Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Monday, June 4, 2018

It's Back To The World Of Weird Animals With Cute As An Axolotl Book Trailer Premiere

When you hold a book authored by zoologist Jess Keating in your hands you know you will find yourself fascinated by facts about our animal world as well as being entertained with her approach and insights.  She has partnered with illustrator David DeGrand, who must have a special blend of humor humming through his veins, in two titles in The World Of Weird Animals series, Pink Is For Blobfish: Discovering the World's Perfectly Pink Animals (Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, February 2, 2016) and What Makes A Monster?: Discovering the World's Scariest Creatures (Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, August 8, 2017). The duo is collaborating on a third book, Cut As An Axolotl: Discovering the World’s Most Adorable Animals (Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books).  It is set to be released on August 28, 2018).

This third title features creatures, like the previous two, from all parts of the world.  We journey from Lake Xochimilco, near Mexico City to Western Australian Rottnest Island and Bad Island, to the deciduous forests of North America and to the forests of northern Japan.  These seventeen critters will have your cute meter exploding with preciousness. AND the book trailer premiere is happening here TODAY!

When reading these titles aloud or booktalking them to an individual or a group, readers crave information about the author and her process.  I am happy to have author Jess Keating visiting Librarian’s Quest in celebration of this third book.   Let’s see what she has to tell us.

Hi, Margie! Thank you so much for having me, and for debuting this trailer!

In your first two books, Jess, you focused on color and then on creepiness.  Now you are wowing us with cute. How did you decide on those topics and this third subject?

From the beginning, it was important to me that these books were about more than animals. I’ve always been interested in the relationships between humans and animals, as I think it’s an often overlooked factor in conservation and getting people educated about the natural world. I wanted to use this series as a chance to explore these creatures, but also create an opportunity for readers to shine a light on their biases, prejudices, and judgements. I chose the color pink in Pink is for Blobfish, because it’s such a gendered concept, and conversations about gender expectations are always timely. The second book, What Makes a Monster, focuses on what scares us. Oftentimes, if we don’t understand something, we immediately fear it, so my hope was to gently introduce the possibility that we need not fear something just because it’s different from us. (This doesn’t just apply to wild animals, as we know!)

With Cute as an Axolotl, I turned to appearances. People are very good at compartmentalizing and pigeon-holing. Sometimes it serves us, but often, we miss out on a lot. Cuteness is such a great example of this, because we see very obvious examples in our daily lives: attractiveness and cuteness is everywhere. I want readers to take a look beyond the ‘cute’ and realize that labels like this can miss the bigger picture. This is important from a logical, conservation standpoint, as studies have shown that ‘cuter’ animals get more conservation funding and attention. But I also think that, to be good humans, we need to look beyond appearances across the board.

So, to sum up (this very long answer!) I look for two things when choosing a theme: 1) will this theme explore enough biodiversity to get kids falling in love with nature? And 2) Does this theme bring something human to the conversation?

If I can accomplish both of those things, I’ll move onto the research phase!

Your format is both conversational and factual, Jess.  You peak our interest with several engaging paragraphs as if we are speaking face to face and then you have a more scientific sidebar.  What prompted you to choose this format?

I’m so glad you enjoy this element of the books—thank you! As far as the tone goes, my natural writing voice is very conversational, goofy, and casual. It’s always how I prefer to talk about science, because some people can still be very intimidated by complicated subjects and I never want to scare anyone off. In fact, when I was in grad school, I was asked several times to “tone down the voice” in my academic papers. That’s a big reason I’m an author today! My goal with the tone and voice of these books is to allow the real fun of science to shine through a bit: at its heart, science is just the act of being incredibly curious about cool stuff.

It was also important to me to include the sidebars you mention. I’ve chatted about this before and readers can check out this link http://celebratescience.blogspot.ca/2017/11/the-overlooked-benefits-of-expository.html for more!) I think the value of the expository layouts is really underestimated, especially for kids. Some kids prefer narrative, but a great deal of them prefer to get the facts laid out in a simple format like this. I have my theories about why, but in general, there is a power
to having the facts. As a kid, these “sidebar” type facts opened up ways for me to interact with others. I also think it’s important to remind kids that truth, at its core, is enough. It’s a solid thing that they can lean on, and that sort of knowledge can give confidence. It’s so much more than a sidebar to me—it’s a hug to all those fact-loving kids!

You always manage to select animals that are simply amazing?  How do you choose which creatures to include? Could you tell us a little bit about your research process?

