With so much to celebrate about my recent volunteering trip to South Africa, I've been a little overwhelmed to write this post ... BUT ... I'm giving it a shot.  With sincere gratitude to all who contributed to the fundraising campaign, I hope this will give you a sense of the good work your donation supported!

Me Backpack_Crop.jpg

Shall we begin?

... but first, not to brag or anything, but I consider myself an expert packer.  When traveling in an adventure scenario, it's especially important to be nimble on your feet!  Hence, two small backpacks for three weeks of travel. 

I call it the Pregnant Camel look.


See those numbers above, 1 through 3?  After arriving to Johannesburg from the US, I took a local airline to Kruger Mpumalanga Airport (say that ten times fast!), then began the first African leg of my journey to the SECRET sanctuary location in Barberton (No. 1 above).

How quickly can one sketch before airline officials ask you to "get off the runway, please"?

How quickly can one sketch before airline officials ask you to "get off the runway, please"?

Mpumalanga Airport, where the sky stretches on forever – and so does the tarmac.

Mpumalanga Airport, where the sky stretches on forever – and so does the tarmac.

After nearly 24 hours of flying and airport-hopping, I was psyched for solid ground!  Thankfully this pretty little terminal was welcoming and Africa-y (my favorite vibe)!

After nearly 24 hours of flying and airport-hopping, I was psyched for solid ground!  Thankfully this pretty little terminal was welcoming and Africa-y (my favorite vibe)!


It is worth noting that if you are flying to a top secret rhinoceros rehab facility in rural South Africa – and you were given NO information on its location prior to arrival – you can just check if the airport has a giant rhino statue to know if you're on the right track.

Giant statue?  Check.

It's also worth noting that I adore anglicized African names.  The first local I met was my driver, a man named Gift.  I hopped in Gift's unmarked jeep, we drove through a casual gathering of vervet monkeys in the parking lot, and continued on for 2 hours to the project site where I was dropped off outside a gate literally in the middle of nowhere.

Gift and I had a fantastic conversation about the socioeconomic condition of the region which fit in nicely to the larger discussion of the rhino horn trade.  If my purpose was to volunteer to protect and preserve the species, I wanted to understand WHY rhino poaching is so rampant?

I will not go into great detail here about the rhino poaching crisis (linked to rhino horn's status as the most valuable illicit commodity on the planet).  I write children's books and am not an expert in international crime syndicates!  Suffice it to say that the issue is at the forefront of conservation efforts in Africa – and if not curbed, rhinos will be extinct in the next decade.  The dreadful statistics are staggering.

Downer much!? 

There is some good news and it comes in the form of conservation groups such as the one I joined up with, called Care For Wild.  Check them out for MUCH more information than I can share here, including profiles on all the precious babies!  Care For Wild operates under the 3 R's: Rescue, Rehabilitation and Release.  We volunteers took part in the Rehabilitation effort by maintaining enclosures, bottle feeding, gathering hay, and clearing the property of poaching hazards (more on that later).  By some stroke of luck, I also assisted on a de-horning day, which is a big deal and a rare opportunity to feel important :)  For an in-depth understanding of de-horning, read this.  Rhino horn is no different than a finger nail in that it grows back, so de-horning is an important ongoing maintenance program at Care For Wild.


In the wild, rhino calves stay with their mothers for the first three years of life.  In fact, 9 times out of 10 when a baby is rescued it is found standing next to its poached mother.  Although this is incredibly heartbreaking, it does allow the rescuers to locate the calf more quickly.  The babies are rushed to the Care For Wild facility and are often badly injured, malnourished, and traumatized.  One calf, Wyntir, was found in such a depressed state that she had allowed hyenas to chew her ears off.  The stories of these gorgeous babies inspired all of us to contribute our physical efforts in any way we could.  We want a full recovery for each special delivery!

Lofo boma (ie. livestock enclosure)

Lofo boma (ie. livestock enclosure)

Care For Wild, despite being a total mystery to me before my arrival, is a truly legitimate, well-run operation.  It was founded by a former veterinary nurse who also spent years as a captain of the anti-poaching police force in South Africa.  HER name is Petronel Nieuwoudt and she means business.  Since its founding in 2001, CFW has become the largest rhino sanctuary in the world, so you better believe that our volunteer duties were waiting for us – boot camp style – every morning at 5:30 am.

(And what was NOT waiting for us at 5:30?  Electricity and heat (in the winter!).  This was rural Africa, after all.)

My typical day consisted, in general order, of:

0530h  |  Wake up to a chorus of iphone alarms among the 10 or so volunteer cabins.  Listen for the captive lion on site, who prefers to stretch his roaring muscles at this hour.

0545h  |  Gather at the viewer (ie. the open-sided safari-style vehicle).  Bundle up in 3 or 4 layers for the chilly ride down the hill to the bomas.  Wave to the hippos and owls.

0600h  |  Arrive at the bomas.  Mix special milk formula for the babies: Zac, Grey, Spirit and Jemu.  Mix pink formula for special needs rhino, Venus, who likes to pull the teat off her bottle.

0615h  |  Feed the babies in their night pen!  So cute!  In the dim morning light, attempt to match the proper bottle to the proper rhino.  Get creative with identification because all of their squeaks sound the same, like dolphin-piglet hybrids.  Zac is the biggest, Spirit is polite, Jemu has fuzzy ears, and Grey ... is grey.

0630h  |  Clean and rake all bomas.  Watch out for massive piles of poo and always bend the knees when shoveling!  Load the lorry and trailer with spent hay and poo.

0800h  |  Drive the lorry to "The Big 16", ie. the open field where the larger rhinos spend the night eating and – you guessed it – pooing.  Shovel and toss up to 50 lbs of poo per rhino into the trailer!  Drive the trailer to an area that I have dubbed The Elephant Graveyard, not because there are elephants, but because it is a remote location where flies congregate ... because of the poo.  Unload the lorry and trailer as fast as you can so Rachel doesn't yell at you.  Try not to bury the lorry as you unload.


0900h  | Breakfast!  Try to get the yogurt before it's gone and don't forget to eat an Ouma rusk, which South Africans are obsessed with.

1000h  |  Back to the bomas for deep cleaning of the night pens, where the babies sleep to stay warm.  In the winter the air temperature drops into the 40s.  Wild rhino calves would graze throughout the day/night to keep their energy and internal temperature up, but because of the threat of poaching, these babies stay indoors at night where they cuddle with each other. 

