Katherine Shelley Orr
Author & Illustrator
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Katherine (Shelley) Orr is a writer and illustrator. She has authored and illustrated twenty books, most of them for children. She has also authored scientific papers, magazine articles, and grant-funded materials to help educate people of all ages about the environment.
Katherine was born in New York City in 1950. She grew up in Connecticut, surrounded by woods and fields. As a child, she went with her family to the Rhode Island seashore every summer. These early experiences inspired a deep love of nature that became the foundation of her later work.
Katherine was trained as a marine biologist. As well as being an author and illustrator, she has been a research biologist, cruising sailor, scuba diver and environmental educator. She has lived and worked in New England, the Florida Keys, Hawaii, and islands of the Turks and Cacios and Caribbean. About her books she says, “I combine my love of nature, art, and narrative to create books for people of all ages that will educate, entertain, and hopefully inspire.”
Today Katherine lives on the island of Oahu with her husband, their dog, and an assortment of garden pets. Her favorite pastimes include reading, writing, enjoying nature, eating healthy plant-based foods, and practicing the ancient Chinese healing art of qigong.
For more information about Katherine, read her full BIO and INTERVIEW (below).
INTERVIEW WITH KATHERINE ORR
Q. You seem to have several names. Are you Kathy or Katherine?
A. My nickname growing up was Kathy. Everyone knew me as Kathy Orr. When I became a book author I chose my real name, Katherine Orr, as my author name. Thanks to the internet, I discovered there were several other Kathy and Katherine Orrs out there, including an author, an illustrator, and a meteorologist. More recently an attorney, an educator and a publishing student have joined the growing throng of K Orrs, so I’ve decided to include my middle name, Shelley, to separate myself from the crowd. I still sign my books Katherine Orr, but my website bears my full birth name, Katherine Shelley Orr.
Q. Where do you get ideas for your books?
A. From my life experience.
Q. What inspired you to begin writing for children?
A. My deep love of nature set the stage. I grew up in Connecticut surrounded by woods and fields, and I spent a lot of time alone in nature. I knew I wanted to be either a naturalist or an artist of some kind when I grew up, and I always felt I would like to write and illustrate children’s nature stories after I retired. I thought I had to wait until I retired because I also wanted to be a marine biologist. I didn’t think I was skilled enough to make writing and illustrating my profession.
Q. So what changed that?
A. When I was 30, the Turks and Caicos Development Trust invited me to write and illustrate a grant-funded book called The Natural World of the Turks and Caicos Islands. This book’s purpose was to help the island school children learn about the natural world around them. This project was so rewarding that I immediately looked forward to doing more books. I began writing and illustrating grant-funded materials to educate children and fishermen throughout the Bahamas-Caribbean region.
Q. Will you describe your journey from writing your first book to seeing it become published?
A. The first book I wrote for a traditional publisher was Shelley, about the life of a queen conch. Conchs were of great interest to people in the Bahamas and Caribbean. Because I was working in the Caribbean at the time, I submitted it to Macmillan, Ltd., the largest publisher of English language books in that region. They accepted it, as well as my next book, Leroy the Lobster, so I was lucky in that way. But what I didn’t realize was that the Macmillan in New York was no longer related to the British Macmillan that published my books. I was expecting my two books to appear in the US through Macmillan, but they didn’t. What a surprise. I learned about the publishing world as I went along.
Q. So your early books, Shelley, and Leroy the Lobster, arose from work you’d already done as a marine biologist and environmental educator. Did you ever just choose a topic for a book and then do research for it?
A. Yes. In the mid 1980s I moved to Marathon Key, Florida. Florida beaches are important nesting grounds for loggerhead sea turtles, which are the most common sea turtles in Florida. I wanted to write a children’s book about them, but I had no firsthand experience or knowledge of loggerheads. So I joined Save-A-Turtle and became a volunteer beach-walker, licensed to relocate nests and release hatchlings when necessary. It was a wonderful experience! My book, Sea Turtles Hatching, was the result.
