Earlier this year I completed the illustrations for The Secret Life of the Red Fox, written by my mentor and friend, Laurence Pringle. It’s something like his one hundred and seventeenth book. I have some catching up to do!
Imagine my joy when I was offered the job to illustrate his next “Secret Life” book—The Secret Life of the Little Brown Bat. Seriously. First foxes, now bats? How much cooler can this job get? Last week I received the completed manuscript, and today I opened an envelope from Larry full of bat reference. He made great copies of other illustrators’ renderings of bats of different species. This is as helpful as watching someone else solve a very complex math problem right before you do one yourself. It’s not about copying, it’s about technique, and the artist’s eye.
See, bats aren’t very photogenic. They are extremely difficult to photograph without some seriously advanced camera equipment—especially little brown bats. Why? Think about it. They’re little. They’re brown. And they are bats—the worlds’ only flying mammals. There’s really nothing else like them. They move fast enough to snatch mosquitos and moths from the air in the dark. I can barely get a sharp photo of a slow-moving pigeon in full daylight! So looking at other artists’ renderings of bats saves me a lot of guesswork. That doesn’t mean I won’t try to photograph them though!
Another challenge bats pose is their creepy reputation. My job is to make young readers love them, despite any “ew” factor displayed by skeeved-out parents. Little brown bats need our love. They’re on a fast path to extinction due to a deadly fungal outbreak called white-nose syndrome. It’s an upsetting situation if you care about bats. If you don’t, though, then why would you do anything to help save them? Why help an animal that creepy creature like a bat?
My job is to show what’s endearing and important about little brown bats. My mission is to make everyone say, “awwwww!!!” when they see my illustrations of Otis, the main character in the story. The book will be a narrative non-fiction picture book for grades 1-4, but as with the Red Fox book, I’m not thinking about age. I’m thinking about the beauty and quirkiness of the animal when I draw it.
Earlier I asked you, “how much cooler than this job get?” Well. In addition to foxes and bats, I have another project: Belle’s Journey, written by my ornithologist friend, Rob Bierregaard. I have lots of pictures to go through after 5 days sketching and photographing the ospreys of Martha’s Vineyard, the subject and setting of Rob’s book. Belle will be another narrative non-fiction book, but for middle-grade readers. It’s 19 chapters long and packed full of raptor action. How much joy can I stand?