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Roscoe (and Tony) to the rescue
The Gulf oil spill inspires author/artist Lynn Rowe Reed’s latest children’s book
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
The explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in April of last year was just the beginning of one of the worst environmental disasters in US history, and like a lot of people, artist and author Lynn Rowe Reed was horrified at the images of oil slicks, polluted beaches, and oil-covered pelicans that would dominate coverage of the event over the next few months.
But Reed, a Fort Wayne-based writer and illustrator with over a dozen children’s books to her credit (Dan Swartz profiled her in FWR #139) used these feelings of sadness and disgust as inspiration for Roscoe and the Pelican Rescue, her 16th published book.
Roscoe and the Pelican Rescue comes out from Holiday House publishers this month — the first anniversary of the disaster — and to hear Reed tell it, it was one of the most challenging projects she’s ever been involved with. “I started to think ‘someone is going to do a book on this’,” she says. “And then I thought ‘well, why not me?’”
Not that it was that simple. “The pictures were so gruesome, so I thought ‘how could I ever do a kid’s book on this?’” she says. But then she remembered a children’s book called Smoky Night that tackled the LA riots in 1992. “The author found a real child-like way of showing something difficult. I thought ‘if he could do that with the LA riots, I can figure out a way to approach the oil spill’.”
In Roscoe, a boy named Tony goes to visit his aunt, uncle, cousin and their dog Roscoe on the Gulf Coast. Tony loves the ocean, but when he gets there, he finds the beaches have been closed and there’s no swimming allowed. Roscoe finds an oil-soaked pelican on the beach, and Tony and his family spend his vacation rescuing as many birds as they can with the help of some wildlife rehabilitation people.
Reed had the basic first draft of the story worked out quickly, but her editor thought it needed a little work. “My editor said ‘you’re going to have to find a way to express this deep emotion people felt about seeing these images of these oil-covered pelicans without describing the emotion, because that can come across as really sappy’,” Reed explains. “So what I did is try to build up how much this little kid Tony loved the ocean — he’s sort of obsessed, like many precocious little kids are, spouting all this information about the ocean. His anticipation is so great, you can feel his disappointment without me as the author having to say that.”
“A lot of writing at that level is simplifying, getting rid of stuff that doesn’t need to be there,” she adds.
Reed and her editor thought time was of the essence for the story to remain relevant, so Reed began what she describes as a long summer. Reed says she can work very quickly, but the timetable for this project was especially short. “From when they saw the first story draft at the beginning of June, I only had until the first of September to work out the revisions and do all the art,” she says. “So I did all the illustrations in a month and a half. I was here constantly, and it was grueling.”
In fact, when pressed Reed uses a stronger word than “grueling.” “It was stupid, really, to even try to do it that quickly,” she laughs. All joking aside, Reed developed a serious muscle problem in her back from constantly standing and painting. “The muscles were so tight, they had pulled my top two ribs out of place,” she says. “There was sort of a ‘dent’ in my back.”
At one point, her publishers hired a wildlife rehabilitation expert named Jay Holcomb, the Executive Director of the International Bird Research Center, to read the book for accuracy. Holcomb found something inaccurate on nearly every page. Normally, Reed says she would have found that part of the process fascinating, but the recommended changes came when she thought she was about 75% finished. “I was about to jump out the window,” Reed says.
But on closer look, Reed discovered the changes weren’t major, and it ultimately made the finished story stronger. “For example, initially, they found baby pelicans,” explains Reed. “(Holcomb) pointed out that that wouldn’t happen because baby pelicans stay away from the shore, in nests.” There was another scene where the kids used handheld blow dryers on the freshly cleaned pelicans; Holcomb said that was normally done using big commercial dryers placed on stands.
In the end, Reed and her editor made their goal of releasing Roscoe by April. Reed says that so far, interest has been very strong. She’s picked up some positive reviews, though one review in Kirkus puzzled her. “It was all very positive until they got to the end,” she says. “The reviewer was disappointed that I stopped short of really blasting the oil companies. Well, come on. I’m telling a story for kids. The finally page of the book has really basic historical information — what happened, the explosion — and I don’t really have to elaborate on that.”
Roscoe and the Pelican Rescue is out now. You can find it in the FWMoA, other bookstores, at online retailers, or the Holiday House publishing company’s website holidayhouse.com
For more on Lynn Rowe Reed and her work, visit lynnrowereed.com