“How can we be so different and feel so much alike?” mused Flitter.
“And how can we feel so different and be so much alike?” wondered Pip.
“I think this is quite a mystery,” Flap chirped.
“I agree,” said Stellaluna. “But we’re friends. And that’s a fact.”
And so ends “Stellaluna,” Janell Cannon’s best-selling children’s picture book. The international accomplishment hails “misunderstood and neglected” creatures while teaching acceptance, kindness and respect.
Inspired by a National Geographic photo essay on the African epauletted fruit bat, authored by Merlin Tuttle, Stellaluna taps into people’s prejudices about bats while highlighting the importance of tolerance.
The story depicts a baby bat — Stellaluna — who befriends three baby birds Flitter, Pip and Flap. Together they discover Cannon’s teaching paradox, “How can we feel so different and be so much the same and how can we be so different and feel so much the same?”
Mixing resilience with understanding, the story’s hero transforms a fear of bats into an understanding of what makes them — and each one of us — different. And in the end, everyone remains friends.
“Bats are mysterious creatures without a fan club,” said Cannon. “These strange, yet beautiful nocturnal animals are different than most. I sense that we’ve all felt like bats, finding our way through family and community in our own way.”
Cannon was surprised and delighted with Stellaluna’s mega-success. Working to “stretch” herself artistically, becoming a popular writer and illustrator was an accident, one that began years ago.
Cannon landed in Carlsbad via Minnesota and a “stint in Yellowstone Park with my sister” in 1976. Here, she worked odd jobs and sold her paintings in State Street consignment shops.
Residents Pat and Jim Hanson not only purchased her paintings, but they also offered her a job at Carlsbad’s Georgina Cole Library. For the next 12 years Cannon “learned a thousand different things,” from running printing presses, to designing murals and newsletters, and hosting award-winning children’s summer reading programs.
Despite her busyness, she created “Stellaluna,” “developing the story gradually, writing for writing’s sake, giving each piece every effort.” Prior to the onset of everything digital, the book evolved from a storyboard of picture vignettes, “just like old movie-makers.”
Eighteen months later, the unknown talent completed her mock-up, made color copies at Kinko’s and contacted Del Mar’s Sandra Dijkstra, a well-known West Coast literary agent, who embraced the opportunity to review her work.
Acceptance was immediate. Dijkstra and the former publishing company Harcourt Brace Jovanovich gave “Stellaluna” its wings. Within a year, Cannon left her library job to become a full-time author and illustrator.
While Cannon shares her achievement in quiet humility, she admits to “never intending to teach.”
“I simply wished to question prejudices and fairness with themes familiar to kids,” she said.
Celebrating 25 years as a literary and artistic classic, “Stellaluna” has been translated into 30 languages and is listed in the School Library’s Journal list of the 100 best children’s books of all time and noted as one of the Teacher’s Top 100 Books for Children in the National Education Association.
The Chattahoochee Nature Center and the Center for Puppetry Arts in Roswell, Georgia, even staged a puppet show of the beloved tale.
“’Stellaluna’ was my big break, a cross between hard work and good luck,” said Cannon. “Twenty-five years later, I’m meeting the children of the children that grew up on the story about the cutest, tiny fruit bat. That never ceases to amaze me.”
Cannon regularly visits classrooms and attends book signings, confident that picture books are alive and well in today’s digital market because they serve a purpose.
“Because of their interactive nature, illustration books are still popular,” she said. “Not only do parents introduce reading to children with picture books, a bonding takes place. Children love when parents read to them. I don’t think that will ever change.”
The self-described “kid at heart; forever curious with a sense of wonder,” creates stories that “move through time and space because life’s not static.”
Other bestsellers include “Verdi,” a story about a courteous baby python; “Pinduli,” a young hyena with lacks confidence; and “Crickwing,” a cockroach who learns about bullying by being bulled; and “Trupp,” her version of fuzzheads, fuzzy-white, cat-look-a-like creatures she’s forever doodled. These intelligent, book-loving characters don human clothing in order to mesh with humans, interacting in ways that strip prejudices.
Cannon’s artistic talent and creative ingenuity is intrinsic. With the exception of life drawing classes at a junior college, she’s had no formal training. Inspired by everything National Geographic, the artist has painted and doodled “ever since I can remember.”
Cannon says that her love for traveling to “remote places” coincides with her love for coming home to the City by the Sea, her “quiet place.”
Today, Cannon donates her artwork and talents to nonprofits, including bat conservation groups, the Amazon Conservation Team and the Buena Vista Audubon.