TACOMA — Tacoma author and illustrator Matt Kracht is upending the natural history genre with a series of books that put an irreverent spin on subjects usually covered with dry, scientific prose.
Kracht, 52, published “OMFG, Bees!” earlier this year. It’s a witty follow-up to his best selling “The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America”.
In the bird book, Kracht provides a description and illustration of the continent’s most common birds. It’s got plenty of scientific terminology. But it also features occasional colorful expressions that can’t be repeated in a family newspaper.
“Stupid-Ass Steller’s Jay,” he writes. “This cocky mother … it struts around the mountainous western forests like it’s hot s—.”
“Damn Crows,” he writes next to a drawing of the black bird. “Caw! Caw! Caw! … that’s pretty much it with these jerks.”
These are not children’s books — unless you want to teach your kid profanity. But the books are more than hot takes on birds and bees. They are chock full of science and interesting facts.
In the “Bees and Not-bees” chapter of “OMFG,” for instance, we learn that yellowjackets — the most hated of all not-bees — are wasps. They are “carnivorous, mean and want your hot dog,” Kracht writes.
“These bastards are the most common type of wasps, and the most aggressive,” he writes and advises to let them have whatever they want. “It’s kind of like being mugged.”
Kracht covers bee diversity, bee anatomy and calls bumblebees “chunky little fuzzballs” and “freaking adorable.”
Bird hater, bee lover
Kracht (rhymes with rocked) grew up in Parkland, the son of a Pacific Lutheran University music professor dad and teacher mom.
“When I was really little, I used to crawl under the deck, and I would draw the bugs that I saw — I would have a piece of chalk — on the foundation of our house. It was kind of like my own cave art,” he recalled.
It was a fourth grade science project that gave him both an interest in and, simultaneously, a long held grudge for birds. He was assigned to write a report on the golden-crowned kinglet. The only way to do science properly, he thought at the time, is to find the bird himself.
“I dragged myself through wet grass and cold forests, trying to find it,” he said. “I never saw one, basically, because they’re really hard to spot. They’re about the color of a pine cone. And they don’t like to go anywhere near fourth graders. So, it’s like the worst bird.”
Kracht never lost his interest in science as he pursued the subject at both PLU and The Evergreen State College in Olympia. But his dislike of math and a growing interest in art and writing eventually led him to a decadeslong career in marketing at Starbucks.
In 2017, he got the idea for the “Dumb Birds” field guide. He was walking with his wife, Gina Spadoni, in a Seattle park when he finally saw the golden-crowned kinglet after a lifetime of searching. His wife had no idea why he became so excited.
“She just thinks I’ve lost my mind or something,” he said.
The next day, while at work waiting for a meeting to start, he drew a picture of the bird on a notepad.
“I had this sitting on my desk and a co-worker said, ‘Wow, it looks like you were angry when you drew that,’ “ he said. “And then somehow we got on the topic of wouldn’t it be funny if a guy who hated birds was actually an ornithologist.”
He drew some more bird illustrations with accompanying snarky text and put them on a Tumblr account. It quickly grew in popularity and soon a literary agent from New York was calling.
“And then Starbucks did me the favor of laying me off in 2018 along with most of the people in my department,” he said. That same day, the galleys for the book arrived on his doorstep.
“Dumb Birds” came out in April 2019 and went on to become a national best seller. He’s now a full-time author and illustrator.
His second book, “The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of the Whole Stupid World,” came out in 2022. It’s been translated into several languages since then, but Kracht isn’t sure if the idioms he uses come across as they do in English.
His bird and bee books are meticulously researched and have bibliographies. While the bee book’s narrator is obviously a fan boy, the bird book’s narrator has an irrational disdain for birds.
“He’s reporting what the actual bird behaviors are,” Kracht says of his author persona. “But he’s running it through this very personal lens. To him, everything’s a personal attack. It’s always like, ‘Oh, my God, they pooped on my car.’ “
He and Spadoni moved to Tacoma in 2019.
It was during the pandemic that he began to take notice of all the different kinds of bees in his backyard. It was also when he had conversations with his publisher about what subject he might next pursue.
“And they said, ‘Why don’t you do dumb bees?’ And I said, ‘I can’t do that. Bees are too important and too precious,’ “ he recalled. Bees, under assault from a host of problems from insecticides to mites, are having a tough time and Kracht doesn’t like to kick someone when they’re down.
“Always punch up … which is where the birds are,” he said.
Kracht abandoned his curmudgeon, bird-hater persona and adopted a different tone. Books about bees, he said, read either like science journals or simplified for children.
“There’s nothing in between for grown-ups who understand a little science and are interested, but don’t want to read a scientific journal, and so I thought, maybe I can be in that place.”
Where swear words and insults were hurled at birds in his previous books, swear words and praise are used in his bee book, especially for one special species.
As thousands of bee species toil away in obscurity one stands out like a celebrity complete with adoring fans. She is the bee-yonce of insects: the honey bee.
Every kid learns the honey bee basics: They pollinate, they make delicious golden honey, they are ruled by a queen and live in colonies. But Kracht takes that foundation of knowledge several steps further in “OMFG” and adds his own takes. We learn that colonies raise several queens at once and let them fight to the death when they emerge from their hexagon cells.
“This is a pretty bitchy thing to do to your sisters, but that’s just the way it is because there can be only one bee on the throne,” he writes. “Just look at all of European history if you don’t believe me.”
Readers also learn about how bees make honey, build their honeycomb and why they swarm, “Swarm in here, or is it just me?”
Paintings with %#@! bees
Near the end of “OMFG, Bees!” Kracht has a chapter called “Great paintings, if they had put bees in them” and then proceeds to show us exactly what that would look like.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if I could go back in time and tell these artists about how awesome bees are, and then maybe they would have included a bee or two in their pieces, and who knows, it might have worked out pretty great!,” he proposes.
And so Manet’s “Boating” has a solitary bee hovering over a waterborne couple, Degas’ “Dance Class” is spiced up with a few bees in the studio and Duccio’s “Madonna with Child” is surrounded by a hovering crown of adoring bees.
Despite a 4.6 out of 5 rating for his books on Amazon, there are still some readers put off by his use of four-letter words.
“There’s occasionally some people who are like, swearing is not funny and this ruined my husband’s birthday,” he said.
In the right circumstances, Kracht said he can “swear like a sailor” but was worried about the reception his style might get. It turns out, he said, biologists and ornithologists are some of his biggest fans. The books offer a relief valve of sorts for overworked scientists and researchers, he said.
“You love it,” Kracht said of those careers. “But it’s also frustrating, as nature will not always cooperate with you.”