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Sharks have been hot the past few years. From adult Sharknados to kiddie Baby Shark’s, it’s been good times for fictional Chondrichthyes, especially the Great White (Carcharodon carcharias). Ame Dyckman and Scott Magoon’s Misunderstood Shark series of children’s books takes a different approach to one of the ocean’s most fearsome creatures. It’s not horror and it’s not super-cutesy. Their latest installment, The Misunderstood Shark: Friends don’t eat friends (Scholastic) never shies away from the fact that shark’s need to eat, it’s not always pretty, and the scent of blood goes a long way. The cleverness of Dyckman and Magoon’s approach allows them to teach rather than simply entertaining.
SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: How did the idea of Misunderstood Shark come together? Why a shark, specifically?
AME DYCKMAN: Back in 2016, sharks were finally catching a public perception break. In the media, there were more shark-positive statistics reported, more shark conservation efforts shared, and even the most “They’re just like us!” image/caption combo ever: that meme of a shark stepping on a LEGO. When our pals at Scholastic’s Orchard Books said it was time for a new underwater book series showcasing the misunderstood side of sharks, I thought, “Maybe our books can show with a show!” That idea became the “world” concept for our Misunderstood Shark books: Shark interrupts a nature documentary TV show, Underwater World with Bob Jellyfish, which broadcasts live to us, “The people!”
In April 2018, Misunderstood Shark splashed into bookstores and schools everywhere, and lots of “The people!” loved Bob Jellyfish and his unplanned guest star, Shark! (And we’re so grateful!) In both Misunderstood Shark and our seaquel (Misunderstood Shark: Friends Don’t Eat Friends, published last January), we include a bunch of non-fiction Fun Facts, tongue-in-cheek shark meme and pop culture nods, and funny dialogue between Shark, Bob, and crew—particularly from a pair of wisecracking production Squids that have a comment for nearly everything!
SCOTT MAGOON: For my part the big challenge early on was designing a Shark character that was fresh and our own. I felt that he was to be overall funny-ish, but given what was to come with him—a little edge around the edges.
SI: Where did a jellyfish host named Bob come from?
AD: For me, the character of Bob Jellyfish was inspired by news director Les Nessman from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s sitcom, WKRP in Cincinnati. As a kid, I found Les’ single-focused attempts to deliver his radio news reports to his listeners while chaos erupted around him to be hilarious! (But even poor Les Nessman never had to deal with constant interruptions from a shark!) Bob really gives all of himself to his show—especially, um, at the end of Misunderstood Shark! And here’s a behind-the-scenes Misunderstood Shark Fun Fact: in the original manuscript, I never mentioned what type of sea creature Bob was! At the time, he was just The Narrator/Host. But Scott saw a jellyfish, and I’m so glad he did—Bob Jellyfish is a riot!
SM: For some reason I thought I was the only one who had ever heard of WKRP! (I still hum the theme song [earworm!]). And so when Ame brought it up as the inspiration for Bob I was like…OMG. Yes, Nessman!
SI: Can you discuss Misunderstood Shark: Friends Don’t Eat Friends? What was the ultimate aim of the book? What were you trying to communicate to your readers?
AD: In our second Misunderstood Shark book (which begins almost immediately after the end of our first, so Bob didn’t get digest—I mean, for continuity), we wanted to show our readers that friends can have a disagreement or incident, but talk it out and still be friends. We figured if there can be forgiveness between Bob and Shark after Shark ate…I mean, after Shark behaved the way he did, then kids will see they can forgive each other for their misunderstandings, too!
SM: Shark gets what’s coming to him in Misunderstood Shark: Friends Don’t Eat Friends after mistreating Bob in Book 1. But I like that forgiveness on both sides of a disagreement or incident can go a long way towards making the sea a better place—where we can swim forward together.
SI: In both Misunderstood Shark books, you don’t shy away from the fact that sharks are indeed carnivores that can use blood to track their prey. How important was it to not gloss over the less-friendly aspects of sharks?
AD: Well, sharks are who they are. Sharks really do eat meat to live and really do use the smell of blood to track their next meal. (But, never more adorably than the way Scott drew Shark when he smells the single drop of blood in Misunderstood Shark! Shark’s so happy, it’s almost impossible not to, “AWWW!”) We didn’t want to hide the… sharkness of sharks (or, of Shark!), but it was also important to us that we reinforce facts such as humans are far from a shark’s first choice for a meal and negative shark encounters are actually really uncommon, etc.
