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Monday, May 26, 2014




Who Inspired Tween Me - Guest Post May 26th
Can you remember being twelve and a half? Not 12, because that was obviously "little kid stuff". But twelve and a half. Because that little half makes a world of difference. That half means you're almost a teenager now!
In my debut book, that's exactly how old Ana, my main character, is. She's goofy. She's smart. She lives in a zoo. And she's standing in front of the biggest challenge of her lifeBeing twelve and a half is no picnic.
Looking back, there were two things that I was obsessed with as a tween. I loved animals—I even decorated my room like a rainforest, complete with little plastic reptiles and spiders that I stuck to the wall. I would have loved to live in a zoo like Ana, even if I was stuck next to the smelly hippos like she was.
And I loved books. I started my own library in my room, by sticking little pockets and catalogue cards in all of my books. Because of these obsessions, instead of idolizing celebrities (or soccer stars, like my sports-loving brother), I looked up to people who worked with animals, and theauthors who wrote the books that gave me secret doorways into other worlds.
So who did twelve and a half year old me look up to? Beatrix Potter is a name that keeps coming up when I talk about HOW TO OUTRUN A CROCODILE. See, Beatrix was the best of both worlds. She was an incredible writer and artist, but she also was a fierce conservationist and animal enthusiastBeatrix was a meticulous scientific artist, and she would even travel to museums in order to examine insects up close so she could draw them just right! She would use the money earned from her books to buy up land around her, protecting the landscape for years to come. Savvy readers will notice a certain Beatrix in my own book, and that's no accident! It was the least I could do for the lady who showed me it was possible to keep both loves in my life: zoology and writing. And now to no one's surprise (except maybe my own!), I've written a book about a little girl who is surrounded by animals every day.
Another huge inspiration to twelve and a half year old me was Jane Goodall. I devoured her written adventures of Africa, imagining myself researching chimpanzees in Gombe and marveling at how brave she was to set off on such a journey by herselfWhat did the dark African nights sound like, I wondered? Jane embodies the idea of fierce spirit to me, and although Ana struggles to be brave (like any twelve and a half year old!), she shares that deep need to express herself through the animals she loves. Bravery seems to be something we learn in tiny moments, and I think Jane would love to know she inspired this writer to be her bravest self, too.
Looking back on both of these women and how they've shaped my life, it makes me realize just how important the stories we tell are—connecting us despite huge barriers. With books, we're allowed into the minds of others and you never know the effect that will have on your future stories. At its heart, HOW TO OUTRUN A CROCODILE WHEN YOUR SHOES ARE UNTIED is a funny story and a coming-of-age story, but mostly a story about embracing your true self, no matter how strange you feel you are. I think both Beatrix and Jane would agree, your true self is all that matters.
Even if you live next to the hippos.
About the book:
What would middle school be like if you lived in a zoo?
Ana didn't ask to be named after an anaconda. She didn't ask for zoologist parents who look like safari guides. And she definitely didn't ask for a twin brother whose life goal seems to be terrorizing her with his pet reptiles. Now, to make matters worse, her parents have decided to move the whole family INTO the zoo! All of which gives the Sneerers (the clan of carnivorous female predators in her class) more ammunition to make her life miserable-and squash any hope of class tennis stud, Zack, falling in love with her. Ana tries to channel her inner chameleon and fade into the background, but things are changing too quickly for her to keep up.

About Jess Keating:
As a zoologist turned middle grade and picture book author, Jess Keating has been sprayed by skunks, bitten by crocodiles, and been a victim to the dreaded paper cut. Her debut How To Outrun A Crocodile When Your Shoes Are Untied is coming in Summer 2014 from Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, with a sequel to follow. Her nonfiction picture book, PINK IS FOR BLOBFISH, will be published by Knopf in 2016. 
She has a Masters degree in Animal Science and a growing collection of books that are threatening to take over her house. She lives in Ontario, Canada, where she loves hiking, watching nerdy documentaries, and writing books for adventurous and funny kids. 
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Photo Attribution: Beatrix Potter [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I might as well call this a very well-tuned "coming of age" story, because this little girl does some tremendous maturing between first chapters and last, and I for one am very proud of her advances. Familial situations out of the "routine" occur in all sorts of stripes and patterns. In the case of our middle-school protagonist,  her parents are zookeepers, her brother is.a confirmed opidiophile, and her name "Ana" is really "Anaconda."

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