In the early 1990s, Janell Cannon, a graphic artist living near San Diego, spent her down time creating a sequence of paintings of a fruit bat being raised by a family of birds after dropping into their nest. That artwork, paired with the story Cannon wrote to accompany it, became Stellaluna, a picture book that found a home at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1993. The book’s themes of tolerance and acceptance spoke clearly to adults and children: the book has been translated into 30 languages and has sold more than two million copies in North America alone. Next month, HMH will release a 25th-anniversary edition of the book, featuring updated scientific information; a slightly larger format; full-bleed, re-scanned art; and downloadable activities and crafts.
Cannon’s “multi-level” inspiration for Stellaluna had its roots in her childhood experiences in rural Minnesota, where her parents shared their extensive knowledge of animals with her and her siblings, and encouraged their children to explore and observe their environment. “I was fortunate to be a free-range kid, able to gain an appreciation for animals like frogs, salamanders, snakes, and bats,” the author said. “To see any species, like bats, being misunderstood and mistreated by humans, out of fear, really affected me.”
Her fascination with bats was reignited when Cannon moved to southern California after high school, and landed a job in the graphics department of a library. Here her keen observation skills again paid off. “I paid attention to what was going on in the kids’ department, because I had always loved picture books—I never outgrew them,” she explained. Perusing the shelves, she discovered only three bat-themed books, two of which were eventually removed because they were so worn, and were never replaced since they had fallen out of print.
“I knew that there was plenty of room on the shelf for a new bat story, but I got distracted by other things in life,” said Cannon, including a momentous visit to Thailand. “For the first time in my life, I was in a place that was culturally very different, and I didn’t know the language, and yet I still felt so connected and felt I belonged. So I asked myself the question, ‘How can we be so different, yet feel so much the same?’ and I began thinking about working that theme into a story about overlooking differences in order to find common ground.”
Back in California, Cannon decided to tackle that challenge and create “a bat book with art that I can be proud of.” After working by day “cranking out graphics on demand,” she said, “I’d return home and become deeply immersed in my bat paintings, and I storyboarded a book that became Stellaluna. The book evolved over several years—it came at its own pace.”
Though Cannon was not well versed in the intricacies of the publishing process, she did know that it would be in her best interest to find a literary agent. Since the prospect of working with an agent in person appealed to her, Cannon sent a query and then a mock-up to San Diego-area agent Sandra Dijkstra, who signed up Cannon and placed Stellaluna with Karen Weller Watson at HBJ, which at the time, said Cannon, “had not yet merged with Houghton Mifflin and was located just down the road.”
Marking a Milestone
Mary Wilcox, v-p and associate publisher of HMH Books for Young Readers, who is now Cannon’s editor, explained that the decision to publish an anniversary edition was an easy one to make.
“Stellaluna is a very important part of the HMH family, and we knew that her 25th birthday was coming up,” noted Wilcox. “At the time the book came out in 1993, there was no fancy bookmaking and no big marketing campaign, yet Stellaluna became a surprise hit. This seemed like the perfect time to enhance the now iconic package so as to keep it familiar, but also make it new and special. Since Janell still had her original art, we were able to reshoot it using current technology, and the new edition’s reproduction of her remarkable art is absolutely spectacular. We are very lucky and happy to be stewards of Stellaluna.”
Likewise pleased with the refreshed graphics, the author noted, “The quality of the printing is so high, the design work is beautifully done, and I love the increased size of the art. I’m very happy!” The hardcover anniversary edition has an announced printing of 100,000 copies, and a new board book edition featuring the enhanced graphics will be published simultaneously.
Cannon is also gratified that the anniversary edition, with its message of embracing both sameness and differences, appears at such an opportune time. “I’ve heard many stories about how the story has influenced and helped individuals who feel marginalized, including those who are adopted, biracial, and members of the gay community,” she said. “In varying degrees, we all feel like a bat in a bird’s nest, plopped into a situation where we have to find our way in a new family or community. I am so grateful that my book has helped readers to make their peace and to find healing and a sense of belonging. Life is short, and with Stellaluna I wanted to throw my two cents into the stream of humanity and make a small contribution. I tried, it worked, and I am thrilled.”
Stellaluna 25th Anniversary Edition by Janell Cannon. HMH, $18.99 Aug. ISBN 978-0-544-87435-0