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Scientists' Nightstand: Steve Jenkins

Steve Jenkins has written and illustrated nearly 20 picture books for young readers, including the Caldecott Honor-winning What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), with Robin Page. Among his other books are Actual Size (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), an exploration of relative size in the animal world; Next Stop Neptune: Experiencing the Solar System (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), with his father, astronomer Alvin Jenkins; and most recently, Living Color (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), about coloration in the animal world. With captivating illustrations and lively text, Jenkins's books help children to explore science and nature.

 Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Steve JenkinsClick to Enlarge ImageThroughout my childhood, I planned to be a scientist. I raised spiders, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals. I collected rocks and fossils and played with microscopes and chemistry sets. I somehow ended up going to art school, however, and have worked for the past 30 years as a graphic designer and illustrator. When my first two children were born about 20 years ago, I became interested in creating children's books. I was drawn to nonfiction, specifically books about the natural world. I spend about half my working time making children's books, many of them collaborations with my wife and partner, Robin Page.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

I read mostly nonfiction, with the occasional novel thrown in for R&R. I also start a lot of books that I don't finish. I used to feel guilty about this, but I realize that if a book is worth my time, I eventually get around to finishing it.

Right now I'm reading Peter Watson's Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud (HarperCollins, 2005). It's brilliant and engaging, but so dense (in content, not style) that I have to read it in installments. Also, The Architecture of Happiness, by Alain de Botton (Pantheon, 2006). It's a look at how the spaces in which we live and work evolved and how they affect us. The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty (Harcourt, 1998) is a collection of essays on mathematics by K. C. Cole. It's entertaining and easy to digest. I just started Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (Viking, 2007), about language and consciousness. I'm rereading Richard Dawkins's Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), a lucid and coolly passionate argument for a scientific worldview. I'm also rereading J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy aloud to my nine-year-old son and greatly enjoying it. The other most recent fiction I've read is Cormac McCarthy's The Road (Knopf, 2006)—powerful and beautiful, but a book that made me happy to get back to nonfiction.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

Either at night before falling asleep or, if it's research for a book I'm writing, anytime during the day. Airports and airplanes are also great places to read.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

Fiction (lately): John le Carré, Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy. I guess I like somewhat dark writers—or, in the case of Ford, writers with whose neuroses I identify. Nonfiction: Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, John McPhee, Stephen Jay Gould. These writers all have a palpable passion for science, a gift for writing clearly and simply, and real respect for their readers.

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

This is a tricky one. "Best" has meant different things at different points of my life. The fact is, the books that moved me the most—the definition I'll assume for "best"—were read in my childhood or teens. So: All About Strange Beasts of the Past by Roy Chapman Andrews, illustrated by Matthew Kalmenoff (1956); Hiroshima, by John Hersey (1946); and William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929). I'm sure Andrews's prose would make me wince now, but as a child I was completely absorbed by his account of searching for fossils in Mongolia. Hersey gave me a profoundly different perspective on war, which was still mythologized in America in that pre-Vietnam era. And Faulkner blew my mind, using language to show me the world through the eyes of someone very, very different.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's On Growth and Form (1917). I discovered it in college, and reading it was like pulling back a veil covering the natural world and seeing the beauty, order and logic beneath.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

Right now this seems like a "what would you do if you won the lottery" sort of question. I'd like to reread some of the authors (more than three, for sure) whom I read many years ago and sort of crossed off my list—Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner. I'm sure that 30 or 40 years of living will have given me a completely different perspective on their work.

What books would you recommend to young readers?

I certainly wouldn't discourage children from reading nonfiction (or anything else, excepting pornography and Bill O'Reilly)—but I think science fiction is an underappreciated way to nurture a child's interest in science. Based on my own reading, much of it aloud to my own children, I think Arthur C. Clarke, Orson Scott Card and Madeleine L'Engle are excellent—along with Robert Heinlein and Neal Stephenson (who are best, perhaps, for not-quite-so-young readers).

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Well, I'm a nonscientist myself. I'd suggest Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker (W. W. Norton and Co., 1988) and The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan (Random House, 1996). Both do an admirable job of dismantling widely accepted pseudoscientific ideas. More importantly, they illustrate clearly and elegantly the way science works, and how it gives us a way to formulate and test ideas about what we see and experience in the world.

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

In writing for children I'm constantly facing the problem of how to communicate scale—the enormous ranges of size, distance and time that explain so much about our universe. Philip and Phylis Morrison's Powers of Ten: A Book about the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero (W. H. Freeman and Co., 1983), based on the Charles and Ray Eames film, is probably familiar to most scientists, but the elegance of its execution makes it worth another look.

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