Matthew Bettelheim: Sardis and Stamm


Matthew P. Bettelheim, illustrated by Nicole M. Wong
Friends of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, 2013, $6.99
ISBN: 978-0-9777657-4-4

Bettelheim reports:

This children’s story began two years ago, when the president of a local non-profit 501(c)(3) approached me to write a children’s book about the Lange’s metalmark butterfly, an endangered species on the brink of extinction found solely on a 55-acre national wildlife refuge along the banks of the San Joaquin River in Antioch, California.

I had last explored these dunes in a 2005 article for Bay Nature magazine, where I had freelanced for years as an intern-cum-contributing editor. I found the idea of revisiting the dunes five years later through a children’s book hard to refuse.

Matthew Bettelheim
Our first challenge was to secure an illustrator. After reviewing online portfolios of recent science illustration program graduates, one student – Nicole M. Wong – stood out to us. After exchanging emails, we met her at the refuge in a seemingly abandoned lot located in a sketchy industrial neighborhood along the waterfront. Not knowing us from Adam, Nicole brought along her mom.

I was charged with telling the life history of the butterfly, the natural history of the dunes, and the checkered history of the refuge, all bundled in verse that wouldn’t intimidate young readers. We vetted the verse with local school teachers and children alike.

I combed through species descriptions and digitized natural history collections to nail down the particulars of each species. Be it the flower visited by a passing moth (“The evening gowns of primrose blooms still waltzed with drunken moths”) or the metamorphosis of a butterfly from larvae to imago (“These young will fast until the spring, then feast on buttery flowers, then trade their skins for wrinkly wings beneath the buckwheat bowers”), every word was chosen purposefully with technical accuracy and readability in mind (not much rhymes with “metamorphosis”).

Early drafts of the story were enough to begin storyboarding. Nicole prepared several sketches before we plotted the layout page-by-page through illustrated cartoon panels. Lastly came full-page sketches and color spreads, which allowed us to really see the story play out for the first time.

When Sardis and Stamm goes to press, a proportion of the books from the first print run will be donated to community libraries and schools to ignite interest in this dwindling butterfly species.

The plight of the Lange’s is dire: in 1999, the peak butterfly count numbered 2,342 in a single day; the 2012 peak was 32 individual butterflies. There has never been a more pressing time to get the word out about the Antioch Dunes and the Lange’s metalmark butterfly than there is today.

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Advance Copy

The path from idea to book may take myriad routes. The Advance Copy column, started in 2000 by NASW volunteer book editor Lynne Lamberg, features NASW authors telling the stories behind their books. Authors are asked to report how they got their idea, honed it into a proposal, found an agent and a publisher, funded and conducted their research, and organized their writing process. They also are asked to share what they wish they’d known when they started or would do differently next time, and what advice they can offer aspiring authors. Lamberg edits the authors’ answers to produce the Advance Copy reports.

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