By Emily Rhodes
Sunset District resident and children’s book author Emma B. Smith released two new books over the summer, each offering a riveting story of a local animal celebrity. The animals she highlights are Claude, the albino alligator from the Academy of Sciences, and Odin, survivor and hero of the Tubbs Fire.
“Claude: The True Story of a White Alligator” traces the beloved alligator from his birth in a Louisiana swamp all the way to Golden Gate Park’s Academy of Sciences. Smith said she grew up going to the Academy and she’s been going to visit Claude with her two children since he arrived in 2008.
Author Emma Bland Smith features Claude, the famous white alligator at the Academy of Sciences, in one of her new childrens’ books. Courtesy photo.
“About two years ago I read something about his background on a field trip to the museum with my daughter’s class,” Smith said. “I realized there might be a story there. I looked him up on my own and realized his story was meant to be written into a book.”
The book is illustrated by another San Francisco local, Jennifer M. Potter. Although authors and illustrators do not typically collaborate in their creative process, the two met up and walked to the museum together to visit Claude and talk about the story. Though they did not try to influence each other in any way, they had a common goal of representing the beauty in diversity.
“I hope that when people read this book they come away with a feeling of acceptance for the beautiful diversity of people and animals in all ways and the idea that you do not have to conform; you can be different, unique, strange, weird and those are all wonderful things to be and we can all live together without all feeling that we need to be the same,” Smith said.
Potter’s illustrations reflect diversity among the museum patrons and staffers, as well as Claude standing out as different in the animal world. The book reveals that there are likely far fewer than 30 albino alligators in the world because it is so hard for them to survive in the wild. The story tells why Claude needed to leave the zoo in Louisiana where he began his journey, and what happened when he shared the swamp in San Francisco with a fellow alligator, Bonnie.
Smith said one of the biggest challenges of writing a nonfiction picture book is making sure it is engaging and has a good ending, while staying true to the facts.
“It’s an animal, but you can’t put human emotions on them without veering into fiction,” she said. (The challenge is) how to make an exciting, compelling book where you really connect with the main character without anthropomorphizing the character.”
Smith said this means she does a lot of research to get all of the facts she possibly can. In Claude’s case, she talked to the head biologist of the swamp at the Academy, met with her in person, and got special employee access to the museum to view a feeding.
She also sent drafts of the book to the Academy staff three different times throughout the process for approval.
Her second book of the summer, “Odin: Dog Hero of the Fires,” illustrated by Carrie Salazar, is about a dog that survived the 2017 Tubbs fire in Sonoma County, which at the time was the most destructive wildfire in California history.
Smith said she first heard about Odin on the news and was drawn to his story not only because he’s a hero, but also because she and her family had a near miss with that fire.
“The night the fire started, we were staying at a friend’s place near the Napa/Lake County border,” Smith said. “A friend called in the middle of night and said: ‘We’re evacuating.’”
She and her family packed up their car at 3 a.m. and drove home in a long line of evacuees from the region.
“That was the first time fires like that happened,” Smith said. “We were glued to the TV for the next two weeks. This book is doubly meaningful for me because of what happened to us, and we have lots of friends and family in the area.”
Smith said the most challenging part about writing this story was not making it too scary.
“In my first draft, I had some scenes of the fire and I had to scale them back because they were too scary,” she said. “You want there to be tension and a scary element, but it can’t be too terrifying, especially for those who have lived through something like this.”
The story includes dogs, humans and goats, and all of the members of the Hendel family, whose ranch burned to the ground on the night of the fire. Odin refuses to leave his post guarding the goats when his owners are forced to evacuate. When his owner returns days later, he does not expect to find what he sees.
Smith went twice to meet Odin, his owners and the other animals.
“There’s nothing like going to the place that a book takes place to help you write about it accurately,” Smith said. “You can bring other sensory things to the story that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to bring: smells, how the air feels, the scenery.”
Smith said that when she reads the story in schools, kids especially love the opening page with the names of all the goats. It’s also a great book for dog lovers.
“I really want to inspire empathy and caring in children,” Smith said. “I hope that when they read Odin’s story they feel scared and sad for him and happy for him when things work out in the end. We want them to be developing that empathy for other creatures and people.”
Smith also said that the book has an environmental message as well.
“Climate change is a factor in causing wildfires,” she said. “Parents who are reading Odin with their kids can use it to discuss climate change.”
The end of the book includes photos of the real Hendel family ranch before and after the fire and photos of the animals.
Though she has always been a writer, mainly for magazines, Smith has been writing children’s books for about a decade. She was inspired to start writing them when she was reading lots of children’s books when her kids were younger.
Her books appeal to children between the ages of 4 and 8.
Smith’s main advice to young writers is to read and re-read.
“When you read, language imprints itself in your brain and when you’re ready to write, it spills out on the page,” Smith said.
She also recommends making your own books as a fun entry point.
For more information, visit emmabsmith.com.