Benjamin Ellert and Katelyn Lutes know a lot about soil, but knew nothing about writing children’s books.
Until they wrote one.
And now the two federal soil scientists can add ‘prize-winning children’s author’ to their resumés.
The duo from Ag Canada’s Lethbridge research station recently won second prize in an international book contest run by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization — a competition that attracted more than 100 entries from 60 countries.
And it likely wouldn’t have happened if not for the pandemic.
“At that particular time, all of our research work was kind of thrown into turmoil because of the pandemic,” said Ellert, an expert in biogeochemistry (a wide-ranging field that covers chemical, physical, geological, and biological processes).
He and Lutes, a research technician in his lab, do both field and lab research, but COVID-19 impacted the latter as distancing protocols meant fewer staff could use the laboratories. Then in late summer or early fall, Ellert received a letter from the Canadian Soil Scientists society about the children’s book contest. He knew Lutes had an artistic bent, and asked her if she wanted to work on the project.
She was game, even though the entry deadline was mid-November.
“We had to hustle to do it,” said Lutes.
The drawings took a little more time to put together than the text but their 16-page book with colourful illustrations was ready by the deadline. For a pair whose normal writing is limited to scientific papers, it was a big leap to writing for children aged six to 11.
“We were faced with the prospect of trying to make it engaging to kids,” said Ellert.
“The first thing we did was write the story, and then we edited it pretty extensively and sent it out to colleagues who actually specialize in these particular fields, and got their input,” said Lutes.
Lutes then did the drawings for the book, titled Soil Biodiversity: What’s most important?
Even though his research field is very broad, Ellert said he learned a lot from doing the background research for the book.
“There’s a lot of material that is engaging about the soil fauna,” he said. “I thought the book turned out really well so I was kind of excited about it.”
The topic is also one he is passionate about.
“Soil biodiversity is a really critical issue right now, and it is something that is underappreciated,” said Ellert. “Soil biodiversity is strictly centred on the soil biology aspects, but as we tried to show in our book, there are different disciplines involved.”
Billy the botanist, Zoey the soil zoologist, and four other characters initially disagree on what part of soil biodiversity is most important. Each then makes their case by talking about their area of expertise… and in the end, agree that all are key.
“I wanted to capture the different occupations to show real lives and to show children about all the sorts of things you could study as a soil scientist,” said Lutes. “It’s also about how we all have to work together at the end of the day to understand something that is as complex as soil.”
The soil scientists are ethnically diverse, and that was a key message, too, she said.
“I wanted to be sure that children could see themselves as one of the scientists, so I tried to encompass diversity as much as possible,” said Lutes.
The two Albertans got up at 5 a.m. on Dec. 4 for a Zoom presentation from Europe to find out how they fared. They were thrilled to come in second and are now hoping Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada will print the book so it can be available for schools, libraries and other educational purposes.
“We want to get people thinking about what the soil does for us and we think this publication would go a long way for that,” said Ellert.
“We’re hopeful. This is going faster than we could ever imagine.”
The book was released on Dec. 5 — which is World Soil Day. A PDF version of their book can be viewed or downloaded for free by Googling ‘fao world soil day book contest.’