Marianne Wallace is a natural science educator, illustrator and author. Her illustrations have been published in over thirty books. She is the author and illustrator of a series of guides to North America’s deserts, forests, mountains, seashores, wetlands, prairies and grasslands. Marianne has taught science to elementary school children and nature drawing to science teachers, librarians, and children’s book writers. She taught botanical illustration classes at the L.A. County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in the 1970s, taught illustration classes for kids at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and taught a workshop about teaching botanical art to children at the annual meeting of the American Society of Botanical Artists held in Pasadena, CA in 2008.
This conversation is a continuation of a conversation I had with Marianne in 2004 when I interviewed her for The Southern California Botanical Artist. This time we begin with the question, How did you come to write the America’s books? Marianne explains:
On family trips I noticed there were few books about birds and butterflies west of the Mississippi. I thought, how could a book about North American birds not include common western birds like the Scrub Jay? Of the books that were in print at the time, I did not care for their cartoon-like illustrations. So I decided to write a book to fill this void.
My initial idea was to focus on desert habitats. However deserts are found in only certain states and I did not want to focus on specific states. I soon realized it would be better to take a broader approach and to create a book that also served as a learning tool. Since plants and animals know no boundaries, I decided to focus on specific habitats in North America.
It was important to me that the books show nature is cool, vibrant and still present. I wanted to get kids excited and thought if I created a fun book for kids, they would share it with their parents. I emphasize the “nature outside your door” and do not include humans in my books intentionally. I may mention human impacts as they pertain to native plants, but you will not see humans in my books.
The most common plants and animals of each habitat are what I focus on in my books. The specific attention given to common plants and animals came about because I observed that kids were not even aware of the most common species. I also observed that kids had no sense of geography. This made me determined to present the distribution of plants and animals in an understandable way.
The America’s books I wrote were written specifically for readers between 8 to 12 years old because I noticed there were natural history books for younger kids, nothing for 8-12 year olds, and then a jump to adult field guides.
The Search for a Publisher
Armed with an idea and a solid concept, Marianne needed a publisher. She researched her options and created a shortlist of ten publishers who would allow authors to illustrate books and who generally had good nature books. She wanted a publisher who valued information as much as she did. She knew that those who only do fiction may not be into information as much as they are into the story.
Marianne approached the Sierra Club first, then Harcourt Publishing. Upon contacting Harcourt, Marianne learned they only published nature books with photographs, so she scratched them off the list. She then contacted Fulcrum Books after reading information about what Fulcrum looks for in non-fiction books. At the time, Fulcrum was in the process of launching a natural science category and a childrens book division. Marianne was signed by Fulcrum and her Deserts book was one of the first books to be published in the new natural science category. Marianne says the great thing about small publishers is that authors receive more personal attention than they would at one of the big publishing houses.
When her Deserts book was published in 1996, creative non-fiction was not as prevalent as it is now. Marianne says the problem with this category today is that these books are often not written by biologists and, unfortunately, this makes the dissemination of misinformation more of a possibility. Marianne checks all of her scientific names and checks her facts very carefully to ensure the information in her books is as accurate as possible. In spite of one’s best efforts, though, mistakes are part of the business and when a mistake is found, both Fulcrum and Marianne take note. Reader feedback is filed and becomes part of the editing process each time a book is reissued.
These days, Marianne shops for publishers on Amazon.com. She looks for books she likes and jots down the names of publishers.
Including The Necessities
The books in the America’s series are as comprehensive as they are because they equip the reader will all he/she needs. We’re not talking just content here, we’re talking tools to enhance understanding. Simple tools too. Think rulers and maps. Marianne felt strongly that rulers and maps be included in her books. Rulers are important to Marianne because they enable readers to make comparisons between species and record accurate information. Maps are important to Marianne because she wants kids to understand how species are distributed and where habitat is located.
Another necessity was the inclusion of scientific names. Marianne felt it was important to passively educate people about the use of common names and scientific names. She wants people to understand the difference between common names and scientific names. The example she provides addresses how “puma”, “cougar”, and “mountain lion” are three common names for the same animal. These animals share one common name and this is Puma concolor. The same situation occurs with “peccary” and “javelina” – two common names, one animal (Pecari tajacu).
The Big Picture on Two Pages
The landmark features in every book in the series are the two-page spreads featuring the common plants and animals within a given habitat. To create the spreads in each book, Marianne asked people what to include. She asked educators and nature guides what people ask about the most. She researched the primary literature and spoke to experts. She also traveled a lot because she felt it was important to visit the places she wrote about. If a not-so-common species made it onto a two-page spread, it was included specifically to engage kids (e.g., an animal with warning colors accompanied by a cautionary tale). And Marianne admits, if she became really excited about a species, this served as a clue she may need to include it in the book.
Creating The Big Picture
When you’re the author and illustrator of a book, which comes first, the words or the illustrations? For Marianne, neither the words or the illustrations came first. Both were created simultaneously. The spreads in the America’s books were the most difficult illustrations to plan and create. Each two-page spread contains anywhere from 35 to 50 species of plants and animals. To create each two-page spread, Marianne completed the line art first in pen-and-ink. She then photographed the line art and added color (gouache). The plants and animals that were going to be on each spread for sure, were placed on the spread first. They served as place holders. Other sketches were added as necessary. Rocks and other features were added last. Imagine the time it took to repeat this process for each of the six spreads in a book!
As for the illustrations to be placed in other areas of each book, they came with their own set of instructions. Because the publisher prints 4-over-1 (full color on the front and B&W on the back) and alternates color pages with black & white pages, not every plant and animal was printed in color. In fact, certain rules were in place about which illustrations are created in color and which illustrations are not. The lizards, amphibians, trees, and mammals in Marianne’s books did not get color. Flowers and insects always received color.
When the illustrations for a book were completed, Marianne gave them to the publisher. At this point, how her artwork was recreated was beyond her control. If the publisher wants to punch up a color, then this is what they do even if it makes a plant or an animal a different hue than originally intended. Over time, Marianne learned to accept how her work is printed. She say authors and illustrators have to learn they can’t be in control of everything.
An Author’s Dream Realized
Amidst the busy planning of each book’s content, creating the detailed two-page spreads, talking with experts, and writing, Marianne never lost sight of what she wanted most. She wanted people to use her books. She made the conscious decision to publish the America’s series only as a paperback. The drawback to having her books published only in softcover is that they are not considered for awards. Also libraries, as a rule, do not buy paperback books. Even so, the America’s books are widely read and each title in the series has been reissued. The Deserts book is the most popular among readers. Marianne found out her books are also used in social studies classrooms because they cover all of North America and address regional topics discussed in social studies class.
Marianne’s books resonate with adult naturalists, homeschoolers, adults who aren’t naturalists, and grandparents who buy books for family members living in other areas of the country.
Marianne is currently taking a break from writing nonfiction. She wants to create a story grandparents can read to their grandchildren. She also wants to take a break from doing research. She is working on several ideas for picture books, including:
- A counting book written from the view point of a tarantula. This story will take place in the Mojave Desert.
- A fictional story about a barn owl. The backdrop of the story is based on accurate natural history facts about birds.
- Regional books for specific areas.
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