1100h  |  Measure and weigh dry feed for the needs of each group of rhinos.  Distribute livestock pellets as if they are sprinkles on giant ice cream cones, into the piles of hay.  Shake glucose powder all over to fatten those babies up!  Refill water troughs and squirt nutritional supplement into each trough.  Push wheelbarrow around with authority.


1130h  |  Allow the night pens to dry out before refilling with dense bedding.  Wear pants because that stuff is itchy!

1200h  | Tidy up all the facilities (raking, sweeping, organizing tools).  Monitor the mid-sized rhinos as they graze in the field.  Monitor the baby rhinos because they are cute.

1230h  |  Lunch!  Refill your water bottle because it's going to get very hot in a minute.


1330h  |  Back to the bomas to grab the comically-large hay bags for refilling.  Wave to the guards upstairs, spray your hands and shoes with disinfectant and please Megan, don't touch the electric fence again. 

1345h  |  Drive out to the golden hill to harvest fresh hay for use as bedding.  Watch out for snakes and tarantulas – this is pretty much their paradise.


1430h  |  Return to the bomas for assorted odd jobs.  

1500h  |  Drive to the grazing area for the mid-sized rhinos and watch out – they are in there with you!  Remove cut logs and tree branches that could shelter poachers.  In keeping with the theme, watch out for snakes and tarantulas.  And errant rhinos.  Take logs off-site and stack neatly – or throw recklessly in an attempt to show off.

1600h |  Feed the nyala and duiker.  The females are nosy yet timid, and the handful of males are not to be approached under any circumstance – they will mess you up.

1645h  |  Back to the cabins for shower time and to catch the sunset :)


1800h  |  Dinner!  

2100h  |  Night bottle feeding of the babies – listen for the adorable squeaks again.

2145h  |  Bunkbedtime.  Sleep like the logs you've unloaded today!

Assorted Recap:

Look at those cuties and their silly feet!

Look at those cuties and their silly feet!


|  Below: Click and hover for delightful subtitles  |

Rhinos use a wide variety of vocalizations to communicate – squeaks, moos, grunts, snorts and trumpets.  If you want to hear rhino squeaks, turn up your volume and watch below :)


After 10 packed days with the rhinos, I was picked up by the side of the highway (again) by my escort to the next program (No. 2 on map at top).  Though the Heart for Orphans program is located in a small town near the border with Mozambique, our accommodation was along the Crocodile River which divides Kruger National Park from civilization.  Each morning and evening I caught the comings and goings of freely-roaming wildlife just beyond our fence – BIG and small:


The property perfectly skirts the edge between manicured development and raw wilderness, placing me exactly in heaven:

Sitting on the Sunken Room, contemplating in peace

Sitting on the Sunken Room, contemplating in peace

Section: the Sunken Room  |  We received curious visitors several nights in a row – 4 bull elephants in total!

Section: the Sunken Room  |  We received curious visitors several nights in a row – 4 bull elephants in total!

Aside from Promise, the occasional housekeeper, Melissa and I were the only people on the property so it definitely felt like an "if you're in a forest and you scream, does anyone hear you?" kind of situation.  We even got word that there was a leopard spotted on the property while we were there (!!!).  Yet, despite a few close calls and a creepy run-in with a glass-eyed sugar cane worker in the dead of night, we made it through the week safely.  Perhaps it was due to our expertly-crafted locking mechanism:  

This is how you deter intruders and leopards in rural South Africa.

This is how you deter intruders and leopards in rural South Africa.


My week spent with Melissa and the orphans was so special because I got an intimate look into what it means to be South African.  Melissa has lived in Johannesburg her entire life.  It is a big and exceptionally dangerous city where many residents are afraid to leave their homes.  By contrast – the locals in Steenbok, where the children's center is, are entwined with their community as though there are no walls – no divisions.  People make eye contact as you pass by and almost all school children waved excitedly to us daily.  In Steenbok people live largely off the land because the land is what they have.

Thanks to Melissa, I also learned my share of Afrikaans phrases, which are quintessentially African:

1.  "Ag shame"  –  used to express doubt, or literally anything:

          A:  "Aunt Trudy was eaten by a leopard."

          B:  "Ag shame!"

- or -

          A:  "I just won the lottery!"

          B:  "Shame!"


2.  "Just now"  –  an unknown amount of time – either a few minutes, hours, or never:

          A:  "I'll come over just now."

          B:  "Ok, see you next year!"

3.  "Izit?"  –  used when you have no idea what someone just said:

          A:  "I just performed a data analysis on hybrid strains of the Andromeda virus."

          B:  "Izit?"

Although I picked up a ton of "localisms", there is still just one phrase to sum up the African sunset as seen from the edge of Kruger National Park, and it is in English:

Wow, just wow.


Before I move on, check out this Sketch Record of all the fauna I spotted throughout the trip – a combination of one safari, one night game drive, general wanderings, and my time at the Crocodile River.  My rarest sightings: the white rhinoceros (very lucky to see in the wild with full horn intact!!), southern ground hornbill (spotted a group of six!) and cheetah (which I must confess nearly brought me to tears).

Is your favorite on the list?

All Animals.jpg


Refer to the No. 3 route on the map at top.  This was my daily commute to Steenbok, a town of ten thousand in the Ehlanzeni district.  It is just 3 square miles in area and the locals speak siSwati (which is very beautiful!).  

If you watch and learn the phrases in that linked video, you will be way ahead of me, who could barely learn "good morning" and "see you tomorrow".  One term I did learn – 'mlungu' (white person), which is what the children called me until they could remember "Megan".

The children's center, called the Ciniselani Stimulation Centre, is a type of daycare for children who are either orphaned or whose guardians cannot afford to send them to school.  Unlike in the US and elsewhere, there is no such institution as public school in South Africa and all education comes with a tuition.  There are a handful of private schools in Steenbok and neighboring Naas – you can see the uniformed children walking along the dirt roads – but the children at Ciniselani are not so fortunate to attend.  Furthermore, the 29 children in attendance have special needs and would not cope easily in the larger traditional schools.

This was really a special place.

