Last Saturday we had about 40 people (about an even mix of kids and adults) at our event with Steve Jenkins. I can say from experience that 40 people is a more than a reasonable-sized crowd for just about any author event (especially one on a beautiful, sunny Saturday), but I confess that I was hoping for more people, because Steve and his books deserve a much larger crowd and deserve to be much more widely known.
I’ve talked with a few people about why it is that Steve Jenkins’ name is not yet a household name, despite its having graced the cover of more than 30 books, one of them (What Do You Do with a Tail Like This?, a book he collaborated on with his wife Robin Page) a Caldecott Honor recipient. The general consensus is that the trouble is non-fiction. If you stick with non-fiction (especially non-fiction about non-humans) in most cases you create no identifiable characters with whom the general public begins to associate you — no Madelines or Olivias or Fireman Smalls. Even working in a illustration style as recognizable as Steve’s doesn’t mean that people will seek you out or remember your name or follow your career, which is unfortunate.
It’s certainly true that a lot of teachers and librarians do know Steve’s name. But your general bookstore shopper probably buys less non-fiction, so they’re less likely to know Steve’s books, and therefore more likely to miss out on an array of titles that might very well have equal appeal to each member of their family. Just as the natural world has no age limitations, neither do facts about the natural world, at least not when they’re presented in a way that’s as straightforward as this, or illustrated in ways that are so visually striking.
In all of Steve’s books he manages to include surprising and intriguing facts about the earth’s creatures. A mother in the crowd at our event mentioned that her family had been reading What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? aloud every night for the past week, because her kids were so fascinated by the things they were learning.
One of my favorite non-fiction books to hand-sell is Steve’s book Actual Size, which shows various creatures (or parts of creatures) true to scale. I’ve yet to put this book in the hands of a child or adult who wasn’t wowed by the giant squid’s eyeball that barely fits on a full double-page spread, or cringe (amazed) at the 12-inch span of a Goliath birdeater tarantula.
Steve is currently touring to promote his newest book, Living Color (Houghton Mifflin), which is a visual feast, glowing with (what else?) color. In the book, a vast array of species are linked according to their common hues, like the two in the illustration Steve’s holding below. That’s a baby crow and a white uakaris monkey, both displaying shades of red. Steve explains that in the crow’s case, red says: "Put the food right here." In the case of the uakaris it sends a different message: "I’m the boss."
Fashioned from cut and torn paper, Steve’s illustrations are clean and crisp but rich with detail. He captures differing contours, patterns, and textures by using different textures types of paper, many of which he showed during his presentation. It was so interesting to note how he has sometimes used the same sheet of paper to create the hide of one animal here, the horn of another there.
Amazing to think that just by layering pieces of paper one could create something that looks real and feathered enough to lift right off the page, like the bird below, or non-fiction books appealing enough to fly right off the shelves (so long as you can get people to browse your non-fiction section in the first place).