Q. As well as nature subjects, you’ve written books about qigong and healing from diabetes. How do you choose what to write about?
A. I write about what I feel passionate about. I feel passionate about experiences that have impacted me and helped me grow in some meaningful way. When something moves me emotionally and I see that what I’ve learned can help others, I want to share it.
Q. Why do you choose to focus on writing for children instead of adults?
A. The short answer is that I love to combine writing and illustrating into short packages. The truth is that I’m naturally longwinded and it’s very difficult for me to express myself simply, with few words. Writing short books for children is very hard for me in that way. But the things I value most — loving and respecting nature, living a kind and compassionate life, eating healthy foods — are values best instilled when we are young. These are simple things that come from the heart. Children respond, and so does the child within all of us, no matter how old we are.
Q. Do you start by writing the story or making the pictures?
A. I always start by writing the story. Once I had to rewrite the story from scratch after I’d done the illustrations for it. I had to make the new story fit the illustrations, and it was very difficult. Nevertheless, it was a better story than the first; it was the story I really wanted to write. I learned an important lesson from this experience: be sure your editor is happy with your written text before you finalize the illustrations!
Q. Do you have a favorite book?
A. I seem to have different favorites at different times. Right now (2014) I’ve recently completed The Doctors in Mili’s Suitcase, and I feel its message is very important. Many people may not believe the power of its message because their doctors aren’t yet telling them it’s true. Our medical system promotes managing chronic diseases over reversing them, and many people and doctors are confused about nutrition. That’s why I wrote the book; this knowledge can save lives in more ways than one.
Q. I notice you illustrate your books in different styles. Why? Don’t you have one style that is yours?
A. I like to experiment. Also, I think different stories require different kinds of illustrations. My Grandpa and the Sea, about an island fisherman, calls for primitive colorful art that reflects the style of that region, while Discover Hawaii’s Volcanoes and my other non-fiction nature books require more realistic illustrations.
Q. Did you study to be a writer?
A. No, I had no formal training in writing or art. After my first two books were published, I decided it was a good idea to take a correspondence course from the Institute of Children’s Literature to learn about the craft of writing for children. It was a wonderful experience, and I learned a lot. I recommend their program. For those who are interested, their website is http:/www.institutechildrenslit.com.
Q. What inspired you to illustrate your own books?
A. When I was young I loved to draw and play with colors. Growing up, I would often upset my teachers by doodling in my notebooks during class. I sketched and painted for the sheer joy of it. As time went on, I wanted to study and work at other things so I left art behind, at least for awhile. When I began writing booklets and painting posters as an environmental educator, I rediscovered my love of art. I’m thrilled to be able to illustrate my own books.
Q. How long does it take you to write and illustrate a book?
A. There is no one answer. Each book I do is different and unique. Sometimes the story just flows out of me easily, but that’s not usually the case. Sometimes I really struggle with deciding how much to include and how much to leave out. I may rewrite the story many times in many different versions before I’m satisfied. Sometimes I’m never fully satisfied. The same is true of my artwork.
Q. Are there steps or stages to making a book? What are they?
A. Yes, for me there are several stages. They don’t always happen in the same order, and all of the steps aren’t required for all my books, but these are the main steps I take for storybooks that educate readers about science subjects:
Write down notes about my story idea.
Research the subject to confirm my facts are all correct.
Develop the story details—where does it begin, where does it end, how much do I include along the way.
Write the first draft.
Rewrite, often many times, until I’m satisfied with the overall text.
Plan the book layout. This includes determining where I want the illustrations to go and making notes about the content of each illustration.
Sketch each illustration roughly in pencil to create the composition.
Make a “dummy” of the book: lay out the text and pictures the way I want them to appear in the final book.
If the book is science-based, I ask at least 3 experts on the subject to read my book and give me feedback; this is like the “peer review” process used by scientists who write papers about their research.
Turn each rough pencil sketch into a finished color illustration.