Jerry Pallotta is called the alphabet man because he’s written more than 20 nature and science alphabet books. His first book, The Ocean Alphabet Book, grew from his passion for the ocean. As a boy, he spent his summers at Peggoty Beach in Scituate, Massachusetts. Digging for clams, fishing, pulling lobster traps, rowing his dory, and harvesting seaweed are as familiar to him as. . .well, the alphabet.
Throughout elementary school, Pallotta never wrote stories or kept a journal. In high school, he was afraid he would be teased if he wrote for the school paper. At Georgetown University he never dabbled in the school newspaper or scribbled down book ideas. But after his own children were born, Pallotta began reading to them. “I loved reading to my kids and I learned to appreciate children’s books. The first few books we bought were alphabet books and counting books. ‘A’ was always for Apple and ‘Z’ was always for Zebra.” A bolt of inspiration hit and The Ocean Alphabet Book was born. Now Pallotta thinks about his books all the time. “I write on anything, everywhere, anytime. I am disorganized and do not have a set pattern.”
Although Charlesbridge Publishing now produces all of Pallotta’s alphabet books, the first four (The Ocean Alphabet, The Bird Alphabet, The Flower Alphabet, and The Icky Bug Alphabet) started out with Peggoty Beach Books, a publishing company created by Pallotta. “I did not submit my books [to publishers]. . .mostly I did not know that was the norm. . .I decided to self-publish because I knew a color printing company, I knew a paper salesman, I knew someone who was in the bindery business. I just thought I could do it myself.”
The Ocean Alphabet Book was conceived, written, designed, researched, and edited by Pallotta. One of his 72 first cousins, Frank Mazzola, illustrated it. “[It] was first printed on July 7, 1986. I’ll never forget that day. The book eventually became the number one best selling book at the New England Aquarium [in Boston] and I was afraid only my mother would like it.”
Pallotta’s ideas for new alphabet books come from reading and visiting zoos and museums. His upcoming Skull Alphabet Book, an A to Z look at mammal skulls, sprang from a meeting with the owner of a store called Skulls Unlimited at a science teachers’ convention. Each book generally takes two years to create and Pallotta works on five or six books simultaneously. He usually spends his time “reading, reading, reading, going to museums, and talking to scientists.” Sometimes the X word sends him further afield. ForThe Flower Alphabet he read seed packets in a garden supply store for over an hour before finding xeranthemums. The Furry Alphabet took him to a Zulu dictionary whose word for female lamb is xukazi. A dinosaur book from China supplied five dinosaurs whose names began with the letter X. “I was so relieved. All I could think of was that I had enough X’s for four more dinosaur books!”
Although he has no favorite among his books, he is most proud of the ones that have never been done before. The Extinct Alphabet Book has no dinosaurs in it, and The Spice Alphabet Book is the only spice book for children to Pallotta’s knowledge.
Prior to writing for children full-time, Pallotta sold insurance on commission. Because of the nature of his job, he had some flexible time in which he could visit one school a week, promoting his first books. As his books became more popular, he visited more schools and could tell by the kids’ positive reactions that it was time to quit insurance and write full time. Pallotta now visits over 150 schools a year, talking to children about his books. “I love writing books and I love visiting schools all over the United States. I think I have the best job in the world.” After each visit Pallotta feels the nights away from home and the daunting job of being creative all the time is worth it. “It does look easy to write a children’s book, but I think it is really hard to win the kids over.” Occasionally, though, Pallotta leaves with something a little more tangible than a sense of accomplishment. One class gave him a rat named Jerry and another, an African hissing cockroach in honor ofThe Icky Bug Alphabet Book.