Daniel San Souci was the kid with a picture of Rin Tin Tin over his bed. The standing joke at his house was guessing what kind of animal he’d bring home next. He nursed pigeons, rats, dogs, cats, and snakes. But his mother finally put her foot down at a skunk—even though it was defumed!
San Souci has many fond memories of camping vacations in the wilds of California. On one trip to Lake County, his older brother found a beef bone that he was sure once belonged to Tyrannosaurus Rex. His younger brother, “the money man,” captured tadpoles planning to sell them for $.25 each when they turned into frogs. San Souci found a king snake that he carted home (and later released).
Wildlife illustration has been a specialty of San Souci’s from his first book, The Legend of Scarface (Doubleday, 1978) to his newly published Antelope, Bison, Cougar (Yosemite Association, 2003). But childhood memories are taking San Souci in new directions. His newest project is a series of picture books about three brothers who start a clubhouse and use their imaginations to concoct adventures. The Dangerous Snake and Reptile Club(Tricycle Press) will debut this fall, followed by Space Station Mars and The Pigeon Club.
Imagination has been an important part of San Souci’s life since he was a boy. There were no video games when he was a kid, so his whole life was built around literature, and a clubhouse his father built. He and his brothers pretended to be characters from The Last of the Mohicans and Treasure Island. The ever-versatile clubhouse became an Iroquois longhouse and a pirate ship, respectively. His older brother, Bob (aka Robert San Souci, the well-known children’s book author), loved to write stories and Dan loved to draw. Pooling their talents, they created their first of many picture books together when Bob was eight years old, and Dan was six.
After Bob and Dan both graduated from college, they collaborated on The Legend of Scarface. A Blackfoot Indian storyteller told Bob the legend while he was in Montana. The story seemed perfect for the brothers’ strengths—Dan’s passion for the wild and Bob’s love of Native American folklore. Scarface was the first of many books for the brothers, each painstakingly researched. Dan remembers reading through Bob’s research for Sootface, An Ojibwa Cinderella Story (Delacorte, 1994). “I couldn’t come up with anything visual,” he says. “I had to compose the whole village from the text of the research—what would be where, what the structures looked like and where they were positioned near the lake.”
Dan and Bob created ten books together, but The Two Bear Cubs (Yosemite Association, 1997) will always hold a special place in Dan’s heart. Working with his brother on this book transported Dan back to a Yosemite summer when a Miwok storyteller first told them the tale of the two bear cubs at the foot of El Capitan. According to Dan, “The story was perfect for us. It had wildlife for me and California Indians for Bob.”
San Souci creates his captivating illustrations from a studio in his Oakland home. Many of his wildlife watercolors begin with photographs of the habitat and creatures he’s trying to capture on paper. He starts with small thumbnail sketches, honing the design and composition of each page, before moving on to larger sketches. His book-size sketches become more and more meticulous as he adds details. Instead of erasing, San Souci places a sheet of tracing paper over his drawing, tracing the parts he likes and amending the parts he wants to change. He does this over and over until the sketch is perfected. During this stage, San Souci carefully examines his use of light and dark to make the best use of the transparency of watercolors. For Mustang Canyon (Candlewick, 2003) he studied each of the horses in the herd, making sure they were in proportion to each other, looked realistic, and varied in size and coloring from each other. It’s not uncommon for San Souci to spend more time sketching than painting.
San Souci is driven by challenge. Over 40 children’s books bear the mark of his enthusiasm and creativity because he likes and respects the children who read his work. Even though his three kids are now adults, he loved coaching their soccer and baseball teams, and filling the role of Boy Scout leader. “I genuinely like kids. I really enjoy them. And I love school visits where I can meet my audience and spend time with them. If I didn’t write books for children, I would have been a third or fourth grade teacher.”