Six Questions with Nora Nickum
Nora Nickum leads ocean conservation policy work for the Seattle Aquarium, and is also a children's author. She writes picture books, middle-grade books, and stories and articles for children’s magazines like Cricket and Muse. Her writing often features fascinating marine wildlife and current conservation issues. Her middle-grade nonfiction debut, Superpod: Saving the Endangered Orcas of the Pacific Northwest comes out in April 2023 from Chicago Review Press. She lives with her family on an island in Washington state. Learn more about her at noranickum.com.
1. To what extent is your writing inspired by your own experience, or by watching your children’s experiences?
One big source of inspiration for me is my work at the Seattle Aquarium, where I can take a break from the computer to go visit sea otters, octopuses, Pacific spiny lumpsuckers (cutest fish ever), and wolf eels (arguably cute in their own grumpy-looking way). Seeing all the excited kids at the aquarium and overhearing their great questions about animals reminds me why I particularly enjoy writing for kids and helps me brainstorm what they might be intrigued to learn about next. I’m also inspired by watching my own daughter happily exploring tidepools, forests, and mudflats, making discoveries and asking intriguing questions.
2. How do you know your idea will make a good book?
I know that to write something really engaging, I need to feel super excited about the topic and eager to share it with young readers. Some clues: Am I waking up extra early to start writing? Am I thinking about the idea when I’m not at my desk? Am I wanting to share what I’ve learned with my family over dinner? (For example: drone research shows these wild orcas babysit–and make best friends! How cool is that?) That also helps me write about the topic in a conversational, approachable way.
3. What are you working on now?
I just put the finishing touches on a middle grade graphic novel script. It’s a mystery, and it was really fun to write. And it includes a couple of ocean animals–I just couldn’t help it. I hope it finds a home!
4. Was Superpod always the title for this project? If not, what other titles did you consider and how did you land on this one?
I originally wanted to incorporate the word “spyhop,” which is just such a fun word. It describes a whale poking its head straight up out of the water. But “Spyhop” didn’t really speak to the overall theme of the book.
I also considered alliterative titles like “Watching for Whales.” The one I ultimately chose, “Superpod,” is a term used to describe all three Southern Resident orca pods coming together in a joyful family reunion. It felt fun, hopeful, empowering, and reflective of the sense of community that characterizes both the orcas and the many people working to help them. 5. What was the most challenging thing you faced while writing/researching Superpod?
You can’t make an appointment with whales! I had hoped to tag along on more field research trips, but between COVID restrictions in 2021 and the fact that the orcas have a fairly big range and sometimes chose to roam far away, some trips worked out and some didn’t. Fortunately, I have a lifetime of orca stories to draw from, and interviewing experts in lighthouses and along rocky shorelines was really fun even when the whales didn’t join us. Another challenging thing was gathering the perfect photos and getting permission to use them in the book. I was lucky that over 15 talented photographers, government agencies, and state archives were willing to share their images. It still required a lot of tracking and follow-up to get everything in order but I love how it turned out!
6. Who should read this book?
Superpod is for anyone who loves whales or the ocean, is interested in scientific innovation, wants to help endangered species, or is curious about what exciting future career opportunities could lie ahead. Superpod is being marketed particularly for ages 8-12, but I had kids of all ages and even adults in mind when I wrote it, so I hope it’ll have broad appeal. I look forward to hearing if readers end up feeling a particular connection to any of the individual orcas I write about, too–Tahlequah, Blackberry, and Cookie are a few of my personal favorites.
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