John E(mil) Becker (1942-) - Sidelights
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Miguel Angel Asturias: 1899-1974: Writer to Don Berrysmith Biography - Grew up in the Pacific NorthwestJohn E(mil) Becker (1942-) Biography - Career, Sidelights - Personal, Member, Writings
One of John E. Becker's ambitious projects is the "Returning Wildlife" series published by KidHaven Press, a set of books detailing once-threatened animal species who have made a comeback in the wild. Heavily illustrated with drawings, photographs, and maps, and augmented by lists of additional resources such as books, organizations, and Internet Web sites, the books provide a historical summary for each subject species, describing the animal, its habitat, and its habits. The author explains the importance of the animal to the natural setting in which it once thrived and to the human population that depended on it for food, clothing, or spiritual ritual. Becker also describes the historical events that propelled the animal toward extinction. For example, in The North American Bison, he mentions the impact of westward expansion in the 1800s and the influx of hunters and homesteaders whose harvesting methods rapidly depleted the once-magnificent herds. Additionally, Becker discusses the impact that the animals themselves may have had on their own demise as a species. In some cases, their predatory nature was seen as a threat to farming and ranching ventures; in others, overpopulation of a species outpaced the growth of its food sources; in the case of the North American beaver, its natural inclination to build dams made it a pest in the eyes of settlers and farmers.
In each book, Becker explains the steps that have been taken to protect and nurture endangered species. He reports on their present condition as recovered or recovering species, and points out potential threats to their future health and well-being. In a School Library Journal review of The North American Beaver and North American River Otters, Arwen Marshall commended Becker's balanced presentation of such issues as the impact of human settlement on the natural environment versus the problems generated by the normal habits of the species themselves. In a Booklist review of The North American Bison, Carolyn Phelan described the "Returning Wildlife" series as "a nice antidote" in its field, insofar as it highlights the success stories in the campaign to preserve nature.
Becker told SATA: "I began writing at an early age. I have loved to write for as long as I can remember. When I was growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I wrote stories constantly. I even wrote and published a neighborhood newspaper when I was in the fourth grade. My favorite stories to write were science fiction adventures. I also enjoyed reading, and a children's classic about a wild pony, Misty of Chincoteague, written by Marguerite Henry, was the book that inspired me to begin thinking about becoming a writer.
"Creative writing was put in the background, however, when I attended Ohio State University to earn a degree in the field of physical education. I taught at the elementary school level in Pontiac, Michigan, followed by a return to Ohio State to earn my master's degree and doctorate. Thereafter I taught in teacher education programs until I left college teaching in 1974 to try my hand as a tennis teaching professional. I enjoyed teaching tennis, but I began to realize that there was something else that I needed to be doing with my life. I didn't know what that something was, but I knew that I hadn't found it yet. Then one evening as my wife read a picture book to our children, I noticed how much they loved the story and how much it made them laugh. I thought to myself, 'What could be better than to create something from your own imagination that would excite and educate children!' That's when it occurred to me that what I really wanted to do, more than anything else in the world, was to write stories for children.
"In May of 1978, my life took an unexpected turn when I became an administrator at the Columbus Zoo. I worked at the zoo for eight-and-a-half years, and during that time, I learned a great deal about wild animals and also came to appreciate the people who work so hard to conserve endangered species. Writing articles for the zoo's newsletter encouraged me to begin writing nonfiction magazine articles about exotic animals. My first article was published in Animals magazine in 1985. That same year, I made my first overseas excursion to East Africa. It was as if I had discovered a whole new world waiting for me to explore it. Subsequent trips to the world's second greatest barrier reef off the coast of Belize, the mountain rainforests of Central America, the Amazon rainforest, a return trip to Africa, and numerous trips across North America to observe wildlife in its natural environment have had a tremendous influence on what and how I write. Nature writers such as Henry David Thoreau, George Schaller, and Archie Carr were a few of the writers who had an impact on my writing.
"Over the next few years, I wrote several more nonfiction magazine articles. Then in 1988, I became executive director of the International Society for Endangered Cats, and much of my writing time was devoted to writing newsletter articles for that organization.
"In 1995, I left the field of wildlife conservation to pursue my dream of writing for children. Because I had written quite a bit of nonfiction, I started my own business, which is called Adventures in Writing. Through my workshops, I have the opportunity to visit schools and share my love of nonfiction writing. Getting elementary-aged students to think of nonfiction writing as an enjoyable activity is the goal of the programs. Presenting the workshops also gave me the time to work on my own writing projects.
"Thereafter I developed an idea for a series of books about animals that had been driven to the brink of extinction but that people have successfully brought back. I believe that there is a definite need to give children information about the many successful projects to recover species that have been critically endangered. Children need to know that we can do great damage to our natural resources but that many people are involved in reversing the wrong that has been done. In 2001, KidHaven Press agreed to publish the series, which is titled 'Returning Wildlife.' Fifteen volumes are projected. I follow an ambitious writing schedule by writing an entire 5,000-word manuscript every ten weeks. I work very hard to be as efficient and thorough as possible. That effort has been rewarded as the series has been well received. In 2002, I also began working on a series of beginning reader books with a focus on wildlife for Seedling Publications. My first picture book for young children, Mugambi's Journey, will be published by Gingham Dog Press and released in 2004.
"I also enjoy teaching writing at the Thurber Writing Academy for children in Columbus. I encourage all writers, whether children or adults, to pursue the acquisition of factual information with the same determination that a detective uses to search for clues in solving a crime. I strongly believe that thorough research and a single-minded dedication to giving your readers the most accurate information that you possibly can give them is the key to excellence in nonfiction writing."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, December 1, 2002, Connie Fletcher, review of The Bald Eagle and The North American Beaver, p. 682; January 1, 2003, Carolyn Phelan, review of The North American Bison, p. 872.
School Library Journal, January, 2003, Arwen Marshall, review of The North American Beaver and North American River Otters.