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Not Warm and Fuzzy

Children's writer favors critters that many adults wrongly label as ugly.

November 18, 2000|ANN SHIELDS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If bats, snakes and cockroaches make you squirm, Janell Cannon's writing may change that. A self-taught artist and writer, the 41-year-old Cannon has turned these creatures into lovable characters who outsmart bullies and tolerate difference in others.

She will appear at Adventures for Kids in Ventura today to read from her latest book, "Crickwing" (Harcourt Inc. $16). Crickwing happens to be a cockroach.

Cannon's first book, about a bat, "Stellaluna," won the American Bestseller Book of the Year Award and was named Publishers Weekly Children's Bestseller in 1993. She moved from bats to snakes with "Verdi," published in 1997.

She was asked recently why she prefers to write about unpopular creatures instead of cuddly bears and bunnies.

"I always liked every species, and it was always heartbreaking for me to hear people, at places like a zoo, say 'Oh, ick--how ugly,' " Cannon said. "Little children are generally free of prejudices, but I hear parents dispensing these prejudices to their kids and gradually the kids adopt them. One of the reasons why I write about these animals is to shine a new light on the species."

Cannon grew up in Minnesota, next door to a pond teeming with wildlife that was a playground for her and three siblings. They captured turtles, frogs, salamanders and snakes, then fed and released them.

While researching her book, she dug up fascinating facts. She learned, for example, that the scientific name for the cockroach in "Crickwing" is Blaberus giganteas. Included in the back of the book is a section of "Cockroach Notes" and "Ant Notes," in which you learn that 4,000 species of cockroaches and 8,800 species of ants inhabit the earth.

In order to study the creatures closely, she borrowed a terrarium and watched their behavior. People who cringe when they encounter a cockroach might be surprised to learn they are fastidious groomers who wash their faces as cats do.

Cannon's books usually have a moral, although she tries to put it in the form of a question. And kids get it, she said.

"Stellaluna" explored a friendship between two different kinds of creatures--a bat and a baby bird. "Crickwing" is about feeling powerless when you are a cockroach up against an army of leaf-cutting ants.

"Everyone deals with feeling powerless in some aspect of their lives, whether it's having an unreasonable boss or being kicked around on the playground, so what do you with that energy?" Cannon said. "Bullies have been violated--they've been bullied, too. It doesn't excuse their behavior, but the most powerful message is that it isn't personal. If someone is after you, it doesn't mean you're a geek."

Cannon took a detour to create fictional characters in her 1995 book, "Trupp: A Fuzzhead Tale." She calls it her middle child, since most people don't know about it.

She described fuzzheads as fictional creatures who look like a mixture of a polar bear and a cat, with white fur and crystalline blue eyes. They live all over the planet, keeping to themselves. People rarely see them but they are very curious about us. So they put on clothes and walk among us, knowing that most people just glance at them superficially and don't really see them, she said.

"It's just funny thoughts about humans," she said.

Before she became a full-time creator of children's books, Cannon designed and produced summer reading programs at her local public library. Now she spends her nocturnal life on an acre of land near San Diego, where she conjures up mythical and real characters.

HAPPENINGS

* Today: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and Sunday, 1-3:30 p.m. The fourth annual Children's Book Festival. Simi Valley Library, 2969 Tapo Canyon Road. Call 526-1735 or check the library Web site at http://www.vencolibrary.org.

* Today: 10:30 a.m. Marjorie McCowan will discuss and sign "Death by Design." Mysteries to Die For, 2940 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, 374-0084.

* Today: 2:30-4 p.m. Janell Cannon will sign "Crickwing." Adventures for Kids, 3457 Telegraph Road, Ventura, 650-9688.

* Sunday: 10:30 a.m. The Meaningful Life Book Club, facilitated by Rabbi Dov Greenberg of the Conejo Jewish Academy, will discuss Tzi Freeman's "Bringing Heaven Down to Earth." Thousand Oaks Barnes & Noble, 160 S. Westlake Blvd., 446-2820.

* Tuesday: 9:30 a.m. Story time about "Wibbly Pig" by Mick Inkpen. Ventura Barnes & Noble, 4360 E. Main St., 339-9170.

* Tuesday: 4:30 p.m. Story time on "Where Do Balloons Go?" by Jamie Lee Curtis. Games and activities geared to ages 4 to 8. Thousand Oaks Barnes & Noble, 446-2820.

* Tuesday: 7 p.m. The Short Stories Group will focus on "Red-Headed Baby" by Langston Hughes. Borders, 125 W. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, 497-8159.

* Tuesday: 7 p.m. The Partners in Crime Mystery Group will focus on "High Five" by Janet Evanovich. Borders, 497-8159.

* Wednesday: 8-9 p.m. Poetry Workshop. Ventura Barnes & Noble, 339-9170.

Plan Ahead: From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 2, Hands on Family Science & Art Day will be held in the parking lot of Adventures for Kids, 650-9688.

*

Information about book signings, writers groups, publishing events can be e-mailed to anns40@aol.com or faxed to 647-5649.

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