Prager has decades of experience as a marine scientist and teacher, but for the past several years she has expanded her focus to writing fiction and popular science books.
Her most recent series aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds is called the “Wonder List Adventures.” The books follow a young heroine, Ezzy, and her brother Luke as their father takes them around the world in their mother’s memory. Ezzy’s mom was a world renowned marine geologist and left a “wonder list” of scientifically special destinations for the family to visit. Through their action-packed adventures, Ezzy and the readers learn about climate change, geology, marine science and conservation ecology.
“It was an unexpected career twist for me,” Prager said, and writing for middle-graders has turned out to be the most rewarding part of her career. “Middle-grade is when they’re really starting to develop their skills and their interests. They’re kind of thinking of careers.”
Middle-grades tend to be the make it or break it years. According to research from the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, a failing grade in English or math, low attendance or “unsatisfactory” behavior as early as sixth grade can indicate only a 15 to 25 percent chance of graduating high school on time.
Many middle-graders, when given one of Prager’s books free through a grant, told her it was the first book they ever owned.
“I’m one of the people who didn’t realize how much of a problem this is,” said Prager. “Think about that. A kid in a middle-grade who might be 8, 9, 10 years old, has never owned a book.”
Poor performance in school at an early age can also have profound effects continuing into adulthood. The World Literacy Foundation estimates 21 percent of adults in the United States fall into some degree of illiteracy. That is over 40 million people who have left the educational system, and it is an issue the foundation believes can be best prevented in childhood.
Prager’s books draw students back toward the fundamentals of reading and science.
“My thing is, you want to inspire these kids to love the ocean, to love nature, be interested in science — so they want to learn more,” said Prager.
“Escape Galápagos,” the first book in her series, requires Ezzy to face her fear of wild animals and journey across an island to save the passengers of their cruise ship. The first lesson is just two pages in, when a marine iguana almost sneezes on Ezzy. It turns out the Galápagos Islands are home to the only marine iguanas in the world, and they sneeze salt to expel the excess after feeding on algae.
Prager’s “gooey lizard snot” lesson sets the tone for more quick and fun science facts to come. Facts within fiction also encourage readers to think critically about what they’re reading and differentiate between the two.
Throughout “Escape Greenland,” the second book in the series, the family’s travels further test Ezzy’s bravery. Readers follow along for “a flight across an obstacle course of icebergs, some hungry humpback whales, and a wild kayak ride atop a river inside a glacier,” all leading to an astonishing discovery. Prager also uses sarcasm and “icesome” puns in hopes of making students laugh while they learn.
Many of Prager’s ideas in the books come from her own quirky observations as a scientist. In “Escape Greenland,” released in April, she incorporated colorful details about the trip to Ilulissat, Greenland, that inspired the story. Glaciers looked like fudge-striped ice cream from her plane. Greenland dogs, the only breed allowed in the entire country, howled in unison each day. Humpback whales spouted along the icy backdrop.
Before she became a children’s author, Prager explored the Caribbean, the Bahamas and Papua New Guinea. She taught oceanography aboard tall sailing ships. She lived for weeks underwater at the Aquarius Reef Base off Key Largo, Fla. — serving as chief scientist at the world’s only undersea research station. She currently works as science adviser to Celebrity Cruises in the Galápagos Islands.
Prager intentionally transitioned her career from research to include more outreach because she wanted to connect a wider audience with the joys of science. She says her stories can kick-start conversations on issues, like wildlife smuggling, conservation and pollution.
“We’re still suffering from this thing where we are really good at communicating to the people already interested in science, whether it’s kids or adults. We’re still not very good at going beyond the choir,” said Prager. “How do we do that? And it’s why I’m writing the fiction books that integrate science.”
Her efforts appear to be working. Prager’s previous middle-grade fiction series, “The Shark Whisperer,” was named a 2015 USA Best Book Awards Children’s Fiction finalist. She was credited with “Special Thanks” for her work as a consultant on the Disney movie, “Moana.” And her partnership with National Geographic won her the 2000 Parents Choice Award for her children’s book, “SAND.”
“I would love to do more of that,” said Prager, “where we marry really good entertainment with science and nature.”
Through “The Wonder List Adventures,” she continues to reach out to the often overlooked yet crucial middle grades. Her stories may inspire the next generation of scientists. Or at the very least, they can encourage non-readers to keep turning the page.
“If we want a scientifically literate society … and a society that wants to protect nature, they need to be able to read,” Prager said.
She is writing for the next generation, but the truth is every age can learn something from her book. From the Galápagos to Greenland, there’s no telling where Ezzy’s adventures will take them next.
Rachael Kaye is a meteorologist in Phoenix. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland and her master’s degree from Mississippi State. She has worked as a broadcaster in central Illinois, Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., and has storm chased across much of the country. Her passion is making science and the natural world accessible to people of all ages.