Writing and working with animals are two of Brooke Bessesen’s passions, and she’s found a way to combine them: Using knowledge from her work at the Phoenix Zoo and with conservation research, Bessesen has authored several children’s books. Bessesen spoke with us about her new book, Zachary Z. Packrat Backpacks the Grand Canyon, and how she combines fun with education.
In the book, Zachary learns he can’t take items from the Grand Canyon — an illustration of the Leave No Trace philosophy. Why was it important to make that concept the focus of the book?
I’m a conservationist at heart, and I work in a lot of areas of conservation for wildlife and environment. Anytime somebody goes into nature, I would encourage a “tread lightly” attitude. With Zachary, it was particularly important because he went in with the mission of collecting things. Being the packrat that he was, he was looking to get something from the Canyon as he entered it. I think for a lot of people who are going on vacation, they’re thinking a lot about what they are going to get from their experience. Sometimes we can all become a little self-focused in our own experience as we go out and see the world. I thought it was a very important and valuable element to include in the story that as he goes, he begins to see the beauty of the Grand Canyon, and without really realizing it until the end, he’s collecting things that are really more valuable than the stuff he set out to collect.
Why did you structure the book the way you did?
I wanted to build something as interactive as a picture book could be. One page gives descriptions of 16 animals found at the Canyon. All of them are found within the story, and none of them is identified, other than the mule. I just gave descriptions of the animals so that the kids would have to go look them up. It requires the readers, as they see an animal, to ask the same question they would ask if they were in the wild, which is “What is that?” And then they can go to their guidebook, which is also Zachary’s guidebook, and look that animal up and learn about it. That’s what makes going out in nature so much fun. I thought it was really exciting to find a way to do that for kids in a picture book.
Is it hard to come up with rhymes and still be informative and educational?
My grandfather was a poet, and I spent my summers with him in Minnesota when I was a little girl. He and I did a lot of rhyming games and a lot of wordplay, which is what I call this. So, as you can imagine, the crafting of a book like this is really a puzzle. Each word goes in, it comes out, and it goes back in and gets shuffled around and changed and decided upon again. It’s kind of a long, puzzle-like process to complete the text.
What is your intended audience?
I think all of my books have a thread though them, which is that they are made for multiple reasons and audiences. The book was crafted for somebody who is going to the Canyon — a child, perhaps, who gets to look through the book before they get there or see what they might see if they could hike down. But in addition, I really wanted it to be for kids who never get to the Grand Canyon — for children in classrooms all around the country, and for kids whose parents or grandparents went to the Grand Canyon and can bring them back a sliver of their trip so the child can feel like they got a little bit of the journey. It’s such a joyful thing for me to be able to work with animals, to work with wildlife and then be able to share that through my books, for kids who can relate and have been there and for kids who don’t get that opportunity. This is a window for them.
— Kirsten Kraklio