From rattlesnakes and pack rats to tortoises and javelinas, no author has made Arizona’s fauna so enthralling for kids than Tempe’s Conrad J. Storad.
The author of picture and science books for young readers, Storad’s 2012 read, “Arizona Way Out West & Wacky,” co-authored with Lynda Exley, has been named One Book Arizona for Kids, a program by the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records to bring communities together through literature. Students will read the book this month as part of Arizona’s Centennial celebration.
The authors will give a free booksigning Saturday at Tempe Center for the Arts, where young fans can meet the man behind 1999’s “Don’t Call Me Pig! A Javelina Story” and 2010’s “Rattlesnake Rules.”
Later this year, Storad will release “Call Me Tuesday,” a true story about an Arizona alligator. He is also working on a desert Christmas story and a tale about arachnids.
Here Storad, retired editor for the nationally acclaimed ASU Research Magazine, shares how and why he makes non-fiction fun.
Q: Your books help young readers learn about and appreciate the natural world around them. Why has that become your focus, and why is that awareness of the environment important for a child?
A: The children are our future. That might sound hokey, but it’s true on so many levels. We have to get children hooked on learning and reading and teach them an appreciation for nature right now. We’ve only got this small blue planet to call home. If we can’t appreciate the natural world around us, the future may be bleak. Contributions from children could come much sooner than we think. I think that helping kids to hone their reading and communication skills is essential as well. If a child doesn’t know how to read and write well, he or she will be left behind. Modern society is based on information and communication. We need to know how to communicate clearly, concisely and quickly. We also need to know how to find information quickly and learn how to use it wisely. Kids need to learn these skills early. They also need to know that reading and writing well is an ongoing process. We should never stop trying to improve our communication skills. They are vital to living a happy, healthy life. Hopefully, a literate society will make wise choices, especially when it comes to the important questions related to preserving our wild lands, appreciating nature, and understanding the power of science.
Q: Where do you find inspiration for what to write about next, and how do you go about digging up the facts you want to share with kids?
A: All I have to do is look around. The ideas are everywhere. I tell young readers and writers that I don’t have to worry about ‘making up’ stories. The natural world is filled with amazing stories just waiting to be told. I dig up the facts and do the research for every new book just like I did for the thousands of articles that I wrote or edited for my first baby, ASU Research Magazine. I hit the library, and I hit it hard. I do reference searches via the Internet. I also interview scientists and other experts whenever possible.
Q: Some of the information you present has the potential to be really dry. What’s the trick to teaching kids in an entertaining way?
A: The real challenge is to incorporate the scientific facts into the stories as much as possible — without being boring! I want my books to be fun but factual. A good science writer should never have to resort to ‘dumbing down’ a topic. I hate that term. Good science writing is really just storytelling at a different level.
Many people might consider science writing/editing for adults and writing books for children to be vastly different pursuits. But I see lots of parallels. My true passion is for sharing information in a fun and interesting manner. The age of the reader does not really matter. The answer really depends on your definition of science writing or of children’s writing. I don’t do fairy tales or myths or legends. My work is all non-fiction. To do either type of writing well requires a knack for word choice and explanation.... I’ve had to learn how to use a limited vocabulary and simple sentence structure to describe complex ideas. The goal is often how best to “translate” abstract concepts for a normal, everyday person. For young readers, the work is often about how best to describe an interesting plant or creature in an entertaining manner that does not go way beyond the reader’s limited life experience. Done well, the best writing will always pique the reader’s curiosity to learn more, regardless of their age. Translating scientific and technical jargon into lay language can be difficult in itself.... The real challenge is how to explain and describe with easy to understand language and still make the story captivating and fun to read. Every new story or book brings with it new challenges. That’s why I always tell young students that my job is always fun. I never, ever get bored. Each new story or book project is a brand new challenge — and an opportunity to learn. I never want to stop learning!
Q: Can you share a few highlights from your latest book, “Arizona Way Out West & Wacky”? What will kids discover within its pages?
A: Well now, that would be giving away all the fun. As Arizona’s official state historian Marshall Trimble says, “Who says learning about Arizona can’t be bushels of fun?” Every page is packed with fun and wacky tidbits about biology, history, geology, geography, and much, much more. There are puzzles, games, coloring pages, recipes and craft projects as well. We say the book is for young readers from age 6 to 96, and beyond.
Q: Do you ever daydream about writing something different from this “Arizona & nature” specialty you’ve become known for? What would it be?
A: Kids always ask me if I will every try my hand at writing fiction. I’m having too much fun writing about the real world at the moment. If I do give it a try, it will probably be something in the science fiction genre. I was a science fiction junkie early on in my reading life. I loved the work of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Phillip Jose Farmer, Margaret Atwood and many others.
Q: What Arizona stories do you still want to tell?
A: There are plenty. I won’t have nearly enough time on my own. We still need a good story about the ringtail. Perhaps a funny quail story. Or maybe a scintillating adventure with a coati, condor, or a variety of reptiles and arachnids. Too many stories are out there waiting to be told. I need the help of lots of young authors to make them ready for readers.
Q: What are some of your favorite places in Arizona or around the Valley to take children — places where kids can experience in person some of the landscapes or other elements in your books?
A: I have plenty of ‘favorite’ Arizona places. Of course, backpacking deep into the Grand Canyon, the Superstition Wilderness or the Chiricahua Mountains is the very best way to experience wild Arizona. But you don’t have to work that hard. In the Valley, we always treat our young visitors to a hike on South Mountain or a visit to the Desert Botanical Garden. Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior is a fun daytrip. But one of the best places to experience Arizona’s plants and animals, without the weight of a backpack, is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson. A hike into Saguaro National Monument is a bit more work, but worth every drop of sweat.