When I was six, I was a horse. On sneakered feet, I would canter around backyards and vacant lots in the Florida suburbs where I lived, snorting and whinnying as I imagined wild horses might do. At six, I’d never seen a wild horse, or ridden a tame one, but I was a reader. Reading every horse book I could get my hands on had taught me a lot about what it was to move through the world like a horse.
Years later, I stood on the edge of a winter-chilly salt marsh on Assateague Island, not far from the setting of one of my favorite childhood books, Misty of Chincoteague. By then I’d grown up, graduated from college, married and had two kids. In addition to dogs and cats, too, I had a pony and horse who lived in our snug barn and ate hay all winter.
That day I scanned the horizon, hoping to spot a descendant of Misty, but the island seemed all but deserted. Finally, I saw a solitary chestnut, far in the distance. I wondered how a little horse owned by no one could possibly find enough food and shelter to survive the coming winter, and I promised myself I’d write about the wild ponies one day to find out. Eventually I did: Wild Horse Scientists was published in 2012. It was not at all the book I thought I’d write all those years earlier.
I was never a fan of science in school. Back then it seemed intimidating, in the same way that history was often dusty and dry, and math was confusing. It wasn’t until I started researching and writing books that I discovered I actually love science and history. (Okay, maybe not math!) In my books, I tell true stories about animals, people, and the natural world, weaving together facts (science and history!) with imagination. Wild Horse Scientists, for example, is told through the eyes of a scientist trying to solve the big problem of unsustainable population growth of wild horses, but it’s also a window into the inner lives of those horses.
When I wrote Chocolate: Sweet Science and Dark Secrets of the World’s Favorite Treat, I set myself what seemed a harder challenge than being a horse; I tried to imagine what it might be like to be a tree. In particular, a small, spindly tree—the cacao— that grows in only a few places on earth. Sprouting from its trunk hang clusters of a large, colorful fruit that everyone wants and needs, because everyone wants to eat chocolate! To tell its story, I needed to know where this tree came from, how it grows, how those beautiful football-shaped fruits could be transformed into chocolate, and who in the world managed to figure that out, anyway?
When I wrote A Dog in the Cave: The Wolves Who Made Us Human, I tried to see the world through the eyes of both early humans and certain wolves who formed an unlikely alliance many thousands of years ago, before there were books, or even written languages, to tell about it. How did this happen, why did it happen, and what can the evolving science and history of dogs teach us about our furry best friends today, and about ourselves? Once we were just one relatively puny, but brainy, animal among many. We weren’t even the top dog on the planet—wolves were. Cooperation with them became a winning strategy for both early humans and the wolves who became our first dogs.
Since our ancestors migrated out of Africa 90,000 years ago and began spreading across the planet, we’ve achieved amazing things. But many other species have been lost forever, and more are threatened with extinction. Fifty percent of the planet’s land mass has been transformed for human use, and 50 percent of its fresh water. Human-caused climate change threatens polar bears, yes, but also wild horses, wolves, cacao trees—and humans. Scientists agree these are solvable problems, but it will take awareness and a cooperative effort by humans to solve them.
Sometimes seeing the world through the eyes of people and animals different from ourselves can make all the difference.
Kay Frydenborg is the award-winning author of several titles for young readers. Her book Wild Horse Scientists was a finalist for the 2014 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books in the Middle School Science Book category. And Chocolate was selected as an A4ED Eco-Book of the Month. Learn more about Kay at www.kayfrydenborg.com.