Cover Reveal + Interview: Amphibian Acrobats with Leslie Bulion and Robert Meganck
It’s not like the old days when I used to do cover reveals. Not too long ago a reveal consisted of me briefly introducing the title and topic, showing the cover, and that was that. Betsy gets to go to bed early and all the world is well. But ooooooh, no. I had to go upsetting the applecart. These days, I’m not satisfied with just showing you a jacket. Oh, you’ll get your precious book jacket, don’t you worry, but I’ve set my sights higher. I’m going to make the authors and illustrators I reveal put in some work. You see, these days, I include interviews as well. And when it turns out that the interviewees are amusing people? Well that’s just the icing on the cake, now isn’t it?
Earlier this year in a 2019 poetry round-up I may have mentioned my affection for a fine feathered collection of poems called Superlative Birds. Penned by Leslie Bulion and illustrated by Robert Meganck, I had this to say on the matter:
“At first I was completely ready to dismiss this one as yet another poetry-filled-with-facts book (a.k.a. booooooring). And I do have some issues with the design and layout but not with the writing. It’s a cool selection of some birds I’ve never heard of (two words: iridescent blue eggs) and even includes our peregrine falcons in a poem. If nature were a competition, what bird would win for Longest Toes? Biggest nest? How about Most Gruesome Prey Collection? Poems and facts collide in this kicky look at the biggest and best.”
Not that this is the first pairing we’ve seen of Bulion and Meganck. If you’ll cast your mind back you may recall yet another book called Leaf Litter Critters. Now we have word that a third book is being added to the triumvirate. It is called Amphibian Acrobats and it is coming out March 1, 2020. Its creators were kind enough to join me today. And trust me, I am not softballing any of these questions.
Betsy Bird: Okay, let’s start with you, Leslie. Now I’m the kind of interviewer that goes in for the hard questions. I don’t beat around the bush, so you’re going to have to answer me this: Which amphibian is your favorite?
Leslie Bullion: Yes. Hardest question ever. Ok, I’ll try…I do love tree frogs’ sticky-pad fingers and charismatic poses, especially the cryptically-colored species with psychedelic starburst eyes. Our local Eastern gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor) in its subtle lichen palette fits this bill, and so does the starry-eyed montane tree frog (Ghatixalus asterops) from the “sky island” mountaintop ecosystems in India’s Western Ghats, and the tiny bubble nest frog I learned about today, (Graxicalus supercornutus), that sings like a bird in Vietnam’s evergreen mountain forests, has green blood, and turquoise bones—maybe that’s my favorite. But wait…there’s also that little leaf litter frog, Paedophryne amanuensis, from Papua New Guinea that could fit comfortably on my pinky fingernail, and our engaging red eft (the Eastern newt, Notophthalmus viridescens, in its terrestrial stage), or smiley blue-purple caecilians with protractible tentacles…gah! I can’t choose, can you? What’s your favorite?
BB: No fair turning the question on the interviewer. But, if I had to answer, I’d have to say the desert rain frog. Here, I’ll show you why:
LB: Here’s a much easier (and still not singular) answer: all of our amphibian acrobats as illustrated by Robert Meganck are my favorites! The sweet desert spadefoot peeking from its burrow, the fabulous, flipping Fiji frog, the joyful young Darwin’s frog, that small-mouthed salamander having a moment with the reader—all of Robert’s critters brim with humor and personality and have captured my heart. I cannot wait for readers to meet these fabulously fun amphibian friends.
BB: And now the even more difficult question (or maybe not). To your mind, why should we care about amphibians at all? I mean, they can be awful slimy. What’s their allure overall?
LB: You’ve raised the question that gets right to the heart of why Earth’s biodiversity matters, Betsy.
Amphibians have thin, permeable skin that often needs to stay moist, which may be where the “slimy” comes in. Each species thrives within a narrow range of temperature and moisture conditions, and none can easily relocate. This makes amphibians especially vulnerable when conditions change due to pollution, disease, habitat destruction, or climate change. A recent study warned that fully half of all amphibian species on Earth are at risk of extinction. Scientists are working hard to understand how the engine of species diversity runs and maintains the healthy soil, water, and air that support all life as we know it on our planet. Turns out, we’re all connected.
