I am thrilled that author Meeg Pincus is here to fill us in on the making of COUGAR CROSSING: How Hollywood’s Celebrity Cougar Helped Build a Bridge for City Wildlife.
With mesmerizing illustrations by Alexander Vidal, this inspiring picture book features the cougar that crossed 16 lanes of traffic to make his home in L.A.’s Griffith Park, which overlooks the Hollywood sign. I love how scientists and residents joined forces and raised money to build a wildlife bridge across Highway 101 to help cougars and other wildlife.
Let’s hear from Meeg!
Tell us about your writing process.
Some of my books look very much like my original draft, when I was able to just see a story’s tone/thread/structure and it flowed out of me. COUGAR CROSSING was not one of those books!
While I did have the tone of the writing from the start, I tried the structure and story many different ways, and honestly, I couldn’t get it to totally work. I finally realized I was trying to tell two stories in one—(1) the story of this single cougar, whose amazing survival and tragic circumstances became the symbol for the wildlife crossing movement, and (2) the story of all the people working to get this crossing built (particularly the wildlife scientists I had interviewed, who were at the forefront of saving the cougars and getting the crossing).
Luckily, I try to read every nonfiction picture book I can get my hands on, so a mentor text came to me that told a similarly complex story very effectively: Melissa Stewart’s NO MONKEYS, NO CHOCOLATE. In that book, she has a main narrative thread and then two little “bookworms” who add additional context, commenting like a peanut gallery in the bottom corners of pages. Reading it gave me a lightbulb moment: I could tell the cougar’s story as the main narrative, and the people’s/crossing’s story by having the real scientists provide a running commentary at the bottom corners of pages (actual people instead of imaginary bookworms, but same structural idea—thank you for the inspiration, Melissa!)!
It took many more drafts to make that work, but I’m really happy with how it turned out—and most happy that the scientists liked the portrayals of themselves in the book!
What was it like working with your publishing team?
I just loved working with the small, mighty team at Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster. The imprint is based in coastal Southern California, where I; the book’s editor, Andrea Welch; the imprint’s publisher who acquired the book, Allyn Johnston; and the art director, Lauren Rille, all live—so we all felt a real personal connection to this story, which touched the whole process. When Andrea found the wonderful illustrator Alexander Vidal, who lives right near Griffith Park where our celebrity cougar lives and who’d worked in the park as a wildlife educator, it was just a perfect fit and an all-around great team.
Andrea, as the editor of this nonfiction PB, was also very supportive of my bringing into the process the three wildlife experts I’d interviewed who were so personally invested in the story (wildlife biologists Miguel Ordeñana and Jeff Sikich and National Wildlife Federation California Regional Director, Beth Pratt). This also became probably the biggest challenge in the process, as each expert knows so much and has their own specific area of expertise, so they had feedback on every detail of the text and illustrations. We so appreciated and celebrated this feedback, knowing it would make the book better. It just wasn’t an easy task to figure out how to incorporate it all (especially when their thoughts on certain details differed slightly!).
I ended up spending days creating a big table where I pasted the three experts’ comments for every spread of the book’s 40 pages, alongside my thoughts on how and whether we might tweak the text or illustrations based on them. That worked really well, so our creative team could all see the big picture, and we were able to honor and balance both the factual accuracy and our desire to make a kid-friendly PB. I’m grateful that Andrea and Lauren both, as editor and art director, were so open and flexible with this part of the process!
What are your top 3 tips for creating picture books?
-Remember that when your manuscript is acquired, it’s not final—it’s the beginning of a collaborative team process to turn your story into an illustrated book. Being open to the natural changes that occur in this process, and knowing that the team is what brings the story to life, makes it a joyful adventure!
-Keep your kid readers in mind at all times through the process. It can be tempting to get sucked into grownup perspectives as you make a picture book within the publishing business (and sometimes you have to!), but in the end always come back to how kids will see it and feel when it’s read to them.
-For nonfiction picture books, remember that you will return to your research again and again—and sometimes need to do more as you go—to make the book as accurate as possible. So, keep track of all your research. Facts can inadvertently get tweaked in the creative process (which usually takes two to three years, meaning time to forget those facts, too!), so it’s important to keep re-checking your sources all the way through the process.
What’s new and exciting?
I’m grateful to be able to do virtual events and school visits with my current nonfiction picture books (COUGAR CROSSING, WINGED WONDERS, OCEAN SOUP, and MIEP AND THE MOST FAMOUS DIARY) during these pandemic times.
And I have three more in the works: In 2022, there’s MAKE WAY FOR ANIMALS: A World of Wildlife Crossings, illustrated by Bao Luu (Lerner/Millbrook) and SO MUCH MORE TO HELEN!: The Passions and Pursuits of Helen Keller, illustrated by Caroline Bonne-Müller (Sleeping Bear Press). In 2023, there’s DOOR BY DOOR: How Sarah McBride Became America’s First Openly Transgender Senator, illustrated by Meridth McKean Gimbel (Knopf/Penguin Random House). All these stories are close to my heart and have amazing editorial teams as well!
