Today’s Simply 7 is with both the author AND the illustrator about a board book that feels perfect for Alaskan babies. It’s all about bear safety!
Bear sightings are common in Alaska. It’s much better when they’re at a distance of course, but if you’re into hiking or camping (which a lot of Alaskans do) then you’re likely to run into one. It’s wise to know bear safety, no matter where you are in Alaska.
Point in case, I had a run in with a black bear just last summer that I was NOT expecting. After we moved into our new house, my hubby found out from a neighbor that there’s a black bear that comes down off the mountain somewhere to visit our neighborhood every year around spring and summer. My mom was the first to spot him at a distance (looking like an “ugly dog crossing the street”) as she was out walking her dog down our street towards it. Luckily for her, drivers slowed down to let her know that there was a bear ahead and she turned around and came back home.
To put this into perspective, we live in one of the biggest cities of the state. There is a TON of traffic and cars around, noise and people about, etc. BUT animals are a part of life in Alaska, no matter where you live. After my mom’s narrow escape, I should’ve known better.
I was walking with a friend around a man-made lake in the middle of the city just down the street from where I live, when I saw that bear at a distance walking towards us. I admit I started walking very quickly in the opposite direction (NOT what you’re really supposed to do). My friend had a more level head, stopped to help an elderly lady walk away to safety in our same direction, and yelled at others on a nearby trail that there was a bear in the vicinity. All the noise we were making as we collected more and more people to walk with us must’ve deterred him, but still. I should’ve known better. I wish I’d had a book like this one growing up!
When I saw the board book I’m going to share with you today, I was very impressed. It might seem like a niche market, but in these parts, it’s a VITAL book for kiddos to read. I’ve visited Yosemite and know it’s every bit as vital for that park too.
“Eat Up, Bear!” is a story about bear safety. It teaches the very young reader who might go with family camping, how to secure food and trash properly. All while enjoying bear antics and bright colorful pictures. Seriously, these illustrations are sumptuous!
Writer Terry Pierce has visited my blog once before to talk about another beautiful board book. She is back today to talk about her latest book that has been picked up nationwide by REI for 130 of their stores AND by Yosemite Conservancy Publishing. Terry has written numerous books over the years. She now writes full-time and is a UCLA Extension Writers’ Program instructor. Terry holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and has been an SCBWI member for twenty years. Terry lives in Mammoth Lakes, CA. You can learn more about her at her website.
Welcome back Terry!
Me: This board book will help teach the very young about food and bear safety. What gave you the idea?
Terry: I live in the town of Mammoth Lakes, California, nestled in the high Sierra, where black bears are a part of our everyday life (at least, when they aren’t hibernating!). Our community has learned how to coexist with bears by adapting how we store food and dispose of trash. When I read the story call out from Yosemite Conservancy, I immediately thought about a book that would help families learn about food and trash disposal when visiting the outdoors. Because bears are opportunistic eaters, proper food storage is the most important things people can do to ensure bears stay healthy and wild.
Me: That is SO true! Why is bear safety a topic you want to share with younger children?
Terry: I was a Montessori teacher for 22 years before I started writing, so I know small children are like sponges, soaking up everything in their environment. Reading (and discussing) Eat Up, Bear! is a great way for families to learn about how they can do their part together. They can help bears by being aware of simple things like how to store food and throw away trash. Even very young children can feel empowered knowing that something as simple as putting their food in a bear locker, or cleaning the crumbs from their car seat will help wildlife (and humans) stay safe and healthy.
Me: Absolutely. You had a book published in 2008 (“Blackberry Banquet”) with a similar character: a hungry bear. Are bears one of your favorite animals? What draws you to them in your writing?
Terry: Yes, I did. The difference between Blackberry Banquet and Eat Up, Bear! is that the former is a cumulative fiction picture book, whereas the latter is an informative board book meant to entertain and educate families on how they can help keep bears wild.
I’ve always been an animal advocate, but black bears have a special place in my heart because of my many encounters with them. There’s no greater thrill for me than to observe a black bear in the wild. From my very first sighting, I realized that while they’re large brawny animals who can seem intimidating, they’re basically passive creatures who just want to eat food and avoid humans.
