Research and the Magic of Reality

This guest post comes courtesy of the fabulous Rebecca L. Johnson.

Kids often ask me where I get ideas for my nonfiction, science-focused books, such as my new title with Millbrook Press, Masters of Disguise: Amazing Animal Tricksters. The simple answer is that I read—a lot. Science journal articles, science blogs and magazines, science digests online. And rarely does a day go by that I don’t come across a reference to some new discovery that is so marvelous, so unexpected, and so delightfully “cool” that it cries out to be shared with young readers.

Masters of Disguise got its start when I read an article about Acanthaspis petax, an assassin bug that catches ants, sucks out their liquefied insides, and then stacks the carcasses on its back to create a unique form of camouflage: a backpack of dead ants that almost completely obscures the bug’s body. The disguise fools ants into thinking the bug is a pebble or lump of dirt. Ants that wander within striking distance are dispatched with frightening speed, and their remains added to the bug’s
camouflaging cloak. How could I not write about something like that!?


Equally exciting and rewarding to me as a writer is interacting with the scientist or scientists who have made such discoveries and hearing firsthand about their research. In the case of the A. petax, I communicated with two New Zealand scientists, Robert Jackson and Simon Pollard, both from the University of Canterbury, about their studies with this splendid little bug. They related wonderful stories about their experiments with A. petax and jumping spiders, experiments that showed the bug’s “coat of many corpses” serves as protective camouflage against predators as well.

I love crafting books that introduce young people to living things with unique adaptations. But I get just as much delight in introducing my readers to the scientists behind those stories, the men and women whose unquenchable curiosity brings new wonders to light all the time. We call it “nonfiction,” but to me it’s the “magic of reality.”