There is not much to identify Ciniselani as a place for children, aside from the colorful mural on the facade, a scattered pile of painted rocks, and a swing set.  Dirt covers the grounds of the property and the ruins of a demolished building provide the backdrop for the "school day" (8 am - 2 pm).


Thandiwe (age 19) drew a very accurate portrait of me!

Thandiwe (age 19) drew a very accurate portrait of me!

Background middle: the children's loo (a trough).  Background left: a shed for changing diapers.  At right: an existing foundation set to become a new building for permanent lodging for kids (pending donations)

Background middle: the children's loo (a trough).  Background left: a shed for changing diapers.  At right: an existing foundation set to become a new building for permanent lodging for kids (pending donations)

The inaugural group of volunteers recently painted the main facade with symbols of Africa.  Ironically, most of these children will never get the opportunity to see a wild giraffe, mountains, or an airplane.

The inaugural group of volunteers recently painted the main facade with symbols of Africa.  Ironically, most of these children will never get the opportunity to see a wild giraffe, mountains, or an airplane.

Just as the property itself is quite basic, so is the inside of the centre, a single schoolroom without plumbing or electricity.  The concrete floor is cool to the touch, chairs and tables are cracked, several panes of glass are shattered from the windows, and the roof is prone to leak.  Yet, you won't hear a single complaint – the kids and mamas are all smiles!


Because I was the only volunteer this particular week, I was in charge of setting the agenda for play and learning.  And because of the language barrier, I had to get very creative with the daily activities, as well as brush up on my "sign language" (ie. flailing arms to express my objectives).  Luckily, drawing is the true international language and I was able to communicate effectively with pencils and chalk :)

Our classroom activities included:

-  Playing pictionary and hangman to learn English words

-  Learning parts of the body, days of the week, and numbers in English

-  Practicing basic addition and subtraction

-  Yoga (for some reason I was assumed qualified to lead this, though my muscles are some of the most rigid on the planet)

-  Speaking "in public" in English (each child recited their name, where they are from and their age).  My favorite names?  Happy and Trust :)


Our outdoor activities included:

-  Blending colors to make the color wheel (and learning the English terms)

-  Painting rocks with finger paints (*NOTE: a massive care package of supplies is en route from Creative Treasures Preschool in Fort Wayne, Indiana!!)

-  Basketball on the lumpy dirt "court", soccer and ball toss

-  Flying paper planes

-  Dancing!

-  Dishing out one million high fives and two million hugs :)

As a designer I can appreciate the ingenuity of the basketball goals, which are formed from wooden posts and bent wire that had to be re-installed after each shot bent them down.  Still so fun, though :)

As a designer I can appreciate the ingenuity of the basketball goals, which are formed from wooden posts and bent wire that had to be re-installed after each shot bent them down.  Still so fun, though :)

My lasting contributions included:

-  The classroom 'mamas' drew out the letters of the alphabet and I added an illustration to accompany each.  The walls in the classroom were previously quite bare, so now the kids will have Padalecki originals to view and memorize :)

Melissa helps to hang alphabet letters on my last day at Ciniselani

Sebonelo (age 10), Nkosinaty (age 15) and Sydney (age 19) take in the new "art"

- Hand delivering a box full of Little Moon books to the kids!  Patricia, a classroom mom and our translator, helped me to read the book aloud in the native siSwati language.  After story time, the kids practiced drawing Moon, meticulously counting out 8 legs and 2 tentacles, and adding spots.  The phrase "lost in translation" comes to mind, because rather than learning the English word 'squid', the children referred to Moon as 'pop', based on this page:

Considering the relative certainty that these children will never see a squid in Steenbok, I think it's a-ok that they memorize the word as "pop".

After so much time spent with the children, and as the only new visitor, I was able to form special bonds with more than a few.  Thandiwe loved fashion and was quick to show off her shiny dress on my last day.  Musa could not get enough basketball and I taught him how to spin a ball on one finger (thank you 8th grade basketball camp for that one!).  Sebonelo was known to be shy around adults and newcomers, but he came to me every afternoon for a high-five and to expectantly ask, "tomorrow?".

As I always do – and as evidence that I would make a terrible parent – I chose a favorite.  Nkosinaty, a 15 year old boy who cannot move below the waist, was relatively quiet among the group.  When the other children ran wildly in the field, jumping and kicking balls, he sat introspectively on the sidelines.  I could see that he was always pondering.  I also noticed that he would focus a laser eye on the chalkboard whenever I drew something.

There are very few supplies at Ciniselani so simple sheets of paper are treated as precious commodities.  I couldn't stand how little there was to go around so one afternoon I handed my spiral notepad to Nkosinaty – and he proceeded to blow my mind.  He had imprinted many of the illustrations I had done throughout the week and could draw them perfectly from memory!  Just like that, we had broken the cultural, language and age barrier with that limitless link – art.  Needless to say, I left that notepad with Nkosinaty so that he will keep drawing.

I mentioned earlier how much I love anglicized African names and there was one 13 year old boy whose name I couldn't agree with more –

he was called Perfect.


Baie dankie!!!  Ngiyabonga!!!  Thank you!!!


Inspiration cannot be forced –

– but inspiring places can awaken those sleepier parts of the creative mind.

This summer I will travel to a remote destination in Mpumalanga province, South Africa, with the organization Volunteer Southern Africa (VSA).  Seems like a good time to brush up on some Toto:

I will participate in two programs: one rehabilitating orphaned rhino calves (!!!) and the other, benefiting orphaned children of the AIDS epidemic.  Both are close to my heart.  Both seem well-worth the long journey and scary vaccinations.

As a children's author, I am REALLY EXCITED to meet and bond with kids from a faraway place.

Bottle Caps + Strategy = a Thinking Game

Bottle Caps + Strategy = a Thinking Game

As a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity in Malawi in 2011, one of my biggest takeaways was that children around the world – no matter their means – are full of hope, curiosity and creativity.  They can teach us a lot.

I have a special memory of meeting two siblings, Love and Clement.  Clement was really shy.  Love was a watchful older sister.  Towards the end of my stay, Love approached me to explain that Clement wanted to show me something.  

Over the weeks he had noticed me drawing in my tiny, orange sketchbook and he was eager to show me his own drawings:

L to R: Clement, Love, Megan (showing off Clement's drawings)

L to R: Clement, Love, Megan (showing off Clement's drawings)

Kids are often reluctant to share their art – especially with a stranger!  I was so humbled that Clement chose me to show his drawings to.  We didn't speak the same language (he speaks the native Chewa) – yet somehow we knew exactly how to reach each other.  And that was through art.

