Above: A page from Sara Levine's first book "Bone by Bone" Illustrations © 2014 by T.S Spookytooth
Comparative anatomy sounds like a topic more apt for a textbook than a picture book, but that’s only because you haven’t read Sara Levine’s books yet.
Inspired by her college courses, Sara turns heady biological curriculum into fun, engaging, and accessible topics that give kids (and their parents) a new understanding of the world. Her titles include, "Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons," "Tooth by Tooth: Comparing Fangs, Tusks, and Chompers," "Fossil by Fossil: Comparing Dinosaur Bones," and "Flower Talk: How Plants Use Color to Communicate."
Sara’s eventual gravitation to both biology and writing has clear roots in her upbringing. As she explains it, she was raised by “two Brooklyn Jews who decided that they wanted to move to the country and get some animals.” The Levine family eventually had more than 100 animals—a menagerie of peacocks, ducks, goats, cows, geese, and horses. They also lived within walking distance of a library, a requirement for Sara’s mother, and one that made books a constant in their home.
“After practicing as a veterinarian for four years, I had my daughter and this writing explosion happened. I realized I was really missing the creative part of myself."
— Sara Levine ’06
Fast forward a few years, and although Sara had majored in English as an undergraduate, she’d become a veterinarian and admittedly left the humanities behind.
“After practicing as a veterinarian for four years, I had my daughter and this writing explosion happened,” Sara says. “I realized I was really missing the creative part of myself.”
Following late night feedings, Sara would sit down and write at 2:00 am. “Your judging brain is sleeping, so you can just write anything,” she says.
Veterinary medicine began to hold less interest for Sara, whose creativity brought her to Lesley’s then-new MFA in Creative Writing program. She specialized in creative nonfiction, working on a series of personal essays, but also spent a semester studying under children’s author Susan Goodman.
Shortly after completing the low-residency program, Sara became part of the biology faculty at Wheelock College, teaching Human Biology, Introduction to Plants and Animals, Dinosaur Biology and other courses. She continued to work there until the college closed in 2018.
“It occurred to me that one of the things I was teaching would make a really good children’s book,” she said, speaking of a class she designed on comparative anatomy. “I realized that most people don’t realize that animals and humans have basically the same organs and we get basically the same diseases. It was really the first time where I was able to combine the biology and the English. It finally came together, but it took a while.”
Susan mentored Sara as she wrote her first book, “Bone by Bone,” which led to a series on comparative anatomy including “Tooth by Tooth,” winner of the 2017 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books, and then “Fossil by Fossil.” A fourth title, “Eye By Eye” is forthcoming. Each book follows a question-and-answer format, allowing kids to interact with the subject: “What if you didn’t have any arm or leg bones? What kind of animal would you be if you had just a skull, vertebrae, and ribs?”
For her latest book, Sara veered from animals to focus on flowers and the significance of their colors. (If you’re curious, you’ll have to pick up a copy.)
The subject was new territory for Sara, who said children’s books are a challenge to write well.
“It has to be an idea that hasn’t been done before or hasn’t been done that way. It should be unique. It needs to be engaging,” she says.
Hear more from Sara on Lesley's Why We Write podcast.