Bionic Beasts Author Interview with Jolene Gutiérrez

By Carol Hinz, editorial director of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books

I still recall how excited I was when I read Jolene Gutiérrez’s initial idea for the book Bionic Beasts. I don’t often see middle grade nonfiction that brings together engineering and biology in this way. Bionic Beasts highlights the innovation and problem-solving skills people around the globe are using to build prosthetic body parts for animals including a sea turtle, an elephant, and a goose. Jolene was kind enough to answer several questions about her book.

1. Where did you get the idea for this book? How did it evolve from your initial idea to how the book ultimately took shape?

My inspiration for Bionic Beasts: Saving Animal Lives with Artificial Flippers, Legs, and Beaks is a bit dark. I grew up on a farm where death was very much a reality for injured or smaller animals, and I’ve always rebelled against the idea that animals are disposable; that if they were going to take a little extra work, they weren’t worth our time. In elementary school, I remember reading about a horse who broke his legs and was saved because his owners created a sling that allowed his legs to heal. That story gave me so much hope. I love animals, and I love stories of compassion and innovation. Bionic Beasts allowed me to investigate stories that I would’ve loved to read when I was a child and share them with child readers (while hopefully encouraging some of those readers to grow up and become people who help animals, too)!

Jolene in spring 2020 with a baby squirrel she cared for and released back into the wild.

2. How do you think growing up on a farm shaped you as a writer?

Growing up on a farm allowed me to interact deeply with animals, plants, and the land around us. I learned the value of hard work, but because we were in a rural area, I also had large chunks of time when I needed to find ways to entertain myself. I spent time each day observing and interacting with animals, and I think that taught me to be patient and perceptive. During my free time, my main activities were reading, writing, drawing, and riding horses. I had so much “me” time, and I filled it by creating stories and interacting with literature. That was the perfect training for me to become a librarian and writer when I grew up!

Jolene as a child with a beloved cat.

3. What was the thing that most surprised you in the course of researching Bionic Beasts?

I was most surprised by how many prosthetic devices animals need, especially as they’re growing. Mosha the elephant needs a new prosthetic device about every 6 months as she grows. Many of the animals also received updated or modified devices because there were new scientific discoveries or the prostheses didn’t work as planned. As new innovations arise, the people who care for these animals are spending the time and money over and over again in order to make animals’ lives better.

4. You’re not only an author, you’re also a teacher-librarian! What other middle grade books would you recommend that educators pair with Bionic Beasts? And what other tips do you have for ways to engage kids with this book?

For animal-loving readers, I’d recommend any of Sandra Markle’s books, including The Great Monkey Rescue and The Great Leopard Rescue.

If kids are interested in the people behind the science, the STEM Trailblazer Bios books are a great fit, especially Animal Scientist and Activist Jane Goodall, Urban Biologist Danielle Lee, and Environmentalist Rachel Carson.

Books like Beauty and the Beak by Deborah Lee Rose, Unstoppable by Nancy Furstinger, Pumpkin’s Story or Nubby’s Story by Aubre Andrus, or The Elephant’s New Shoe by Laurel Neme will help children continue to learn about animals with limb differences being helped through technology.

To help kids engage with my book, I’d recommend they test out some of the activities found at the end of each chapter. They offer hands-on ways to explore and learn. I also created a Teacher’s Guide to the book on my website that provides multiple extension activities. 

Jolene with a giant tortoise.

5. Finally, how are you and your students doing this school year? What are some of the ways that you’ve found to connect kids with books during these challenging times?

Thank you for asking! The school that I teach at, Denver Academy, did a great job with distance learning last school year, but I’m so fortunate that we’re able to be teaching and learning in person the majority of the time. Denver Academy has had their “Big 5” policy in place since school started, so we focus on 1. Frequent hand washing/sanitizing, 2. Physical distancing, 3. Mask wearing, 4. Symptom screening, and 5. Creating a culture of keeping each other safe. This means that students take their own temperatures at home and then we take their temperatures before they come into the building, masks are required, hand washing and/or sanitizing is expected, and we all try to stay at least 6 feet apart. We also keep doors and windows open and hold class outside as much as possible. We’re grouped in cohorts and I’m a part of the Elementary and 6th grade cohorts. This means I don’t see my middle or high school students in person, but these cohort groups also mean that if someone gets sick, we can have just one cohort quarantine as opposed to the entire school. Our administration put so much thought and effort into us being able to safely open this school year and everyone in our community has been extremely supportive. 

My library lessons look very different this year. We made the difficult decision to close the library to students for now, so I bring the library and my lessons to their classrooms. Students place holds on library items through our online catalog and I deliver those holds daily in a big rolling cart. I also visit classrooms to teach lessons, work with students on writing, and read stories. Students aren’t browsing the shelves, but I did interest inventories at the beginning of the school year and have a feel for what they love. I’m also encouraging them to try new things.

In October, I held a virtual book fair and virtual talent show that our entire school participated in. I’m also making lots of video-based lessons and extension activities that teachers can share with their classes and that students and their families can refer back to. Time and time again, through both polls and actual usage, my students have told me and shown me that they prefer print books to ebooks. So while we’re together in person, I’m doing everything I can to put books in kids’ hands. We have a planned virtual learning time after Thanksgiving up to our winter break, so during that time, I’ll be meeting with classes virtually, continuing video lessons, and encouraging the use of ebooks and other digital resources. 

In closing: Jolene, thank you so much for taking the time share more with us about your background, your book, and your work. Good luck to you and your students in the months to come!

You can learn more about Jolene at her website, or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

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