[“Is That A Skunk?” will be published by Heyday Books in November 2017 as a fun story of neighborhood coexistence. By Gary Bogue. Illustrated by Chuck Todd]
I first came across Heyday’s children’s book selection a few years ago when my son was learning his alphabet. Passing a colleague’s desk at Bay Nature, I picked up Discovering Nature’s Alphabet (2005), one of Heyday’s older children’s titles, and brought it home.
I think I was probably more enamored by it than my son Oliver at first. He was 3 at the time and liked the pretty pictures of leaves, tree branches and salamander tails. I instantly saw the mystery of it all — 26 letters captured in small moments in nature. The alphabet is so scripted, and yet nature, all on its own, regularly creates the same shapes. Huh, how about that.
Over the years, I’ve continued to pinch Heyday children’s books away from the office to test them out on my kids. The next one: The Bay Area Through Time (2015). Oliver glommed onto this one, reveling in the scenery of long lost landscapes when saber-toothed tigers roamed these parts, an enormous waterfall tumbled over the Golden Gate, and our Bay Area subsumed into one vast sea with odd-looking shelled creatures everywhere.
These are just a couple of a wide selection of children’s books — 38 in all by the end of 2017— that Heyday Books is publishing, mostly local to Northern California and having to do with nature. At the helm of Heyday’s children’s titles is Molly Woodward, the acquisitions editor, who came on staff two years ago with a passion for little people and their reading habits. “It’s always been my prime interest,” she explains. “I never stopped reading children’s books even before I had kids.”
A quarter of Heyday’s title lists are now children’s books and some of them have become its bestsellers, including Humphrey the Wayward Whale, with 17,000 copies sold since 1999, and Mother Goose in California, a local take on the classic fairy tales, with 11,000 copies since 2009. A is for Acorn: A California Indian ABC, came to life before Woodward joined Heyday. Author and illustrator Analisa Tripp and Lyn Risling perceived a need for an alphabet book about the California Indian world, but the book now sells far and wide in such venerable spots as the Smithsonian Institute’s gift shop in Washington, DC. A counting book will soon follow.
For Woodward, it doesn’t hurt to have her own toddler on hand to try out ideas. Woodward herself has authored two titles — It’s Nice to Be a Pika and It’s Nice to Be an Otter. The board books are nothing short of adorable. “I wanted to start with animals. There’s a cuteness factor to them.” But furry appeal is just a starting point. Using simple words, Woodward manages to introduce the concepts of habitat, predation and the social behaviors of a species.
What Heyday is doing is pretty unique. Most publishers aim for maximum distribution, so widely popular animals like elephants and tigers take center stage with little cultivation of local scenery. But Heyday’s niche happens to be stories from California and most of the writers and illustrators are based in the state. Woodward thinks stories that take place locally — with local species — are especially meaningful to children, who live in the here and now. “I think place is so important,” Woodward says. “It’s an important dimension of our lives so when people dive in and get specific about it, it adds a layer of richness.”
Indeed, a recently published study reviewed 1,200 children’s books, both fiction and nonfiction, and found that almost 90 percent contained depictions of nonnative species and landscapes, including many in school textbooks. Not to get too weighty, but the researchers (led by Chilean ecologist Juan Celis Diez) noted that this trend has become a key driver in the loss of biodiversity knowledge and will lead to “an inability to perceive environmental deterioration or the loss of species from their surroundings.”
Discovering Nature’s Alphabet is a book project born out of one couple’s beginning backpacker experiences in the West. Krystina Castella and Brian Boyl, professors at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, began looking for letters as a way to intellectually endure some of the endless hours on the trail. They say it took them three years to collect pictures of all the letters, and another two years to find good versions of them for publication. The letter ‘Q’ was the biggest stumbling block.
“We had the entire alphabet I think for a year, but we didn’t have a ‘Q,’” Boyl says. Finally, at Huntington Botanical Garden in Los Angeles, a prickly pear cactus appeared with a lovely purple sheen, though it was missing the hole that would form a ‘Q.’ “Believe it or not I turned around and there was an aloe plant and a thread coming off it,” Boyl said. “We spent a year looking for ‘Q’s and there were two ‘Q’s right next to each other.”
Their nature alphabet concept has since then taken off with a museum exhibit that briefly went on tour and a K-12 curriculum developed out of it. Heyday is publishing a new spin on the book in the fall of 2017 that challenges young readers to find letters “hiding” in nature.
With the holidays underway and the kids out of school, now’s a good time to curl up with some reads. Why not make them about California?
Alison Hawkes is contributing editor of Bay Nature magazine and a mother of two voracious young readers.