What would our world be like without elephants? Lily Williams addresses this question in her third picture book about loss and conservation, If Elephants Disappeared, due from Roaring Brook on September 17. This latest installment in Williams’s If Animals Disappeared series, which also includes If Sharks Disappeared (2017) and If Polar Bears Disappeared (2018), examines the repercussions of a world without elephants, a species that plays a key role in keeping the forest ecosystem healthy, yet is being hunted to extinction by avaricious poachers.
A passionate environmentalist, Williams planted the seed that sprouted into her series when she was earning her BFA in animation from California College of the Arts. “Sharks are one of my favorite animals, and at the time I was volunteering for a shark conservation organization,” she said. “I noticed that there had been a lot written about the fact that ‘we need sharks,’ but few explanations about why. I thought that if I could somehow provide that information, maybe people, adults as well as kids, would realize how vulnerable sharks are and get excited about saving them.”
With that goal in mind, in 2013 Williams created a triptych infographic suggesting what would happen if sharks disappeared from the ecosystem, and she posted it on the Facebook page of a group called I Fu**ing Love Science. The post caught the attention of Emily Feinberg at Roaring Brook. “I thought it was a great, adorable meme, and I tracked Lily down,” Feinberg recalled. “I sent her an email asking if she would consider working with me to try to turn that infographic into a nonfiction picture book. I was so pleased when she wrote back almost right away!”
The editor’s proposal wholly appealed to Williams, then a college senior working on a film for her thesis, and she dove into a first draft of what would become If Sharks Disappeared. “While my story sounds like a dream to anyone who is looking to get a book published, I should emphasize that it took two years working with Emily and my agent [Minju Chang at BookStop Literary Agency] on various drafts before I signed a contract, and two more years before Roaring Brook published the book,” she said. “During that time, I dedicated myself to learning about the world of children’s publishing.”
A Series Is Born
It was time well spent. A year after Williams signed on with the publisher—before Sharks had been released—Feinberg and her colleagues were sufficiently happy with her debut book that they signed up two more If Animals Disappeared titles, Polar Bears and Elephants. “I asked Lily if she’d be interested in doing two follow-up picture books, and approached our sales team, who were excited by the idea,” Feinberg said. “And then, when If Sharks Disappeared came out, it received multiple starred reviews and began selling well, and we were all extremely proud of the book.” Proud enough, in fact, to offer Williams a contract for two additional titles in the series, If Tigers Disappeared and If Bees Disappeared, due in winter 2021 and 2022, respectively.
While expanding If Animals Disappeared, Williams is also pursuing a very different creative tack. In January, First Second will release Go with the Flow, a YA graphic novel she created with art school colleague Karen Schneemann. Featuring four high-school friends, the book is based on the duo’s online comic, “The Mean Magenta,” which aims to encourage healthy conversation about menstruation and uses laughter and positivity to break the taboos and stigma surrounding it. And next up after that is Williams’s solo graphic novel, Exposure (First Second, 2022), introducing a middle grader living with OCD.
In the interim, Williams is eager to introduce her picture-book fans to Elephants, and to continue to empower young readers to speak up and take action to counter the forces fueling global warming, animal extinction, and destruction of Earth’s ecosystems. She urges the rising generation of Earth keepers to “remember that your voice and perspective are unique to you and because of that you can change the world. Every single person acting to make positive change creates hope, and that hope spreads.”
If Elephants Disappeared by Lily Williams. Roaring Brook, $12.99 Sept. ISBN 978- 978-1-250-14320-4