We've all experienced those fortuitous moments in life that make us stop and think, "Now that would make a great book." Not many of us can say we've brought such reveries to reality.
But for Nipomo-based author Bonnie Lady Lee, the start of her career writing children's books was an obvious choice after an incident in 2005 with her pet parrot, Momo.
"He got spooked one afternoon when he was hanging out on my shoulder at a coffee shop on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. ... He landed in a tree," she remembered. "I spent almost 14 hours with my father just trying to get this bird down. Finally, my father jumped up on the tree and shook the branch, and Momo came down and landed back on my shoulder.
"I just needed to write it," she said.
The following year, Momo Come Home was published, the story of a tropical bird stuck in an urban tree.
"It turned out to be a cult classic in San Francisco," Lee said.
Following the success of Momo Come Home, Lee began to research other animals she might be able to use to tell stories that would resonate with young children and serve as educational tools.
"Kids love animals. It's anthropomorphic, so they can relate," she said.
Lee said that her goal is always to teach her audience about the importance of biodiversity and conservation, as well as driving home practical lessons suitable for kids. Go Go Sadie, one of Lee's most popular books, which was published in 2009, does just that.
"I went to Costa Rica and saw a big sign for a Jungle Run, a marathon happening in Costa Rica where I was volunteering," she said. "I just thought it would be a fun story to have an animal sloth participate in this jungle run, and talk about not giving up on yourself even when you're faced with obstacles."
Go Go Sadie recently surpassed 10,000 copies sold, a notable milestone for Lee.
"I always say, for one of the slowest animals, she sure can move," she said with a laugh.
Lee's accomplishments as a children's book author are particularly impressive given that she started her own publishing company, Bonnie Lee Books, to get her playful stories on the shelf.
"Most people feel that if they're going to write a book, they have to go through the traditional literary agents and be published through a specific publishing house," Lee said of the industry standards.
But with a background as a patent agent, Lee decided to take matters into her own hands.
"I basically found out that if you own the intellectual property rights of the writing and your illustrations, all you need is a printer, a good chunk of change to start it, and a good marketplace where you can distribute your books," she said.
Between her entrepreneurial spirit and a strong eye for whimsical storytelling, Lee has managed to disrupt the industry conventions and build her brand exactly how she wants it. She has even collaborated with stuffed animal manufacturers to bring her characters off the page.
With all the success of her company, Lee remains committed to illuminating the stories of at-risk species through her writing.
"I grew up in New York, and I was very early [on] inspired by visits to the Bronx Zoo, just being exposed to and understanding why these animals are in a zoo, because their habitats are being endangered," she said. "That inspired me." Δ
Arts Writer Malea Martin is cheering on Sadie the Sloth. Send comments and arts story tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.