Charming children with science

Claire Eamer brought a giant sloth into Baked last week. "I'm fascinated by these Beringia animals," says the local children's author.

Claire Eamer brought a giant sloth into Baked last week.

“I’m fascinated by these Beringia animals,” says the local children’s author.

She is supposed to be here to discuss her books, which have won numerous awards and just made the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s 2010 Best Books for Kids and Teens list.

But all Eamer wants to talk about are critters.

And she knows how to conjure them.

“Kids need concrete comparisons,” says Eamer.

“You can tell an adult the sloth is six-metres long and they’ll think they know what that means – they don’t, but they think they do.

“But with kids you need to say it’s as long as a school bus, or as big as a pickup.”

The fat, furry body of the Jefferson’s ground sloth would have stretched the length of this coffee shop, she says.

“And its curved claws are the size of bread knives.”

But don’t worry, the giant sloth is a herbivore.

Its claws are for pulling trees over – not killing, she says.

Then Eamer hesitates.

“Well, they might have started killing when food became scarce ….”

Animated, eyes sparkling, Eamer could talk sloths all day.

“That’s the big advantage of writing for children,” she says.

“You don’t have to be restrained and dignified. You can be just as enthusiastic as you want.”

Then, she’s on to flying snakes.

The focus of her next book, which also explores the science behind creatures, is adaptation.

The snakes flatten out their bodies by opening up their ribs, she says.

“So they can glide.”

The longest recorded snake flight is 70 metres. (That’s the length of six school buses parked in a row.)

But that doesn’t mean they haven’t flown further than that, she says.

Eamer really wanted a flying snake on the cover of her most recent book, but the publishers couldn’t find a good photo.

So she settled for a flying lizard instead.

Passionate about all the creepy crawlers, Eamer is especially fond of worms.

“Gorgeous and awesome worms – I love worms,” she says.

“So now you see why I write for kids, because you can’t go to adults and say, ‘I really like worms, you want to hear about worms?’ Most of them will say, ‘No.’

“But you say that to an eight-year-old and he will say, ‘Yeah, let’s hear about worms!’”

It took Eamer a while to find her niche.

Before moving to the Yukon, Eamer worked as a freelance journalist in the Prairies. She was writing for the Western Producer, and in keeping with that rural bent, her first book was about the subculture and history of Canadian rodeo.

“It was fun, but not profitable,” she says.

Then, she started writing fiction and sold a few short stories.

“I really like kids literature and it just came out that way,” says Eamer.

But a foray into comic fantasy didn’t pan out.

Eamer’s publisher turned down the proposal but countered with an offer – would Eamer be interested in writing non-fiction for kids?

At the time, she was already writing science pieces for government and NGOs.

“I was turning science-based information into something people can understand,” she says.

“It has to be really comprehensible for everybody in the community. So it’s not a huge step from that to writing something coherent for kids.”

Eamer’s first attempt, Super Crocs and Monster Wings: Modern Animals’ Ancient Past, followed the evolution of creatures from giant dragonflies the size of eagles to capybaras and glyptodonts.

And the book is full of big, scientific names like, Ordovician, coprolites and Holocene.

“I don’t simplify much,” says Eamer.

And her young readers love it.

“If they’re interested they’ll go for it,” she says.

“I’ve had kids as young as five using it as their bedtime reading.”

But even with her growing fan base, Eamer can’t survive on kids’ books alone.

Kids’ publishing is not something you get rich at, she says.

“People are cheap when it comes to kids books,” says Eamer, turning over her copy of Super Crocs and Monster Wings.

The price on the back is $9.95.

An adult version of the same book, complete with the glossy pictures and professional layout would be twice that, says Eamer.

“But there’s only so much people are willing to spend on a kid’s book.”

The only reason children’s books are still going to press are because children’s publishers are dedicated to their copy and keep it going on the slimmest of margins, she says.

But cuts to library funding across the US and in Canada have put children’s publishers on knife edge, adds Eamer.

Luckily, e-books are not much of a threat in this industry.

Eamer has seen dog-eared copies of her books that still hold traces of the most recent mud puddle they’ve visited with their young charge.

“You can’t really snuggle up in the bath with a Kindle,” she says.

“Or drop it in a mud puddle.”

Like her publisher, Eamer is in the business because she loves it – especially the research.

“I read a lot of academic journals,” she says. “And I do lots of e-mailing back and forth with scientists.”

Recently, Eamer was trying to figure out how sea scorpions are related to spiders.

The linkages still aren’t clear, she says.

And two of the world experts on scorpions and sea scorpions helped Eamer hash out the wording for her children’s book through a series of e-mails.

“The experts are enormously helpful because this is their passion,” she adds.

“I mean you spend your life studying extinct sea scorpions – not many people come up to you and say, ‘I’m so fascinated by this, I want to learn all about it. And not only that, but I want to tell kids all about it’- they’re just thrilled.”

Eamer’s next book is about food.

“Did you know that tomatoes came from bitter little berries in the Andes,” she says.

“It was the Inca that developed them, and taught the Spaniards how to make sauce ….”

And she’s off.

Turns out the Italians learned about tomato sauce from the Spaniards, thanks to the Incas.

Children pick up on this passion and Eamer has won popularity awards in BC and Alberta, where kids voted for their favourite authors.

She also won the Science and Society Youth Book Award in 2008. And Super Crocs’ has a star on the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s 2010 Best Books for Kids and Teens list.

“That means it’s a good bet,” she says.

Eamer’s still dreaming of writing kids’ fiction.

But for now, between the government writing contracts, the research and her newest children’s book, it’s hard to find the time.

Especially when more ideas for science books just keep coming.

“I’m curious – I have lots of questions,” she says.

“And you can turn any question into an article or book.

“I’ve been doing that for a long, long time now.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at