Me: Your writing in this book is brilliant! It has a rhythm, it has a circular pattern, and it educates. How difficult was this to write? Were there many revisions?
Terry: Thank you, Jena! That’s so kind of you say. The challenge in writing any board book is using sparse text within a few pages. I had to make every word count while using engaging language for very young children. Plus, we wanted to keep the focus on food storage methods while keeping a positive tone (what humans can do, rather than what they shouldn’t do).
Lucky for me, our wonderful illustrator Nadja Sarell conveyed a tremendous amount of information through the illustrations. I think the words and pictures work well together because the text names the food storage methods while the art shows the bears eating “good bear food.” We let the reader hear the positive examples of proactive human behavior while letting them infer from the illustrations what bears should be eating.
I think we had three rounds of text revisions before bringing Nadja into the process. After she began the artwork, we (Yosemite Conservancy, Nadja and I) collaborated with the National Park Service for biological accuracy. I’ve always had tremendous respect for wildlife scientists, so working with the NPS experts was interesting and informative.
Me: Wow! That’s quite an opportunity! The illustrations by Nadja Sarell are both adorable and beautiful. How did you get paired with her? Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Terry: You’re so right—Nadja’s illustrations are perfect for the book! It was my fabulous editor, Nicole Geiger, and the Yosemite Conservancy team who found Nadja and asked her to join the project. I was beyond thrilled when I saw her artwork and feel so fortunate to have been paired with her. Her colorful, playful, accurate pictures lift the text to make the book soar!
There weren’t any illustration surprises, but one unexpected delight was the collaborative effort with the project. Nicole and the Yosemite Conservancy team welcomed input and discussion on the text and the art. I could send photos, give feedback, and discuss various aspects of the book, so I savored the collective creative process.
Me: I love that! I also love all the bears and their personalities, as well as the variety of campers. Do you have a favorite illustration? If yes, which one and why?
Terry: This is a tough question because I love them all! The opening illustration is so colorful, and those rascally bears are hilarious. The full spread of the two hikers also appeals to me because it reminds me of my first backpacking trip, where a fledgling cub appeared on the other side of a stream while my husband and I ate dinner (it smelled our fresh fish). It crossed the water, came into our camp and ended up in a tree above our tent! (Thank goodness, it climbed down before dark!)
But I think my favorite is the final spread. The color palette is gorgeous, with all the bears from the book in the foreground, eating what they’re supposed to. And in the background shows a diverse representation of people who visit Yosemite National Park and other outdoor areas. It’s a wonderful note on which to end the book—complete harmony and coexistence between human and animals.
Me: What a perfect way to describe it. Where is your favorite camping spot? Did you ever encounter a bear?
Terry: I’ve backpacked and camped my entire life, and even hiked the John Muir Trail from Tuolumne Meadows to Mt. Whitney one summer. My car camping location of choice is Yosemite Valley. It’s breathtaking, no matter which season. My favorite backpacking spot is Thousand Island Lake, just south of Yosemite National Park. It’s a stunning jewel in the high Sierra.
And yes, I’ve crossed paths with many bears over the years. Ironically, though, the experience I most treasure happened in Mammoth Lakes. I once observed a mother bear and her two cubs for about an hour. After some rummaging around the forest floor, the cubs climbed up a tree, and the mama climbed up the tree next to them. Their communication was fascinating! She made grunting sounds at them (a similar tone to that of a human mom getting serious with her young misbehaving child). The cubs responded with a sound somewhat like a sheep (Mmaaah!). She kept grunting, and they kept doing what I interpreted as talking back to their mother! Eventually, she climbed down, and her twins scrambled down when they saw her walking away. The entire experience just made me smile, seeing that mothering isn’t easy, even for bears! (And I think the bear cub in Eat Up, Bear! was much more cooperative!)
LOL! That’s hilarious. Thank you for stopping by my blog again Terry.
But wait, dear readers! There’s more! I was also able to talk with the illustrator of this book.
Nadja Sarell has a degree in illustration from the North Wales School of Art and Design as well as an MA in dance from Theatre Academy Helsinki. She is the illustrator behind The One and Only Wolfgang, written by Instagram sensation Steve Greig and author Mary Rand Hess, and the Frankie Sparks, Third Grade Inventor series. She lives in Helsinki, Finland. You can learn more about her at her website.
Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start drawing or creating?
Nadja: I started very young! As a child I was always drawn to creating, inventing and reading, and I enjoyed spending time by myself, drawing, playing and dancing at home. I went to an art class once a week when I was in school, and I also did ballet and played classical piano. My mother worked in a publishing house, so I used to cut and glue pictures from their catalogues. I wrote a lot of stories and poems too, and illustrated them. We had plenty of books at home too. So all of my childhood was really creative and my parents always encouraged me. I did choose a dance career at first, but I soon found out that my passion was in children’s publishing and books.
Me: That’s understandable! I love the work you did in “Eat Up, Bear.” The bears eating grass at sunset in front of the Yosemite mountains is one of my favorite illustrations. What medium did you use? Can you tell us a little bit about your process for the book?
Nadja: For “Eat Up, Bear!” illustrations I painted plenty of textures on paper that I scanned on the computer. Each bear in each page had its own fur created. I did the final illustrations digitally, adding all the textures in. So it’s a mix of traditional and digital art. I did my art degree drawing and painting traditionally (I was terrified of computers!), and I have used various techniques and tools in my illustrations over the years.
With “Eat Up, Bear!” I started with researching into black bears and their habitats, behaviour, and eating habits. Researching for a book is always one of my favourite parts of the process, I love learning about new things! “Eat Up, Bear!” is not based on a specific location even though it is published by Yosemite Conservancy. The book is suitable for every national park and every hiker and camper, old and new!
I received plenty of guidance from the client about the bears, the correct hiking equipment, food storage options and so on. That was very helpful and fascinating to learn about. I started with thumbnail sketches on paper and moved to sketching each spread on Photoshop. Once the roughs were approved, I started thinking about the colors and creating the final art for the book.
Me: Wow! Do you have a favorite scene that you illustrated for this book? If yes, which one?
Nadja: My favourite is the sunset illustration towards the end! The bears look so relaxed and happy.
Me: That’s mine too! I love how colorful your work is and the variety in your portfolio (lots of bears and other fun animals!). You have many creative patterns and beautiful paintings in gouache. Do you have a preferred style or medium as you create? What draws you to patterns or paint versus another medium?
Nadja: I do enjoy painting with gouache! I also love a chance to do printmaking. I enjoy creating textures, motifs and other messy, spontaneous things on paper. I have always been really colourful in my work! It’s something that comes naturally to me.
I learned about pattern design a few years ago. I took some great online courses and taught myself the basics of Photoshop at the same time. I had come to realize that I needed to learn this skill to improve my portfolio and develop my style. It’s not so long ago when I painted all the artwork in gouache or mixed media. But this meant that someone else was doing the scanning and adjusting of colours, cleaning the messy bits and so on. And I was never happy with the outcome (I’m hard to please!). Now that I do 50/50 I can control the end result, especially the colours.
Me: That is SO true. What is one thing that surprised you in illustrating this story?
Nadja: I was surprised to find out how much information one can fit in a 14-page board book! The text is a rhyme with repetition, but the illustrations create a new narrative for each spread.
Me: Any advice for other picture book illustrators just starting out?
Nadja: When I started out as a freelance illustrator, I immediately joined our illustrators’ association. It helps to know your fellow colleagues and it’s important to have people you can ask advice from. This is a lonely profession after all. I studied illustration in the UK, so when I moved back to Helsinki, I didn’t really know any other illustrators.
Me: Aww! I love that you joined a community and I hope you have found one again. Community is so important with illustration (at least that’s what I’ve found). Do you have any future projects planned?
Nadja: I do have several book projects to complete by the end of 2021. I also dream of having the time to write my own picture book.
My current book projects are for my clients in Finland and for the US and UK publishers I work with via my agent, Astound. I’m hoping to have a relaxing summer holiday spending time in a hammock reading books, swimming in a lake and eating ice-cream!
That’s awesome Nadja! Thank you for stopping by my blog.
And dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance to track down this book yet, you should do so. This is a book where the writing entertains AND educates (in a subtle way). It’s also a book that shows just how wonderful a mix of traditional and digital illustrations can be. It’s a beautiful combination. Don’t miss this one!