by Melissa Fales
Once, Debbie Wideroe awoke from an especially vivid dream and jotted down “The Adventures of Camellia N.” on the notepad she keeps next to her bed. It didn’t mean much to her at the time, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that those words had significance. “I couldn’t get rid of it,” says Wideroe. “Then, literally, one day it took over and I instantly knew what I wanted to do.” That’s how Wideroe’s popular The Adventures of Camellia N. series came to be.
Published by Notable Kids Publishing, she’s already released the first two books of a planned set of nine, drafted with the hope that reading about Camellia’s magical experiences all over the globe will help children develop a deeper appreciation for our planet.
Growing up, Wideroe was strongly influenced by her father, a fervent believer in sustainability before the term became widely used. “I grew up with the idea of reuse, recycle, repurpose,” she says. “I developed an innate sensibility of taking care of the earth without even thinking about it.” Wideroe started writing at age six and never stopped, compiling journals and poetry in addition to magazine columns and stories.
Her eco-conscious upbringing and way with words set the stage for her future as a children’s author of environmentally-themed books. However, children’s literature wasn’t the first step in her career. Instead, Wideroe did stints in children’s television, marketing, and teaching. “While I was at Harvard University for graduate school, I was lucky enough to study under Dr. Gerry Lesser, one of the creators of Sesame Street,” she says. She went on to be in charge of marketing for Warner Brothers’ Baby Looney Tunes and other animated properties. And although she didn’t set out to become a teacher, she’s taught advertising and marketing at Pepperdine University for nearly 20 years. “It just kind of happened,” she says.
All of these experiences combined to make Wideroe uniquely qualified to write The Adventures of Camellia N. series. In the books, little Camellia N. visits faraway places around the globe each night in her dreams, meeting different animals along the way. Wideroe says over the course of the nine books, Camellia will visit all seven continents as well as deep space and the deep sea. “I like the idea of introducing children to the magnificence of the earth at a young age,” she says. “I think the younger they are when you capture their interest, the better the chance that they are going to internalize those feelings of wonder and awe and want to care for the earth when they are older.”
Foremost in Wideroe’s mind when she writes Camellia’s adventures is an admonition from Lesser about keeping children’s books educationally accurate. “I always think about that,” she says. When she’s researching a new location for Camellia to visit, she consults with wildlife professionals for the latest information about the region and its creatures. “I go to the experts for this,” she says. “I’m not a scientist. They tell me which animals are endangered, some critically so, and I weave them into the stories. I try to highlight the coolest things about all of the creatures and show how incredible they are. If kids find these animals amazing, perhaps they’ll want to take care of them.”
The first two books in Wideroe’s series are The Arctic (the first-place winner of a Royal Dragonfly Book Award in the Green/Environmental category) and Under the Sea. The third book in the series, detailing Camellia’s trip to the Amazon rainforest, is due out this fall. “In 2020, when the Olympics happen in Asia, will be a perfect time to launch the book,” Wideroe says.
One thing that truly sets Wideroe and The Adventures of Camellia N. apart is the way her vision extends beyond her books and into other avenues where she can make a difference. “I see it as a book series, but it’s also a platform for change,” she says. For example, she started Camellia Kids Care, a global pen pal program that began with a match-up between a school in San Francisco and one in Norway. Her latest set of pen pals live in Calabasas, California and Zambia. “I want these kids to start to understand how interconnected Earth’s creatures and cultures are,” she says. “We’re already seeing that happen with the pen pal program. While they’re learning about a different culture, I hope they’re also learning that at the end of the day, we’re all the same. I hope they’re becoming global ambassadors. This is the next generation. These are the ones who are going to have the power to make big changes.”
Another one of Wideroe’s efforts is Camellia Cares, a partnership with Children’s Scholarship Fund that will allow her to teach low-income parents about fostering communication with their children. “Although this initiative is not tied to the environment, it is tied to literacy, which is another one of my passions,” says Wideroe. “I am a teacher, after all.”
Wideroe says her drive to complete the series has been buoyed by the many supporters of her books and her larger message, including people like Bill Richardson, former Governor of New Mexico, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., and former Energy Secretary. “I’m fortunate and grateful to have influential people supporting and cheering for me,” she says. However, Wideroe says nothing is quite as rewarding as going into schools with her books and visiting with students. “You really feel it at that level,” she says. “When your book is sitting on the shelf, you don’t feel it as much. But when you’re watching little children reading it, you can see you’re making a dent. That’s when you know you’re touching people’s lives.” •
Check out more stories like this in the June issue of Story Monsters Ink!