Monday, 13 June 2011

How To Get Lucky and Write a Polar Bear Book

It was actually through a sequence of coincidences that my Polar Bears book came into being.

I have loved all forms of wildlife and wilderness for as long back as I can remember. Ever since the mid-1970's I have been traveling to wild places and photographing the landscapes and natural inhabitants of remote regions. I have always been restless and find it hard to sit still for long.  So travel photography suited my personality from the get-go. This pursuit has taken me to all seven continents and resulted in my moving with my family to Alaska in 1981, after having spent a few years roaming around the parks of the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming.

Once in the Far North it is inevitable that a nature photographer will wind up photographing bears at least some of the time. Bears are the North's most charismatic creatures and I certainly could not resist their allure. I photographed brown bears first in Denali National Park and then along the Alaskan coast at the McNeil River Sanctuary. Each summer throughout the 1980's I gravitated to where the bears congregated to feed on plentiful and reliable runs of salmon. I shot many thousands of images and never tired of being out in the field with these large bruins. Every day was different and exciting.

The first lucky coincidence came when, in 1986, one of the photo agencies I worked with at the time introduced me to a book agent named Ivy Stone, from New York City. She suggested that a writer colleague and I collaborate on a book about all the eight bear species in the world. I eagerly agreed to the assignment and for the next few years we traveled farther and wider than I ever had before, from the jungles of Borneo to the subarctic shores of Churchill in Manitoba.  We researched and photographed sun bears, black bears, moon bears, sloth bears, plenty of brown bears, spectacled bears, giant pandas--and polar bears. Our book, entitled Bears Of The World, was released in 1988 and since then has gone through six printings in several languages and become a natural history bestseller.

After its publication I returned to the life of a generalist nature photographer, not concentrating on any one animal or topic or location. I resumed my usual modus operandi of supplying fifteen stock photo agencies in eight countries with a steady supply of wildlife and scenic images. I continued to photograph bears as well as many other critters.  For three summers I even guided bear viewing trips along the outer Katmai coast of Alaska. In 2003 I returned to Churchill in Canada to once again photograph polar bears.

Four years later a second lucky coincidence happened.  After being out of touch for fourteen years, Ivy Stone wrote me a letter out of the blue.  She suggested that I write a children's book on polar bears. She thought the timing was right, with global warming being in the news virtually every day. At this point Ivy was retired as a book agent and she referred me to her colleague, Carolyn French.  Carolyn was quite interested in the concept and so I got to work.

 I already had most of the images I would need for such a book. I reviewed my photo files and selected the best and most appropriate photos and then got on the Internet and read all I could find about polar bears. As you would expect, there was  a wealth of information. I gleaned the most interesting and current facts  and wrote the text in language that I felt would be suitable for young children. The wonderful staff at Henry Holt Books For Young Readers suggested the clever format of introducing each section with a simple sentence in large bold print, followed by a more detailed paragraph. A young child could read the bold print and an adult could read the additional paragraph of text. I limited the number of words to fit into the allotted  32 pages and the book was born. 

In San Francisco this past winter I visited a classroom of first graders as a guest author.  The teacher read my book to the class of  25 students and it was gratifying to see the enthusiastic response and eagerness to learn on the children's faces.  They were enchanted by both the words and photographs and I was thrilled to see such a reaction.

I hope I encounter a lot more lucky coincidences in my life that lead to a lot more book projects!

Mark Newman

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