A visitation from a “little pink elephant”—and a lifelong fascination with animals—led author-illustrator Remy Lai (Pawcasso) to create a brand-new series of graphic novels for young readers. The first books in the series, Star the Elephant and Rainbow the Koala (Holt), not only feature Lai’s endearing illustrations of the titular characters, but also integrate real-life facts about animals and the perils facing them in the wild.

The Surviving the Wild series is a bit of a departure for you in terms of format and style. Why did you decide to try something new?

It wasn’t a deliberate decision to try something new. I’m a visual thinker, and the little pink elephant in Star the Elephant simply popped into my head one day. How he first appeared in my head is close to how you see him in the final book, right down to the art style.

But if I have to analyze how my brain works, I guess it all came out of my obsession with animals and animal stories, both fiction and nonfiction. And when I was deciding what to do with this little elephant skipping around in my head, I realize the simplicity of his design and the sketchy colorful style are perfect for a younger audience and a simpler storyline.

And luckily, I have an excellent editor and publisher who support me in exploring new things so that I can grow as a writer and artist.

The books are based on true stories and integrate factual content about animals, the environment, and climate change. What sort of research do you conduct into these topics as you’re writing and illustrating?

I had so much fun researching for these books. For Star the Elephant, I read newspaper reports as well as reports from the organizations that were involved in the rescue of the elephants.

For Rainbow the Koala, I read newspaper articles on the bushfires in Australia, particularly the extraordinarily severe season we had in 2019-2020. I also connected with veterinarians at a koala hospital, and I visited a koala conservation center.

Because I wanted to make sure things were as factually correct as I could make them, I read up on all I could about elephants and koalas, from the foods they eat to their social hierarchies to the challenges they face due to human activities and climate change. The information in the books represents only a sliver of all the interesting facts I learned about them. I did go down the rabbit hole.

Where does your inspiration for the animal characters come from?

The general shape for Star came from a toaster. I call him a toaster elephant. Since his story is filled with worries as the elephants were losing their home and facing all these dangers, I made him a happy-go-lucky elephant so that the book isn’t too scary or dreary.

As for Rainbow, I gave him a similar simplicity in terms of appearance. But his personality has to be different, and he faces different challenges. He’s a bit more of a worrywart, but it’s understandable as he is just learning to be independent.

In what ways do you feel early readers can benefit from graphic novels?

Graphic novels are an excellent way to develop virtual literacy. Readers must understand the text, and the pictures, and both text and pictures together.

Plus, kids always get excited about graphic novels, and anything that gets kids reading is always great!

In the books, is it ever difficult to balance honest depictions of danger with the lighter content?

It was a challenge. I don’t want to shy away from telling kids the truth, but I also don’t want to traumatize them. My editor and I went back and forth on several scarier scenes, and we tweaked perspectives and compositions of the art.

How do you make your characters (whether animal or human) so relatable to readers?

The characters have desires and feelings that readers can relate to. For example, all Star wants is to be reunited with her family. And Rainbow wants to be independent, but at the same time, he is afraid to venture into the world on his own.

What’s next for the series? Will you be introducing any new characters soon?

The third book, Sunny the Shark, comes out in August. I hope that these books resonate with readers, then I’d get to do more books!