With hopes of doing meaningful volunteer work, spreading some love, and bringing a piece of Africa back (somewhere deep in my writer's brain) – I'm taking off soon!

* * * To participate by proxy and support the work of these volunteer programs, please consider making a donation to my Little Ones campaign (click below).  Your kind gesture will make an impact!


Thank you to Ms. Mangels's wonderful SECOND GRADERS at CF Tigard Elementary School in Oregon!  I appreciate all the great focus and excellent questions from my newest pen pals : )  Keep up the creativity – time to write your first books!


January was a fun month.  Technically, we're still in January, so I've still got some time!

One of the HUGE benefits of living in San Francisco as an independent author, is that the city (and the entire Bay Area, for that matter) is rich with local book stores.  Once you step out into the world of entrepreneurs and other sovereign creatives, you'll find a lot of people willing to give you a boost as an indie.  

Charlie's Corner, in the Noe Valley neighborhood, has become a great friend to me!  Owner Charlotte Nagy has an infectious passion for sharing stories with children.  I sensed this immediately when I met her in late 2015, my first book Big Mo in tow under my arm.

A large part of the "grind" of independent publishing is that you become the marketer, distributor and all-around advocate for your book.  A friend had clued me in to the grand opening of Charlie's Corner, and I made a point to knock on Charlotte's door with the hope of placing Big Mo in her shop.  She was instantly gracious and inviting, and that meeting marked the beginning of our bond.  I am thankful to such a compassionate denizen for helping myself and others to make self-publishing a reality!  

Now back to January, a banner month for PadaleckiStudio at Charlie's Corner!

I was invited to host a Meetup of adult writers aspiring to author children's books.  I sometimes joke that I am much more comfortable presenting to adults than to kids (kids just know too much...), so this was a great venue for me!  The group gathered around on toadstools and bookshelves as I flew through 150 slides covering my journey and influences from artistic kid, to architect, to author, to publisher.  

Just as we crafted a Big Mo window display fronting 24th Street in 2015, a brand new Little Moon display was designed, built and installed by the very talented Jeff Gomez (@jeffgomezdraws) and Bantu Zuhir (@bantuzuhirillustration).  Charlotte has expanded into the corner space, so now Charlie's really is a corner :)


Charlotte, the shop staff and I coordinated a Journey Out to Sea with a room full of toddlers and their brave guardians.  What book reading is complete without a bubble machine, underwater sounds and a light-up squid?  Oh, and goldfish crackers and seaweed (which was a surprising hit with the little ones!).  Once again, I was floored by the enthusiasm and dedication of Charlie's entire team!

Let's just establish first that Christian Robinson is a tour de force in the world of children's illustrations.  Among his awards are the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor and Caldecott (Honoree).  The industry is so rich with material to absorb and learn from, and I find Christian's simplified geometries and friendly color schemes particularly inspiring.  I was honored to present just one night prior to Christian at Charlie's Corner.  Now that's a "double header" I can get behind!


Some illustrators create story artwork in one fell swoop, but my particular breed of children's illustration rarely (never?) pops out fully-formed.  In a 48 page book, I approach each drawing as an independent composition deserving of attention and much revision.  

Because I create the artwork by hand and then scan the individual elements to manipulate digitally, I can adjust layout, scale and color selection fairly easily.  For any scene, the drawing and composition may have endured dozens of changes over its lifetime!

Let's take a look at one example from the latest, Little Moon. 

In the story, the tiny protagonist, a Hawaiian Bobtail Squid, must journey to find home.  For me, this odyssey creates the perfect backdrop to introduce various ocean conservation issues to young readers.  The vast majority of ocean pollution originates on land, and I wanted to incorporate this topic into the illustrated subtext of Little Moon.

We are all familiar with the devastating impact of ocean debris on sea life.  My goal was to convey this to a child reader in a way that is not too scary, but certainly not funny.  The illustration began as a thumbnail sketch (enlarged here from its original 1" size):

Fun Fact: at the time of this drawing, I STILL used a flip phone (I'm what you might call a "late adopter"...)!  You'll note my homage to my flipper among the ocean trash.

Fun Fact: at the time of this drawing, I STILL used a flip phone (I'm what you might call a "late adopter"...)!  You'll note my homage to my flipper among the ocean trash.

I know that our next generation will have a different relationship with plastic than my own, so it made sense to focus on the effects of plastic in the ocean.  The first concept here was to trap the squid in a plastic bag.  From this, more detailed composition sketches followed:

Flipper is still there!!

Flipper is still there!!

Editing is key here.  Although a jumble of trash of many types does get the point across, it doesn't look too visually-pleasing as an illustration.  Just as in my architectural education, the first concepts tend to be messy with ideas – there is a natural tendency to just "do them all".  Selective editing is so important to narrowing down a broad idea to its main intent.  In these early studies, I simplified the types of background ocean trash to bottles and bags.

I soon found out that drawing a plastic bag with a pencil is WAY easier than painting one with watercolors:

Also, what sound does a squid swimming into a bag make?  At the time, I thought "BLOooOOP", but in hindsight, maybe "PFFFT"?  Onomatopoeias are tough.

After sharing these versions of the illustration with my test audience, I received mostly confusion:

...and no amount of color adjustments could clarify for readers what exactly was happening in this scene.  I may be relatively new at illustrating picture books, but I know that if a reader can't even interpret what is happening in an illustration, that's a bad thing!

So I had to rethink the image.

Source: NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association

Source: NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association

I was reminded of this diagram I'd found in my story research.  Although plastic grocery bags are perhaps some of the most prevalent land objects in the ocean (and some of the most confusing and deadly for ocean life...and some of the most preventable (click here) for coastal communities!), it turns out that plastic and glass bottles decompose much slower.  This new idea for a vessel seemed much nicer as an illustrated element:

PLOONK, right?

PLOONK, right?

The color scheme for the final image was cross-referenced and coordinated with the tones of the entire book to imply an underlying "murkiness" to these harrowing ocean scenarios.  The tiny, "snowy" flecks are reminders that even at the scale of a tiny squid, there are even tinier beings floating around in the ocean, too small to detect.  As a whole, the image describes just one obstacle in Little Moon's brave journey home.


