I met Jennifer O’Connell at the Amazing Animal Stories all-female author event I attended at the MCPL Connie Morella Library last January. Since elephants are one of my favorite animals, I was drawn to the story of conservationist Lawrence Anthony and his elephants, Jennifer’s research process, and especially the expressive illustrations of Nana and the herd.
Jennifer will be presenting Elephants Remember with Susan Stockdale and her picture book, Line Up!: Animals in Remarkable Rows at the Gaithersburg Book Festival on Saturday, May 20, 2023, 10:15 am in the Jim Henson Pavilion at Bohrer Park. Click here for more information about Jennifer’s presentation.
She is the author of several children’s fiction picture books: Ten Timid Ghosts, Ten Timid Ghosts on a Christmas Night, Harvest Night, and It’s Halloween Night! The nonfiction picture book, A Garden of Whales, was beautifully illustrated by Jennifer as well. The Eye of the Whale: A Rescue Story, is another triumphant story of human and animal connection, and both written and illustrated by Jennifer. It won The Nature Generation 2014 Green Earth Book Award, which is announced annually on Earth Day.
Please enjoy my interview with Jennifer, and join her at the Gaithersburg Book Festival to learn more about her and her touching nonfiction narrative picture book, Elephants Remember.
Who encouraged or inspired you to become an author/illustrator?
Years ago, at Philadelphia College of Art, I attended a lecture by Maurice Sendak, explaining his process of designing Where the Wild Things Are. I fell in love with the art form of the picture book and began collecting and studying them with the hope of one day creating one myself. My mom (to whom Elephants Remember is dedicated) was always my biggest cheerleader!
What is your writing space like?
I write and paint in a bright, cluttered, studio space that we converted from our garage. It is my happy place! I have a large bulletin board in front of my art table with images and quotes that inspire me, an easel standing in the corner for painting, and a small rug by my table for our dog, Daphne.
What do you love most about the cover art and illustrations in your current book? Describe your art style and your art process.
After painting several versions of the cover illustration, I finally succeeded in giving Nana’s elephant eye the contemplative feeling that I was striving for. I painted the South African landscape to show through her image to convey a feeling of mystery and to reinforce how elephants are a part of the land. The illustrations were created with acrylic paints and Prismacolor pencils on gesso-primed Strathmore Bristol paper. I also paint in oils and tried to incorporate a painterly style in these illustrations.
What information surprised you most during your research?
Several facts: That elephants are terrified of bees, and conservationists use this by placing beehives around land that they need to keep elephants out of, like plantations. That elephants communicate with each other up to six miles away with their low-frequency rumbles. That adult elephants can eat up to 400 pounds of plant matter each day!
How (or in what ways) do you hope librarians will promote your book?
I hope that librarians will share the story of Elephants Remember with children and parents, and that it will excite and inspire readers to want to learn more. The three-page Afterword provides additional details, explanations and a list of resources – books and websites. I have created a “Classroom Ideas” guide (on my website) that features ideas and activities for Language Arts, Visual Arts, Natural Science & Math, History & Geography, Conservation, How Students Can Help, and Human Values of Kindness and Compassion.
What do you hope your readers will learn from reading your book?
I hope that readers will learn how sensitive, emotional and intelligent elephants are. And how we can all strive to be like Lawrence, who had empathy and recognized the value and integrity of other species and cultures by being receptive to and listening to them.
Who is the reader you are writing for? Please describe them.
I view Elephants Remember being for all readers, ages 5 to 105. But let’s imagine someone – a fourth-grader living in Brooklyn, New York. This young person has never been outside the US and has only seen elephants at the zoo. An adventure awaits!
What else do you really want your readers to know about you?
1 – l love connecting with them – talking, answering questions, hearing their ideas (email me!) 2 – I usually never get the words or pictures right the first time – but each try gets better. 3 – I love animals, especially dogs!
Which book review or award has been most meaningful to you?
I am proud that my picture book, The Eye of the Whale – A Rescue Story, received The Green Earth Book Award, which “honors books that inspire youth to grow a deeper understanding, respect, and responsibility for the natural environment.”
What are you most looking forward to at our book festival?
Being with people who love books! I can’t wait to tell readers about Elephants Remember and how it became a book. I am also looking forward to seeing and hearing other authors and their stories.
What message do you have for your readers?
Keep reading! The world opens up to you when you read all kinds of books. Start writing down your stories and never be afraid to try something new!
Follow Jennifer O’Connell:
Facebook | Instagram: @jenniferoconnellart | Twitter: @JenniferOCBooks
Want to learn more about Conservationist Lawrence Anthony? Check out these articles:
Lawrence Anthony, South African conservationist, dies at 61
UPDATE: Elephants Who Appeared To Mourn Their Human Friend Remain Protected