Guest Post: Irene Latham

Behind the Novel: Research for DON’T FEED THE BOY

When I decided to set my new novel DON’T FEED THE BOY at a zoo, I knew I needed to do some research. My mind was filled with questions about animals and enclosures and zoo rules and safety and feeding and access. While I had visited many zoos  – and even trained as a teen volunteer at the Birmingham Zoo, upon which the fictional Meadowbrook Zoo is based – I needed to learn what it was like to live there, every day, all day.

Being a book-loving gal, I started with a Google search of “zoo books.” That’s where I learned about zookeeper diaries, like DR. FISHER’S LIFE ON THE ARK. I wanted the inside scoop, so that had to come from people on the inside! Once I’d accumulated a stack of books, I had to figure out a way to store the information.  I decided to try a system I’d heard about that involved using index cards and a recipe box.

As I read, I jotted facts onto the cards, and using a color-coding system, I filed the cards in the box. I was especially looking for fact that might be interesting to kids. I wanted bits and details that might add texture to my story. And since Whit is a character who has lived at the zoo his whole life, and his parents are zoo people, he obviously would know a whole lot about zoo animals. Which means I needed to know a whole lot about zoo animals too! I quickly latched onto animal escape stories and knew I had to include at least one in my story. But which, and how, and why? When you read the book you’ll discover the choices I made.

After exhausting my stack of books, I knew I needed to talk to some people. I interviewed zoo volunteers and zoo workers. One of my favorite interviews was of an elephant keeper who told me the thing no one tells you about working with exotic animals is how monotonous it is. It’s an endless cycle of feed and clean, feed and clean. His words helped shape Whit’s dissatisfaction with zoo life.

Another favorite tidbit came late in the research process when a reader questioned the validity of the use of fire extinguishers to control tigers. The reader had some experience at a zoo and was certain this would not happen. So I contacted the person in charge of zoo safety and found out that yes, indeed, a fire extinguisher is a wonderful tool to break up tiger fights. And he also gave me a new tidbit: keepers of the big cats always carry pepper spray, just in case.

I’m sure I could have gone on with this research for years and years. Fortunately for readers, deadlines are created by publishers. Otherwise I might still be adding fascinating facts to this manuscript. And just because the book is finished doesn’t mean I’m done learning. In fact, having a book that’s set at a zoo gives me the perfect excuse to learn even more about zoos. Won’t you join me?

Irene Latham is a poet and novelist who lives and writes in Birmingham, Alabama. Her debut novel Leaving Gee’s Bend was named a Bank Street College Best Book, a SIBA finalist, a Crystal Kite Finalist and ALLA’s Children’s Book of the Year. As a child she dreamed of being a zoo veterinarian and even trained as a teenage zoo volunteer. All it took was observing one surgery to convince her that perhaps she’d better just write about the animals instead. Visit her at


Be sure to visit the next stop on Irene’s blog tour tomorrow where she talks about why she reads banned books.


How about we give away a copy of Irene’s book DON’T FEED THE BOY?

Rules for the Giveaway

1. The giveaway will run from October 10 to 11:59 PM on October 14.

2. You must be at least 13.

3. Please pay it forward.


4 thoughts on “Guest Post: Irene Latham

  1. I think I should be copying all of your posts, Irene, to share with students about preparing for writing with research, even for fiction. Thanks for this-it is enlightening what must go ‘before’ the story, or at least ‘with’ it.


  2. This book sounds like something my animal-loving, fact-loving kids will adore. And I really appreciate your low-tech fact-organizing system. I’m definitely a pencil-to-paper person when it comes to taking notes.


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