Today’s interview is a break from my usual focus on up-and-coming children’s book creators, to look at someone who has forged her own way into a niche market in children’s publishing, and from whom much can be leant. Jan Latta is the only woman in the world who is the author, wildlife photographer and publisher of books on endangered animals. Each of her books is self published and distributed widely in schools and she is a sought after international speaker. On the publication of her 17th book recently, she is also very ‘on trend’ – ‘Sleepy the Sloth’ has come out at a time when the world is crazy for sloths, as a stroll around the local shopping centre will attest.
I’ve come to know Jan from being on the committee of my local CBCA sub-branch. She is a surprise package! Quietly and properly spoken with a dignified presence, it’s hard to imagine her scaping around in the wilds of the world!
In writing ‘True to Life books,’ Jan has followed her passion and has become a unique and important voice in children’s literature. I hope you are as inspired by her story as I have been.
Jan, I’m fascinated in your background and how you came to be an intrepid wildlife photographer and writer! Could you tell us what you were doing before and how this interest came about?
During my advertising years in Hong Kong, I created a design and editorial concept for the Regent International Hotel magazine. I left advertising to publish the magazine. When I saw Karl Ammann’s photo essay about African animals, that was it, I had to see Africa.
Karl organised a trip for me to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and when I came face to face with one, it changed my life, and my career. My guide said there were only 600 mountain gorillas left in the world. I wanted to do something to help them survive.
How has your background in advertising helped you?
In advertising I learnt design, copywriting, TV and print production and marketing. I use all these crafts now to create the True to Life books.
How did you get into the field of both photography and writing? Did they evolve separately or side by side? What did you do to improve these skills needed?
I was always interested in photography, but Karl Ammann taught me how to take photographs in the wild. I had to learn how to write for children, so I did many hours of research and I’ve always had good editors checking the copy.
How did you initially come up with the original idea and realise the potential?
After seeing the mountain gorillas, I thought I could draw the animals, or buy stock photographs, to create a book. But if I wanted to create a true to life book about wild animals, I had to learn to be a wildlife photographer to tell the animal’s story.
After the first gorilla book was published, I realised distributors weren’t interested unless I had a series. Gordon Jackson of Koala Books had faith in me and I started to publish the series.
A lot! 5 years of research for Sleepy the Sloth book. But the challenge was finding a location to photograph and film sloths.
Have you written the story before you photograph the animals – do you have a storyboard in mind when you are considering the shots you will need?
The concept for the series of True to Life Books is the animal talking to children about their life and survival in the wild. Each animal has a different problem and solution, so I need to do a lot of research. Then I plan the storyline of the book, and this is my ‘wish-list’ of photographs I hope I’m going to get in the wild. I’m so lucky when animals do something unusual, and when that happens, I rewrite the copy.
How long does each trip take for you to get the all the photos you need?
When I started 23 years ago, I went to Africa for a month. Now I go for 2 weeks because I know the guides and the camps. Lennie the Leopard book took 15 years, with many trips to Africa and one to Sri Lanka, before I could tell the leopard’s story in photographs. This was a very expensive book to publish.
Who goes with you on the safaris? How do you know where to source the best guides etc.?
I always travel alone and often I’m the only person in the camp, so I get the best guide. On four African trips I had the same guide, so that was great. He knew what I wanted and he kept me safe.
I was astounded at how quickly your Sleepy book was published on your return from Costa Rica. How do you do it?
July: The Costa Rica Rescue Centre gave me permission to photograph their sloths.
August: I wrote and designed the sloth book and video script. My flights were 50 hours
of travelling, 7 hotels and four and a half days to photograph and video sloths.
September: I designed the photographs with the text and the final production of the book. A rewrite and a final professional read. Then off to the printer. Sleepy the Sloth video was created and live on YouTube.
October: 3 weeks of 48 school presentations at Hong Kong, Singapore and Johore schools. (The reason I wanted to produce the book so quickly!)
November: Thanks to Paul MacDonald of The Children’s Bookshop, Beecroft, Sleepy the Sloth was launched.
How amazing and exhausting! You can see that Jan is a power-house! Next month we’ll continue this interview with Jan, find out some stories behind the creation of her True To Life Books and look at Jan’s marketing strategies. In the mean time, check out her website for amazing videos and hear Jan for yourself: