positive, which I’m not used to,” laughed Reese. “I’m happy I got to do it. I think it was a good fit.”
Mr. Shaw voiced how thankful he is for everyone who helped make the book a reality. One of the people who really helped keep the project from getting lost in the shuffle of life was BEMP office manager, Amanda Lindell. “It would not have come to be without Amanda moving the book forward,” said Mr. Shaw. He pointed out that the acknowledgement page in the book is long because they received so much help from the BEMP team.
The devotion shows. The book is beautifully written and illustrated. BEMP educator, Liz Gallagher, gave a glowing review of the book. “When I first read and looked through the drafts of Fishy Climate, I found myself laughing at the simultaneously funny, scientific, and silly writing while also tearing up at the beautiful art that shows places, creatures, and people of the Middle Rio Grande and bosque that I love so much. Climate change is one of the issues I care most about, so I've been so excited to see how Dan and Reese have made the concepts approachable and accessible, while also demonstrating the hope and action that are needed in response to climate change.The book so wonderfully demonstrates the connections between nature and people that Bosque School and BEMP work to strengthen!”
Join us for a Book Signing and Reading by Dan Shaw and Reese Bice '17
Thursday, Feb. 13
Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande Blvd NW, Albuquerque, NM 87107)
Buy your copy on Amazon today!