In the Spring of 2013 I enrolled in a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion class (DEI) at my college. During the class, my professional artist teacher asked us to pick a cause and make art about that cause. I had always been interested in sharks. I grew up swimming on the Sharks swim team during my entire childhood. Each summer I voraciously consumed Shark Week videos which overlapped with taper week for our big summer swim meet. My teacher asked us to pick a cause, I picked saving sharks!
ART REWIND: IS A BLOG SERIES WHERE I POST A DEEP DIVE INTO MY ART OF YORE, REFLECTING ON WHY I MADE IT AND HOW I FEEL ABOUT IT BEING SHARED WITH THE WORLD NOW.
I penned some drawings of shark facts, trying to make them seem less scary. I wanted to highlight all the different types of sharks that existed on our planet. After our in-class critique, I posted scans of these watercolor shark fact illustrations to my old Blogger blog, which at that point in time, a handful of people followed. The project kickstarted me doing a lot of shark art, which led me to volunteering with the San Francisco based nonprofit Shark Stewards. I spent time during the summer of 2013 volunteering with Shark Stewards and learning more about these wild creatures.
Fast forward a few months and a lot of research and reading of scientific journals later, the What Happens When Sharks Disappear? infographics were created. I made a tryptic of three infographics breaking down the trophic cascade and how it impacted the ocean and its relationship within sharks. I posted my infographics to my Blogger blog. I had no way of knowing that when I posted these drawings, they would end up changing my entire life and redirect my career trajectory.
The What Happens When Sharks Disappear? infographics went viral overnight. They literally got millions of views and tens of thousands shares. Today “going viral” is more common but in 2012, it was still a little bit more of a phenomenon. Thanks to the then Facebook blog I Fucking Love Science! the infographics were shared widely and landed on the screen of Emily Feinberg, my editor! Emily asked me if I would turn them into a children’s book for her at Roaring Brook Press (an imprint of Macmillan publishing). Four years and a TON of rewrites later, If Sharks Disappeared entered the world in June 2017! During those four years that I had worked consistently researching, writing, rewriting, illustrating, and re-illustrating If Sharks Disappeared. I also graduated from college, moved to LA to start my animation career, won an award for my animated documentary short (FINconievable), worked in feature film animation, left feature film animation, returned to The Bay Area, and then I signed a book deal for two more books, turning If Sharks Disappeared into the lead book of the If Animals Disappeared series.
With the success of If Sharks Disappeared, followed by If Polar Bears Disappeared, and while I was working on If Elephants Disappeared, Roaring Brook Press asked me for two more books to expand the If Animals Disappeared umbrella. If Bees Disappeared and If Tigers Disappeared then became the final two books, rounding out the series into a total of five books – five books welcomed into the world with open arms and hearts, helping to raise awareness for animals and their habitats! If Sharks Disappeared is in its 11th printing at the time of publishing this blog post and translations of various books in the series include North American English, United Kingdom English, and South Korean.
I wanted to help sharks and I wanted to do so by explaining the science for all learners. People who struggled in school and struggled to learn in traditional learning settings. My desire evolved to educate about climate change and humanity’s impact on the environment which then affects keystone species. It’s no secret I struggled in school, especially in science and math classes! This meant I spent a lot of my homework time re-teaching myself concepts taught in school. As a visual learner, this often meant drawing scientific concepts or taking math into a three dimensional space by learning through blocks, mnemonics, and other visual or physical methods. I got used to having to figure out big concepts and break them down to educate myself.
I think kids totally understand the books I make because of my breaking down concepts visually. Teachers and librarians have shared with me their student assignments taking the concepts in my books for students to create impactful art and science projects based on the learning. This is so inspiring to see! My work not only educated me, but has helped students to educate others in their community.
When asked by parents if my books are appropriate for their kids, I find myself thinking “of course”. Kids are aware of climate change. Kids know about endangered species. But what kids understand, that parents often don’t, is that they need a way to feel empowered by the information to make change in their communities and worlds. The feedback I get, overwhelmingly, is that my books help do that! I hoped this would happen when I started writing the first draft of If Sharks Disappeared nine years ago (in 2013). I only could have dreamed this would have happened when I made the initial What Happens When Sharks Disappear? infographics.
When I talk to young artists about posting to social media, I hear a lot of concern. And hey, I get it. I don’t post regularly because frankly, it gives me a lot of anxiety. But I also know that sometimes a post can change your life. We have seen it highlighted a lot lately for the worst… uprooting people’s lives and causing a lot of stress. But I am really thankful that it happened to me for the best. That these little infographics, inspired by some volunteer work and a project in college, ended up changing my life for the better in ways I couldn’t have anticipated but ways I am so grateful happened. If the work you are creating feels right to post, consider doing so – who knows, you might get the chance to make a difference too!