What do special needs goats in New Jersey, a 650-pound house pig in Ontario, and a preemie hippo in Cincinnati have in common? All are stars of social media who are also making their marks in the kids’ lit world. PW recently spoke with the authors and publishing teams behind children’s books based on three real-life animal stars you have probably already heard of.
In 2012, Steve Jenkins was working as a real estate agent and living with his partner Derek Walter (a professional magician) in a bungalow in Georgetown, Ontario. Jenkins had always been an animal lover (he was the type of kid who “regularly brought home every creature I encountered, much to my mother’s dismay”), and he and Walter lived with a modest menagerie of cats, dogs, rabbits, and fish. But their family was about to get quite a bit larger: “Everything got flipped upside down by a supposed ‘mini-pig,’ ” said Jenkins.
A high school acquaintance contacted Jenkins on Facebook, asking if he would be able to take in a micro pig in need of a home. “Without thinking too much, I agreed to meet her at my office the following morning to take her pig,” Jenkins said. He added that, “I hadn’t even had a chance to discuss it with Derek either. It was one of those things where it seemed easier to beg forgiveness than to ask for permission,” he admitted.
One visit to the vet later and Jenkins learned that he had more news to break to Derek. The veterinarian told Jenkins that he could expect his “mini” pig to grow to at least 250 pounds. In other words, the pig wasn’t a micro pig at all. “There’s no way I could tell Derek that we really didn’t know how big she could get, so I stuck with the 250 pounds and went with that,” Jenkins said. For other families, learning that a pet mini pig was actually a full-size commercial pig might have resulted in rehoming. But both Jenkins and Derek had already fallen in love with their pig, naming her Esther.
Learning that she was the type of pig that they would both (as carnivores) have eaten in the past “forced us to reevaluate pretty much every aspect of our lives. A pig that was born to be our dinner had become a much-loved member of our family. It was a game changer.” (They have both since become vegan.)
Having a large pig in their home also presented some logistical difficulties. They lived in a community with bylaws against pigs like Esther, so they knew that if they wanted to keep her, they would have to relocate. Jenkins and Walter initially began posting images of Esther on social media for friends and families, but when they decided to move to a farm, they used Esther’s charisma to their advantage. “We decided to launch a crowd-funding campaign and raised more than $440,000 (CDN) in only 60 days. That allowed us to buy a proper farm, and turn it into Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary,” located in Campbellville, Ontario.
Now, in addition to their indoor animals, “the sanctuary is home to 10 pigs, three rabbits, two turkeys, two peacocks, three cows, a horse and a donkey (who are inseparable friends), two feral barn cats, five goats, 10 chickens, two ducks, eight sheep, and two fish that lived in a small garden pond when we arrived on the property,” Jenkins said.
Esther’s social media popularity catapulted, with her reaching a million and a half combined followers on her social media accounts Needless to say, the world had taken notice of Esther, who surpassed the veterinarian’s assessment of her full-grown size, and as an adult pig now weighs in at 650 pounds. In 2016, Jenkins and Walter published an adult memoir, written with Caprice Crane, called Esther the Wonder Pig: Changing the World One Heart at a Time (Grand Central).
Esther’s story had unfolded on the internet, but Jenkins and Walter began to see the potential for her story to resonate directly with kids. Jenkins and Walter connected with Little, Brown and the result was The True Adventures of Esther the Wonder Pig , illustrated by Cori Doerrfeld, which was published earlier this month.
When Jenkins and Walter meet groups of kids for their readings, Esther stays home (though they do offer tours at the farm), and the groups can connect with her via Skype. As far as what Jenkins and Walter hope readers take away from Esther’s and their story? “We want people to understand the power of a smile. Esther’s smile quite literally changed our life, and probably saved hers…. There’s no other way to explain how this all happened. It’s all because of a pig, her amazing smile, and the decision to be as kind—in all aspects of our lives—as we possibly can.”
The story behind the Goats of Anarchy begins in an unlikely location—Manhattan. That’s where self-named “Goat Mama” and author Leanne Lauricella worked as a corporate event planner after moving from her hometown of Houston. While Lauricella had always considered herself an animal lover, “I’d not had real experience or exposure to them,” she said. But she had an eye-opening experience upon viewing a documentary on factory farming. “I was so horrified by what I saw, that I literally became a vegetarian [on the spot],” she said.
After getting married and relocating to New Jersey in 2011, Lauricella continued to learn about factory farming and “developed a compassion for farm animals.” She was particularly drawn to goats—and she wasn’t content to just read about them or look at pictures online. “I just went to a farm and met them. They had so much personality, just like dogs,” Lauricella recalled. After adopting two goats of her own, “I just fell in love with [raising them]. And I loved the fresh air,” she said.