I’m also happy to get to teach nonfiction picture book writers in online workshops, so far for The Writing Barn and SCBWI, which I really enjoy. And I offer individual critiques/editing of nonfiction picture books, drawing on my writing experience and years as an in-house associate editor at an educational publisher and freelance nonfiction book editor.
Check out my website www.MeegPincus.com for more info on all of this and to sign up for my author newsletter.
Wow! You are busy — and amazing! Congrats on all your wonderful books, and thanks for stopping by PBB!
Thank you so much for having me!
For a chance to win a copy of COUGAR CROSSING, leave a comment by December 10. I’ll announce the randomly selected winner in my next post.
Congratulations to Vijaya Bodach for winning a copy of BOBO and PUP-PUP from my last post.
Thanks for reading and see you next time!
Thank you for a terrific interview, Michelle and Meeg. And thank you, Meeg, for sharing more about your process. I can’t wait to get my hands on your beautiful book!
Great interview! I love hearing the ups and downs of the process.
I can’t wait to read this book and I love all of the titles of your upcoming books. Congrats on all of your successes!
Michelle and Meeg, thank you for a great interview and for a peek into the process of trying to tell two simultaneous stories. I have one of those too and have thought about having the peanut gallery at the bottom. So I’ll be definitely checking out Cougar Crossing. Such a fascinating topic. I saw some in Florida–they were tunnels. Congratulations on all the new books!!!
Thank you for sharing your process for writing COUGAR CROSSING. I’ve always been intrigued by animal crossing in large cities. I look forward to reading this book as well as your next book on this subject!
Thank you for the interview. I enjoyed reading about how your book’s “team” all were from the same area and that the illustrator had personal connections with the topic. The format you chose is not one I’ve seen before, so I am excited to read your book as mentor text too.
What a cool story…thanks for sharing!
I enjoyed reading this interview very much. Congratulations, Meg, on all your books! I’m looking forward to reading the animal crossings stories very much. Thanks for the PB tips too!
Congrats on all of your books, Meeg! I especially loved this one!
Thanks for the lovely interview, Michelle!
I’ve been reading about this book and would love a chance to read and review it. Count me in, please!
This is a great article. I loved learning how others work through finding the right structure for a story. And I really like the idea of the table to share all the info for the spreads. Great way to organize and share. Thanks for sharing your process of creating this book – fascinating!
Oh mercy! What a gorgeous book in every way!
Great interview; I am sure kids will love the solutions-oriented story of ways people are trying to help our wild animal friends.
Great back story and important tips to know and remember in the writing/publishing world. Thank you.
What a wonderful interview! Meeg, your researching process for this beautiful book is fascinating. And I love the illustrations. Congratulations, Meeg and Alexander.
Thanks so much to Michelle and Picture Book Builders for the fun interview, to Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster for donating the giveaway book, and to all of you for your lovely comments! I love “talking shop” with folks who love making picture books as much as I do. 🙂
I love your books and thanks for sharing your process. Fascinating! We have also set up a “greenway” in our city for the wild animals.
This is a gorgeous book and can’t wait to read it. The art is stunning and the story is certainly compelling. I like how you shared using a mentor text to find the best way to tell the story!
Thank Meeg! I’m an author and teacher. My class is currently doing a project-based learning adventure about mountain lions. We’re crossing our fingers we win your book. Congrats. on all your wonderful books and upcoming releases.
Such a great interview, Meeg! As a teacher/librarian in a So. CA elementary school, I love learning about an author’s writing process to share with our students before, during, or after a shared reading. Our school received Cougar Crossing in our Junior Library Guild subscription and we can’t keep it on the shelves! Meeg has a gift for writing well-researched solutionary stories that speak to the interests of children of all ages (adults love them, too!). We love how this book shares P-22’s remarkable story, along with the “peanut gallery” scientists commenting along the way; capturing the hearts of our student animal lovers, conservationists, and scientists. So proud of all you’ve accomplished, Meeg; excited for your next releases!
Such a wonderful story- can’t wait to read it and share it with our kiddo’s elementary school!
I love the intersecting stories of the cougar in peril and the scientists devoted to helping P-22 and other animals. So interesting how you figured out the ideal narrative structure after much exploration. I gave this book to a friend’s 9-year-old who lives in Santa Monica, and it’s her new favorite story. Thanks for a great interview!
Love this book! And you are on fire, girlfriend!! Congratulations!
Fantastic interview! Thanks so much for sharing your phenomenal insight, Meeg! Can’t wait to read COUGAR CROSSING!