With its unique access and insight into the lives of animals, San Diego Zoo Global Press, the book publishing division of San Diego Zoo Global, has introduced young readers to residents of the famous zoo since its founding in 2015—teaching the next generation to care for our planet’s most endangered creatures. This message has never been more urgent, since these children will inherit an environment threatened by global warming and the spread of human beings into fragile habitats.
Recently, the press gave kids a close encounter with Ruuxa, the cheetah star of Ruuxa & Raina: A Cheetah & Dog’s True Story of Friendship & Miracles (May 2018). At Warwick’s bookstore in San Diego, children met the cheetah and the Rhodesian Ridgeback whose resilient friendship endured birth defects, disease, surgeries, and other challenges. “It was amazing and definitely a highlight of my bookselling career,” said Adrian Newell, the book buyer at Warwick’s, who watched kids get a hands-on experience with a member of a vulnerable animal population.
Ruuxa & Raina is one of four books in the press’s growing “Hope and Inspiration Children’s Book Collection,” a series of nonfiction, photograph-driven titles written by Georgeanne Irvine. “One of the ways to engage children and adults is to introduce them to a specific animal,” said Irvine, a children’s author and the director of corporate publishing at San Diego Zoo Global. “When children get to know an animal like Karen the orangutan, it truly inspires them to care about orangutans as a whole. That generally leads them to care about all sorts of other animals,” she said, mentioning the main character of the publisher’s Karen's Heart: The True Story of a Brave Baby Orangutan. “The children can tell their parents to vote for candidates who support conservation efforts and they can introduce their parents to the concept of protecting and saving these amazing animals.”
Irvine has worked for the zoo for more than 40 years, performing all sorts of duties: leading celebrities on tours of the zoo, guiding animals through TV appearances, and accompanying an endangered Sumatran rhinoceros traveling from Indonesia to San Diego. She has also led a freelance career as a children’s author, producing more than 24 children’s books for different publishers.
Inspiring Care and Conservation
The children’s press began in 2015, when then-San Diego Zoo Global president Douglas Myers tapped Southwestern Publishing Group for the new initiative. The zoo had worked with Southwestern on guidebooks and exhibit books since 2008, but Myers wanted to expand the literary offerings to include young readers (Paul Baribault is now the president of San Diego Zoo Global).
The press launched with the Hope and Inspiration series, and working with Southwestern’s Blue Sneaker Press imprint, the zoo added a series of illustrated books for younger readers. “The publishing plan is to do three books in each of those series a year,” said Chris Capen, president of Southwestern Publishing House.
The first illustrated book from the press launched last October with Ty the Quiet Giraffe, written by Carrie Hasler and illustrated by Barbara Ball. “I always start with research,” said Hasler, an author and former teacher who joined Southwestern to work on the Blue Sneaker Press imprint. She also helps edit the Hope and Inspiration series. “Because it’s a picture book for kids, the animals are fictionalized and given human characteristics. But they are all in their natural habitat. Those little details may not be picked up by anybody else, but they’re important to the zoo and to me as well,” she said.
Young readers form a true bond with the animals in these books. In December, Floyd the flamingo, the San Diego Zoo animal at the heart of the Hope and Inspiration title Fabulous Floyd: The True Story of a Flamingo Who Never Gave Up, died unexpectedly. “There has been an outpouring of people on our Facebook page who loved Floyd, who knew his story, and who were so attached to him,” Irvine said. “That doesn’t happen unless you know a particular animal. Floyd will live through his book and he will continue to inspire children.”
The press taps into the zoo’s fanbase around the world. Between the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (located an hour north of the zoo), the organization counts five million visitors a year. In addition, San Diego Zoo Kids is a special closed-circuit TV network that broadcasts in about 300 children’s hospitals and Ronald McDonald Houses. The books are also sold in other zoos and aquariums across the country. “There is a very tight knit group of merchandisers for zoos and aquariums, and San Diego Zoo is obviously very active in that,” Capen said. “The books are published by San Diego Zoo Global Press, but they fit nicely in zoos across the country.”
The lead character of each Hope and Inspiration book comes with its own plushie, letting young readers select their favorite animal. Yvonne Miles is the zoo’s corporate director of merchandising and oversees product development around the books. She characterized plushie sales as “fantastic,” and said the press is exploring additional merchandise like socks and pajamas. “Hopefully, our readers will grow up saying, ‘This was really impactful and I want to make a change,’ ” Miles said. “The bottom line is to get the conservation message out there, to share these stories so that people can find ways of supporting the animals.”