SM: I love how our book uses real shark facts that are mixed in with the story. Not every shark book does this, of course. This all helps set our book apart. It leads readers towards the truth—sharks use stealth, keen senses and sharp teeth to survive. That’s how it is. I think kids can be apprehensive of that, but I think many young readers appreciate the honesty.
SI: How were the visual elements of the Misunderstood Shark series determined, e.g. bold colors, playful expressions, a green beret wearing seal, a State Trooper shark handing out a littering ticket?
SM: We want fresh fish visuals! With most of our story taking place underwater the drawings could within a few page turns become monotonous. Changing background colors throughout the book mitigates that. Changing Shark’s appearance (state trooper, colonial treaty signer) and putting Seal in a scout costume also helps too.
AD: Scott even humored me with my crazy idea that Shark could rock a tattoo—and Scott nailed it! (I love Shark’s anchor-and-heart “MOM” tattoo so much, I’m thinking of getting it myself!)
SI: How did the collaboration between the two of you start?
AD: Publishers typically select the illustrator for a project, but I felt really lucky with this pick: Scott’s fabulous! I was already a fan of Scott’s work—and personality! We’d met at a book festival we’d both attended prior, and I knew not only would he do an amazing job, but we’d have fun working together, too!
SM: Huh. I remember it very differently—weren’t we also once in the same shark tank together!? Kismet! Well, however it came to pass, it was worth it—Ame’s an incredible writer to draw for and she is so great about including me in all the latest and greatest Misunderstood Shark fun.
SI: What came first, words or images?
AD: I wrote the draft of Misunderstood Shark first, then once we had an idea of our basic characters and plot, Scott was brought on board to help everybody come alive.
SM: I did some sketches after the first draft to see what could work for what. It was during these stages we decided on the narrator being a jellyfish and how to solve showing the kids in the classroom watching the Underwater World with Bob show, for instance.
SI: I really appreciated how you worked gastric eversion into the Misunderstood Shark: Friends Don’t Eat Friends. Communicating science is hard enough with adult audiences, how did you approach tailoring the narrative for children?
AD (laughing): We got gross! We included all the icky-type Fun Facts that kids especially enjoy, including the number of teeth a shark can grow and lose in its lifetime, how many pounds of food a great white shark eats in a year, and yes, the best shark party trick of them all, gastric eversion! (Expelling your stomach out of your body to eject a foreign object. EWWW!)
SM: Gastric eversion is a good sight gag. (See what I did there?)
SI: Can you discuss the interplay of words and images and how you used the combination?
SM: I worked with the understanding that character sizes and text sizes would be adjusted throughout the sketch stage so that designers could experiment with them. The end goal was to have all elements visually accommodate one another. Our book was more challenging than most because the text calls for a rapid exchange of lots of dialogue without attribution. So while we used word balloons in the case of Squids, Fish and Seal, we did not use them for Bob or Shark, instead opting for a larger point size for those characters. Coming to that took experimentation by art director Patti Ann Harris and designer Jessica Tice-Gilbert. So that’s all to say we played with the layout a good deal.
AD: And once Scott worked his magic with our characters and scenes, pacing and piecing everything together for the final product (the first book, especially!) was like playing a giant game of Jenga! We had so much we wanted to include on each spread in the book: plot, dialogue, emotional character development, non-fiction Fun Facts, Scott’s incredible visuals, and of course, quips from the Squids! And ALL of it had to work together for the read-aloud! Layout was very much an entire editing and art/design team effort in terms of What, Where, and How!
SI: Finally, what can storytelling as a teaching vehicle achieve that more traditional textbooks and pure fact-driven books cannot?
AD: As storytellers, one of our best secret weapons we also used here is … characters! When your story has characters that people (“The people!”) can care about, it’s much easier to introduce facts, too. (Especially when you also add humor. A spoonful of humor helps the information go down!)
SM: So true. When fishing for books, young readers might be more apt to take our book’s promised bait of humor—and become hooked with the fun facts hidden inside.
IMAGE SOURCE: William Morrow