From living in an underwater laboratory to swimming amid the ocean’s most bizarre creatures, Ellen Prager’s career as a marine scientist, researcher and writer has been interesting to say the least.
But now, Prager, who finds herself on land more than sea these days, is looking to engage an untapped market of school-age readers with fiction set in the sea.
On May 10 at the Bookstore in the Grove, Prager will speak about her latest novel, The Shark Whisperer –– the first installment in a three-book series titled Tristan Hunt and the Sea Guardians.
Prager, who lives in Key Biscayne, speaks to students around the country about the importance of the ocean. While traveling, she discovered that the literary market was lacking in a particular area.
“In my last tour, I was giving talks on my last popular science book,” said Prager, the author of Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans' Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter –– just one of her 15 books. “A lot of people, parents and educators, would ask me if I had anything for middle graders,” ages 8 to 12 specifically.
Prager says at that moment, she realized she missed an entire market of readers.
She immediately began to investigate what middle-graders enjoy; luckily she had her experience from speaking to students.
Contrary to popular opinion, she found that kids enjoy science and even think it’s exciting.
“I can see their eyes light up when I talk about octopuses and sharks,” she said.
She created Tristan Hunt, a teenage boy invited to an ocean-themed summer camp in the Florida Keys, where he other teens discover their rare underwater talents.
Although Tristan’s tale is fictional, Prager said she wanted to incorporate factual places, topics and issues relevant to ocean science. She used locations in the Bahamas and the Florida Keys for many scenes in the book. The villain in her story is even involved in shark- finning –– or capturing sharks, removing their fins and then throwing them back. That’s a real issue that conservationists and marine scientists encounter.
Those who know Prager well wouldn’t be astounded to find her delving into the realm of ocean science and youth fiction. Throughout her career, Prager always made it a priority to involve young minds.
John C. Ogden, a professor emeritus in integrative biology at the University of South Florida and mentor to Prager, calls her “the next best ocean communicator.”
Ogden first met Prager in 1983 during her internship at the West Indies Lab in Saint Croix, Virgin Island, where he worked as a director for the coral reef research center.
“She was a self starter and had a clear idea of what she wanted to do,” said Ogden.
In a short time, Prager was hired as a laboratory supervisor where Ogden worked with and got to know as Prager both a marine scientist and individual.
After Ogden left Saint Croix for Tampa in 1988, he helped create the Florida Ocean Alliance, an organization dedicated to bringing together the private sector, academia, and nonprofit research organizations to protect Florida’s coastal and ocean resources, where Prager, then an assistant dean at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami, became board member.
“She’s always been interested in communication––particularly communicating to young people,” Ogden said.
Ogden even compares Prager to Sylvia Earle, an American marine biologist, explorer, author, and lecturer named by Time magazine as its first “Hero for the Planet” in 1998. Like Earle, Ogden says Prager has a special talent popularizing the ocean and communicating it effectively through literature.
“Being a professor and being a scientist is one thing, but being a writer––as Ellen does so well, writing a book for four to five months and then finding a publisher–– is a rare talent,” Ogden said.
However, the year-long process of searching for a publisher willing to take on an idea unrelated to vampires, wizards or zombies, was a difficult period in her literary career. Prager says she received countless “soul-sucking rejection letters.”
Even after writing 15 books, Prager recalls one letter that questioned whether she could finish a three part series about the ocean and science.
“It made me question if I should be doing this and if it was even worth it,” Prager said.
Luckily, Scarletta Press, a publishing company based out of Minneapolis, took her doubts away when it agreed to publish Prager’s book. Nancy Tuminelly, the publisher and creative director, says like Prager, she also saw a need in the market for fictional tales about science.
“We have always been rooted in children’s literature,” Tuminelly said. “Ellen’s book had enough science mixed in with a little bit of humor.”
Those are the right elements for an appealing children’s book, according to Tuminelly.
“I’m thankful that they are willing to stick their necks out there and try something new,” Prager said.
Despite all hindrances and setbacks, Prager’s work to bring her ideas to fruition was received well by test readers and literary enthusiasts. Sandy Francis, a co-manager of Bookstore at the Grove, met Prager as a customer –– and then, later as an author –– says she’s excited to host Prager’s book launch in Miami.
“When it comes to science and learning, there’s nothing like it out there on the market,” Francis said.
Prager looks at successful works in the world of young adult fiction like the Harry Potter or the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series as “world changing.” Her focus however, isn’t to attain the success these books received, but to educate her young readers.
“I hope that the book does well and is a fun read that people will learn from,” Prager said. “And I love seeing the kids get excited, because the truth is they’re getting excited about science.”
And Prager couldn’t ask for more than that.