Archived Outdoors

Franklin couple collaborate on outdoor books for children

out frIn 25 years of teaching kindergarten, Cathryn Sills of Franklin read a lot of books to her young students. In the process, she learned a lot about what children like to read and what they don’t like to read.

Sills also discovered there just aren’t that many good, well-written nature books geared toward that age group. So she and her husband, John, decided to do something about it.

“I mentioned it to our publisher, and they said send a proposal,” Cathryn said. “And so we did.”

The result has been the “About” series for young children, 19 books and counting on all things outdoors. Cathryn supplies the words and John, a nationally recognized bird illustrator, the pictures.

There is About Hummingbirds, About Oceans and About Birds and many others. In the works are two more books — About Parrots and About Forests.

When the idea for the About series germinated, the Sills were working on three books that parodied birding guides. A Field Guide to Little-Known and Seldom-Seen Birds of North America was published in 1988, a follow up edition was published two years later, followed by Beyond Birdwatching.

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The books, with detailed drawings and descriptions, describe non-existent birds and birding paraphernalia that is completely imaginary.

The parodies proved a good warm up for the About series. The couple was by then completely comfortable working with each other, and they had a process in place that flowed smoothly.

“I do the writing and then we sit down together and discuss how we want it illustrated,” Cathryn said.

John admits illustrating the About series has been a little bit out of his comfort zone.

“For me, it’s been a bit of a stretch because I’m primarily a bird artist,” he said. “That’s what I know best and consequently what I like to do the best. It has been good for me, and I’ve learned a lot from it. When we do a book on birds, I can take more of a deep breath. Some of the other books have really pushed me a bit.”

The couple agreed that the most challenging book in the About series was the one they did together on mollusks.

“It was tricky,” John said with a laugh, explaining that there was a paucity of reference material available to help with the illustrations.

The Sills set a very high standard for themselves in the About series. They absolutely want every word and every illustration to be as accurate as possible. To describe them as sticklers is to indulge in understatement.

“If you have a nonfiction book, it has to be accurate,” Cathryn said succinctly.

That means the use of a lot of words like “most,” “many” and “some,” because there are no absolutes in the natural world, John said.

“We use everything we can get our hands on to get it right,” he said, adding that he’ll sacrifice a bright pretty illustration for a less spectacular one if needed to ensure accuracy.

“More important than color is to have it right,” John said. “If it ends up being a dull and subdued painting, well not everything in nature is bright.”

Cathryn is a native of Macon County. She retired from the school system with a total of 30 years service. She ultimately settled on teaching kindergarten, she said, because the young children were so receptive.

“I loved their enthusiasm for learning. They’re not old enough to have gotten a little attitude,” she said.

John is from the small town of St. Paul in Robeson County. His father was an artist, too, though he made a living in other ways. John went to N.C. State University in wildlife biology when, in about his junior year, he said that he realized his grades weren’t going to get him a job.

“I’d always been able to draw. I thought, ‘I’m going to take a whack at this and see what happens,’” Sill said.

He entered a wildlife art show in Raleigh and won first place in watercolor. Although the competition wasn’t fierce, the experience was encouraging. Sill kept painting, and in 1978, an important figure in the birding world, Peter Holden, asked if he could refer people looking for illustrators to Sill. Three weeks later, Sill was illustrating a bird identification calendar for the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

In addition to illustrating the About series and collaborating with his wife, John is currently working on the illustrations for a Field Guide to the Birds of Honduras.

“There are some great birds there,” John said. “This would be the first field guide dedicated to just the Honduras.”

John said he expects to spend at least a couple of years working on the field guide — he’s been asked to complete 1,100 illustrations.

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