Most people know Caroline Arnold as the beloved children’s author of more than 100 nonfiction books for children. The Washington Post/Children’s Book Guild awarded her their coveted Nonfiction Award for her lifetime achievements (“Not that my lifetime is over,” she quips). Arnold has written about animals, habitats, and ancient civilizations, but what many of her readers do not know is that she was trained in the fine arts.
Arnold writes about things in which she is still interested. As a child in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she was a self-described book worm. “When I was eight years old, I used to ride my bike to the library by myself. I had my own library card and my bike had a large wire basket on the front,” she says. “My goal was to check out 14 books because we could keep them for two weeks. I figured one book a day.” In addition to reading, Arnold was curious about the outdoors. “I used to go on early morning bird walks with my father who was an amateur bird watcher.” Flowers, insects, and rocks made up her many nature collections. “We had a museum in our basement of our prize finds,” she says. A five-week camping trip across the United States from Minnesota to California was Arnold’s first introduction to Mesa Verde National Park with its unique cliff dwellings, a topic she later explored in her book The Ancient Cliff Dwellers of Mesa Verde.
“I didn’t know I was going to be a writer when I was growing up,” Arnold says. Instead, she focused on art in college and graduate school, and considered writing and illustrating children’s books after her two children were born. Although Arnold intended to illustrate her books, it quickly became obvious to her that you cannot draw pictures until you have a story. She plugged away, piling up rejection letters, until she moved to California and took a class on writing for children at the UCLA Extension. Her first book, Five Nests, debuted in 1980, but was illustrated by Ruth Sanderson—a common practice at the time to pair a new author with an established illustrator. Four more books followed before Arnold became author and illustrator using a pencil line drawing style. “I became an established author to illustrate my own books,” she says, but the three color technique of the time made illustrations extremely challenging. “I had to illustrate the book three times,” Arnold says. “Once for the black plate and twice more for the other two colors.” Then she analyzed the saturation levels of each color and converted it to a black and white scale. “I was never sure how the color would look until it was printed.”
With the publication of Five Nests, birds became a recurring theme in Arnold’s work and throughout her life, with husband, Art, who studies birds in his research at UCLA. Arnold took advantage of this connection to conduct research for Hawk Highway in the Sky: Watching Raptor Migration. “I spent a week in the Goshute Mountains in Nevada watching and helping scientists trap and band migrating hawks, eagles, and falcons…the process helped me learn the details I needed to write the book.”
About this time, Arnold developed a prolific partnership with well-known magazine photographer Richard Hewitt. They collaborated on 50 books, Hewitt contributing his vast experience in visual storytelling, and Arnold contributing not only her writing talents, but her fine arts knowledge of visual elements, such as pacing and balance. They shared the creative process, finding a common ground for their goals which sometimes necessitated a compromise in their individual visions or an alternate solution. When Hewitt retired at the end of the 1990s, Arnold was forced to rethink the trajectory of her career. “It was sad to see [the partnership] come to an end,” she says, “but that’s the way life is, things end or they change.”
In spite of the success of her books with Hewitt, “we were limited by photography’s limitations,” she says. They did not have access to animals who live in remote places or who were nocturnal. According to Arnold, moving back to illustrated books “gave me a certain freedom to tell the story and explore ideas that I couldn’t explore in photographic books.” This fact, combined with the advances in four-color illustration technology gave Arnold the freedom to choose other media for her illustrations.
Arnold’s recent series of books incorporates her love of animals with her love of art. For example, in A Platypus’ World, she brings children closer to a nocturnal animal that lives in burrows or swims underwater and is almost impossible to see in the wild. Her cut-paper illustrations provide the perfect vehicle to illustrate the life cycle of this reclusive animal. “Cut-paper collage is not that different [from my earlier work],” Arnold says. “I use scissors rather than a pencil, but the key element is still the line. In cut-paper, the line is the edge.”
With each book, Arnold perfects the text with her editor before beginning work on the illustrations. “Each book demands its own color scheme,” she says of her new graphic-looking style for the early elementary school audience at which the series is aimed. “It’s bright, easily accessible, and the big pictures are easy to see from the back of a classroom.”
Arnold’s new travel blog, The Intrepid Tourist (http://theintrepidtourist.blogspot.com) is an unpublished endeavor that focuses on her travels to various parts of the world. In the past many of her books took root because of a journey she made or a place she visited, and the odds are that yet another book will spring from her travel musings. “I’ve never met an idea that I didn’t like,” Arnold says.