Stephanie Teer truly believes that a child’s imagination is magical. When her son fell in love with wild animals, she began searching for fictional books that portrayed his favorite animal—The Cheetah! After her search came up empty, she decided to write her first book, I…am…Cheetah! for her son as a gift. It was a gift, which soon turned into The Wild Animal Kids Club series.
The series is filled with humor, friendship, challenges, a bit of fantasy, and the beauty of some of our planet’s most endangered wild creatures. Stephanie hopes that her books will help children experience the love of reading through the stories she’s created with the Wild Animal Kids.
But mostly, she hopes that kids from around the world will continue to foster their imagination with creativity, believe that anything is possible, and most importantly, find the magic within themselves.
Hi Stephanie, welcome to Reader Views Kids! Tell us, what is “I…Am…Cheetah!” about?
I like to describe my story as an enchanting story of five kids who love wild animals. Three siblings, The Cedillo family, and their friends attend their community Park Day at Safari Park every week. The day starts out like most days, but the little sister runs into a situation where she encounters the park bully, captain of the girl’s soccer team, who thinks that all kids who love animals are a bunch of geeks and nerds. This sparks, the oldest brother, to share a magical secret and create a special club, The Wild Animal Kids Club.
The kids soon discover that the power of their imagination and ability to believe that anything is possible opens up a magical portal where they can interact with real live animals. The fun part of the secret club is that the animals are only visible to them. The kids learn that even with the wonder of magic, there is great responsibility. Especially, when the cheetahs run into the soccer’s team net by accident. The kids soon learn that they need to find the courage and the wildlife warrior within themselves to help save the cheetahs. But most importantly, they must find a way to stand up for what they believe in and be proud of who they are. It’s a fun and engaging story for young readers and for older struggling readers.
What inspired you to write this story?
I wrote this book for my youngest son as a gift. I wanted to write a fictional story that would motivate him to read. At the time, my son hadn’t discovered his love for cheetahs and anything to do with Africa. But he was also a struggling reader and understood that for his age, he wasn’t able to read books at his level. He was embarrassed by books that he could read. In several books, I found that he struggled mostly with the vocabulary. There was no joy or motivation in reading on his own. He loved when I read to him, but he didn’t want to struggle on his own. We’d also been studying concepts around conservation, and he was fascinated with people who dedicated their lives to saving animals. We actually met Dr. Laurie Marker, from the Cheetah Conservation Fund, when she was touring in the US. Her efforts to save the cheetah in Namibia gave me the final push to write engaging stories that also helped children learn about endangered animals.
This is the first book in a series, what kinds of animals will you feature in subsequent stories? How many books are planned for the series?
There are five books in the series. The animals featured, include the cheetah, wolves, red pandas, tigers and the last book will be the polar bear. I also have a higher-level middle grades series for ages 9-12 to follow the end of this series with the same characters.
What can you tell us about your characters? What motivates them?
First, there are three siblings in the Cedillo family, ages 9-12. Their family has a long history of being animal lovers. Their father is a vet, mother conducts research for conservation groups, and their grandparents (retired) travel around the world volunteering at conversation organizations, which are highlighted in the book.
But the oldest sibling was motivated to share the family’s magical secret and create an animal club to lessen the blow of his younger sister’s embarrassment with the park bully. The younger characters love to learn and study about endangered animals, but when their special magical cheetahs get into a ‘dangerous’ position, they realize how important it is to find their courage to believe in themselves in order to save their precious cheetahs.
The illustrations are magnificent! How did you find your illustrator?
With the first book, I worked with a young talented illustrator in San Francisco. She eventually found full time employment at a Museum, but I’ve been fortunate to find other illustrators who can understand my vision and bring my scenes to life for my readers.
What was it like working with your illustrator to bring your story to life?
She was great to work with. I scan hundreds of wildlife animal photos to make sure each scene is infused with a real wildlife ‘feel’ in the illustration. Then I add my creative juices and adapt the environment for the reader with her illustration.
Example: Real Picture: Cheetah eating his prey in the wild. I adapt that same image illustrated to my story. In my scene, the cheetah would be chewing on someone’s shoelaces. It’s a fun process to see the illustrator bring my cheetah to life in a park setting for my characters.
What age group is your target audience?
My age group can range for kids age 7 – 11, sometimes 12. I wrote the book at about 2nd-4th grade reading level with a Lexile score of about 550.
What motivated you to write for this age group?
