How Volunteering with Blanding’s Turtles Hatched a Book Idea

posted in: Local Conservation, Turtles | 2

This week, we have a special guest post from local author (and Conservation Society member) Diana Renn! Read on to find out how family involvement with ZNE’s HATCH program inspired Diana’s forthcoming book.

The road to writing my mystery novel for children, Trouble at Turtle Pond, began with a turtle. Soon after my family and I moved to Concord, Massachusetts, I swerved to avoid a large snapping turtle in our street. I had never seen one before. Nor would I have believed that turtles were about to enter my life in a big way.

When my son entered the fourth grade at the Thoreau School, he had two Blanding’s turtle hatchlings as classmates. Waffles and Pebbles. Every fourth-grade class cared for two turtles until spring. The turtles would grow potentially four times bigger than they would if they’d hibernated through the winter in the wild. They’d be better able to withstand predators. They were getting a head start in life.

I had never heard of Blanding’s turtles, or their plight. I was stunned to learn they have suffered significant population decline. At Great Meadows Wildlife Refuge in Concord, there were about 50-60 adult Blanding’s turtles. This sounded like a lot, until I learned that number was down from over 100 in the 1970s.

Eager to understand why my son was now talking about turtles nonstop, I volunteered for a class field trip to see their local habitat. Bryan Windmiller talked about how his team was working to restore the turtle population by monitoring the age and health of turtles in the wild, tracking females of reproductive age, protecting nests, and other measures.

A fourth grade student with a pad of notes in front of him points at a young turtle in a plastic tub aquarium on a table in front of him.

It was inspiring to see my son and his classmates care for Waffles and Pebbles throughout the year. They fed them turtle pellets, weighed and measured them, checked their tank conditions, observed behaviors, and, as spring approached, exposed them to things they’d eventually find at the pond, like insects and vegetation. They hosted a “Turtle Night” event to raise money for the turtle program. They sold turtle-related crafts, displayed posters, and played games to teach people about turtles. The kids raised eight hundred dollars. If you ever feel hopeless about our environmental situation, look to children, who are an ever-renewing resource of hope.

An elementary school student in a flannel shirt holds a radiotracking antenna at the side of a public path, and with help from a ZNE biologist, listens for the signal of a radiomarked turtle.

My son wanted to keep helping turtles after the school year ended. With his teacher Nancy Dillon’s encouragement, we contacted Bryan and asked what else we could do. We ended up joining other volunteers on a turtle tracking excursion to help locate nesting turtles, so that their nests and eggs could be protected. We learned more about how biologists collaborate with communities to help these turtles, and why raising awareness is so critical to the turtles’ survival. If you are mowing your lawn, and do not know a turtle may be looking to nest somewhere in your yard, the consequences could be dire. And everyone needs to take extra care when driving during nesting and hatching seasons.

Now turtles were a family interest. We signed up to foster hatchlings at the end of the summer. When the email came that baby Blanding’s turtles were available, we met Bryan and picked up a plastic tub with ten tiny hatchlings scuttling around, barely bigger than quarters, still with their egg tooth intact. These turtles lived in our guest bedroom (in a tub) for about a month. My son kept notes about who was eating. The turtles needed to learn to chase after turtle pellets in the water. We coaxed reluctant eaters to eat by making “turtle Jell-O,” an intriguing concoction of gelatin, turtle pellets, sweet potato, and kale. We were always aware that the turtles were not pets and handled them sparingly. But we came to know them. We looked forward to coming into the room and seeing their tiny heads pop up to look at us. We marveled at their growth even over the course of a month, how they would venture out farther into their two inches of water, or clamber onto a rock to bask beneath their lamp.

Once we turned our hatchlings over to the schools, I missed them. In caring for tiny turtles, I felt we’d become part of something much bigger. How, I wondered, could I let more people know about these turtles, and the network of people who were working so hard to protect them? Was there anything I could do to make a bigger impact?

Since I am a children’s book author, I knew there was a story to tell. Since I am a mystery writer, my mind naturally turned to crime. I learned that poaching for the illegal pet market is a serious problem. I read about a man who had been caught at an airport trying to leave Ontario with Blanding’s turtle hatchlings strapped to his body beneath his clothes!

We were fortunate not to encounter poachers in our community, but I thought a story involving wildlife crime would be a good fit for the age group I write for. The mystery would hook readers into the story, and I’d weave in more common dangers these turtles face, like habitat loss, road-crossing peril, and predators.

Meanwhile, my son’s experience with the headstarting program reaped benefits that extended well beyond fourth grade. He was selected to join his former teacher and a few classmates to talk about his experience at a project-based learning conference at Regis College, and he participated in that for more two more years. He went on to volunteer for the MSPCA at Nevins Farm and raised over $2,000 for them as his bar mitzvah project. He volunteered at a rescue zoo in Bolton and learned to care for all kinds of animals, including turtles, and talked about them to groups of visitors. His former teacher nominated him for a Zoo New England Young Conservationist Award. Helping turtles sparked what I’m sure will be a lifelong interest in animal advocacy.

I didn’t want to poach his experience, and my main character, Miles, is not my son. To create distance, I had to fictionalize. I set my story in the summer and imagined a world where a school partnership like the HATCH program does not yet exist. This shift created higher stakes for my mystery. With less oversight, the turtles are more in peril. I fictionalized the town but borrowed some features from Concord and Great Meadows. I have a field biologist character, Dr. Kira Holmes, and a couple of trusty interns. I have a grumpy neighbor who isn’t quite on board yet with the idea of hosting a nesting turtle in his yard. And I have some suspiciously shady characters, who spawned entirely from my own imagination.

When you write about science, you do bump into facts. Kids are discerning readers. I am very grateful to Bryan for reviewing the manuscript (any lingering errors are my own!) and to Zoo New England and the HATCH program for the wealth of information they provide to headstarting families and to the public.

The cover of the Trouble at Turtle Pond novel, featuring an illustration of a shadowy figure shining a flashlight at a turtle sitting on a log in a small marsh against a backdrop of trees and blue sky.

I hope that readers of all ages will enjoy a fun mystery while learning more about these fascinating turtles. I hope the activism of Miles and his “Backyard Rangers” friends will inspire others to be good neighbors to turtles, and better conservationists. And I hope if readers find a turtle in the road, they’ll not only know what to do about it, but will become curious about it, as I once was. You never know where a turtle might lead you. It might even lead you to a story of your own!

Diana Renn is the author of three YA mysteries featuring globetrotting teens: TOKYO HEIST, LATITUDE ZERO, and BLUE VOYAGE (all published by Viking / Penguin Random House). Closer to home, her new middle grade eco-mystery, TROUBLE AT TURTLE POND (Fitzroy Books / Regal House), was inspired by her volunteer work with Zoo New England’s turtle conservation program. Diana lives in Concord, MA, on a street with many turtles. Visit her online at www.dianarennbooks.com.

2 Responses

  1. James Nager

    This is an achingly beautiful story about how sustainable change follows education. Thank you

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