Taking Readers on a Science Adventure: Narrative Nonfiction

Today we explore Narrative Nonfiction with Kate Messner, author of Tracking Pythons: The Quest to Catch an Invasive Predator and Save an Ecosystem. This engaging middle-grade nonfiction takes a deep dive into the science of pythons and their role as invasive predators. Keep reading to learn more about how Kate began her adventure in the Florida wetlands, and about Narrative Nonfiction and the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction.

A few years ago, when I was visiting my parents in Southwest Florida, I joined my dad at the breakfast table one morning and picked up the newspaper to see a photo of scientists with their arms full of giant Burmese pythons.

I poured my coffee, claimed that section of the paper, and settled in to read about the fascinating research that the Conservancy of Southwest Florida team was doing in the swamps and brushlands that surrounded my parents’ home. By the time I’d finished breakfast, I knew this would make an amazing book for kids. But with a flight back to New York in just a few days, I was dealing with a bit of a time crunch. I knew my research would probably have to wait, but I picked up the phone anyway and called the head of the research team, Ian Bartoszek. Was there any chance he might have time to talk with me that week?

Ian Bartoszek, environmental science python project manager, captures a python in Southwestern Florida
Photo by Conservancy of Southwest Florida

“Sure!” Bartoszek said. “It’s a busy week, but we’re doing a python necropsy tomorrow if you want to come by the lab and watch.”

Did I want to watch a python necropsy? Of course I did! The next afternoon in the lab, I watched as the research team conducted a post-death examination of an enormous female python they’d removed from the wild. While they scientists made scalpel incisions and recorded data, I asked questions about their work and took notes. I left that day with an invitation to join them in the field the following season, when they set out to track a new group of pythons.

Their process is fascinating. The scientists use radio-tagged male pythons to track female pythons and find nests, so that eggs can be removed from the ecosystem before they hatch and make the invasive python problem even worse. The pythons have already spread to the point where eradicating them completely is no longer an option; the goal now is to control their spread and try to keep them from eating their way through too much more of Florida’s native wildlife.

Katie King, a Conservancy intern, holds up a Burmese python
Photo by Conservancy of Southwest Florida

I returned to Southwest Florida three more times over the next two years, slogging through wetlands and pushing through brush with the scientists as we followed their beeping receivers to chase down the radio-tagged snakes. I joined the team in the veterinarian’s office for snake surgery on the day a doctor implanted transmitters in two more males and then tagged along as they released the snakes to slither back into the forest. Before another tracking mission began, I rode along in the back seat of a tiny plane making a telemetry flight over the swamps to determine the location of their tagged snakes.

All this time, the goal was to create a book that brings kids along on that adventure, too. That meant collecting not just facts in my writer’s notebook but sensory details – the hum of mosquitoes in our ears, the sucking squish of mud around our boots, and the feel of a racing heart when we waded into a small pond, knowing a python was lurking somewhere in the mud around our boots.

The end result was Tracking Pythons: The Quest to Catch an Invasive Predator and Save an Ecosystem. I’ve loved hearing from readers who read this book and are making it their mission now to have science adventures of their own.

Narrative Nonfiction is a category of Melissa Stewart’s Five Kinds of Nonfiction. This post is part of a weekly series of guest articles by nonfiction authors about their craft, their process, and their amazing books. Stay tuned each week to learn more by visiting the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction page for poster and flyer downloads, curated booklists and more. You can also follow the Lerner Blog’s 5 Kinds of Nonfiction series, or the hashtag #5KNF on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

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