As calves, Asian elephants Precious and Baba roam the wild together, curious and proud. But when they get captured and are split up, their time together seems like a distant memory. Still, separated by many miles and over many years, their friendship remains, and there’s hope they will once again roam wide open spaces together. Elephants Walk Together by Cheryl Lawton Malone and illustrated by Bistra Masseva (the team that created Dario and the Whale) share this sweet friendship inspired by a true story.
We were lucky to sit down and chat with Cheryl about finding inspiration, handling sensitive information, and Elephants Walk Together.
Q. What was your inspiration for your title?
A. The story of Precious and Baba is inspired by the amazing lives of two wild Asian elephants. I first heard about Wanda and Gypsy in an HBO documentary narrated by Lily Tomlin titled An Apology to Elephants. The fact that these lovely ladies were able to spend their last years in a safe environment, free and walking together, is what inspired the title.
Q. Do you have a regular routine while creating a book?
A. To tell a heartfelt story with a beginning, middle and end, populate that story with lovable, unforgettable characters, and entertain a four to eight year old audience plus parents in less than 500 words is a challenge to say the least. Sometimes my stories take years to develop. Typically, I experience an event. In Dario and the Whale, it was seeing the whale myself. In Elephants Walk Together, the HBO documentary opened my eyes to the plight of elephants in captivity. I know I’ve stumbled upon a good story idea when I can’t stop thinking about the event. I think about it at the grocery store. I think about it at night. I think about it until the door to the either the characters or the structure opens. For example, the HBO documentary depicted all kinds of elephants. It wasn’t until I narrowed my focus to Wanda and Gypsy that I knew I’d found my way in. The challenge then is to research the topic well enough so I can write with confidence. If the words don’t come, I know I have to go back and read more. In addition to actual research material, I always work with mentor texts. Once I start the actual writing process, I give myself permission to try multiple POV, multiple main characters, multiple voices until I think I find the tone and combination that works best. Then I show the manuscript to my writing group and start again!
Q. What inspired you to write these specific elephants in captivity?
A. The story of Precious and Baba is inspired by the amazing lives of two wild Asian elephants. Like the majority of elephants in captivity today, Wanda and Gypsy were captured in the wild and sold to a circus. Their story becomes extraordinary when, after decades of separation, they reconnected at the Performing Animal Welfare Society’s (PAWS) elephant refuge in San Andreas, California. The amazing people who run PAWS pieced together the historical facts about the real elephants and published the information on their website. My agent, Clelia Gore, believed the plight of captive elephants could be brought to children in a heartfelt and appropriate way. I couldn’t have agreed more.
Q. How did you tackle such sensitive material?
A. The HBO documentary highlights the poor treatment and difficult living conditions of captive elephants in North America so intensely that I spent months sifting through different story options before I found a friendship angle that I thought would be appropriate for children. I fictionalized the elephants intentionally in order to distance my young readers from the difficult parts of the story. I was pleased when Kirkus complimented the way the text and the illustrations (kudos to Bistra Masseva) handled sensitive scenes like the elephants’ capture and their treatment in the circus.
Q. What’s the easiest and hardest part of creating a book
A The hardiest part of creating a book is finding the story’s emotional core. Once you do that, the rest may take a while but it’s relatively easy.
Q. Why write children’s books?
A. I was a corporate attorney for 22 years. While I loved the law and had an amazing career, I’d always wanted to write fiction. I made the switch about seven years ago and now write, teach, and consult full-time. Children’s writing, specifically picture books, appeals to my love for poetry and for stories well-told. It doesn’t hurt that I love interacting with kids, too.
Q. Are you working on any other projects?
A. Currently, I’m obsessed with another fascinating, endangered species—wolves!
Thanks so much, Cheryl! Find out more about Elephants Walk Together on our website.