Hancock naturalist to release children's wildlife activity book

·5 min read

Aug. 28—HANCOCK — A naturalist and educator with a local nature nonprofit group is releasing a book next month to promote opportunities for children to engage with wildlife through DIY projects and activities she calls a "tribute" to all those she's worked with throughout her 30-year career.

Susie Spikol, the community programs director for the Harris Center for Conservation Education in Hancock (also where she lives), is slated to debut her first book, "The Animal Adventurer's Guide," on Sept. 13 after starting to compile activities featured in the book about three years ago. In reality, Spikol says she's been working on the guide "probably about all my life."

"I really began to notice that kids in particular are really connected to nature through their experiences with animals [which] seems to be a ... doorway into connecting to the natural world, and I wanted to celebrate that."

Within the book, targeted for kids aged 5-9, are 50 activities and projects designed for young readers. They include how to craft a home for toads with a flowerpot, record animal tracks by spilling flour around and how to build a bird buffet using birdseed and paper towel rolls.

All the while as children follow the step-by-step ideas, Spikol encourages them to be "citizen scientists" through reporting their findings and questioning what they observe.

The book features illustrations by British freelance artist Becca Hall, based in Cornwall, England, who has designed for other children's books, according to her website. Spikol said Hall was chosen as the book's illustrator by publisher Roost Books, though she was "so pleased."

"I think [Hall's] pictures are charming," she said. "They're kind of whimsical, engaging and friendly. You just want to hold the bumblebee or touch the frog, you know."

Spikol said she's been a lifelong animal admirer, growing up in Brooklyn but often enjoying her time learning about wildlife in New York City. She cites birdwatching in Queens, visiting the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan and working in high school at the New York Aquarium in her home borough.

"I thought I would be feeding the penguins and taking care of the whales, but I basically served ice cream," she said, laughing. "I didn't care [because] ... even though I wasn't working with [the animals] I got to be near them."

Spikol said she recently found a notebook from 2nd grade, where she tracked all the birds she spotted. They include species she spotted while spending two months of the year at her parents' vacation home near Brattleboro.

"I still remember as a kid feeling really concerned about animals and wanting to make sure that our world was taking good care of them," she said. "What I believe is that when people have experiences with wildlife, it kind of stays in their heart ... and then they're making choices that consider the Earth. That's what I hope this book [allows]."

While attending Barnard College, now part of Columbia University, Spikol was an intern with the Central Park Conservancy. After graduating in 1990 with a degree in English literature, according to the college, Spikol held seasonal summer roles with the Massachusetts Audubon Society at its Wildwood Camp in Rindge, where she said she trained with the society's top naturalist.

From there, Spikol enrolled at Antioch University New England in Keene, where she received her master's degree in environmental studies. That led to her finding the Harris Center through a practicum requirement for her studies. She began working there full-time upon graduation and has been there for more than 30 years.

"A lot of the activities in the book are things that I've done through my work at the Harris Center, and [the book is] sort of like a bag of tricks that an environmental educator might have," Spikol said. "I wanted to share these for families and kids so they could sort of be in the driver's seat."

Spikol said it's hard for her to choose one favorite activity of the 50 in her guide and likes "all of the things in the mammal chapter," but she particularly enjoys tracking animal footprints.

"It kind of gives you a glimpse into an animal's life," she said. "You really get into ... following and seeing what it did, where it maybe rested or ate something, so I love that."

As for a favorite animal, she said she's especially fond of fishers, colloquially called "fisher cats," which Spikol said is a misnomer as it's not a cat but rather a member of the weasel family, along with otters.

"I tend to really like animals if they get kind of bad reputations that aren't deserving of it," Spikol said. "[Weasels] get a bad reputation, since if you call somebody a 'weasel' it's not really a compliment. But it should be, because they're amazing animals."

There will be a book talk for "The Animal Adventurer's Guide" on Sept. 17 at the Peterborough Toadstool Bookshop. Spikol will discuss and sign copies of her book beginning at 11 a.m. The bookshop is at 12 Depot Square in Peterborough.

"The Animal Adventurer's Guide: How to Prowl for an Owl, Make Snail Slime and Catch a Frog Bare-Handed" will be available for purchase at the Harris Center in Hancock once it's released Sept. 13. Local independent bookstores such as the three Toadstool Bookshops in Peterborough, Keene and Nashua will also sell them. They will also be available online via Amazon, according to Spikol.

Tim Nail can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1436, or tnail@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter at @timmnail.