That Thing: Exploring Animal Minds and Encouraging Young Scientists
What can we learn from a species whose last common ancestor with humans was over 500 million years ago? Perhaps it can teach us to be more curious, kind, and compassionate. Good stories open up other worlds and other minds – minds which may be housed in a body with eight tentacles.
When I saw the announcement about Pop Up’s story contest, I immediately loved the theme of “difference.” Embracing difference can allow us to learn about the world, gain new perspectives, and teach tolerance, compassion, and curiosity. Our society offers many rich sources of difference, whether of gender, age, ethnicity, or culture.
One source of difference which rarely gets explored is the difference between species. When we do consider the differences between humans and other species, it can be with a sense of smugness and superiority – rather than respect or curiosity about what these other animals can teach us. That is why I wanted to write a story where my main characters – the budding scientists Jayla and Gerald – get to interact with a creature as intelligent as an octopus.
Octopuses are distant from us evolutionarily, but they are clever problem-solvers. Octopuses can not only unscrew jars and navigate mazes, but even in the wild they have been known to use tools. Certain octopus species carry coconut shells which they can duck inside to hide from predators, and some use pebbles and seashells as armour – and they can adapt to all sorts of environments and pursue all kinds of prey. Octopuses can also be notably troublesome when in the care of humans. Some have learned to turn off the lights in their laboratories by shooting water at the switch, others have escaped aquariums – sometimes even making it to the ocean – and dismantled experiments.
For those who want to learn more about octopuses, I highly recommend “Other Minds” by Peter Godfrey-Smith, and the Netflix documentary “My Octopus Teacher.” This book and film piqued my initial interest in the species, and furnished the details that inform my story.
I am also thrilled that my tale will be illustrated. Growing up, I remember reading beautifully illustrated versions of Jonathan, The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, and Alice in Wonderland, which I deeply enjoyed even as an older reader. I hope an illustrated octopus will be equally engaging. My story is geared towards a preteen audience, but I believe that even more mature readers appreciate beautiful illustrations; they enliven a text while offering a compelling entry into the story’s world.
That Thing will be my first published book, and I am grateful to Pop Up for how they foster young writers and illustrators. I hope that my story invites young readers to consider the intricacies of animal minds and even inspires them to pursue scientific inquiries of their own.
Avital Balwit is one of the emerging writers contributing to 10 Stories to Make a Difference. Her story, That Thing, illustrated by Alexis Deacon, is about two scientists who have a close encounter with an intelligent octopus – and get a lesson in the value of curiosity and kindness to animals.