Caroline Arnold has had the most extraordinary career as a children’s book author. Known largely for her books on animals, Caroline Arnold has written nearly 150 books on animals ranging from pandas to the Peregrine falcon. Celebrity Parents spoke with Caroline about her books, her love of animals, and coming full circle in both her career and life.
I didn’t grow up thinking about becoming a writer. I loved reading books and my mother loved reading as well. I would check books out of the library and I read all the time. In college, I studied fine arts — my Masters is in Fine Arts — with the intention of becoming an art teacher. I put my career aside when my children were small.As almost all moms do.
That’s right. At the time, my mom said to me, “Why don’t you consider becoming a children’s book illustrator?” I realized instantly that I couldn’t illustrate until I had a story. The story always comes first. I began to write so I could illustrate. I learned that in terms of selling a book, you have to sell the story first. I began trying to sell stories, and I illustrated some of my early books. In those days, though, publishing was different. Most books were in black and white. Unless you were very famous or established, it was hard to become an illustrator. I stopped doing illustrations and concentrated on my writing. I teamed up with a photographer, Richard Hewett, and we worked together for fifteen years as an author/illustrator team.As time passed, did you think about trying to illustrate again?
Yes, I did because times had changed. It was now much easier to illustrate in color. We did many beautiful books with Richard’s color photography, and I learned about the illustration process from working with him. I truly enjoyed working together with someone.
Writing can be isolating.
Exactly. And I learned that some books lend themselves to photographic illustrations and others not. This is especially true for animals that are nocturnal or animals that live in remote places, like pandas or underwater animals. Those animals are much easier to illustrate by drawing. I’ve truly enjoyed the challenge of creating my own illustrations.
Of the nearly 150 books you’ve written, which books would you say are your favorites?
I always have a difficult time choosing a favorite book.
It’s hard. It’s like being asked to pick your favorite child.
[laughs] Kids will often ask me if I have a favorite animal. What I love about writing about animals is that each animal is uniquely adapted to its particular niche. But then I confess that I’ve always loved cats. I’ve had cats all my life. Our cat passed away, so the question now is: “Should we get a kitten?” [laughs]
Would it be fair to say that you’re known primarily as an author of animals?
Yes. I love animals. This began when I was a child. I grew up in Minnesota, and my father loved the outdoors. He was an avid birdwatcher and we would take camping trips. I’ve always enjoyed being in nature. So I was already primed to write nature books from the beginning. And then my husband is a scientist. In the beginning of his career, his focus was on animal behavior. I learned vicariously about animals through some of his research. We spent 3 months in Uganda; on a daily basis, we saw elephants and all sorts of animals. I kept a lengthy diary, which would now be called a blog! [laughs] We took hundreds of photos. All of that material has emerged in the books I’ve written since then.
Let’s talk about your art. You’ve begun using a new technique to illustrate your books.
My newer books are meant for younger readers. What I like about them is that they are illustrated with my art, and I can use my art in a new way. I had never done cut-paper collage before. In essence, I am drawing with my scissors. It goes back to my training; I’m just using a different material. It’s very bold, colorful, and the format is big so it’s perfect for younger children. It allows me to simplify, and helps focus the readers’ attention on the more important parts.
The writing and the art compliment each other.
In an ideal situation, the words and the art become a unified whole. It’s my complete vision, and there’s a lot of pleasure in that.
You began writing when your children, Jennifer and Matthew, were little. You’ve said that now as a grandmother you’ve come full circle. Let’s talk about that.
When my children were younger, I had two jobs; I was an author and I was also a mother. When my children were school age, my work day was their school day. Now, I’m now a grandmother and I love being with my grandchildren. I read books with them, and it allows me to enjoy the books I enjoyed with my children and new ones, too. They’re the perfect ages for my books.
And you’ve come full circle with your writing as well.
I wrote easy read books for new readers at the beginning of my writing career. One of the first books I wrote was called Wiggle and Waggle. It was inspired by the garden behind our house. I wrote it when my son was three years-old. I put the story away, though; it wasn’t ready to go to a publisher. I finally finished it, and it was published when my grandson was 3.
That’s a wonderful story!
It has truly brought me full circle. I’m very lucky to have had this career. From my art grew my writing; one thing grows into the next. It makes life much more interesting and wonderful.