This is the difficult part! For each book, I only have space for 17 animals. And for each book so far, the original list of animals I want to include has about 50 species on it. That’s a lot of cutting! I’ve heard fiction authors say they must kill their darlings, but nonfiction authors do as well, and in my case, I often feel guilty on behalf of the poor animals that don’t make the cut!   
When I begin the research for each book, I’ve already got a list in my head of animals that I want to include. Most of these animals were already on my radar previously, from various points in my life as a zoologist and general animal lover. When narrowing down, my aim is to ensure that there’s a great range of biodiversity, pulling from each vertebrate class of animals to start, then peppering in some invertebrate weirdoes as much as I can.

An animal gets cut if it’s too similar to another, and when given the choice of covering a familiar animal versus a more obscure one, I will always choose the obscure one! I also take each animal and create a list of the absolute coolest, most mind-blowing facts I can find. The final step of deciding who is included is taking a broad view of the material, and puzzling together a combination that allows me to balance the most awesome information, the most diversity in species, and the most variety in physical “coolness”. (For example, I’d love to do an entire book about moss animals, but that wouldn’t have the visual appeal needed for this series!)

All in all, it’s a very logical process, but I tend to handle it intuitively. Some animals demand to be included, no matter what arguments I can make to cut them! Others are quieter, but I know they will become favorites for readers if given the chance to shine.
In each of the books as well as this newest one, you extend the premise of the book by asking readers to think beyond the information included in the narrative.  This time you challenge us to ponder the definition of cute. You follow this with many questions for readers and even ask them to make a drawing. I have an idea why you do this Jess, but would you tell us in your own words, please.
Of course! Something funny happens when you start to ask people to look at patterns: the truth has a way of rising to the surface, and once it does, it’s hard to unsee! By looking at all the creatures in this book, most kids will no doubt have their favorites. (Sidenote: a great conversation will happen in classrooms if teachers try this, and notice what class of animals kids choose as the cutest!)

Pondering exactly what elements we find cute, or drawing our own, it becomes much easier to see our own patterns and preferences. Are the ‘cutest’ animals always mammals, for example? Are they creatures that we see as “human-like”, with large, expressive eyes or adorable smiles? If so, are we sending the message that something is more deserving of love or attention if it’s similar to us? What about those that are different from us?
Big questions, for sure. But exploring these biases in a non-threatening, low stakes way like a book about animals is one way to get the conversation going.
For me, personally, my respect and admiration for all animals is heightened with each one of your books but with this book, I am even more excited.  In this book there are two animals if I look with great care, I might find. How many of the animals in Cute As An Axolotl: Discovering the World’s Most Adorable Animals (or the other two titles) have you seen in the wild?

It’s so amazing to hear this! Honestly, when I think about just how amazing the natural world is, and how lucky we are to be a part of it, I get all choked up. I could spend my entire life trying to express the magnitude of awe I feel, and it would never be enough. I’ve seen my fair share of wild creatures out there, but many of them are nearly impossible to find without a lot of time and patience!

Some standouts from Cute as an Axolotl for me are fairy penguins, which I’ve spotted in New Zealand, and of course, our cover model, the axolotl! One creature that I would love to see but haven’t yet is the pangolin—they are such amazing creatures, I can’t wait to meet one in person!
Is there anything else you would like your readers to know, Jess, before we reveal the book trailer?

I hope readers enjoy this book as much as I did working on it! (And my favorite cute animal? I’ll never tell!) Thank  you again for having me, Margie!

On the count of three . . . one . . . two . . . three.

You are always welcome to visit Librarian's Quest, Jess.  It was informative and loads of fun to have you here today. (And I wish you were standing in front of me now.  I could just hug you for some of your answers.)  I know this book trailer is going to get readers excited about all the cuteness to be seen in the pages of this book.  As soon as Mulan heard the word puppies she was looking for them.  (She would never admit it but I think she was completely fascinated with the kittens.)

I hope readers will visit Jess's website by following the link attached to her name.  It's a treasure of information period but you can find out about her books, writing, and the videos she makes for us.  She has two channels, an author channel and a science channel.  She has a monthly magazine you can receive via email.  I look forward to it each month.  Jess is on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest. (Jess shares her artwork on Instagram.)


  1. That was a great trailer. I like that you are pushing readers to expand their views and definitions of cute. Looking forward to reading this with my niece and nephew.

    1. I am glad you enjoyed the trailer, Annie. Hopefully you will share the other two books in the series with your niece and nephew.