I received a gift that was too fantastic not to share!  A BIG, special thanks to the Big Contest winner and her fabulous first graders, who look to be having a great time with their classroom buddy, Big Mo :)  For a look back at the Big Contest entries: Creativity Spreads

Ms. Pierce and her students have gone above and beyond to incorporate Big Mo into the classroom, and it is so great to see his story inspire more creativity and a love for reading and writing.  They have written and printed their own book, following a typical day in school with Big Mo.

Thank you to Ms. Pierce and all hard-working teachers for making education engaging!


One of the challenges of publishing your own book is to make it look and feel 'real' (or legit).  I knew that I would need to cross my 't's and dot my 'i's before releasing Big Mo into the Big world!

One of the first indications that a reader is holding a REAL book is a fully-fleshed out and accurate Copyright Page.  Every book has one, and few readers really pay much attention to them.  In this first installment of "Dissecting the © Page", let's look closer at the P-CIP.

Libraries have a lot of books.

La Biblioteca de Babel  by Erik Desmazieres (inspired by Jorge Luis Borges novel of the same name), 1997.

La Biblioteca de Babel by Erik Desmazieres (inspired by Jorge Luis Borges novel of the same name), 1997.

Furthermore, librarians SEE a lot of books, and they have to find the proper shelf home for each one.  The purpose of the text block known as Cataloging in Publication (CIP) is to provide librarians with all the needed information to acquire and process a title.  Sounds reasonable, right?

To complicate things, there are two types of Cataloging in Publication: LC-CIP (issued by the Library of Congress Copyright Office) and the P-CIP (prepared by the publisher/agent).  Because the Library of Congress is swarmed by over fifty thousand titles each year, they do not accept self-published works unless the author has a proven history of creating books that are widely accepted by the nation's libraries (quite a daunting goal!).  For the nitty gritty: LC-CIP grit

Naturally, Big Mo falls into the P-CIP category as a self-published work.  Several companies offer authors a CIP-generating service, and I chose the very reputable Quality Books, Inc.  To create the data block, they ask for the book's (a) Plot, (b) Summary, (c) Keywords (for library searchie thingies), (d) Full Text and (e) Intended Audience.

One bit that caused me endless stress was drafting the "official" Summary as forged forever in ink (ie. may as well have been carved in stone) on the © page.  Since Big Mo has a major plot twist, I debated long and hard about the proper wording for the Summary, so as not to spoil the ending!  In the end, I received a lovely and compact block (affectionately, the "CIP Block"), which I then formatted to balance with the title page opposite:

Thank a librarian today!!


Aside from those rare moments of sudden inspiration, most of the finished artwork I produce begins life as a rough sketch.  These initial sketches are an artistic tool like any other, and they help to inform and shape the final piece.  I've always valued seeing the "before and after" of other artists' work, allowing me to connect the dots between final piece and first spark.  Often, these initial scribbles are more emotive, or posses more character or movement.  

Still, I am a sucker for a polished piece, especially if it will be forever frozen in time in a painting, book or print!  The dinosaur sketch (above) was conceived as one piece in a series of six pairings of Big Mo and a "big" buddy.  The idea for The Big Series came to me mid-flight, where I brainstormed a list of JUMBO animals that might make for a nice composition with my oversized iguana.


I first determined the best body position for the dinosaur, keeping in mind that the composition would need to format nicely within a 5x7 inch frame.  After that, I penciled Big Mo in a curious interaction with a fellow giant lizard!

Next came the "therapeutic" part - hours of painting with watercolor and a teensy brush...
Until, VOILA:

Mo & the Brachiosaurus are available on blank notecards at my online shop:


...OR you can find me signing and selling handcrafted watercolor prints in person on the Convention circuit!  See 'Sightings' tab for details and dates :)


There was a not-too-distant time when adding the prefix "i" to a word somehow made it more personal, more imaginative, and coincidentally, more marketable.  iPhone, iWALK, iRun, iSing, iTeddy (yes, these all exist!).  Clearly, the trend has gotten a bit out of hand, but at the heart of the concept is the notion that the individual is in charge.  This idea pervades all aspects of modern life, and lucky me – it even extends into the realms of writing and publishing.

To understand "new" publishing (and yes, even iPublish exists), we should first understand the traditional model:  

What does a publisher do?

In my brain, which is wired a little funny, it helps to reference the natural world to answer this question.  We can think of every book as having a LIFE CYCLE, just like the one you learned about in the third grade:

A publisher manages the life cycle of each book they publish, from its birth to its 'death' (ie. going out-of-print).  While the author usually controls the conception of a story, her publisher may have strong input as to which literary recipe they are looking for at the time.  Okay, I've gone overboard with the metaphors.

...well, not totally overboard just yet.  Let's look at another life cycle that I am particularly fond of:

Imagine that this bald little egg is a story idea.  

A publisher will either pick a story idea from their arsenal of manuscripts (submitted by hopeful authors**), or as is often the case with children's picture books, will pick a manuscript and pair it with a SEPARATE illustrator to create the artwork for the story.  Most often, the author and illustrator do not even meet face-to-face.  For authors who also fancy themselves as artists, this can be problematic, yet there is a big risk in submitting both text and illustrations to a publishing house.  It is well-established in the children's book industry that manuscripts submitted with images must ace it in BOTH realms to be considered.

** Important to note the 'why' here – most industry folks see a traditionally published book as having passed a certain threshold of quality that warrants publishing.  When a publisher agrees to publish an author's manuscript, it is a huge investment for the company, so to be selected by a large publishing house adds intrinsic value to a book.  Or so it is believed.

While the story is still an "egg", the publisher's team of editors develops the manuscript alongside the author.  At this stage, portions are rethought, chunks are cut out, and other chunks are added in.  The editors pull the puppet strings of a full team that designs the book inside and out; they also oversee the manufacture of the physical book.  In traditional publishing, this is where the author can step back and watch as the practical steps of creating a book are completed by others.  Sweet relief!

Onward in the life cycle, the crinkled, eggy shell cracks open, and a baby iguana is born!

The publisher determines a fair, Goldilocks price for the book, and works with a massive network of book distributors to place the book in stores, libraries and schools.

