by Lorie Lewis Ham
Details at the end of this post on how to win a copy of Nosey the Elephant by Jean Chaffee.
KRL will be interviewing several local authors over the next several months and this week we are interviewing children’s book author Jean Chaffee, who is the wife of the late Dr. Paul Chaffee who was the Fresno Chaffee Zoo vet for 30 years and the zoo director for 25 years. The zoo was named in honor of him at his time of passing.
Her books are based on fun, true stories about beloved zoo animals located at the Chaffee Zoo.
KRL: Are you still involved with the zoo?
Jean: I am very much involved as a docent and ambassador by speaking to various civic groups, talking to school groups, etc. I have established a Zoo 2 You program, which essentially takes a modified zoo camp experience to the West Fresno kids who rarely get to the zoo, much less zoo camp. It is three days long and the fourth is a day at the zoo all at no cost to them.
KRL: How did you get the idea for the books?
Jean: It began as a research project learning more about Paul Chaffee and his life, his accomplishments, and interviews from the zoo keepers who worked with him. I put together all the news clippings and photos that the zoo had dutifully saved. From that emerged several wonderful stories about the animals who were kept here, how they got here, and some fun or funny experiences. My helper, who had MS, pushed me to do something with these stories to immortalize them before she herself passed away.
KRL: When did you first start writing them?
Jean: I took a leave of absence from my teaching job in Madera to start my research. I retired the next year as the project ended up taking five years. My first book was published in 2004.
KRL: Please tell us about it.
Jean: It was Nosey the Elephant and her story of coming from Thailand to California. This story is what endeared her to the families of the Central Valley as the children worked hard to raise the money, $3,700, to purchase her for the zoo in 1949. I still hear people tell me how they were a part of that fund-raising project. Sometimes I doubt them as they don’t look old enough, but they insist. Nosey was the first major animal to come to the zoo. She lived in a tiny enclosure that allowed for all of us visitors to have a personal encounter with her. She was always gentle but had a wicked sense of humor taking sweaters, hats, purses from guests and eventually eating the items.
KRL: How do you come up with your story ideas?
Jean: My story ideas are easy because they are referenced in the actual events in the animal’s life, which makes them a piece of Fresno history. Many adults purchase them as a keepsake which they share with their children and grandchildren as what they did as children.
KRL: Did you self publish? If not, was it hard to find a publisher?
Jean: I am self-published more out of ignorance than deliberation. My son-in-law’s cousin is my illustrator who walked me through the steps from idea to publishing. He thought that I could establish my own publishing company, which was a fallacy. Big stores only want to deal with a distributor who, between them, take nearly 3/4 of your book’s retail costs. Thus, I am often found at Book and Craft fairs out peddling them. I am lucky, though, as the zoo is my biggest outlet along with Petunia’s, a children’s book store.
KRL: Please tell us a little about each book.
Jean: Moja the Lion came as a young cub from a private party in LA. He was a favorite nursery animal with one of the keepers who loved to spend his breaks playing with Moja. However, one day he was obviously miserable with a tooth ache but since Dr. Chaffee was not a dentist, he had to make arrangements to take Moja to a regular dentist office. The day he went happened to be Halloween Day, true fact, adding to the uniqueness of the day.
Longo was a funny story about a male giraffe who arrived to the delight of two females, but it was soon evident he had terrible problems with his legs. Dr. Chaffee tried many PT treatments and finally used an old horse remedy of putting his back feet in elevated horseshoes. It worked. Soon after he was walking properly, the zookeepers found he had died over night and they were crushed. However, a big surprise awaited them 14 months later with the arrival of a newborn calf. (I am [sold] out of these books.)
Bubbles and Bulgy are two hippos who came from Africa as one-year-olds but one year apart. Their enclosure was a dreadfully small pool area for such big animals. The story is about the fears that Dr. Chaffee had preparing for the first hippo calf. Eventually, they had 17 but three did not survive.
KRL: Will you be writing more?
Jean: I have multiple requests for more stories but it is a lot of work and a lot of money taken from my own pocket. Each book cost $14,000+ for the illustrator, publishing, and shipping. I have to purchase in lots of 3,000 to make it with reasonable costs. Then I have to get them out to the public. They are very popular because people remember and loved these animals.
KRL: Have you done other writing?
Jean: No. This is it.
KRL: Website and social media?
The books that are still available can be purchased on Jean’s website.
To enter to win a copy of Nosey the Elephant, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “nosey,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen July 15, 2017. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.