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Children's Book Author Revives an Old Miwok Legend
By Maire Farrington
Acclaimed children's book author Robert D. San Souci has had a lifelong interest in Native American culture and tradition. So it comes as no surprise that his latest book, Two Bear Cubs, features the retelling of an authentic Miwok Indian legend. The story reveals how a rock grew to be one of Yosemite's most famous natural wonders, El Capitan.
"One of the things that was especially fun about Two Bear Cubs is that it's a Native American story from California," San Souci says, noting that his previous Indian tales have been set in Montana, Alaska, and Northern Canada. "It was an opportunity for an in-depth look at the history, culture, and folk life of the Southern Sierra Miwok. And it's set in Yosemite, which is a place that, as kids, we would often visit with the family."
Born in the Richmond District and raised in Berkeley, San Souci now works from his home office "just over the hill in Eureka Valley." He can be found out and about in Noe Valley several days a week. "I like to do my shopping and book buying on 24th Street," he says.
At 3 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 29, he'll be hanging out at Cover to Cover bookstore, signing copies of Two Bear Cubs and discussing the scores of children's books he's written over the years.
Joining him will be the book's illustrator, brother Daniel San Souci, who is a star in his own right, having illuminated some 40 children's books. Daniel -- whose brilliantly colored, dramatic style of painting was influenced by N. C. Wyeth -- lives with his wife and three children in the Oakland Hills.
The brothers' collaborative efforts go all the way back to when Robert, now 51, was in second grade and wrote his first "book," a story of rabbits celebrating Christmas. Daniel, a mere kindergartner at the time, illustrated the text, which Robert had laboriously copied onto folded paper and stapled together.
"For reasons that to this day he has never been able to adequately explain, Dan drew animated carrots in cowboy boots, holding pistols," his older brother recalls. "I said, 'It's a Christmas story. Why do you have cowboys -- especially cowboys that are carrots?'" Daniel eventually solved the problem by adding little Santa Claus beards to the characters.
In 1976, the Brothers San Souci sold their first book, the award-winning Legend of Scarface, a Blackfoot Indian tale. "It really has worked out extremely well," Robert San Souci says. "I don't always get to work with Dan. Very often I'm working with artists in New York, and we don't have that personal connection. Dan does seem to really get a strong sense of how I'm envisioning the characters and the setting, even though I have absolutely no ability to even sketch things out. We have an easy sort of give-and-take, and we get along well. It's pretty cool."
Their shared extra-sensory perception may well have developed during childhood, when, says San Souci, "I would listen carefully to stories that were read to me, then retell them to my younger sister and brothers. But I would add a new twist or leave out parts I didn't find interesting."
As a student at St. Mary's College, Robert San Souci took a variety of classes in creative writing and world literature, earning a bachelor's degree in English. In graduate school, he focused on folklore, mythology, and world religions.
Many of the ideas in his books stem from those studies. But San Souci also finds inspiration in daily life. "I love to travel by bus," he says. "I can sit and stare out the window and simply observe."
African-American and European storytelling traditions also feature highly in San Souci's work -- from "the ogres in the Grimm Brothers' woods to ghost legends." In addition, he says, "I discovered Jungian mythology, and from there went back to look at the archetypes and patterns in the stories. With my interest in psychology, combined with my love of storytelling -- I discovered I could work in this field and make a living at it."
To date, San Souci has sold 64 books, many translated into other languages. And he has won numerous awards, from Caldecott and Coretta Scott King honor book awards to the prestigious Aesop Prize, for Cut from the Same Cloth, illustrated by Brian Pinkney.
Between book signings, San Souci likes to attend events that support libraries and literacy. "There's a huge program that started in San Francisco called Rolling Readers," he says. "They bring dozens of authors into San Francisco -- into schools, libraries, and bookstores -- to do readings and to encourage children to read."
Visits to more than 1,000 schools have landed San Souci in 41 states in the past 20 years. "It gives you such a blast of energy to be around the kids," he enthuses.
He also leads workshops for teachers on how to use children's literature, especially folk tales, in conjunction with history lessons and multicultural studies.
When not on the road, San Souci, who is single (but an enthusiastic uncle nine times over), devotes a couple of hours a day to writing, and even more to research. "Part of the fun is working with these wonderful old stories and blowing the dust off them -- reshaping and retelling them but trying to keep the core element," he says. "The fairy tales have that mythic subtext, so children enjoy the story, but there's that extra depth that adults and teachers will pick up on."
Proceeds from Two Bear Cubs, published by the nonprofit Yosemite Association, will benefit Yosemite National Park. "They're tremendously supportive," San Souci says, noting that the park's research facility has helped ensure that everything in the book -- from the basket patterns the animal characters weave to the berries they pick -- is authentic.
"If you read the story carefully, you'll realize that 8 out of 10 of the characters are female. That's because women did the basket weaving, and women did a lot of the gathering and foraging and fishing."
The adventure begins with Mother Grizzly Bear checking her fish traps along the Merced River and discovering that her two playful bear cubs have disappeared.
Robert and his brother Daniel San Sou-ci will gladly tell the rest of the story Nov. 29 at Cover to Cover, 3910 24th St.