As I mentioned previously, I was motivated to write this for my son, who was at the time a struggling reader. The struggle with vocabulary was a big issue, and many times it would stop the flow of enjoying the story. I wanted to focus on writing a high interest engaging story while the characters engaged in real live social situations that readers could relate to. I knew that there were more young readers out there like my son and I wanted to reach as many of those readers, so that they could begin to experience the joy of reading and want to continue to expand their search to read more books.
What is the most challenging aspect of writing for a young audience?
The most challenging aspect for me is not writing above a certain reading level and keeping my vocabulary and sentence length appropriate for my readers. I also include several characters, because I think it adds a rich component to the stories. So I’m careful in regards to character placement within the chapters, so that readers do not get confused. Each character brings so much to the story, and as the series progresses, some books focus more on certain characters.
What is the most important message you hope young readers take away from reading “I…Am…Cheetah!”?
First, I want children to be believe in their themselves and to be accepting of others. It doesn’t matter if you love sports, animals, art, music, or science…everyone is special. I also hope that students leave with an appreciation for wildlife conservation. Last, I hope kids leave understanding that everyone deserves kindness and compassion when dealing with challenging situations.
Can you share some of the feedback you’ve received from young readers?
Many of my readers tell me that they’ve read my book more than once and that they love the interactions with the cheetahs. Some feel that some of the scenes are really funny and that my story made them laugh. Mostly, I get questions of “when is the next book coming?”. That always makes my heart sing. When a child gets lost in my story, then I know I’ve done my job as a writer in helping them experience the joy of reading.
What does your writing process look like?
When I look at a blank page, I consult with my characters. I have an idea of the plot and make a very sketchy outline, but when I’m in the heart of writing, my sweet adorable characters are guiding me. Sometimes, they surprise me and do silly things. Then I know I’m truly connected to the heart of my characters and to the heart behind the story.
After we (my characters and I) complete the draft, I go through several…several edits, before I send it to my editor and have it published. Again, I focus on vocabulary, sentence length, and character voice, (which is different from dialogue). I want my readers to hear the same voices that I hear and then I focus on the song behind their voice and make sure that the rhythm of words flow the way I want them too.
How long did it take you to write “I…Am…Cheetah!”?
This book is unique, as it was my first book in the series. It took me awhile to determine how I wanted to structure the book. It probably took me about a year to get my book to the point of where it was published. I’ve written two more books in the series and now my writing/editing process takes about 4-5 months.
How involved was your research for this book?
For this book, I was fortunate because I was able to meet Dr. Laurie Marker from the Cheetah Conservation Fund. My son and I had been studying their conservation efforts for some time. I also referenced lots of National Geographic books and videos regarding the cheetah.
What do you like to read and what are some of your favorite children’s books authors and stories?
I’m part of an Author’s group and I’ve really enjoyed reading their middle grade books. I think reading in this genre helps to make me a better writer. One of my favorite book authors is Arnold Lobel, Frog and Toad. His stories were magical for my children. And of course, when my children were young, my bookshelves were filled with Dr. Seuss books. Such a treasure.
Which writers have inspired your own work as an author?
I love how Arnold Lobel used ordinary experiences and turned them into humorous and kind situations. But I especially loved that in each book, when the story ended, you always felt and knew how special the powerful bond of friendship was between Frog and Toad. Their friendship was wrapped in understanding, compassion and kindness. That’s what I want for my readers. I want to take them on a challenging adventure, but in the end, it’s about the choices we make to be tolerant, to be compassionate and to be kind to others.
Tell us about your publishing experience.
I have self-published all of my books. It’s been a steep learning curve, but it’s been worth the effort. I began my journey publishing with Amazon, but I’ve learned how to distribute to other markets and my new primary goal is to get into libraries. I want my books to be available to anyone that wants to read my books.
What do you enjoy outside of writing?
I love exploring with my family. We love to hike and visit different museums. On my own, I really enjoying long walks with my Yorkie and reading good books.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, about writing or about life in general?
The best advice that I’ve received is that this writing journey is unique for every author. Don’t compare yourself to other authors, because you don’t know where they are on their own personal journey. To add to that, another piece of advice is to write from your heart. Write what you love, because all of that heart will shine through for your readers.
Do you have any advice for aspiring/emerging children’s book authors?
My personal advice would begin with a question. WHY? Why do you want to write for children? Really understand your why and what type of impact you want to make for young readers. Don’t write for children because you think it’s easier or simple. It’s exactly the opposite. An author really needs to focus on plot, dialogue, vocabulary, sentence length, chapter and book length, voice, and rhythm. Really love this genre if you want to contribute to it.