A Conversation with Laura Cunningham

LauraCunningham_web200pxIn 2011, Laura Cunningham published  A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California with Heyday, earning her the California Book Award Gold Medal and much critical acclaim. Four years later, she’s directed her writing and gifts for visual storytelling in The Bay Area through Time to those who will soon take on the upkeep of the planet: children. Earlier this month, Monica Masiello spoke with Laura about condensing 450 million years of Bay Area history into something that kids can devour, what it means to translate urgent messages of conservation and environmental awareness to young people, and her plans to collaborate with other educators to continue doing so.

MM: How did you create the narrative arc for The Bay Area through Time? How did you decide which important moments over the course of natural history merited inclusion in a short work for children?

LC: I remembered when I was a kid I was fascinated with dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, trilobites, and sabertooth cats. So when Heyday and I decided on the size of the book and number of pages, I honed the storyline to my favorite paleontological periods of the past, full of strange prehistoric creatures.

MM: You’ve previously authored the award-winning book for an adult readership, A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California. What are the most important ways that making a children’s book differed from that—or was it surprisingly similar in any ways? 

LC: I found writing a children’s book was very different from writing A State of Change in that I had to simplify the science to make it easy to understand for young people. Complex ecological processes could only be hinted at (such as the food chain), and the text had to be short and clear, with no big words.

The only exception I made was in using scientific names. Children often seem to learn complex names of dinosaurs quite easily–in fact, they memorize dinosaur names with gusto. So I kept some of the Latin names of prehistoric animals, as well as using common names when I could.


A mother bear and her cubs, as portrayed for an adult audience in A State of Change (left) and for children in The Bay Area through Time (right).

What is the importance, as you see it, of articulating natural history to children early on?

LC: This is very important to me– education about the value of the natural world is the start to caring about the environment, which is the basis of living on a healthy planet. Learning about natural history can excite a child’s imagination and knowledge about so many fields in science and history, just as it did for me starting in kindergarten

What are the challenges and privileges of visual storytelling as opposed to strictly textual storytelling? As an artist, what do you perceive as most enabling about illustrations when they function in conjunction with text?

LC: The value of illustrations is that even a young child who is still learning to read can see artwork and be visually thrilled by the pictures of animals and scenes from the past. I am a fan of the art of comics, as they can convey a lot of information and storytelling in a simple way that is clear and concise; even a cartoon, if thoughtfully illustrated, can tell a story and be full of information.


Click to enlarge.

What was the most unexpected thing about making this book—from creating the story to working with Heyday’s production team?

LC: I think the most unexpected thing about making the book was showing the illustrations to children and seeing how they liked the scenes–an early insight into how illustrations can impact a young person. They liked the artwork in ways I had not thought of–for instance, one boy liked the Paleozoic Sea best, with the swimming ammonites and sea creatures. Most kids I have met like dinosaurs the best, probably stimulated by all the movies, media, books, and so forth on dinosaurs; they’re much easier to relate to than strange invertebrates like trilobites. So I was pleasantly surprised that the mysterious worlds of deep oceans can also be fun for children—maybe he’ll grow up to be a marine biologist!

What was your favorite part of assembling this book, and which of the time periods you included in it is your favorite to study?

LC: I always enjoy recreating imaginary scenes of past landscapes filled with creatures and plant life–based on science–that people can become lost in as if they’re walking into a past world. I find that each period of prehistory and history is fascinating, so it is difficult to pick a favorite today, though as a child I was especially fascinated with dinosaurs!

Any plans up your sleeve for future books for children or about the Bay Area?

LC: Yes! I’d like to write future children’s books about natural history, especially one on desert ecology for kids. One idea I have is for a chronicle of the life and times of a young desert chuckwalla lizard growing up and finding out about all the other creatures inhabiting its rocky canyon in the Mojave Desert. I’m currently working with some wonderful desert advocates who take children to the Salton Sea in southern California on educational field trips to expand this type of curriculum to other areas. I’m also making my desert conservation group Basin & Range Watch into a nonprofit so that we can expand our educational activities—with particular emphasis on children’s education.