She was still commuting to New York City each day, however: “I hated going to work every day. My work lacked purpose,” she said. Lauricella and her husband came up with a plan for Lauricella to quit her job, but once she actually turned in her resignation, “I started freaking out.” Lauricella explained that she had never gone for any length of time without working and had a moment when she wondered what she had gotten herself into.
That’s when social media began to work its magic. Lauricella had posted images of her goats on Instagram and her fan base was steadily growing. Before long, she had 30,000 followers: “It happened very organically,” she said.
Lauricella established Goats of Anarchy as a nonprofit organization and adopted more goats—many of them with special needs. She acquires the goats from farms like the Barnyard Sanctuary (also in New Jersey), and from the contacts she makes through Instagram and other online sources. With more goats coming to her home, Lauricella also began renting a second farm space to accommodate the growing family.
The public enthusiasm for the goats was becoming so pronounced that Lauricella decided to explore publishing their stories. She found her way to Quarto, first publishing a Goats of Anarchy gift book and calendar. Lauricella first connected with Pauline Molinari, editorial director at Walter Foster, who saw potential for the stories behind the Goats of Anarchy to be developed into a picture book series. “I quickly learned that every one of her special goats has a story to tell and that kids would relate to them and fall in love with them just as much as I did while working on the project with her,” Molinari said.
Writing picture books might seem like a far cry from the corporate event planning that Lauricella used to spend her days in Manhattan doing, but Lauricella finds that writing the picture books (with co-author Saskia Lacey) comes naturally: “The stories are very easy because they all are true,” she said The Goat with Many Coats, about Lauricella’s goat named Prospect, and Polly and her Duck Costume were the first two books in the Goats of Anarchy series, both released in 2017. Polly, one of the first goats to achieve internet stardom, is a blind goat who suffers from anxiety. Lauricella discovered an unusual solution to Polly’s anxiety after dressing her in a duck costume one Halloween. The costume had a strangely calming impact on Polly (in the way that a ThunderShirt might work for an anxious dog), and the photographs of Polly dressed as a duck became some of the most popular on Instagram.
Piney, the Goat Nanny (Feb.) is focused on Lauracella’s adopted pig, who has become a caretaker for many of the goats that arrive at the farm. “Piney is a nurturer, who loves our babies,” Lauracella said. In the fall, Walter Foster Jr. will publish Angel and Her Wonderful Wheels, the story of a goat who, as a newborn, lost the tips of her ears and her back legs to frost bite. Once Angel became one of the Goats of Anarchy, Lauricella supplied her with a wheel cart that enabled her to freely move about the farm.
There are now 70 goats living at Lauracella’s farm and at the second, rented location; each goat has a name (“we believe in names, not numbers”) and “a different personality.” But Lauracella has been faced with having to turn away goats that are in need of homes, due to limited space. Last August, she again turned to social media, launching a crowd-sourcing campaign to raise $150,000 in order to purchase a nearby 30-acre farm. Lauracella exceeded her goal, raising that money through donations given by more than 5,000 people in six months; she and her animal) family members will relocate later this year.
As far as book promotion, Lauracella hasn’t had a lot of time to attend readings and meet fans (“I can’t even get dinner!”), though she has heard a great deal from readers through social media. She believes that readers connect with the Goats of Anarchy for many reasons, but it’s particularly powerful for her to see how kids with disabilities—including those with prosthetics, autism, or neurological issues—connect with the goats: “They see that ‘if [the goats] can do it, I can do it,’ ” Lauracella said.
Richard Cowdrey grew up in Cincinnati and fondly recalls the visits his family would take to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden when he was a child. But Cowdrey, a picture book illustrator of the Marley series, among other books, first learned about Fiona the Hippo the way many others have—by word-of-mouth, care of social media. In early 2017, Cowdrey’s sister-in-law couldn’t stop gushing about the new hippo that had been born two months prematurely at the zoo; there is even a Fiona Show available for viewing on the Cincinnati Zoo’s web page. It features video documentation of Fiona’s life from the time of her premature birth. Cowdrey had to have a look for himself—and became equally entranced: “How can you not love her?” Cowdrey said. As a seasoned illustrator, Cowdrey took a chance by cold-calling the zoo. “I told them that I’m an illustrator known for animal illustrations and that I thought Fiona should be a character in a book.” The zoo was highly receptive to the idea of having Fiona’s story told in an illustrated format and invited Cowdrey to gain a closer look at Fiona. After first reaching out to Zonderkidz about the project, he went to the Cincinnati Zoo to meet the star of his next picture book.
