In my last post, I mentioned working in a middle school library when I wrote Amanda Noble, Zookeeper Extraordinaire, now called Amanda Noble, #Zoolife#Zoolife. Let me rewind and share a little about its conception. My family had always been fans of nature programming. And at that time, The Crocodile Hunter was hugely popular. Everyone loved him. And rightfully so. But as awesome as he was, it was a different TV personality that sparked the idea for Amanda’s story. Jack Hanna.
One morning, while getting ready to head into the library, I had Good Morning America on in the background. Hanna had appeared on TV for years, and he was a personal favorite. (Check out this early appearance on Letterman.) This particular morning, he’d brought several large tropical birds to GMA, along with his usual brand of chaos. The big birds took over the stage—and Hanna—as he tried to converse with the host. He was being pecked, preened, and pooped on. It was hilarious. And in a split second, I had an idea for a teen book. Like most books, it started with questions. What would it be like if this was your father? How would you feel about his crazy antics on TV? And what if you actually lived in a zoo? Also, in that split second, I knew where the story would take place.
Years earlier on a trip to Disney World, we’d visited a small privately-owned zoo called Jungleland. (Here are some great photos of it from the blog Old Florida.) This had to be the setting for the story. I could see it in my mind. Ten years had passed since we’d visited, but I remembered the layout—the zoo, a gift shop, and an apartment the original owners had lived in. I found Jungleland’s contact information (Sadly, they're no longer in business.) and called and explained I was writing a novel. I asked if I could visit the zoo for my research, and they suggested I volunteer as a zookeeper for the day. I was broke, but after a yard sale, where I rid my home of everything I didn’t want anymore, along with some arts & crafts, I raised enough money for the trip. And so began Amanda Noble’s story.
What does all this have to do with an international tragedy? Since I’d decided to self-publish, I hired a designer for the book’s interior and cover. We threw around ideas, and below is one of the first mockups. Because there was comedy and humor in the novel, the designer placed cartoon animals on it, along with the caricature in the top left corner. It wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but since I didn’t know what I had in mind, I went with it. That was in the winter and spring of 2006, and publication was set for the fall. We were ready to go to print. And then came the tragedy. Everyone received the news that the incomparable Steve Irwin had died. It was a devastating loss experienced worldwide. After the shock, I wrote the designer to let her know we couldn’t use this mockup. The caricature was obviously a parody of Steve Irwin, and there was no way I would do something to dishonor his name. Using his image felt like trying to profit from his life and/or death. It had to go. The designer understood, and who wouldn’t? So, we went back to the drawing board, and I’ll share more on that in future posts, but this cover is still, and will always be, special. Every time I look at it, and Steve Irwin’s exuberant cartoon-counterpart, I smile and appreciate his life all over again.
*Many zoos have volunteer programs. I even worked at the Houston Zoo as part of my ongoing research. Some programs allow children as young a 12 to sign up. Check with your local zoo.