The rules of our Five Questions interview series are simple: we send each of our guests a long list of questions. Some are serious; some are . . . not so serious. They choose their favorites and respond.

Our guest today is Cassandre Maxwell, author and illustrator of Fur, Fins, and Feathers: Abraham Dee Bartlett and the Invention of the Modern Zoo. Cassandre has written and illustrated six books for young readers and currently works as an adjunct professor at Cabrini College. She lives in Pennsylvania. Check out her newly redesigned website at www.cassandremaxwell.net, which features her distinctive visual style.

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1. How many working titles did Fur, Fins, and Feathers have during writing and editing?

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Abraham and his red panda

Choosing a good title for the book was quite a process. At first, my story centered on the relationship between “Papa” Bartlett and the red panda. My title was Mr. Bartlett and the Wah. (“Wah” was the Chinese name for panda.) But I actually had two stories going in the manuscript and needed to rewrite it so that it would center on Abraham Dee Bartlett and his adventures with a variety animals, as well as the ways he helped bring the zoo up to modern standards. When I rewrote the story I called it “PapaBartlett and the Zoo — a concise name, but without much zip! Later, I called it The Animal’s Ambassador. While I knew none of those titles would stick, I wasn’t sure what the final title would be. But when the Eerdmans team came up with Fur, Fins, and Feathers for the title, I thought, of course! (Why didn’t I think of that?) Excellent editing and art directing are gifts to those of us who sometimes struggle to get things right!

2. What is something not enough people know about zoos and/or Abraham Dee Bartlett?

via Wikimedia Commons

Abraham Dee Bartlett

I don’t think very many people have heard of Mr. Bartlett — I hadn’t either. But when I found a picture of him in one of the books I was using for research, he had such a look of delight on his face that it drew me in. Just who was this man who obviously took great joy in helping animals? The more I read about him, the more intriguing he became. I liked learning how he persevered in his quest to help animals at a time when wild animals were viewed more as curiosities than as the majestic and amazing creatures that share our world.

One of the most interesting things I learned in my research is that if a rhino’s horn is cut off, it will grow back! It consists of a material much like the beak of a bird or fingernails. It has zero ability to do anything for a person medically, so when you think of rhinos being slaughtered for their horns, it is very sad. Killing an endangered animal is terrible, and especially so if it is for a part that would grow back naturally if simply cut off. It is a tragedy of misunderstanding.

I also came to realize the vital role quality zoos play in helping animals in the wild.  Often people say that it is cruel to keep animals captive, but good zoos provide safety, scientific diets, and things for the animals to do. In a quality zoo, animals can live long and happy lives. If an animal such as Wallace, the lion in FFF, had a claw that had grown in a circular pattern and punctured his paw pad, he would be rendered helpless and been killed by other animals if he was in the wild.

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Abraham clips Wallace’s ingrown claw

Zoo keepers, like Abraham Dee Bartlett, carefully study animals and pass their observations to people who work with animals throughout he world. Without quality zoos, many animals would have become extinct because they have been over-hunted for their pelts or heads. Good zoos have protected animals and helped educate us, the public, as to endangered animals. They’ve also encouraged millions of kids to protect these rare treasures in the future.

3. What are you reading right now?

I love biography and am currently reading a biography of Golda Meir, who was the prime minister of Israel some years ago. The book also tells of the various wars Israel has fought since becoming a nation in 1948, often without modern weapons or equipment, as well as the country’s struggles and determination. Mrs. Meir was a truly gifted woman whose ability to be diplomatic and well-spoken has made an enormous difference in the world. She is a heroine for me!

4. What were your favorite books when you were a young reader?

Because my father got home quite late from work, my mother made dinner for me early. I guess I must have been a very messy eater, because my mother said she couldn’t bear to watch me eat, so she read to me during my dinner time! Pretty goofy, but my messiness paid off since we went through all the classics: Heidi, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Little Women, and more. When various teachers asked my class if anyone had read those titles, my hand always shot up. I’m grateful for my mom’s creativeness! (Just so you know — I’m a “neat eater” now.)

In fourth grade, I was introduced at school to various categories of books — adventure, fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, biography, and so on. I was to read one book from each category and figure out which type we enjoyed the most. The biography I checked out was the story of George Washington Carver. It touched my life in a way few other books ever have. I read it at least six times and cried every time. He had such hardship to overcome. I still think of him as one of my heroes.

5. How did you get started writing and illustrating children’s books?

From an early age, I knew I wanted to do something pertaining to art. I loved drawing bunnies, clothes, and very fancy shoes. I thought maybe I’d go into fashion design (and maybe raise rabbits on the side?). But I wasn’t sure because almost all art appealed to me, except perhaps ceramics. My parents (wisely) suggested I get a degree in Art Education where I could enjoy all of the various phases of the arts. I enjoyed teaching art to kids, but when I returned to graduate school for my master’s degree, I took a course in illustration. It was the hardest course I ever took, but also the best and most life-changing. I learned from an amazing teacher and knew illustration was the art form for me. I went on to work at Hallmark Cards, Inc., in Kansas City after grad school and learned a lot more. After marriage and moving back to Pennsylvania, I was able to narrow things down even further to children’s book illustration.

6. What are you doing when you’re not writing, reading, teaching, or answering questions for Eerdlings?

I love to look at things — flowers, birds, animals, the ocean, trees, as well as things in trendy little shops. (Can’t resist.) I get ideas. I also like to make all kinds of things. I like to cook and bake and make jewelry. My hobby is taking photos — often of flowers. I live near the famous Longwood Gardens and spend time walking around there and taking photos of the flowers. I find that relaxing.

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Order Fur, Fins, and Feathers today, and be sure to read Cassandre Maxwell’s earlier guest post about finding her “visual voice.”