Not all bees are black and yellow, humpback whale tails are unique, and jaguars love the smell of cologne.
While readers of Brooke Barker’s new book may enjoy dropping these facts and countless others at holiday parties, the real gift of “How Do Meerkats Order Pizza?” is a deeper understanding of animals and the scientists who study them.
Barker, who lives in Squirrel Hill, has amassed a big fan base through her illustrations and dissemination of animal-related data. Pairing sweet drawings with straightforward text, such as, “Dwarf lemurs line their home with feces,” helped boost her Instagram account (@sadanimalfacts) to 417,000 followers. A 2016 book, also called “Sad Animal Facts,” was a New York Times Best Seller. Since then, the Congregation Beth Shalom member’s works include “Sad Animal Babies,” weekly planners and 2019’s “Let's Be Weird Together: A Book About Love,” co-authored with her husband, Boaz Frankel.
Barker’s newest book, which publisher Simon & Schuster will release on Nov. 22, allows readers to enjoy similar delights. There are hundreds of endearing illustrations coupled with humorous speech balloons imagining conversations between species. The evolution in Barker’s work, however, is how and where she places scientists — researchers, like Solomon David (who studies gars) and Earyn McGee (who explores lizards) are given prominent positioning.
“In the past, I've really just talked about animal facts,” Barker said.
While she typically included references to where the information came from, the details, she said, were “buried at the back of the book, without any pictures, and it wasn’t treated like the interesting thing that I think it is.”
Now, along with informing readers that animals express themselves by gesticulating and making sounds, Barker has filled her pages with details about people like Natalia de Souza Albuquerque, an expert in animal cognition and behavior, and Ayana Johnson, a marine biologist and conservation strategist.
Spotlighting researchers is a way to let readers know there are myriad ways of supporting animals, Barker said.
Many of the people Barker interviewed for the book said that “when they were kids growing up, they loved animals and adults would often tell them, ‘Well, if you love animals you can work with them: You can either be a veterinarian or a zookeeper,’” she said.
Both of those jobs are great, Barker continued, “but it's not really true that you can only be a veterinarian or a zookeeper. There are thousands, or maybe tens of thousands of jobs you can do if you're interested in animals. And there are so many ways that you can be learning about animals, and supporting animals, and being an advocate for animals that don't involve being a veterinarian or zookeeper.”
Once one explores those paths, there’s a realization that science, and the world, is about more than discovering how many bones are in a giraffe’s neck or the number of months Antarctic midges (small flies) stay frozen, Barker said. Speaking with scientists makes clear there’s an element of “repairing and helping the planet” that drives so much of their study.
Barker will share more about her new book and what she learned from her conversations with scientists during a Nov. 30 event at White Whale Bookstore at 4754 Liberty Ave. The 7 p.m. program will include a presentation, live drawings and book signings.
Until then, readers — regardless of profession — can help, she said: When rivers dry up and winters get warmer, life changes for animals. There are “things we can do as people to learn more about our planet — where we're so lucky to live — and how we can make the world a better place for the animals that are here [and] also just for people who will continue to be here.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.