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Interview with Janell Cannon, Pinduli
Janell Cannon is the award-winning author and illustrator of picture books about unappreciated and fascinating creatures, including Crickwing, Verdi, and the beloved bestseller Stellaluna. She lives in Southern California.
Pinduli's mama has always told her that she's the most beautiful hyena ever. But Dog, Lion, and Zebra don't think so. Why else would they make her feel so rotten about her big ears, her fuzzy mane, and her wiggly stripes? Poor Pinduli just wants to disappearóand she tries everything she can think of to make that happen. Yet nothing goes her way. Nothing, that is, until a case of mistaken identity lets her show the creatures of the African savanna how a few tiny wordsóbad or goodócan create something enormous.

Janell Cannon, the creator of the bestselling Stellaluna, introduces yet another endearing character in this triumphant story about self-image, self-acceptance, and treating others with respect. Includes notes about hyenas and other animals of the African savanna.
Q: Just as notable as the stories themselves are your stunning illustrations. Looking at the gorgeous renderings of the east African landscape and its inhabitants in Pinduli, it is hard to believe that you are a self-taught artist. How do you capture the detail, colors, and expressions of your cast of creatures?
A: Lots of research! Fortunately, I love to study animals of every shape and form, and tracking down information on a chosen animal character is a completely absorbing task. Understanding the detail and color of the animal is mostly done by observation. If I am lucky, the San Diego Zoo has the creature in its collection, and I can watch, sketch, and videotape the subject. If I don't have access to the real thing, I surf the Net for imagery and watch documentaries about an animal until I feel like I can draw it by heart. I also study anatomy and physiology of animals, which helps me to understand how they move the way they do.

To capture the expression of animals, I also pick up on their personalities by observation and also by interviewing zoo staff and/or other knowledgeable people who have studied them. Many times anecdotes told by seasoned observers will conjure hilarious and interesting habits and traits that I may not have had the opportunity to see.

Q: The main character, Pinduli, attempts to alter her appearance by flattening her ears and concealing her stripes. She eventually learns that even the biggest and toughest creatures have insecurity issues about their appearance. Humans have all been faced with these kinds of image concerns. Why did you decide a hyena was the appropriate animal to tell this tale?
A: My first encounter with the striped hyena was at the San Diego Zoo several years ago. A friend who worked there introduced me to an elderly female hyena, and I instantly fell in love with her winsome face and gorgeous striped coat. My friend said he often heard people approach this hyena and comment on her beauty, not knowing what kind of animal she was. But as soon as they saw the hyena label on her enclosure, negative comments began to flow. It is always amazing to me how a simple word or name can trigger a flurry of prejudiced thought.

The hyena is yet another misunderstood creature, and I hope to expand readers' views by featuring a lesser-known species of the animal and by including nonfiction information about all four kinds of hyenas in the back of the book.

Q: In Swahili, Pinduli means "catalyst for great change or cause of change." How fitting for the young hyena whose mistaken identity instigates an unexpected series of events and teaches such an integral lesson. Where in the process of writing this book did you come across and decide upon the name?
A: I had finished the entire book, manuscript and illustrations, and STILL hadn't found a name for the little hyena. I focused on her east African origin and on languages spoken in this region. Swahili is one of the most commonly used there, so I got on the Net and found a Swahili-English dictionary. I thought of words that best described the hyena's role in the story, and I typed in "catalyst". Pinduli was the word that came upóI think it is related to the word "pendulum" which is often used to describe change, as in the "swinging of the pendulum."

Q: In the acknowledgements, you thank the curators of several zoos for sharing their knowledge and passion for hyenas with you. What information did you learn from these caretakers that helped you write and illustrate this book?
A: All of the zoo staff I met told great stories of the hyenas' playful and curious nature. Janet Hawes, who helped bring up two striped hyena babies at the San Diego Zoo nursery, described a little smile they made and a funny manner of skittering about when playingórump tucked under, head turned back over the shoulder to keep an eye on a pursuer. I used the smile imagery on the first page of Pinduli, when Mama Hyena nuzzles her baby. The peculiar running posture was used in the scene where Pinduli thinks a ghost is after her.

At the St. Louis Zoo, where three spotted hyenas are kept, staff described how they love water, and by the end of each day, all toys were in their pool. Anything left close to their chain-link enclosure would mysteriously end up in the hyena's denóand would likely end up completely disassembled. A leather boot and a squeegee were among many items that caught the hyenas' fancy.

The obvious affection that hyenas inspired in their human caregivers added to my own love for the character Pinduli.

Q: Stellaluna has become a classic, winning numerous awards such as the ABBY Award, the Keystone to Reading Book Award, and the California Young Reader Medal. It was also named a Reading Rainbow Book. Your subsequent books have also received outstanding receptions. What's the most satisfying aspect of creating children's books?
A: There are many things that make book writing rewarding. One is hearing from people how their fear of a particular animal has been eased by one of my stories. Another is getting approval of scientists or naturalists on the accuracy of my drawings. I try to show an animal's natural beauty and avoid unnecessary cuteness.

Q: You have a gift for making the most creepy and unappreciated creatures endearingóa bat in Stellaluna (Harcourt 1993), a python in Verdi (Harcourt 1997), a cockroach in Crickwing (Harcourt 2000), and now a hyena in Pinduli. What's your connection to these typically unloved animals?
A: I tend to root for the underdog, and so when an animal is generally misunderstood and unpopular with humans, I question how this bad rep has developed. All forms of life are connected and are important in ways that we often overlook, and I try to show loathed creatures in a new light by digging up information about their ecological significance and choosing species that I think people will find most attractive. The Gambian epauletted fruit bat has a friendly face with doglike qualities, and I chose it to be the star of my book Stellaluna.

Q: Since 1993, you've published four books with Harcourt that use the aforementioned insects and animals that inevitably pull at one's heartstrings. Aside from Trupp (Harcourt 1995) and Little Yau (Harcourt 2002), do you have any plans for a children's book that diverge from your trademark craft?
A: I have lots of sketches and stories that are very different from my published books, but so far, I have no plans to put them to print.

Q: Outside of children's books, how do you express yourself creatively?
A: I love to cook because I love to eat, so experimenting in the kitchen is a big pastime. Also, I am a beginning drummeróbought a basic kit three years ago and enjoy the challenge of trying to get each of my limbs operating independently from one another. Maintaining a sense of humor has prevented me from quitting.

Q: Can you give readers an idea as to what you're working on now?
A: Many years ago, I saw a Polaroid of a forlorn little mutt posted on a cluttered bulletin board. He was for sale as well as all of the appliances, furniture, and other inanimate objects that were advertised all around his photo. It seemed wrong for this tiny soul to be sold as just another THINGóand I've never been able to shake the image out of my mind. I am now writing a story about a dog in this predicament.

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Janell Cannon

Janell Cannon


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