Down the Rabbit Hole
Curiosity Drives Johnson’s Science Writing for Young People
By Haley Wilson
Rebecca L. Johnson is no stranger to what makes science both fascinating and, at times, cringe-worthy. Author of several popular books for young readers brimming with fun facts, such as When Lunch Fights Back: Wickedly Clever Animal Defenses, Johnson was first inspired to pursue a career in writing about and exploring science by her favorite childhood book, Alice in Wonderland. Though her favorite books have shifted to those of Diane Ackerman, Barbara Kingsolver, and Carl Zimmer, Johnson’s curiosity has left her with a fascination for all things science and natural history-based, as well as an eagerness to dive down a rabbit hole of research and emerge enlightened with new ideas to ignite her readers’ interests.
Conducting the research necessary for her books has led Johnson to travel to all ends of the earth. From the frigid tundra of Antarctica to the lofty peaks of mountain tops, Johnson has worked with renowned scientists to uncover amazing facts for her books and, in the process, has witnessed some of the most incredible views on the planet. Though she admits that each adventure was unique, her favorite place she’s visited was the black abyss of the Atlantic Ocean for a submersible expedition thousands of feet below the surface to create her book, Journey into the Deep. “I felt like a visitor to another planet doing that, and saw ocean creatures that certainly were alien in every sense of the word,” Johnson says. “It’s something only a handful of people in the world have had the chance to do.”
Freaky, Fun Facts Hook Kids
Johnson has written not only of creatures of the deep, but also those in the air and on land. Her book entitled Zombie Makers: True Stories of Nature’s Undead, deemed “science writing at its grossest and best” by The Kirkus Reviews, details stories of incredible parasite/host relationships found in nature, as well as the scientists who have studied and discovered these relationships. “Like many of my books, Zombie Makers’ target audience is kids in grades 4-6, who are typically very engaged by things that are extraordinary, unexpected, ‘cool,’ and yes, what some people might consider a little bit gross.”
As one might expect, Johnson has encountered fun facts in spades from both her research and travels. One of the most surprising she’s uncovered is the strange behaviors of a tiny fly. “Nicknamed the Houdini fly, [it] can inflate its head into a sort of battering ram,” Johnson says, “which it then uses to break through layers of hard material surrounding the place where it hatched and metamorphosed into an adult fly.”
Though she’s in the midst of drafting a young adult supernatural thriller involving alchemy and memory, Johnson also schedules time to visit schools to speak about the unique subjects of her books. The presentation usually leaves young readers both enthralled and bursting with questions—some relevant, and some a bit off the beaten path. She recalls her most interesting question she received during the Q&A portion of a lecture, in which an audience member turned the topic from nature’s zombies to human ones: “[Someone asked] if I’m afraid of being attacked by human zombies that roam around in the dark; The answer is no, because there are no human zombies…at least not yet,” Johnson jokes.
From Medicinal Herbs to Exploding Backpacks
While the majority of Johnson’s books are targeted to children and young adults, she has published three books with National Geographic for adults that center on medicinal herbs. However, her latest book for young readers, When Lunch Fights Back, will be featured at this year’s Festival of Books. The book “introduces readers to a collection of very unusual defenses that different organisms use to ward off predators—things like termites that deploy exploding ‘backpacks’ when their colony is attacked and plants that use chemicals to summon wasp bodyguards when caterpillars threaten to munch their leaves.”
No novice to the Festival of Books and all that it has to offer, Johnson is eager to converse with others who share her passion for writing. “There is a special energy at the Festival that I really enjoy, with so many authors and book lovers together in the same place at the same time,” Johnson says. “I think what I most look forward to is interacting with new people, whether they are young people attending one of my presentations, authors whose books I have read (or want to), or adult readers who are interested in nonfiction for young adults.”
Much like her childhood hero, Alice, Johnson has encountered incredible creatures and awe-inspiring sights that leave readers shocked and eager to learn more about Earth’s own unique “wonderlands.” So mark your calendars and don’t be late to a very important date—Johnson will share her books and experiences at this year’s Festival, Sept. 24-27 in Rapid City and Deadwood!