“See the deer eat meat.” Such was the quality of a district-mandated series of beginning readers for first graders when Ann Martin Bowler was a classroom teacher. Bowler remembers throwing down the book, saying “I could do better than this.” Even her students picked up on the inaccuracy. “It wasn’t about writing anything [that made sense],” she says. “[The series] was looking for long E words.” In the face of those awful books, Bowler felt rebellious enough to quit teaching after 19 years and start writing.
Although her decision sounds drastic, Bowler had written many poems for her students and set them to music. She had read hundreds of children’s books to her students and to her five children. Her mother, brother, and cousin were writers. It was now or never.
The seed for her first trade picture book, Gecko’s Complaint, was planted during her eldest son’s junior year abroad in Indonesia. He lived with a family with whom he now owns a business. Bowler visited Indonesia to thank the host family, and developed a new appreciation for Indonesian art and storytelling. She remembers standing in a dusty bookstore, flipping through several books of fascinating Indonesian folktales told in dry English prose with few illustrations and little appeal for children. She purchased all the books she could carry, and when she returned to the U.S. continued to read folktales borrowed from university libraries. “I was aware of how little I knew, and wanted to bring a little of Indonesia home.” She searched for the perfect tale to rewrite and share with an American audience and finally found a funny Balinese folktale which Bowler infused with sly humor and quirky characters about those who see everyone else’s faults but their own.
While Bowler waited for a publisher to purchase Gecko’s Complaint, she accepted several writing assignments in her community and for educational publishers. She wrote articles for Sierra Heritage Magazine on exploring the outdoors with kids; she edited a newsletter for adoptive families, called Hand in Hand; and she wrote a leveled reader about Jane Goodall for an educational publisher. Each project helped polish her craft and buoyed her spirits with credits, as she waited for her big break in the world of children’s publishing.
The Adventure of the Treasure Fleet: China Discovers the World combined Bowler’s interests in history and culture. A research coup, she located translations of the diaries of two sailors who made the 600-year old voyage. Written as historical fiction,Adventures of the Treasure Fleet also contains enticing factual details taken directly from these diaries. In 2009, Bowler’s story received Taiwan’s highest children’s book award—the Good Book List—created by the Taipei City Library for the year’s most outstanding children’s books.
Bowler credits her parents with instilling in her an appreciation for culture and a curiosity about people from foreign lands, characteristics reflected in many of her published books. “My parents loved to travel. We spent three months in Europe when I was five or six.” While Bowler soaked up European culture from the back seat of a Volkswagen van, she laid the groundwork for a future as an author of multicultural books.
Bowler’s interest in Asia first developed after the adoption of her Korean daughter and her Korean son. “I was thrown by what a big deal it was to bring an Asian person into our home,” she says. “If they were going to be well-adjusted, they needed to know about their Korean culture so they could walk between both worlds.” Every Sunday, the Bowler family attended a school hosted by Friends of Korea, an organization of generous Korean-American families dedicated to sharing their culture.
In All About Korea: Stories, Songs, Crafts and More, Bowler combines the many lessons she learned with her children into what she calls a “global, fun, hands-on way of looking at culture.” As part of the All About Korea launch, Bowler developed a well-received special school visit presentation that celebrates all cultures of the world.
Generally, Bowler rises early to write from her Loomis, California home and usually devotes some part of every day to writing-related activities: crafting new pages, editing, or publicity. As the mother of five, the grandmother of three, and the owner of The Flower Farm Inn in Loomis, her days are full. In spite of her busy schedule, writing for children holds a special place in her heart. “I love crafting sentences to make them more appealing to the reader. I love kids’ books. [They] can take you anywhere you want to go.”
Next, Bowler plans to dive into a piece of fiction originally started by her mother before her death. “I want to take her books and finish them,” Bowler says.