What no one tells them is the very qualities others find to be lacking are strengths. These traits will keep them resilient in the face of future adversity. Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs (Peachtree Publishers, September 1, 2018) written by Melissa Stewart with illustrations by Stephanie Laberis is a book championing characteristics regularly undervalued.
Everyone loves elephants. They're so big and strong.
Everyone respects cheetahs. They're so fast and fierce.
But this book isn't about animals we admire.
This book is singing the praises of another kind of animal. This book has us cheering for the Etruscan pygmy shrew and Amau frog. They are tiny, pinkie-fingernail tiny. How does this size help them? They can hide where their enemies cannot go. The Galapagos tortoise has no need for speed. Do you know why?
Stepping in a cow pie (manure) once is more than enough. It's as if the smell is stuck to your nose hairs for days. There are actually two animals that smell worse. Yes, this is true. These two odoriferous creatures cause predators to become ill or run away lickety-split.
Being shy is a silent way to blend into the surrounding flora. Ask the okapi how this helps. Sometimes we think of sleepyheads as having a lack of incentive but in reality these animals are storing up energy. A little bit of food goes a long way with them.
Being clumsy is not necessarily a disadvantage, speed can cause a fall but it does produce a feast more often. Go western fence lizard, go. The blubber found on walruses, seals and sea lions is not an anti-beauty statement but a protective key to survival. Finally the attributes of an underground critter definitely rank them low on the cuddly scale but they are a marvel of adaptation. In the words of the author
As a meticulous researcher Melissa Stewart brings a respected authenticity to everything she writes. In this title her easy conversational style replete with captivating facts and the use of alliteration generates a desire in the reader to keep turning the pages . . . as quickly as possible. As humans we find ourselves amazed by these animals' unique traits and seeing singular characteristics at the same time in us. We identify with these underdogs. Melissa also asks readers questions which welcome us as participants in this title. Here is a passage.
In winter, a walrus's thick layer of fat can weigh more than 400 pounds. Seals and sea lions fatten up too. What a bunch of blubbery blobs! Think these plump lumps should go on a diet?
You can't help but smile when looking at the opened and matching dust jacket and book case for this title. Surely humor resonates from the animals' body postures and facial expressions. There is a funky smell in the air as depicted by the green swirls.
To the left, on the back, the same animals are shown in their same positions but from the back. The little bat is there too. What is different is the ISBN. In a brilliant design moment two naked mole rats are carrying the bars to and from the barcode. I love this! The opening and closing endpapers are colored in a dark teal to match the color of the title text. Several of the same creatures are featured on the title page, much smaller and positioned differently.
Rendered in Adobe Photoshop these illustrations by Stephanie Laberis are realistic but also portray her own special brand of animation and humor. Many of the critters are displayed in their habitats but for emphasis they are sometimes taken out of that realm and put in our world. Stephanie does not gloss over the very true-to-life battle for survival. The Etruscan pygmy shrew and Amau hiding from a bird and snake respectively are frightening situations for them. When she represents the effect of the hoatzin and zorilla, I know readers will laugh out loud.
Her images spread across two pages, single pages, and may be grouped together as smaller insets. One of my many favorite illustrations is the double-page picture of the walruses. The background is a blend of blue-gray rounded clouds. Snow rests on the icy landscape and on the walruses. On the left one walrus nearly fills the page, looking directly at the reader. His expression is priceless. To his right, across the gutter and on the right side a group of walruses are huddled together on the edge of the ice. Water is placed in the lower, right-hand corner.
There is much to appreciate and enjoy about Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs written by Melissa Stewart with illustrations by Stephanie Laberis. Readers will come to view the parallels between the lives of these creatures and the bullying seen in human situations. At the close of the book two pages are dedicated to more information about the animals in this book along with thumbnails images. Selected sources and important dedications by the author and illustrator appear on the final page. I highly recommend this book for your personal and professional collections.
To learn more about Melissa Stewart and Stephanie Laberis and their other work, please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites. Melissa also has a blog. Both Melissa and Stephanie maintain accounts on Twitter. Stephanie has an Instagram account. At the publisher's website are a teacher's guide, a reader's theater and animals stats and a map. At educator Alyson Beecher's blog, Kid Lit Frenzy, the cover was revealed. Melissa wrote a guest post about expository literature at School Library Journal and new sources for teaching nonfiction at the Nerdy Book Club. Melissa is interviewed at For the Love of KidLit. The book trailer was premiered at Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries, John Schumacher's blog, Watch. Connect. Read.
As part of the blog tour both Melissa Stewart and Stephanie Laberis are answering a few questions. And here they are!
Thank you Melissa for graciously agreeing to answer a couple of questions about your latest title, Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs. I view all your writing with great respect and your dedication to science and nonfiction is wonderful for all of us.
After I read this book, in addition to the animals it features, I started to think how humans, children and students, could benefit from this way of viewing themselves. Then I went to the back of the book and saw your dedication.
For any child who is being bullied right now---
what others see as a weakness may actually be your strength.
Don’t give up.
Was this the initial reason for writing this book? Was there a specific incident which sparked the writing of this book?
