Upper El Medio artist and children’s book author Vanessa Westgate’s new book “To Catch an Elephant”—slated for a June 2019 release under Clavis Publishing—transports its readers to the grasslands of Tanzania, where mighty elephants roam.
Here, a young boy loves elephants so much he wants to make one his pet, but getting a pet elephant might not be as simple as he thinks. “I started getting interested in children’s books back when my daughter was little and I started reading picture books to her,” Westgate told the Palisadian-Post. “I try to tell simple stories about subjects that are very complex. My stories are inspired by nature and I hope to inspire a love of nature in children, too.”
Westgate, a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, was born in the UK and moved to New York to pursue a life in art. She has been a textile designer, photographer, travel writer, ceramic artist, painter, geographer, environmentalist, and now writes and illustrates children’s picture books with messages that matter.
The inspiration for “To Catch an Elephant” came to Westgate after a choice encounter with a herd of elephants in Tanzania while on safari with a friend.
“Everyone in our group was going on this balloon ride, but we were worried about what would happen if we fell in the hippo pond,” Westgate said with a laugh. “I love hippos, but it was pretty filthy. And they’re not always friendly with visitors.
“So instead we went on a wildlife journey. We had stopped the Jeep on a dirt road when suddenly we became surrounded by this herd of elephants. It was incredible—you could even hear them chewing, they were eating their way through the forest. All the baby elephants were sort of playing around, having fun with each other—it was fantastic. We fell in love with the babies and wanted to take one home with us, but we couldn’t, so we took home the story instead.”
Westgate’s background in photography, design and painting lends itself to the winsome oil pastel illustrations she includes in her book, which demonstrate her artistic talents and will delight readers young and old.
She has been represented locally by the Gallery of Functional Art and the Hamilton Gallery in Los Angeles, the Village Studio Gallery in Pacific Palisades, and the McCleans Gallery in Malibu.
“Before I was doing this, I liked to paint big, abstract paintings,” Westgate explained. “Now I’m doing small, detailed illustrations. So I enjoy the contrast.”
Outside of children’s book illustrations, Westgate’s en pleine air and studio sketches of street scenes and animals, done with markers, acrylic and other mediums, are bright, buoyant, works with soft brushstrokes and serene little details.
“I usually visualize a book instantly and have all the images in my head,” Westgate shared. “Of course, they’re kind of vague when you try to draw them. Everything is sort of based on my imagination. It’s important to get the fundamentals down first so that it has some kind of order, otherwise you just have this chaos of images. But it sort of comes naturally to me.”
Westgate has several other ideas for books in the works, including “Helga’s Castle” about a queen, a castle and a beach, or “The Pirates of Paris!” about a detective, a small boy, a little dog and some big, bad pirates.
“They’re all in various stages of completion,” Westgate smiled. “I tend to focus on conservation and animals, but in a very subtle way.”
Westgate hopes that “To Catch an Elephant” will instill in the children who read it a curiosity and a love for these magnificent animals that are quickly disappearing from our world.
“There are only about 400,000 elephants left in the wild,” Westgate explained. “At the beginning of the century, there were four million. They’re disappearing so quickly because of their loss of habitat and poaching. It’s really so sad—they’re going to disappear unless we have the political and social will to do something about it.
“I hope my books will inspire children to love the natural world and take care of it. Baba Doum, a famous conservationist once said, ‘In the end, we will only conserve what we love, we will only love what we understand, and we will only understand what we’re taught.’ So it’s nice to have an opportunity to instill good values in children through literature, like protecting what we have that we love.”
“To Catch an Elephant” is available for pre-order on amazon.com. For more information, visit vanessawestgate.weebly.com.