In addition to their inherent beauty and fascinating life styles, amphibians have important jobs to do for their ecosystems and their presence is an indicator of a healthy environment. Amphibians serve as food for predators such as birds, reptiles, and mammals. They eat pest species that impact human crops and health. Most amphibians have aquatic phases, so they transfer energy between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. If we lose amphibian providers of these ecosystem services, what will happen to the balance of interconnected processes that sustain all living species, including humans? I hope we can make better choices that protect our amphibian neighbors and our planet so we never find out!
BB: Selecting whom to include and whom to cut couldn’t have always have been easy. Surely there were some choices left on the cutting room floor. Who doesn’t appear in the book that you would have liked to have included?
LB: Choosing this cast of characters was indeed its own tricky balancing act. The proportion of poems in each amphibian order roughly parallels species abundance (i.e. LOTS of frogs). I wanted to include habitat and geographic variety, and to mix it up with familiar species and those farther afield. Each species highlights a particular attribute of amphibian life history or behavior such as locomotion, defense, metamorphosis, courtship, or parenting. On the other hand, selecting the single, representative caecilian was a simple matter of finding the most disgusting humorous and fascinating one.
Nearly one hundred critters from my preliminary “long-list” hopped and crawled to the cutting room floor: the mutable rain frog (Pristimantis mutabilis) that changes texture from smooth to spiny for camouflage; the giant-mouthed “Pac-man” aka Bell’s horned frog (Ceratophrys ornata) that yanks in and swallows huge prey whole with its sticky-strong tongue; waxy monkey frogs (Phyllomedusa sp.) that climb trees hand over hand; the Australian rocket frog (Litoria nasuta) that can jump 100 times its own length; aquatic salamanders with reduced limbs such as sirens, amphiumas, or the blind, cave-dwelling European olm (Proteus anguinus) that has super sensing abilities and lives as long as our own elders…on and on! Herpetologists discover appealing new contenders all the time, which was helpful/not helpful.
BB: Finally, what are you working on next?
LB: Next up for 2021 is some spider fun. In Spi-ku, each facet of spider life such as silk, webs, who-eats-who and how, etc. is presented with three short poems describing how three different species meet that particular challenge. One challenge for me continues to be my own spider fieldwork. I find spiders beautiful, surprising, and tricky to identify! I look forward to the comments when I start sharing more of my field photos online since spiders are so universally adored.
BB: Thank you, Leslie! Any interview that allows me to pull up cool photos of strange frogs makes me inordinately happy. Okay, Robert. Your turn.
The question I have for you is, how do you draw the line between accuracy and humor? Your art seems to know how to bring a critter, be it a bird or creepy crawly, to life in such a way that the animal is cartoony without being cartoonish. Where do you draw the line? How anthropomorphized do you allow yourself to get?
Robert Meganck: I basically work with Leslie’s text. While the notes section on each spread contains scientific information, the poems themselves are frequently humorous, so I try to repeat what the author has already done. For the most part, I try to keep the individual characters fairly proportional and scientific accurate although simplified. The only real liberty I take is with the critter’s expressions, which is seen primarily through their eyes. I give myself more freedom with the supportive characters, like the snake on the “Olympic Jumper” spread, or the fox on the “Deep Freeze Artist” spread. Although they are not the focus of the poem, they often provide much of the comic relief—like all good supporting actors.
BB: I asked Leslie this, so I can ask you as well: What was your favorite amphibian in this book? Or, rather, your favorite to draw?
RM: This is such a tough question, because I see the book as a single project. However, if I must, I’m really happy with the Pebble toad spread. I watched a video of the way these little guys use gravity to escape predators, and I think I did a good job depicting this in a single static image.
BB: Do you get any input on which creatures get included in these books?
RM: No. I’m very happy with the process. I do have a lot of input on the layout. I work very closely with our art director to determine which poems can be treated as double page spreads and which illustration should be limited to single pages, as well as the text and notes placement, etc.
BB: What are you working on next?
RM: In addition to some other projects, I’m now writing a book myself and I’m very excited about this new venture.
Thank you, Robert and once again thank you, Leslie, for your patience in answering my questions. Thanks too to the folks at Peachtree for this reveal.
And now, last but not least . . . . the cover . . .
About Betsy Bird
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