One of the more critical roles of the publisher is to leverage their established relationships and sizable staff to MARKET the book.  After all, even the most eloquent and profoundly-appealing story won't go far if no one has heard of it.  In my limited experience, this really is where the value of a publisher is felt most.  The publisher not only pays for professional reviews (several hundred dollars, if purchased by an individual author), they also arrange promotional tours (ahem, several thousand dollars...), and place blurbs in magazines and blogs (where most readers will first learn about them).  The Twittersphere is a magical place, but when it comes to selling books, serious buyers are looking to places like the NY Times Best Sellers List, or a host of great children's book blogs (School Library Journal, Great Kid Books and Pen&Oink come to mind).

While promotion of the book is ABSOLUTELY KEY to its success, and the well-connected publishing house allows for this at a broad scale, it is important to remember that each publisher covers a full catalog of books, not just yours.  While each book is particularly special to its author, the publisher may not necessarily push her book as much as another title under its wing.  Large-scale publishing is revenue-driven (after all, it is their investment), and if your book does not have as much mass appeal as the latest 'burp and poop' story, it may not get as much promo.  

In the end, the author's own promotion could play a big role regardless.

And finally,, about those baby iguanas?

This facet of traditional publishing is the most nebulous to me without any real world experience, yet.  Rather than play attorney, I can direct you to this helpful website about copyrights, royalties and assorted legalese.  In general, the publisher with their great financial resources will control the production of any book-related toys, games, movies, sequels, etc.  All this, because they will seek to Obtain All Rights to your book.  The author expects royalties from this, of course, and she can negotiate to withhold specific rights (eg. electronic or foreign).

We can clearly understand that the publisher takes on an IMMENSE burden of manufacturing, financing, selling and promoting a new title.  Not only is this necessary, it is also a noble pursuit in that it clears away the distractions to the author that would usurp valuable mental real estate.  Most of the authors you love can produce great work because a full team of people takes on the task of selling it for them.  It's a two-way street.

So...what does a self-publisher do?

This one is easy enough, illustrated by this diagram:

That whole life-cycle-of-a-book thing?  As a self-published author, I manage it all.  Uniquely in my case, I also create the illustrations, though this is by no means required to publish your own children's book.  Over the past year, many fellow writers have asked me WHY I chose to self-publish over the more traditional method of seeking an agent or publisher.  At long last (and because I love them), I have compiled a list:


1  |  I could fully control the story, theme and tone.  After many years working in architecture, I had mastered teamwork and production, but almost always for someone else's design vision.  I felt that the time was right to take on a project of my own.  With a traditional publishing house, there'd be story and stylistic input from a large team of editors.  

2  |  The story I hoped to write had a more delicate message that was perhaps too heavy for big publishers.  Big Mo's notions of consumption versus contentment are certainly universal, but I was a bit nervous that a large publisher wouldn't be convinced to promote it.  Nearly a year in, I realize that I was wrong about that!

3  |  Illustrating is the real draw for me (no pun intended).  I had no interest in passing Big Mo to another artist to complete the book.  For me, the story is nothing without the illustrations, and vice versa.  They inform each other and in my creative process, they are interlinked.  Self-publishing allowed me to do both.

4  |  Architectural education and professional work gave me a strong foundation in 2D computer programs, layout experience, and the ability to coordinate among several players (US Copyright Office, Book Manufacturer, Amazon Distribution, Dept. of Taxation, etc).  There's a certain level of comfort that one needs in assembling things (eg. buildings!) in order to create a quality, physical book through traditional offset printing.  Note that with digital print-on-demand companies, this is all somewhat lessened.

5  |  I had quit my day job ( ! ! ! ), so I could focus fully on founding a small business (PadaleckiStudio) and managing it daily.  It's a bit wobbly at first but with time, the day-to-day business demands level out a bit.  That is, until Book #2 rolls around...

6  |  I was able to eek out the funds for the First Printing of Big Mo.  This is admittedly the scary part, as the cost for several thousand books could easily put a brand new compact car in the driveway.  Lucky me, I don't require a car or a driveway!

7  |  There are gazillions of companies that exist to distribute self-published books these days.  For the widest distribution (worldwide), I chose Amazon Seller Central, which collects a portion of every sale, charges a monthly service fee and an inventory storage fee.  It's not a perfect service, but it does the trick.

8  |  The San Francisco Bay Area where I live, has an endless array of wonderful independent book sellers.  This is certainly not the only city where this is true, but Bay Area shop owners really show that they support local authors.  By participating in local story times and book signings, I am able to support them, too :)  If you are an author, make sure to meet your local indie book sellers, and read to your cute local kids!

9  |  It has been said before, but social media has changed the game.  Never before has an independent author had the power to reach so many so quickly at no monetary cost.  Time spent can be a doozy, but it is also very rewarding sharing news of your work with others!

10  |  Lastly, and this one is important if you plan to self-publish full-time, the return on each book is much higher than with traditional publishing, when a small royalty is paid out per copy sold.  Of course, the pay must be balanced with the initial investment of printing the books (remember that compact car?).  Sometimes a publisher will pay the author an advance, but the author may be expected to pay the advance back to the publisher in copies sold.  Tricksy!

(continued below...)

Yes!  This is one way to promote!

Yes!  This is one way to promote!


This list is not exhaustive of ALL the ways in which a self-published author can promote his/her book, but this is what I have tried to varying degrees of success.  Once you have a completed book that is fully yours, you will do whatever it takes to get the story into the hands of little readers!

1  |  Social media is your friend, and also a way to make connections near and far.  As an independent author with no marketing team, accounts with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, etc will prove invaluable in establishing your work online.  No bit of news is too small to mention, so be sure to share it all!

2  |  On that note, to be taken seriously, you'll need a website.  When I submit Big Mo to bookstores and blogs, I always include a footer linking to my website.  This is pretty much expected, so find a website builder that works for you.  I use Squarespace, which is intuitive with a great support team.  Look for online coupons for your annual subscription.

3  |  Blog!  Proven by you in this moment, a blog is a great way to maintain interest and traffic to your website and work.  It is also an excellent way to give back, as I hope to do by sharing my lessons learned in self-publishing :)

4  |  Elementary School Author visits are a time-honored tradition** and you don't need to be represented by a major publisher to participate in them.  Once you have a book (children's or YA), you have an "entry ticket" to discuss the creative process with students.  I have visited Preschool to 3rd grade levels, and each event is a learning process!  It is a fun challenge to take your completed work (the book) and find ways to engage young readers in creativity.  I have designed slideshow presentations that I project in the classroom or library, as well as quick activities involving Big Mo.  Kids also love drawing demonstrations!  

