Amanda Lumry, children’s book author, answers questions
What work do you do?
I am an author and photographer for the Adventures of Riley children’s book series, which educates children about the environment and entertains them at the same time. I am also the cofounder of Eaglemont Press, based in Bellevue, Wash.
How does it relate to the environment?
The Adventures of Riley series focuses on nine-year-old Riley, who introduces elementary-age children to environmental topics through real travel photos, illustrations, and scientific fact boxes. There are 15 projected Riley books, and five of them have been released. Book sales benefit global preservation efforts.
Eaglemont Press produces photographic essays and children’s adventure books that focus on topics related to the preservation of wildlife, habitats, and cultures worldwide. We partner with major organizations such as the Smithsonian Institution, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the World Wildlife Fund to find the latest and greatest news on conservation. After looking at their current projects, I come up with a Riley topic (for example, deforestation in the Amazon rainforest).
What are you working on at the moment?
Today, I am writing another Riley story, featuring orangutans in Borneo. This fall, I will be traveling around the world to conduct research and take photographs for Riley’s next adventure.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I founded Eaglemont Press as a junior at Harvard University in order to publish two of my photographic art books: Mala Mala: Pathway to an African Eden and Nantucket Borders. Since then, I have passed the leadership on to Loren Wengerd, who also happens to be my husband, so I can continue to do what I love — photography and writing.
I got into photography in the second grade, when my parents gave me a camera for my birthday. The camera is what introduced me to animals and caring for them. Up until my senior thesis in college, I had been taking pictures of people, especially children. Then, on a tour of Africa in 1998, I fell in love with the Mala Mala Game Reserve in South Africa. I decided that I had to return, and wouldn’t it make an interesting place to do my senior thesis? So that’s what I did, and Mala Mala: Pathway to an African Eden (a photographic coffee-table book) resulted. That was my first thesis, and my second one was a photo essay/exhibit comparing animals in captivity to animals in the wild. I still like taking pictures of children, but I find animals are a little more cooperative.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born and raised in the Seattle area. Besides living in Boston and Connecticut for a short time, I have lived in Seattle my whole life.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
I have a big pet peeve when I see old buildings in urban settings that are left to rot while new land is developed elsewhere. I took a class called “Main Street America” in college, and it made a big impression on me and opened my eyes to the expanding America. Our professor talked about revitalizing Main Streets and asked us what will happen to the strip malls once we find something greater and bigger. Trees and vegetation take a lot of time to rejuvenate. We should think twice before our cities and towns take over land that won’t grow back in our lifetime.
Who is your environmental hero?
Don E. Wilson. He works for the Smithsonian as a senior scientist. You have probably seen some of his work in various animal books. He is an authority on you name it!
For the pragmatic environmentalist, what should be the focus — political action designed to change policy, or individual action designed to change lifestyle?
Cultural change brings about overall change. Children are our future, and that’s why I do what I do. They are the next generation of individuals and policy makers, and giving them tools at an early age as well as helping them become globally aware will encourage them to become better stewards when it is their turn to decide.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
What are you reading these days?
Salmon Forest by David Suzuki and Sarah Ellis.
What’s your favorite meal?
Pasta with cream and tomato sauce, good salad, and a piece of cheesecake.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Increased funding for renewable-energy research. We all know that we are eventually going to run out of fossil fuels. Let’s put our words into action and find an alternative source.
What’s your favorite TV show?
The Amazing Race, because I love to travel. In fact, I just went to Antarctica (my seventh continent!) last February.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Expose your children to the love of reading, nature, and the outdoors.
Page Against the Machine
I want to foster my 16-month-old son’s sense of wonder and excitement about nature, without drowning it in worldly despair. At what age do you think it’s wise to share environmental woes with youngsters? — Ben Long, Kalispell, Mont.
Yes, you definitely don’t need to overwhelm your son with the world’s issues right away. That could be very discouraging. I have a 20-month-old, and I am letting her experience the outdoors and animals on her own. You can let them feel the grass on their feet, look for birds or squirrels in your backyard, or go to the library and read animal books with them. At first these will be parent-and-child experiences, but your child will grow and start to discover things on his own. He might not end up as a scientist, but hopefully he will have an appreciation and respect for animals and their environment. Woodland Park Zoo, here in Seattle, has done a great job with their butterfly garden. They said, “Let’s build a butterfly garden because it would be fun and it will give butterflies a home,” rather than, “We have to build a butterfly garden to save the butterflies.”
