Talking More Than Turkey: an Interview with Jim Arnosky
Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on our blessings, congregate with family, and, yes, eat turkey. But how well do we really know this seasonal celebrity? In his most recent book, All About Turkeys, writer, illustrator, and naturalist Jim Arnosky explores the feeding, hunting, and mating habits of the wild turkey. In so doing, he carries on his fine tradition of educating children about familiar aspects of nature, and that is something to be truly thankful for. Arnosky, 52, lives with his wife on a farm in Vermont. He has written and illustrated more than 45 nature books for children, including three additional titles published this year: Little Lions, Watching Desert Wildlife, and Crinkleroot's Visit to Crinkle Cove. Each shares Arnosky's exquisitely detailed, yet gentle, illustrations and straightforward text, which combine to excite young readers about the natural world. BookPage recently spoke with Arnosky about his passion for nature and his voluminous body of work.
When did you first develop your appreciation of nature?
As a child, I lived in rural Pennsylvania and would spend entire days outdoors. I was fascinated with cartoons and wanted to be an artist, so I'd create animal characters, like raccoons and foxes. But the pivotal moment occurred while visiting my grandmother in New York City. I saw these raccoons at the Central Park Zoo, which I later learned were native to Pennsylvania. It was such a revelation, that these animals lived where I lived even though I couldn't readily see them. I became consumed by the elusive nature of wildlife and began looking for tracks and other signs of life to discover what else lived in my world.
Which came first, your love for writing or for illustrating?
Definitely my love for art. I have wanted to be a cartoonist since I was a kid. I didn't begin writing until the early 1970s, when my wife and I were living in a cabin at Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania. I was a freelance illustrator for Ranger Rick and other publications when I met a wise old man who gave me a piece of invaluable advice keep a journal. So I bought a leather-bound journal that I thought I'd use for sketching. To my own surprise, I began writing about every wildlife encounter that I had. Writing books, though, came much later.
What artists and writers influenced you?
John Burroughs, John Muir, and Ernest Thomas Seton affected me deeply. Reading Burroughs was like listening to me talk to myself. I felt like I was actually with him on his fishing and hiking expeditions. After steeping myself in his books, I was determined to do that too, to make kids believe they are experiencing nature with me. Ernest Thomas Seton is less well known, but he was a wildlife writer and naturalist who specialized in children's books.
What was the first book you published?
In 1974, I wrote the first book about Crinkleroot, the sage woodsman. I wanted him to be an expert in the natural world, yet lovable and whimsical enough to bring natural history to kids. The book was entitled, I Was Born in a Tree and Raised by Bees. Recently I re-colorized the art, made the book more current, and it will be published as Crinkleroot's Nature Almanac.
How do get ideas for your books?
Everything comes either from what I see either through my eyes, a camera, or a video camera or where I identify a lack of information. I want to know not only what lives where I live, but also where my readers live. For example, rattlesnakes are common in the southwest, so I wrote All About Rattlesnakes for kids living in the desert.
Is there one central message that you hope to impart to children?
I am convinced that if you love the outdoors, natural places, and wildlife, you will grow into a person who will consider those factors no matter what work you do. My job is to foster an appreciation of nature and a curiosity about wildlife. I tell kids what I know and let them decide how to think about it. Hopefully they'll use that knowledge and make a difference.
You're very prolific. How long does it take you to write and illustrate a book?
I do four books a year, and each takes about three months. First I research a site, photographing or videotaping a species. Then I let the ideas percolate for awhile before I illustrate my images. The pictures determine the story, so the words actually come last.
What are you working on now?
I'm finishing a video companion to All About Deer. Few children even know the size of a deer. When I ask kids how big a deer is, I get answers ranging from the size of a dog to the size of a pony. And I'll be starting All About Turtles soon. Next spring I have two books for very young children coming out, called Mouse Numbers and Mouse Letters, which were originally written for my daughter when she was three. I'm also working on a surprise book that is a celebration of my own years watching wildlife.
We'll be watching to see what you help children discover next.
Lisa Horak is a mother and a freelance writer living in Annandale, VA.