The gleeful gorilla got its start in a dream that Carol Robinson Baker had almost four years ago. So did the young yak, bucktoothed beaver and delightful dolphin.
Baker brought to colorful life 26 critters in her book, “Armored Armadillo to Zippy Zebra: An Alliterative Anthology of Animals,” which she published in April.
And the idea of the book came to her in a dream one night when she was at her daughter’s house in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where Baker was spending a few months helping to take care of her new granddaughter.
“One morning I got up and I had this dream, and I told my daughter about it. I have very, very vivid dreams. And when I wake up in the morning I usually remember them,” Baker said. “So I told her. I said I had a dream about a book and the title was originally supposed to be ‘Daddy, If You Could Be an Animal, What Would You Be?’ And it was going to be animals A through Z. And so she said, ‘Well, Mom, that might be worth thinking about.’”
Baker spent the next couple of years thinking about it. She couldn’t decide on a format for the book but thought that maybe she could write some unusual facts about various animals, one for each letter of the alphabet. But she couldn’t really find enough interesting material and eventually hit on the idea of assigning each animal an alliterative adjective.
“It started out as just a few words and then the more I got into it, the more I thought, ‘I wonder if I can make every word alliterative?’” she said.
And that’s what she did.
“I chose a real animal for every one,” she said. “And I changed animals a few times. I’d get into a passage and realize I couldn’t come up with enough words to make it semiplausible. And so I had to change the animal.”
So while kangaroo was a natural choice for an animal beginning with K, it proved to be the most challenging, because so many words that are alliterative with kangaroo start with the letter C.
And X had its own difficulties, she said. The featured animal is an X-ray tetra, a small, translucent fish that’s found in the Amazon River in South America. The words chosen to accompany it include “excited,” “extraordinary” and “excessive.”
There are two pages dedicated to each animal, one containing the words and the other filled with a large, colorful illustration of the creature along with smaller drawings of other objects that begin with that same letter.
The book’s illustrator, Izzy Bean, originated the idea of hiding the additional things in each picture, Baker said.
“She came up with some of them. I came up with some of them, but the one that I like best is my W,” Baker said. “It has a water tower with the Waco logo on it.”
On the page with the wet wallaby is a white water tower with the city’s red Flying W logo on it. The tower resembles the one that was, until it was demolished recently, near Richland Mall. (The Flying W logo was created more than 20 years ago by Carol Perry, who was the city’s public information officer at the time. She now teaches in the Department of Journalism, Public Relations and New Media at Baylor.)
“I love how the words work with the illustrations,” Bean said in an email interview. “Carol’s script was so fun and refreshing, unlike anything I’d read before, so that really inspired me to try my hardest with the illustrations so they could keep up with the professionalism the writing shows.”
Baker said M is her favorite letter in the book, “because I just love the illustration” of the “mischievous mongoose masterfully manipulating a menacing mamba.” It’s a dark picture, a night scene, with a hazy moon in the background and a shooting meteor. The mongoose and mamba are in a standoff under a tree full of mangoes.
After Baker had written the book, she started looking locally for an illustrator but didn’t have any luck, so she turned to the internet and eventually found Bean, who is located in the United Kingdom.
“I came across [her page]. And her logo was a giraffe and it was really cute, so I emailed her and said, ‘Would you be interested in illustrating them? I’m a first-time author. I really don’t know anything about anything, but would you be interested?’” Baker said. “And I sent her samples of the alliteration, and she really wanted to do it. So by a leap of faith I just signed a contract with her and all of this was done by email. She started out with sketches, and I let her interpret it the way she wanted to.”
Working with an author without meeting face-to-face was nothing new to Bean.
“I do a lot of work via email, so I’m quite used to it now,” she said. “The only challenges this faces is the time zone difference, but I woke up to emails from Carol and then she would receive my reply once she woke up, so we had a nice pattern going that flowed quite well.”
Baker said while the target audience for the book is obviously children, probably ages 4 through 11, she would like to see the book used in school classrooms as well. She even included a couple of pages with suggested teacher lesson plans in an appendix.
“You could make it a teaching tool as well as just something for fun,” she said. “And the illustrations are so beautiful that even for a very young child, if they don’t understand the words, they can see what the animal is. They can go to the illustration and find things that start with the same letter and maybe get an idea of what the words mean by looking at the illustration.”
But Baker certainly doesn’t think her lesson plans are the only ways her book can be used in the classroom.
“It’s just an idea of what she can do,” she said. “Any teacher that’s worth her salt could make up her own.”
Dana Gietzen, who teaches at Midway’s River Valley Intermediate School, said the book “was the highlight of my fifth grade poetry lesson.”
“My students were fascinated with the rich colors and especially enjoyed finding the hidden objects in the illustrations,” Gietzen said. “This was a fabulous way to introduce alliteration to the students.”
Baker taught school for 25 years, specializing in English as a second language, and retired from Midway Independent School District in 2012. She was a third-generation Baylor graduate and has a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. She was born and raised in Waco and graduated second in her class from Midway High School, behind only the valedictorian, David Hinton, in their graduating class of 70 or so students. Her husband, Bill, had a 27-year career in the Air Force and is now semiretired.
The Bakers live in the home where her parents used to live, and it’s exactly 1 mile from the house where she grew up in Woodway.
“It was a great street to grow up on,” she said. “I had so many friends up and down the street. We all knew each other, and we were out playing at all hours.”
Though Baker’s first book ended up being different than what came to her in that Mississippi dream, she hasn’t given up on that original idea.
It’ll probably keep the title she had in mind previously, “but I’m going to make it rhyming,” she said, “but I want to make it incongruent.”
“For example, I would be an alligator riding up and down an elevator. And then in the picture, the dad is going to be an alligator with the old elevator uniform on, pushing buttons in the elevator, something along that line. And then, at the very end, after Z, the final is going to be, ‘But all I really want to be is your daddy.’”