Why writing a children’s book was a surprise blessing
In early 2016, an email pinged into my inbox with an unusual subject line: Children’s Book. “I hope you don’t mind me contacting you out of the blue,” it read. As a freelance magazine journalist, I often get unsolicited emails from sources, readers and editors, but this was unique. An editor from Quarto, a publishing house, was looking to commission a large-format illustrated kids’ book celebrating the national parks. Would I be interested in authoring it?
It had never, ever crossed my mind to write a children’s book, and I hesitated. I love kids but I don’t have any of my own. I think of myself as a serious journalist, and I wondered if writing something so, well, fun, might derail my other ambitions. But I was also curious. I signed on to the project.
The work couldn’t have come at a better time. I started writing in late 2016, right after the last presidential election, which cast a shadow over my entire existence and filled me with dread and hopelessness. But as I talked to park rangers who work with children, researched plants and animals using stacks of field guides and reflected on my own experiences in about 30 national parks, a thread of optimism started to weave through my days.
An intention emerged: I hoped that the book project would, in some small way, open the door for children to fall in love with the natural world as much as I love it. Along the way, I learned that to write well for youngsters, I had to cultivate a different frame of mind—one not quite so paralyzed by seriousness and worry. I had to unearth my own innate curiosity and capacity for wonder and view the world through a kid’s eyes.
Over the course of several months, I geeked out learning cool things about nature. A humpback whale can take in 15,000 gallons of water in a single gulp! Gray foxes are the only canid species that can climb trees thanks to a rotating forearm! Short-horned lizards can squirt blood out of their eyes when threatened!
“You can’t make this stuff up!” I’d tell my friends over drinks, sharing oddball nature trivia—probably insufferably.
I also didn’t shy away from including real issues in the book. In between factoids about bears and salamanders and eagles, I wrote micro-essays about the power of wilderness, invasive animals, endangered species and the indigenous people who were once the sole inhabitants of these lands—and in some cases were pushed out to make way for parks.
A designer at Quarto then married the art—created by the amazing illustrator Chris Turnham—with my words and laid it all out on pages. Opening those spreads for the first time on my computer in the quiet stillness of my office, I literally squealed. (I’m not usually a squealer.) Chris’s art positively sung off the screen.
Then one day in late May, the book itself arrived on my doorstep. I opened the package to a surprise. The book was bigger than I thought—10.5 by 12.5 inches—with a cloth cover, an embossed title and thick paper. I felt so honored to have my work showcased in such a beautiful package. “Uh, can I have that for my coffee table?” a child-free friend asked.
As a magazine writer, you don’t always hear a whole lot of feedback about how your stories move through the world. But this book has been different. Friends and readers I don’t know have posted pictures of children poring over it. Unexpectedly beautiful reviews have popped up on the web. And at my first reading at my hometown bookshop, the kids blew me away with their enthusiasm. Afterward, they ran up clutching their books for me to sign. It was so cute and endearing, I almost cried.
But perhaps the greatest gift from the book has been remembering my own sense of discovery and wonder and allowing just a bit of my own over-seriousness fall away. Sometimes, it seems, the most growth comes when I allow myself to step out of the limited identity I take myself to be, a lesson I apparently need to learn over and over.
Now, when I head out into the woods or the desert or on the river, I see not just the beauty of the land; I’m also aware of a hidden world of flora and fauna and natural features that seems nothing short of miraculous. I understand the mind-blowing wonder of these natural landscapes in a deeper way, amplifying my appreciation for them. I wrote this book to benefit children, but it turned out to be a great blessing for me too.