** Even traditionally-published authors make a major portion of their income from appearances and school visits.  It helps to offer a book pre-sale to students in lieu of an author's fee in some cases.

5  |  Be creative when considering public speaking events.  For example, I have spoken at a college-level writing workshop and at an architecture firm about Big Mo and my process.  These were both extremely engaging, and they introduced the story to a unique group of listeners.  Try speaking at the high school level, at libraries, daycares or book clubs.  Even local farmers markets are good opportunities to introduce your story to gatherings of people.

6  |  Bookstores are generally thrilled to welcome local authors, either for a reading or a book signing.  Even if you don't draw a crowd initially, these are invaluable experiences for a professional author.  Mingling with the public and fielding questions about your work are factors that ANY author should be comfortable with.

7  |  It is a sad truth that most books are purchased online at this point – in fact, this is why book designers recommend cover designs that are eye-catching at a 'thumbnail' size.  With this in mind, it is important to share about your book in any way you can online.  Book interviews and reviews should be a goal.  If your work is good, it will speak for itself and interested writers and bloggers may reach out to you.  Otherwise, if you are still relatively unknown, it is your responsibility to inquire with media outlets (again, this is where a link to your website is handy).  No matter how little or well-read a blog is, it is great to be interviewed or reviewed.  Think baby steps!  And from my own experience, for every 20 blogs you request a feature in, you may hear back from one.

8  |  Professional Book Reviews (such as from Kirkus) are always a possibility, but they do cost money.

9  |  A more tactical way to get your book some exposure with relevant industry folk is to submit for book awards.  There are dozens of awards that are acclaimed (many specifically for independent publishers), and dozens more that are less so, but still worth considering.  Each has its own particular submission criteria, accepts copyrights from specific timeframes, and includes an entry fee.  In any case, a submission for an award means that at least one person will be reading your work with a critical eye, and they just may share it with others.

10  |  Festivals and Conventions of all types occur throughout the year in the US.  Whether an event is explicitly related to your genre of book (or to books at all), each is a fantastic opportunity to meet readers, discuss your work, and receive feedback (and hopefully make some sales!).  To name a few: Book Expo AmericaShaboygan Children's Book Fest, NAEYC Expo, Texas Book Festival.  If your book covers a specific topic or theme, there are conventions and expos for that, too :)

Above all else, be persistent, yet PATIENT.  As I mentioned, not everyone is going to respond to you.  If they don't, just send gentle reminders until you are convinced that the path is a dead end.  Most people are busy with their own lives and work (I am also guilty), and simply can't find the time to meet you or respond to your work.  But there are some who will, and it will be a huge boost when they do!  

There's only one person who knows if self-publishing is right for you, and you're looking at them (I mean, if a mirror happens to be nearby...).  There are pros and cons in both traditional and self-publishing, and to start down either path demands serious research and planning.  In my own life, I determined that I'd jump into writing and illustrating on my own terms, because the timing was right.  My goal was a quality story, both physically and thematically.  Every piece of Big Mo reflects my own unique and individual touch – my SELF.  It's pretty exhilarating, and I am eager to jump in again :)

Footnote:  My self-published book, Big Mo, was created from scratch using traditional four-color offset printing methods, by Lake Book Manufacturing in the USA.  I chose this process because it is the same that Big Publishers use to manufacture sewn, hardcover children's books of high quality.  Though promo tactics are the same regardless, note that there are other means to publish a book, including digital print-on-demand and ebooks.  Any chosen method will require obtaining a Retail Seller's Permit in your state.


In response to a particularly careless politician, Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA, issued a statement that " the 21st century, most people have come to learn from and be awe-inspired by the lives, intelligence, and social make-up of other living beings." [1]

Although PETA is well known for their extreme advocacy of animal rights, there is something about this message that resonates with me.  I am endlessly inspired and intrigued by the forms of the animal kingdom.  In the same way that staring into the night sky transforms my understanding of my place in the universe, witnessing a walking stick mechanically munching on a leaf (click) encourages me to ponder the wonders of terrestrial life.  My art and writing are absolutely fueled by these curiosities.

And just as the stars at night silently speak volumes of our own geological history, there is something equally ancient in witnessing the dive of a falcon or the breach of a whale.  It is alarming and heartbreaking to think that so many species that took millennia to form could disappear in a blink.  The loss of that connection to the past is what strikes me about each animal that finds its name on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (click the icon to visit the site):


To raise awareness for a select group, species on the very brink of vanishing, I have designed a poster PERFECT FOR THE CLASSROOM!  This poster highlights the geography, population and threats to survival of 12 Critically Endangered species, ranging from the lowly Pangolin to our cousin, the Western Lowland Gorilla.  Most people reading this post have enjoyed these animals since their childhood, and it is important to note that to be classified as "critically endangered", each species is just one step away from "extinction in the wild".

How bizarre to think that a rhinoceros may soon be just as fantastical to a young child as a triceratops or wooly mammoth?


  • FREE DOWNLOAD button at the 'TEACH' tab (click poster below)

  • PDF is printable at your nearest FedEx Office (or similar) at 24" x 36" size

  • File can be saved to your computer or opened in iBooks on your phone  

  • AND, if your eyes can read the microscopic, you can print at home :)

For more information on these species and efforts to protect them, click the icons below:

[Source 1] Newkirk, Ingrid. "PETA Statement: Texas Senator Ted Cruz's Picture with a Tiger Skin Rug." PETA. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 24 Apr. 2014. Web. 04 Oct. 2015.


The Big Contest (click) is over, and I am FLOORED by the outpouring of truly inspired participation from an amazing bunch!  It has been a joy to see Big Mo spread in a really fun way, and to inspire acts of artistic creation from these readers.  

Continue on for the Wall of Creativity! :) 


One of the best parts of writing for kids is getting reactions and feedback from readers.  I was so excited to receive a message from a very ambitious second grader, asking to send his summer project to the author of his favorite book, Big Mo - hey, that's me!  A few weeks later I received a package carrying a very special stowaway, Flat Joe.

