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‘Stellaluna’ creator celebrates 25th anniversary with exhibit

Artist Janell Cannon poses at Carlsbad Library’s gallery with “Stellaluna,” which she created in 1992 for the cover of her best-selling children’s book. (Charlie Neuman / Tribune News Service)
Artist Janell Cannon poses at Carlsbad Library’s gallery with “Stellaluna,” which she created in 1992 for the cover of her best-selling children’s book. (Charlie Neuman / Tribune News Service)

CARLSBAD, Calif. – Once upon a time, there was a mother fruit bat who had a newborn baby she loved very much, and she named her Stellaluna.

So begins the internationally acclaimed 1993 children’s book “Stellaluna.” Generations of toddlers have grown up reading the beautifully illustrated tale of the little lost bat raised by birds. But very few readers know the story behind the picture book or its nature-loving creator, Janell Cannon of Carlsbad.

Back in 1993, Cannon was an overworked graphic artist living in a Carlsbad garage when she put the finishing touches on her first book and sent a hopeful letter to a prospective agent. She figured that if nothing came of her query, she’d at least have a lovely collection of bat paintings for herself.

But something did come of it. San Diego’s now-defunct Harcourt Brace Jovanovich snapped up the book and turned it into a runaway best-seller. Over the years, the book has sold millions of copies, it’s been translated into 30 languages and it’s been ranked by the National Education Association and School Library Journal among the top 100 children’s books of all time.

“I feel stratospherically fortunate,” Cannon said Thursday. “To be able to have that book continue on is a miracle.”

On Aug. 7, publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will issue a 25th anniversary hardbound edition of “Stellaluna” with freshly reprinted artwork, bonus crafts and activities.

Carlsbad is celebrating with an exhibition that opened July 1 at the city-run William D. Cannon Art Gallery. (The author has no relation to the gallery’s namesake.)

All of the book’s hand-painted illustrations are on display in the gallery side by side with the book’s text, so visitors can walk clockwise around the gallery and read the entire book. There are also additional painting studies she did on bat wings and bodies.

Cannon herself will be in the gallery every Friday from 1 to 3 p.m. painting at an easel in a corner and greeting visitors. She’ll also take part in several community events.

Cannon worked for the city of Carlsbad for 12 years before leaving in 1994. She’s excited for the exhibit because Carlsbad is where “Stellaluna” was born. Karen McGuire, curator of exhibits at Cannon Gallery, said the public is very excited about the show.

“Janell’s work is stunning,” McGuire said. “It’s professional and beautiful and warm and it holds up throughout the years. That’s why a whole new generation of readers will be able to enjoy it.”

Cannon, 60, grew up in Minnesota, where her nature-loving family enjoyed nightly visits by swooping bats. She was born with the artistic gene. Her parents were artists and three of her siblings went on to careers in graphic design, architectural drafting and craftsmanship.

She started painting in sixth grade when she found a set of acrylics tucked in her Christmas stocking. She painted on any surface she could find, from glass to wood chips, and she painted portraits from pictures in National Geographic. By high school, she was selling commissioned paintings to her teachers.

After high school graduation, Cannon and her sister caught a Greyhound bus west. They worked a summer together in Yellowstone National Park then parted ways. Her sister went to college, and Cannon headed to Southern California where she struggled for years, working odd jobs and selling the occasional painting.

Cannon gradually built a portfolio as a freelance artist and graphic designer. In 1982, she landed a job at Carlsbad’s Georgina Cole Library, designing murals, newsletters and children’s library programs.

One day in 1991, she noticed that the only three books with bat characters had been removed from circulation because they were worn out.

“I saw there was a vacancy on the shelves for books about bats so I thought maybe I could write my own,” she said.

Over the next two years, she studied and painted bats, inspired by a National Geographic photo essay on the African epauletted fruit bat. The tiny brown creatures were both strange and beautiful, qualities she knew would appeal to both boys and girls, and she found she could paint them very well.

For her book, she did all of the paintings first. Then she wrote the words, a story of tolerance inspired by a vacation in Thailand, where she experienced being the only Westerner among crowds of Thai villagers.

“I felt like I belonged there, but I was different,” she said. “There was that acknowledgment of difference and sameness. I wanted kids to take that in and walk around in the world with it.”

When “Stellaluna” was published, Cannon said, “it was a 180-degree change for me.” She was thrilled and grateful, but also overwhelmed with juggling book promotion responsibilities and her full-time city job. A year later, she left her job and has focused on books and art-making ever since.

Cannon went on to publish five more books. As in “Stellaluna,” she wanted to tell stories about other misunderstood creatures, like Verdi, a courteous baby python; Pinduli, a young hyena with low self-esteem; and Crickwing, a bullied cockroach.

Most were well-received except a pair of books on fictional catlike characters called Fuzzheads, which dealt with more serious societal issues. One review in the New York Times was so witheringly negative, Cannon said all she could do was laugh about it.

These days she donates her artwork and talents to nonprofits like bat conservation groups, the Amazon Conservation Team and the Buena Vista Audubon. Most recently, she did illustrations for a Spanish-language book by a Colombian author about a family that fled into the jungle during the violent South American rubber boom in the late 19th century.

The success of “Stellaluna” allowed Cannon to buy a home on an acre of land 20 years ago. With a game camera and a journal, she keeps meticulous records of her property’s flora and fauna.

It’s a singular life, but it’s not lonely. And though she doesn’t keep office hours, she’s busy all the time.

“The concept of being bored is alien to me,” Cannon said. “Life itself is a phenomenon. Every day is icing on the cake for me.”