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Local children’s book author highlights unlikely protagonists

CARLSBAD — Award-winning author and illustrator Janell Cannon has lowered her sights on her next book project — literally.
Cannon has produced six children’s books. Three of them — “Stellaluna,”
“Verdi” and “Crickwing” — have been bestsellers. All celebrate the love appeal of nature’s most misunderstood creatures including bats, snakes and even cockroaches.
Today Cannon can be seen around town, stooping in contorted positions as she photographs beneath tables and chairs to capture the perspective of a small shelter dog who serves as the narrator of her seventh book.
“All the other books I’ve written have taken place in the wild,” she said. “I can illustrate them from memory. This human world with tiles, concrete, chrome and manmade material is angular. I’ve never drawn those types of things before while filtering out the colors.”
Cannon did her research and learned that contrary to conventional wisdom, dogs see a blue to yellow spectrum of colors but are unable to perceive greens to reds.
“The challenge is to create emotion in a scene rather than the character’s face,” she said. “He doesn’t have a name because everyone calls him something different. He’s small and everything looks gigantic to him.”
Because the main character is bounced from home to home, Cannon interviewed shelter workers and read ads on Craigslist to learn why owners can so easily abandon the family dog.
“People get rid of them because they don’t have time or because their kids get tired of them,” she said. “The most surprising reason is because they change their furniture or color scheme.”
Cannon believes the adoption of an animal should be taken as seriously as marriage.
“I’m hoping that after reading this book people will never be able to look at a dog or cat without considering their well-being and making them a priority,” she said.
Cannon has yet to write her own story, one that would inspire any aspiring writer.
After graduating from high school in 1976, she left her home in the suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul with her sister and sister’s boyfriend on an adventure. When jobs they thought they had in Fresno didn’t materialize, they headed south and ended up in Carlsbad nearly penniless.
“We didn’t have an address so they wouldn’t hire us for a job, and without a job we couldn’t rent a home,” she said.
Sympathetic landlords at the El Matador Apartments took pity on them and within five days they secured employment in a greenhouse. Eventually, Cannon found herself alone.
“I got an apartment above the Sportsmen’s Bar and worked in an autobody shop taping cars before being painted,” she said. “I also sold my paintings on consignment at antique stores. Jim Hansen bought a series of them and over the years we traded paintings for books.”
In 1982 Jim’s wife, Pat, told Cannon about a part-time job as a graphic artist at the library. She was hired and became a full-time employee in 1986 with responsibility for producing print materials for other city departments as well.
“The last couple of years I could barely keep up,” she said. “When I got home I wanted to develop my abilities. I paid attention to stories in the children’s department at the library and realized there was nothing about bats.”
An article in the National Geographic about a Gambian epaulleted bat became the inspiration for her first book, “Stellaluna.”
After finishing the project two years later, Cannon used library resources to learn how to market it.
She sent her first query with a synopsis and two pieces of art to Sandra Dykstra in Del Mar, one of the top literary agents on the West Coast.
“She left a message on my phone, ‘I want to see more,’” Cannon said.
Dykstra signed Cannon to a contract with Harcourt Trade Publishers. “Stellaluna” became a bestseller.
“I was stunned,” Cannon said. “I got an agent, I got a contract and I was winning awards.”
Income from the contract, royalties and bonuses made it possible for Cannon to build a house on an acre of land in Carlsbad, pay off her vehicle and enjoy life today on her own terms as a bestselling author.
Janell is cousin of Carlsbad author, Taffy Cannon. Their fathers were brothers.