Jeanne Walker Harvey shares the story behind her story …
Astro the Steller Sea Lion is a case of fact being better than fiction! I first heard about Astro when I read a newspaper article (with great photos) in our local Marin County, California, newspaper (the Marin IJ). The article told about a Steller sea lion, named Astro, who joined a school walk-a-thon! This school, with a soccer field adjacent to the San Francisco Bay, is minutes away from my home. I immediately envisioned this sea lion scooting out of the water, and the surprise and excitement of the children and families. I knew I had to learn more about Astro, and see if I could write his story as a children’s book. And then serendipity took over, and made my idea a reality.
The first person I asked about Astro was our local Postmistress, Jane Oliver, because I knew she was a volunteer supervisor at the wonderful Marine Mammal Center (MMC) in Sausalito. The MMC had rescued the newborn Astro when he was stranded on Ano Nuevo Island off the coast of California. I was hoping that Jane might be able to put me in contact with someone at the MMC. Much to my surprise, she informed me that she was part of the team that rescued and rehabilitated Astro. She could answer all my questions!
While I was writing the text, Astro’s story was still unfolding. After eight months of care by the MMC, a healthy and strong Astro had been released into the ocean three times and each time he returned to places with people, including the walk-a-thon. The MMC realized that Astro had bonded to people. The MMC had followed the same protocol for Astro as used for other marine mammals, including California sea lions. Scientific studies of Astro indicate that it’s possible that the pups of this species, the largest of the sea lion family, may bond more readily to humans than other marine mammals.
The MMC realized Astro couldn’t live in the ocean because he would just keep returning to places with people which wouldn’t be safe for him. While I was writing the text, the MMC found a home for him at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, one of only four aquariums in North America with Steller sea lions. I’ve visited him twice at the amazing Mystic Aquarium, and showed him his book when I was doing a book signing event there. I think he liked it! He has a dedicated and talented trainer, Erin Gibbons, who loves working with Astro (a stellar Steller sea lion) and teaching the public about this endangered species.
I’ve had the opportunity to share Astro the Steller Sea Lion with children at many schools, libraries, and bookstores, and they love seeing the photos and videos of Astro and hearing how he’s doing at the Mystic Aquarium. And at book signings at Pier 39 and the Warming Hut in the Presidio, I’ve also enjoyed meeting tourists from around the country and the world who were visiting San Francisco. At these events I could point to the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay, and say, “That’s where Astro swam to reach the walk-a-thon.”
At a book talk last year, I had the opportunity to introduce the incredible children’s book author and environmentalist, T.A. Barron, and share my book with him. He said it’s as if Astro is “an ambassador for his species now.” And that’s truly what he seems to be. People have learned not only about Astro, but also about Steller sea lions, an endangered species, and the need to protect their habitat and limit commercial fishing.
I’ve realized that Astro’s story is one of connection, and the fact that it’s a true story makes it all that more compelling. I’ve been told that one boy asks that this book be read to him every night, and another child sleeps with it. I truly feel honored to have written a book that connects with children. And I feel such a sense of connection with Astro because Astro the Steller Sea Lion is my first picture book, and a dream come true for me!
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