In the Spotlight: Sara Hoagland Hunter

As many of you know, I’ve started a new occasional feature on my blog — a series of author interviews called In the Spotlight. I have so many friends who are writing so many amazing, wonderful,  stellar books, books that you simply MUST know about and read, that I decided it’s time I got busy and shared them with all of you!

Stepping into the spotlight today is my friend Sara Hoagland Hunter. Sara and I go way back — back to when she was a student at Dartmouth College and I was a student at nearby Hanover High School. I looked up to and admired Sara so much back then — and I still do!

Sara Hoagland Hunter

She’s had an amazing career as an award-winning writer, journalist, documentary filmmaker, educator, radio producer, lyricist — the list goes on. Is there anything Sara can’t do? I don’t think so!

Sara has written ten books for young readers, including THE LIGHTHOUSE SANTA and THE UNBREAKABLE CODE, about the Navajo code talkers of World War II. Her latest book is EVERY TURTLE COUNTS, an illustrated story based on the international rescue effort to save earth’s most endangered sea turtles, a species called Kemp’s ridleys.

ETC Cover for Susan

Click here to watch the trailer, then pull up a chair as we settle in for a visit with Sara.

Tell us a bit about how this book came to be — what was the inspiration behind it?

I first heard the story of the Cape Cod sea turtle rescues more than a decade ago from Bob Prescott, the director of the Audubon sanctuary who had discovered the phenomenon.  He first identified a stranded Kemp’s ridley sea turtle on the north side of the Cape about 15 years ago and was surprised since these turtles are born on just one beach in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. At that time, there were only about 400 remaining Kemp’s ridleys in the world.

I followed up with him, shooting a documentary for a cable network called Outdoor Life.  I traced the Kemp’s ridley rescue and rehabilitation process from when the frozen turtles wash up on the beach between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year, through the rehab at the New England Aquarium, and later release in Florida and warmer waters.  No one yet knows why the two and three year old juveniles wander up as far as the Cape to munch on shellfish in the rich waters of Cape Cod Bay.  They used to stay further south, around Chesapeake Bay and sometimes Long Island. When the water temp. begins to drop in the fall,  the juveniles seem to get turned around in their natural migration pattern. They can’t figure out that they need to go north and get around Provincetown and the hook of Cape Cod before they can go south to get to Florida and warmer waters.

Between Thanksgiving weekend and Christmas, up to 200 “cold-stunned” sea turtles (mostly Kemp’s ridleys but some loggerheads, green turtles, and leatherbacks) wash in on the waves.  An army of volunteers of all ages now strolls the beach between Sandwich and Truro looking for these creatures so they can be picked up by Audubon, slowly thawed, and brought to aquariums for rehab.  The rescue record is impressive.  I knew I wanted to tell the story, since unsung heroes are my passion (THE UNBREAKABLE CODE was about the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII;  THE LIGHTHOUSE SANTA was about Edward Rowe Snow, who dropped presents to lighthouse children).

When it came to overlaying story over research, I began to think what child I wanted to rescue this particular Kemp’s ridley.  Immediately, I thought of my niece, Mimi, and her love of animals.  She is a tender-heart with a joyous, childlike thought. She is also diagnosed on the autism spectrum and has been a gift to our family.  I modeled the character on Mimi as a seven-year-old and Mimi was pleased that I would use her real name. The illustrator used photos of Mimi as a seven-year-old to help inform her art. Mimi is now 24 and has enjoyed joining me for many stops on my book tour.

Have you witnessed the turtle stranding yourself?  I’d love to hear about any research you did for the book.
I did accompany a camera crew and a rescuer on a turtle rescue and have footage of it that I show at my book talks.  Mimi and I will hike the beach again this Thanksgiving to see if we can spot one.

I love the way the book ends, with a glimpse of “future Mimi” — what are your hopes for this book, and the impact it will make on readers?
Great question. This book is an extremely hopeful one. The range of abilities and challenges of those diagnosed on the autism spectrum is huge. I actually believe that in future years, individuals will be labeled with more specific labels. The Mimi story is not every autistic child’s story. My model was Temple Grandin, who endorsed the book, and who has had a well known career as an animal scientist.

With the number of those diagnosed on the spectrum now reported as 1 in 68, there is a growing need and urgent opportunity to incorporate those with autism into our communities, helping them stretch to realize their full potential, and providing the  24/7 supervision needed for them to attain their goals. Our country has done a fantastic job providing educational opportunity through the age of 21.  As soon as someone with special needs turns 22, however, that funding disappears, and all of the investment up to that point is at risk, as families scramble to figure out babysitters, scant job programs, and unattainably expensive housing situations.

My current goal is to get the word out about finding meaningful activity for this tidal wave of young adults.  I’ve learned more from Mimi’s pure thought than from anyone I know — both about life and Love.  The day to day challenge of caring for a 24-year-old who cannot live alone is daunting.  The assembly line work offered Mimi in her state day program is not the right sense of fulfillment yet.  All of us need to be working on this.  That’s one reason I’ve enjoyed taking Mimi on tour. She loves being on stage!

Who wouldn’t love being on stage with YOU, Sara!  I love knowing more about this wonderful book, and wish you all the best with it. Thanks so much for joining us here today. Now everybody go visit Sara’s website for more fun facts (click here), then buy her book and READ IT!

To read earlier In the Spotlight interviews with Chris Kurtz, click here, and with Susan Hill Long, click here.