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  • David Elliott

ON In the Wild

Every book teaches the writer something. Or it should. This second book in the series taught me two things. The first was how little I knew about the world I was living in. Take the lion. Like all kids, from my earliest years, the King of the Jungle stalked the open grasslands of my psyche. What toddler hasn’t held up his hands, curled his fingers into tiny claws, pulled his lips back over his teeth and let loose with a R-O--A-A-A-R? As I got older, I observed lions in zoos from Columbus to San Diego with awe and not a little melancholy. Aslan. The Cowardly Lion. Elsa. The Ghost and The Darkness. Lions! They're everywhere, right? But when it came to writing about them, I knew nothing beyond the most obvious and that could only produce writing that is obvious, too.

I spent hours reading about the creatures of In the Wild, more hours on youtube, and, if I'm honest, even more hours daydreaming about them. (Btw, daydreaming doesn't get nearly the credit it deserves in the creative life.) I was humbled by what I didn't know and astounded by what I was learning. I discovered that a lion is one of four great cats. The others? Tiger. Leopard. Jaguar. And what separates them from, say, the cheetah? Hello, Kitty!

As it turns out, because of the structure of their vocal cords, these are the only cats that can roar. Who knew? I also learned that lions usually roar at sundown and that the sound of that roar can travel for miles across the African savannah.

I tried to capture some of what I learned in this poem.

And so it went. The jaguar doesn’t have spots: it has rosettes. Oragn utan? A Malay word for man of the forest.

Some people object to this poem.Hmmmm, I wonder why.

But thanks to Liz Bicknell, the book’s editor, and a powerhouse behind Candlewick’s phenomenal success, I also learned something invaluable about writing. When it came to the zebra, my natural indolence (ask my wife!) took hold. I took the easy way out. Thankfully, I can’t remember that first-draft verse, but Liz’s response still rings in my ears everytime I sit down to work. “Stripes?" she asked in her British, mid-Atlantic accent. “Oh David. Can’t you think of anything new to say about the zebra?” She softened the first vowel as the Brits are wont to do. ”Oh Liz,” I wanted to answer, “Can’t you say zeeeebra?” But she was right, of course. Isn’t that the writer’s job? To say something new? I've never forgotten that.

Inspired by my first grade classroom in Bellefontaine, Ohio..

Holly, of course, once more excelled herself. The elephant so big it can’t fit on the page.

In Holly's first sketch, there wasn't room for the poem.

The tiger prowling as if he’s about to step out of the book into your dining room.

I wrote 25 different tiger poems. Finally, I decided to pay homage to the master.

One surprising and lovely thing about a book, is that once it’s out in the world it lives a life of its own. I was delighted when I received an email from British composer and performer Meredith Connie who asked if she could set the poems to music.

The recipient of many awards, nominations, and Best Of lists, published in 2010, In the Wild is still going strong. I love this trailer my son made for the book.

Feel free to leave a comment. I'd love to hear from you.

Next week: In the Sea.

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