Island: A Story of the Galápagos is packed with fascinating, well-researched facts about this archipelago and your exquisite paintings of its unique flora and fauna. How’d the idea come to you?
While working on my last picture book, Coral Reefs, I was reading a lot about evolution, and I was thinking, “Well, maybe I could do a book about evolution.” But how could I do it in a way that was a little different? Nothing really hit me until I read a passage about an island ecosystem, and I thought, “Oh, wow! This would be cool. I’ve done books about ecosystems before. I could do something about an island ecosystem and about the life of an island.” It wasn’t until a few days later that I realized, “Hey, wait a minute. My ideas about evolution would fit perfectly with this idea.” And then the obvious choice was the Galápagos.
Did you visit them?
Yes. It was the greatest trip I’ve ever had. When I was there, two things really struck me. One was the isolation. It was like being at the ends of the Earth. The other thing that struck me was that the animals don’t know to be afraid of people. It was like being in a zoo with no cages or being in a real-life National Geographic video. I kept hearing David Attenborough’s voice in the back of my head, telling me about the animals.
What’s the secret to making an exciting science book for kids?
In this book, I tried to make the island a character. I wanted to tell the biography of an island—a story about its birth, life, and death. Hopefully, that’s what makes the book kid-friendly. Also, when I do research and I’m excited about something, I try to include it in my books. As a kid, I would have been excited to learn that there are penguins on the equator and volcanoes forming under the ocean. I mean, that’s exciting stuff.
Your art is amazing. Were you born with a sketchbook?
I’ve always been drawing. My mother’s a high school and middle school art teacher, and my father went to Rhode Island School of Design, although he’s not an artist anymore. They were always ready with a sketchbook, and pencils, and whatever else I wanted. I was always encouraged to draw, and I always had a sketchbook in hand.
You lived in the same town as Caldecott winner Trina Schart Hyman while growing up in Lyme, NH. How’d she become your mentor?
Every year there was a library fund-raiser for the school, and she came to talk to the whole school and read us a new book and do some drawings. So I always knew who she was; everyone in town did. When I was a freshman in high school, I got it into my head that I wanted to be an artist, and I don’t know what made me think this, but I just called her up one day, and I said, “Hello. Would you look at my artwork?” [Laughs] She was very kind, and she agreed. And for some reason—I’ll never know why—she liked me.
What’s the most important thing she taught you?
She showed me what the life of an illustrator was like. She was very honest about what a struggle it was for her. She inspired me to be an artist. Then, when I decided to go to art school, she said, “Why the hell would you want to do that?” [Laughs]
SLJ starred review of Island (Roaring Brook/Neal Porter).