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By Olivia Boler
Looking for a nice little Valentine's gift for that budding reader in your life? Meerkat's Safari, the debut children's book by Diamond Street resident Claudia Graziano, might be just the thing. The nifty little hardcover, aimed at kids ages 4 through 8, has something for everyone, from beautiful illustrations to guessing-game clues poetically dispensed through rhyming couplets.
Graziano came up with the idea for the book in 1990. She had just graduated from college, was "underemployed," and needed to occupy herself while looking for a job. "I thought writing a children's book would be a fun, creative project," she says.
With the help of Dan Sweeney, her boyfriend at the time, she went to the library--"This was pre-Internet"--to research animals. She and Sweeney wanted to come up with funny rhymes à la Shel Silverstein, the late poet and author of children's books such as Where the Sidewalk Ends.
As it goes, Graziano and Sweeney eventually found "real" employment before completing the project, and it was tucked away until 2001, when Graziano found herself underemployed yet again. She started her research once more, this time finding inspiration in a 1996 trip to Nigeria, where she had volunteered at Cercopan, a forest monkey sanctuary. "I suppose that experience fueled my desire to write a book about animals in that part of the world," Graziano says.
Once the story was in place, it was time to find an illustrator. A friend put her in touch with Boston illustrator Michelle Barbera. Both women had been working in technology publishing, and both decided to forge out on their own with their freelance careers. For Graziano, the book was always a labor of love: "I just wanted to see it in print." For Barbera, the project would add to her portfolio. She has since illustrated two other children's books for Sundance Publishing and Grosset & Dunlap. Barbera begins by sketching her drawings, then loading them into Photoshop. The end results are polished, airbrushed drawings. In Meerkat's Safari, they're dominated by the soft, warm colors associated with the plains of Africa.
In the book, the animal character Meerkat leads the reader through the African landscape with questions such as, "This gentle beast peeks over treetops with ease. Can you guess who likes to nibble on leaves?", posed beneath the footprints of the mystery creature. Turn the page and we find the answer--in this case, giraffes--along with some fun facts: "When giraffes are thirsty, they bend down low. Eighteen-feet-tall giraffes sometimes grow."
A literary agent Graziano briefly engaged told her that rhyming books were not selling with publishers, but she was not deterred. She knew from her own experience as an English teacher of kids in the seventh-to-tenth grades that "rhyming text promotes repeat reading and word recognition for early readers" as well as for those having trouble with reading. One of her tenth-grade students, she discovered, could only read at a second-grade level. Graziano gave the student picture books to help him along. "He had to start at the beginning," she says.
Eager to see the book come to life, Graziano went ahead and signed on with the self-publishing press Xlibris. She marked the book's December 2005 printing with a small party at Baobob in the Mission. The book is available on the Xlibris web site, as well as on Amazon.com. In the neighborhood, Just for Fun, Small Frys, and Ladybug Ladybug carry copies.
In April, Graziano and Barbera will launch their own independent press, Meerkat's Adventures, and the book, along with two more installments of Meerkat's travels, including an exploration of the ocean, will be printed by Prolong Press. "Because of the book's early success, we're now approaching it as a business rather than a vanity project," Graziano says. Just for Fun has offered to host an event to celebrate their new venture.
When she's not working on the Meerkat books, Graziano cozies up with her cat Mathilda and hangs out with her tight group of friends. The Peninsula native has lived in Noe Valley since 2002 (she also made the neighborhood her home for a while in 1994), and works as a freelance copywriter and editor.
Probably the biggest question for this new author is, what is a meerkat anyway? (This is actually one of the buttons on Graziano's web site, www.meerkatsadventures.com.) A meerkat is a small burrowing animal found on the African continent from southwestern Angola to South Africa. They usually weigh about two pounds and live in a system of tunnels within a colony of about 30 other meerkats. The name means "lake cat" in Afrikaans, and they like to dine on insects.
Originally, Graziano's safari book did not have a guide, but she decided it needed one, although not a human. "Once I found out that meerkats are incredibly social, intelligent creatures--they actually baby-sit each other's young and teach them survival skills--the meerkat got the job!" Graziano says with a laugh.