Artist, photographer, and humanitarian activist Dan Eldon was a photojournalist covering the civil war and famine in Somalia in 1993 when he was killed by a mob of protesters—at the age of 22. In 1997, Chronicle published The Journey Is the Destination: The Journals of Dan Eldon, showcasing Eldon’s heavily illustrated journals. That book resonated deeply with Jennifer New, then an educational curriculum developer, who came across it in a bookstore soon after its publication. The volume inspired her own creative journey based on Dan’s life story: she wrote a biography for adults, Dan Eldon: The Art of Life and subsequently Dan Eldon: Safari as a Way of Life for teens due from Chronicle this month. The YA book is filled with Eldon’s photos, paintings, and collages, and features numerous interactive elements.
"I bought a copy of The Journey Is the Destination and read it while I was backpacking," New recalls. "I was mesmerized by it." The Iowa resident contacted Dan’s mother, Kathy Eldon. "I asked her if I could develop some curricula based on Dan’s story, which crosses so many different disciplines," New says. "She agreed, and worked with me on that project."
When Chronicle later approached Kathy Eldon about doing a biography of Dan for adult readers, she asked New to write it, a task the author eagerly undertook. With the help of Dan’s family and friends, she immersed herself in his life story, and Dan Eldon: The Art of Life was released in 2001.
Fast forward to 2007 when Julie Romeis arrived at Chronicle as an editor, and was charged with growing the company’s program for middle-grade and young-adult readers. Romeis learned that an exhibition of Eldon’s art was opening at a New York City gallery and that a movie based on his life was in the works. She took The Art of Life home one evening and, she recalls, "I could not put it down. I finished it at my desk the next day—sobbing. It is such an amazing story of a young person who did so much with his life, and I was excited at the thought of introducing a whole new generation to Dan’s story and work."
"To tell Dan’s life story for a teen audience we decided to do somewhat of a hybrid of The Journey Is the Destination and The Art of Life," Romeis says. "And since Jennifer knows the story in and out and knows his family, it made perfect sense for her to write the book. Rather than paring the adult biography down, we decided to rewrite the story from the ground up, from a fresh point of view."
A New Look at Eldon’s Life Takes Shape
"We really did end up starting from scratch," says New, who had interviewed almost 100 people for the adult biography. "It was a process of reorganizing and rethinking the material, and there were some parts of Dan’s life, like high school and summer camp, that we wanted to focus on more in the new book. Julie and I spent a lot of time looking through images and searching out art that hadn’t been in the adult biography. It was a real game to try to figure out the right balance of photos telling the story and words telling the story."
The decision to include ephemera from Eldon’s life, gatefolds with photo spreads, and removable items such as a poster, sticker, and fold-out postcards, presented quite the design challenge. That fell to Kristine Brogno, design director for children’s books at Chronicle. "We wanted to add these extra pieces, to make the book feel like something Dan himself may have made," she explains. "I had to figure out where each interactive piece should go to make the pacing of the book work, so that readers got a little bit extra every so often, and so that the book didn’t bulk in an odd way."
Also making the project more complex than the average YA book was the variety of images that had to be culled through, including Eldon’s journal art, childhood drawings that his mother provided, and photos from his friends all over the world."One cool thing we had was a newly discovered folder of ephemera Dan had collected to use in future collages," Brogno says. "There were things like matchbook covers, porcupine quills, and stamps, some of which we scanned. The amount of source material—really an embarrassment of riches—made this a complicated project. And, given all the people involved and the passion behind this project, we all wanted to get it right and create something new that still retained the spirit of Dan."
Indeed, Dan Eldon’s spirit lives on. Still in the works, the film based on his life will be produced by, and will star, Julia Roberts. Proceeds from the sale of t-shirts featuring images from Eldon’s art benefit the Creative Visions Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by Kathy Eldon to support creative activists around the world.
"I think the message teens can take away from Safari as a Way of Life is that you should live your life with great curiosity and openness—no matter what your circumstances," New says. "Over the years that I’ve been involved in his story, I’ve seen many people, after learning about what he did during his short life, make significant life changes, like changing their majors or becoming involved in humanitarian work. The number of individuals he has inspired is really amazing."
Dan Eldon: Safari as a Way of Life by Jennifer New. Chronicle, $24.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-8118-7091-7