Fiona was around eight months old when Cowdrey had his first encounter with her. “She was just amazing and very people-friendly,” he recalled. “She and I were nose-to-nose. It was one of the highlights of my life.” Cowdrey was taken under the wings of Fiona’s caretakers (aka #TeamFiona), and heard first-hand the inside story behind her premature birth. He learned that one of the challenges the caregivers faced was that “they could not find a reference on how to deal with a premature hippo.” Across the street turned out to be an unlikely resource: the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Medical Center, where the nurses had vast experience in caring for premature human babies. “The nurses came over and offered their help with feeding and supplying oxygen to Fiona,” said Cowdrey.
Though Fiona’s first few weeks were harrowing, she survived and thrived. Now, it’s not uncommon to hear her spoken of both online and at the zoo as a bit of a diva. “She is such a great character,” Cowdrey said. His forthcoming picture book, Fiona the Hippo (Zonderkidz, Aug.) tells the true story of Fiona, while also imagining her as a charismatic character seeking out new friends of various species at the zoo.
Cowdrey’s isn’t actually the first book to star the diva hippo—and it’s certainly not the last. In October of 2017, author Jan Sherbin, who lives in Anderson Township, Cincinnati, self-published the book [Hip, Hippo, Hooray for Fiona!] cincinnati.com/story/news/2017/11/14/anderson-township-authors-book-spotlights-fiona-bright-spot-troubled-world/863140001/ Sherbin worked in collaboration with the zoo, utilizing their photographs of the young hippo.
This past January, Blue Manatee Press released their own Fiona-themed board book called Fiona’s Feelings, which features photographs by the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.
According to Amy Dean, editorial/marketing director of Blue Manatee Press, which is headquartered in Cincinnati, “the Fiona craze started here early.” The owner of the press, John Hutton, is also a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and a big fan of the zoo. The idea for a Fiona book originated with Hutton: “We also wanted to make sure that a portion of all Fiona sales were going to the zoo for her continued care and for the care of other animals like her,” he said.
In the early stages of publishing Fiona’s Feelings, Dean and an editorial assistant sorted through hundreds of photographs of Fiona that were shared by the zoo, in order to find images that best represented particular feelings that would be familiar to children. With the Cincinnati pride that already surrounded Fiona, Hutton and his team expected the book to be a hit, “but we were slightly unprepared for just how popular the book would be!”
While the original publication date for Fiona’s Feelings was April 3, 2018, there was such interest in the book that they made copies available in local bookstores, at the zoo, and at other Cincinnati-area retailers in November 2017. “We sold through our initial print run of 5,000 copies within a week, Dean said. Also, because Amazon pre-orders started rolling in, IPG decided to push the pub date up to January 2, 2018, so we were able to time the book’s national availability with Fiona’s first birthday later in January.”
In addition to helping raise money for Fiona’s and other animals’ care at the zoo, Blue Manatee also donated copies of Fiona’s Feelings to families in the NICU at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. It was a way to both honor the way Fiona started out her life as a preemie and to also thank the NICU team for their help in providing specialized care to Fiona.
Also coming in June from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is Saving Fiona: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Hippo, which is written by naturalist and director of the Cincinnati Zoo, Thane Maynard. The book provides a behind-the-scenes look at how Fiona came into the world, including the weeks leading up to her birth when zoo staffers observed that Bibi, Fiona’s mother, was acting strangely and might give birth prematurely.
Following Fiona’s birth, the book chronicles the efforts by zoo biologists, staffers, and the team at the children’s hospital to ensure Fiona’s survival—which included maintaining her body temperature, inserting hippo IV’s into her leg, and swimming with her until she was big enough to swim with her mother. The book features full-color photographs throughout. According to Cat Onder, senior v-p and publisher at HMH: “We fell in love with Fiona instantly and have been thrilled to work with zoo director Thane Maynard, who brings incredible and unique insights about caring for Fiona into the book.” The publisher is also in the midst of planning a launch event for the book to be held at the zoo.
If the internet is any indication, Fiona fever is still going strong. Just recently, in fact, there has been online speculation about whether Fiona is ready for a boyfriend, after a hippopotamus named Timothy, who lives at the San Antonio Zoo, posted a social media message to Fiona.
Prospective suitors aside, Fiona has a lot of other business to attend to, whether it's getting ready for her close-ups or making friends at the zoo. In fact, Blue Manatee is releasing a second board book about Fiona this fall: Fiona’s Friends, will feature more photographs of Fiona as well as other Cincinnati Zoo babies, including manatees, a cheetah, a flamingo, and Winsol, the zoo’s new baby aardvark. “He’s a bit of a popular social media animal himself,” Dean said.