Throughout the 2018-2019 school year, the Monday posts on my blog, Celebrate Science, will be entitled “Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep,” and each week, a different highly regarded nonfiction author will contribute. You can look forward to posts from Barb Rosenstock, Sarah Albee, Candace Fleming, and many, many more. Thirty-three in all. I was gobsmacked by the generosity of my colleagues and their enthusiasm for this project.
You see, writing nonfiction isn’t just cobbling together a bunch of facts. Every book we write contains a little piece of us. The topics we choose and the approaches we take, are strongly influenced by who we are as people—our personalities, our beliefs, our experiences in the world.
One of the experiences I endured as a child was bullying. From fourth grade to eighth grade it was a constant part of my life, and, in some ways, it shaped the person I am today. For example, it made me resilient enough to keep writing despite receiving about a zillion rejections from editors in the last 20 years. Okay, maybe not quite a zillion. But, trust me, it’s a big number.
Who knows . . . if I hadn’t been bullied, maybe I wouldn’t be writing today. I might have given up a long time ago.
When I decided to start researching animal superlatives (biggest, strongest, fastest) a few years ago, I found myself connecting with the anti-superlative animals (smallest, slowest, shyest, clumsiest,—even stinky-est). One morning, I woke up with the beginning of the book in my head, and I knew I was on to something.
Writing this book meant revisiting a painful part of my past, but it has already also allowed me to connect with educators who have previewed it in truly special ways. All my books are about
science ideas that I’m passionate about, but this book is also about offering hope to kids who really need it.
Why did you focus on these eight special characteristics? How did you choose the animals to represent these characteristics?
I’m so glad you asked this question, Margie, because it gives me a chance to geek out about nonfiction text structure—one of my favorite topics.
Like many of my books (and STEM-themed nonfiction picture books by other writers),
Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs is a concept book with a compare and contrast text structure. There is a main idea—surprising adaptations (body features and/or behaviors) can help animals survive—and then lots of examples. Some people call this a list book, and fact-loving kids adore them.
It might seem like the order of the animals in the book is random, but it’s not. And one day, when I’m in the middle of a school visit program, a child who hardly ever seems engaged in school will shock teachers by suddenly raising his/her hand and excitedly pointing out the pattern to me—a pattern that most other people never notice.
That’s the child I write for because he or she is an analytical thinker, a budding scientist or engineer who needs all the encouragement I can possibly provide. Info-kids don’t connect to narratives the way many teachers think they should, but they love expository literature.
So what’s the pattern in Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers? Actually, it’s multi-layered.
As you mentioned, there are eight characteristics featured in the book.
First layer: The number of pages devoted to each one alternates. Two spreads, one spread, two spreads, one spread, etc.
Second layer: The first four characteristics focus on adaptations that help animals stay safe, while the second four characteristics highlight adaptations for getting food or conserving energy, so less food is needed.
Here’s the chart I made to keep myself on track as I was revising.
In some ways, the structure grew out of the animal examples I had to choose from, but in other ways, the structure determined the animals I selected. There was a lot of back and forth to create a book that includes great examples AND has a great pattern. It’s important to have both because even if readers don’t recognize the pattern, they feel it. It affects the pacing and the page turns, so it’s critical to the experience of reading the book.
Thank you Melissa!
I am so happy to have you here today Stephanie. I thank you for taking time away from your work to chat with us.
Thank you so much! It’s a pleasure & an honor to speak with you!
When you plan for creating images for a title how does your process begin before you go to Adobe Photoshop? Do you design a layout? Do you complete sketches? Do you do research first?
I always start with photo reference. No matter how stylized my work will be, I make sure that I have lots of photo reference to work from. You have to know the rules to be able to break them, as they say, and the better an understanding I have of an animal’s anatomy, the better decisions I can make about which forms to exaggerate for the sake of expression, while keeping these distortions believable. Sometimes I will read articles about a particular animal to better understand their habitat, what critters might coexist with them, or to learn some interesting habits they might have. It helps to create a more compelling illustration & to build off of the author’s text.
After I have my reference, I do very rough thumbnails, keeping things loose. This is how I figure out compositions & solve the bigger problems in layout. After that, I do a rough layout in Photoshop, using the page template of the book to figure out text layout & to make sure nothing important is lost in the gutter.
After the roughs are approved, I work directly from the rough file in Photoshop to bring the spread to full color. It makes my workflow much more smooth & fast to work this way.
If someone looks at the body of your work in children’s literature, it appears you enjoy illustrating animals more than any other subject? Why is this?
It’s true, I love drawing animals! I think there a couple of reasons for this, the simplest one being that I don’t enjoy drawing humans as much as animals, haha! Beyond that, I was always into animals, even as a kid. I had a variety of pets growing up, such as dogs, gerbils, anoles, fish & rats, & I was always very interested in nature documentaries (and still am!) I even considered pursuing a career in biology or veterinary sciences at one point. I feel as though I have hit a good balance at this point with my artwork, in that I can still be immersed in the animal world, even focusing on more scientific elements, while being expressive & creative at the same time.
And if I can sneak in one more question . . . there is a good deal of humor in your illustrations for this book. Why?
Thank you Stephanie!