Do you have any ideas for books that will help young children appreciate the natural world? Most popular stuff seems superficial, with environmental stories that personify animals or are too depressing. — David Hohmann, Bexley, Ohio
My daughter loves the Adventures of Riley books. The animals are not anthropomorphized, and she loves to look at the colorful, engaging pictures. She is also a big fan of DK animal picture books where you can touch and feel.
How do you decide where to go to write the next Adventures of Riley book? How long does it take to write each book? Are some easier than others? — Name not provided
It takes two years for a Riley book to be completed from research to bookshelf. The writing part takes several months depending on the location and amount of research. We have 15 locations already scheduled for Riley to visit. These locations and topics were compiled after gathering information from our partners World Wildlife Fund, Smithsonian Institution, and Wildlife Conservation Society.
What do you think is the most important ethic that parents should instill in their children in regard to the environment? And how did you start your company? — Mollie Dootson, Everett, Wash.
Be an example to your children. Show them how to be aware of the world around them.
I started my company when I was in college and didn’t know better. I say that because it has been a roller coaster ever since I commenced. I love what I do and it has taken me to many places, but it takes a lot of work and time getting to know people and my industry.
I saw your Riley books at my local bookseller, and beyond how beautiful and clever they are, I noticed two things. One: they were printed in China. Two: it’s not evident that they incorporate either recycled paper or eco-friendly inks. Can you comment about the books’ own social and environmental impacts? — Bill Vesneski, Portland, Ore.
The economic juggernaut that is China could be the topic of an entirely new interview, but suffice it to say that the printers in China have come quite a long way and, we believe, are ahead of the curve in terms of social and environmental concerns.
Having said that, Eaglemont Press is always evaluating the options for production; vegetable-based inks, recycled paper, and domestic printing are three of a host of variables under constant consideration. Similar to the auto industry, we drive gasoline-powered or hybrid vehicles not because they are the most environmentally friendly or desirable option, but because a truly viable, cost-effective, and safe option has yet to present itself. Rather than going into all the details here, know that if every preferred option were exhausted in producing books, there would be no Riley series. Quite honestly, the more our capitalist society and price-sensitive consumer base relies on chain and wholesale retailers for deep discounts, the less and less options there are for the publisher to actually produce books in an environmentally friendly way. Support your local independent bookseller and don’t be so worried about paying full price now and again!
What books did you read as a kid that inspired you? How about as an adult? — Name not provided
I loved to read as a child and I still do! I fondly remember reading Don Freeman’s book Corduroy, and I was a fan of World Magazine — now known as National Geographic for Kids. It inspired me to explore the world. I have to say I love variety and rarely read the same book twice.
Do you work with any educators to get these books into schools or create educational material for young kids? — Name not provided
Yes, I visit schools and our books are used in curriculums across the country. We are in development on a number of products such as teacher guides that will provide valuable tools for the classroom. That said, we always value more input from other educators.
Do you get a lot of responses from kids? What kinds of things do they say to you? — Name not provided
I get a lot of responses from kids when I go and talk with them at school assemblies and bookstore/library events. They think it takes minutes to develop a book, which I wish sometimes it would. I am also blown away by how passionate kids are about animals. I have met future veterinarians and scientists. At our latest book launch at the Bronx Zoo, I met a little boy who sleeps with his passport!
What animals featured in the Riley books are facing the harshest environmental impacts right now? — Name not provided
Tigers. Their habitat is shrinking and poaching continues to pose a major threat to their survival. It was recently discovered that a prominent game preserve in India has no tigers living in it! It was a blow politically, which resulted in India hiring 150 new game wardens, but as you can tell, progress is slow.
Is Riley ever going to see a snow leopard? — Brad Rutherford, Executive Director, International Snow Leopard Trust, Hansville, Wash.
Brad, I hope he will soon. I am on my way to China next month!