Flat Joe is a friend of Flat Stanley, a popular children's book character created by Jeff Brown (and drawn by Tomi Ungerer**) who has become a global tool for children's literacy (click for more).  Stanley's story begins when he is flattened by a bulletin board and can suddenly slide under doors, or be mailed in an envelope.  

   |  Click book cover for original 1964 edition  |


|  Click book cover for original 1964 edition  |


**By the way, Tomi Ungerer is a wildly significant 20th century illustrator, and a personal favorite for his style, quirky creativity, and rebellious nature.  I highly recommend the film, Far Out Isn't Far Enough for a deeper look at his life and work.  Note: the film is DEFINITELY not safe for children! 

Stanley has traveled to countless destinations around the world - to engineers, farmers, zookeepers, world leaders and yes, even authors :)  I was HONORED to show Flat Joe around my home of San Francisco, and to share a few educational tidbits along the way.  Here are some highlights from Flat Joe's visit:

Big Mo's distant relative???

Joe's Travel Stops

Financial District, California Academy of Science, Fort Mason, Haight/Ashbury, Ocean Beach

I was so inspired by Joe's summer project, that I decided Mo should join me on my recent travels in Eastern Europe.  Introducing Flat Mo!

|  Note: Enlarge images and hover for factoids  |

Mo's Travel Stops

Row 1  |  Warsaw

Row 2  |  Krakow, Prague

Row 3  |  Brac, Makarska, Dubrovnik

Row 4  |  Zadar, Rome

Thank you, Joe and Pilar for including me in your world explorations!  

And as always, happy reading.



Help us spread the story and message of Big Mo, and enter a chance to win an original Padalecki art collaboration!  The art piece is in the works this month, and is currently being hand-drawn (by Jared) and painted (by Megan).  

Let's see if those demon-smashing skills hold up on paper :)



1.  Big Mo can be purchased at this LINK.  Order early to allow time for shipping/delivery before the August 28 photo submission deadline.


2.  Big Mo was a limited edition printing***, so available copies are also limited - order soon to snatch a copy before they're all gone! 

*** This also means your chances of winning are pretty good!


3.  Post your photo to either the PadaleckiStudio Facebook Page  -or-  Twitter @BigMoBook  

Please note that any photos posted to the Jared Padalecki Facebook Page or @jarpad Twitter feed will not be reviewed for the contest.  This is our way of streamlining the review process of your photos, but we guarantee that they will be seen on PadaleckiStudio or @BigMoBook!


4.  Your photo entry MUST show off your copy of Big Mo to be eligible.


5.  Get CREATIVE with your photo - perhaps take inspiration from Mo or the story!  Jared and I will choose the most unique photo as the winner :) 


6.  The winner will be asked to provide a mailing address to ship the art.


7.  Key Dates:

August 25  |  Last chance for Amazon 2-day shipping

August 28  | Submit your photo by this date

August 29-31  |  Jared and Megan will review the entries

September 1  |  The WINNER will be announced! 



Just as the final weeks of school were winding down for elementary kids, I brought Big Mo on a slew of in-school Author Visits for the first time!  This was a fantastic opportunity to read the book and discuss not only the heart of the story (and its important message of consumption-run-amok), but also the creative design process with hundreds of Pre-K through Second Graders.

Over two weeks, I stopped into several schools, including my own alma mater, Woodstone Elementary in San Antonio, TX.  It's strange how the school library smells the same (*like well-worn books), but the ceilings seem so much lower than I remember!

Not only was this experience rewarding for me, but I also found that the kids were incredibly receptive to the complex topic of design.  We began by discussing ideas and inspiration, then learning how to draw Mo, and finally practiced narrative structure with an interactive, short story activity (excerpt below).  Many students seemed inspired to go home that day and start writing their own story!

I explained to the groups that with my architectural background, I can't help but think of writing and illustration like an architect would.  Just like buildings are synthesized from many parts and players, a book is "built" through a similar process (only with many more elements of PLAY and IMAGINATION!).  I think of Big Mo as a stack of blocks, where each piece had to fall into place before the story could feel complete, and you could hold a book in your hand.

I spoke on my unique role of creating both the story AND the pictures for Big Mo, and I encouraged each child to practice writing and drawing from observation.  

"If you learn to draw the things around you, you can never be bored!"  - Me :) 

(admittedly, nearly EVERY page of notes from my school lecture notebooks reveals just how far I took this tendency to doodle)

My Book Tour was great fun, and I gained some inspiration and tips for thinking like a kid again!  

** Special thanks to Dianna White (Oak Creek Elementary), Sara Romine (Woodstone Elementary), Ashley Miles (St. David's School) and Martha and Joy Winters (Casa Montessori)

** If you would like to arrange an Author Visit at your school, please reach out on the Contact Page - it would be an honor!



I am sharing photos from my Saturday Big Mo reading at Rare Device in San Francisco, because it was too much fun (and too cute) not to!  Enjoy, and if you find yourself in the City by the Bay, definitely check out this fantastic, beautifully-curated gift shop, where there is always a great selection of locally-crafted design objects (and always doggie treats at the front counter!).


Thank you to Ms. Fillman's wonderful SECOND GRADERS at Countryside Elementary School in Virginia!  I appreciate all the hard work and kind thoughts from my newest pen pals : )  Keep up the creativity!


When I was eight, the local news sent a reporter to my elementary school on Earth Day to "interview" us.  I was excited to be picked as the ambassador for the third grade, so I prepared by fluffing up my bangs for the occasion.  I had read the morning announcements a few times, so was unjustifiably confident in my public speaking ability.

Yet, when the time came for the reporter to ask me (giant foam microphone in hand) what Earth Day meant to me, all I could muster was the phrase, "Reduce, Reuse and Recycle!", then the little red light on the recorder clicked off.  

It must have been pretty cute, even though I clearly missed some of the main bullet points.

I hope that if the story of Big Mo does nothing else, that it encourages children to think about responsibility and consumption and greed and our environment that is shared among all the ecosystems of the earth.  I hope the story highlights the connection between individuals and the planet, even if that individual happens to be an iguana.

In honor of this day which is technically every day, I have created an educational companion to Big Mo.  Check it out on my new TEACH tab!


This supplement to the story introduces some of the broad ecologies set in the book, so that kids can start to think beyond the pages and explore more on their own.  Then, when the next reporter rolls into school, they'll be better-equipped for the interview : )