The fluttering orange-and-black wings of monarch butterflies once were a common sight in gardens throughout Maine. Lighting on goldenrods and asters, these large, flashy pollinators are perhaps the most well-known butterfly in New England. But in recent years, they’ve all but disappeared.
“A Monarch Butterfly Story,” the fourth and final book in the Wildlife on the Move series, is about this sad phenomenon and, perhaps more importantly, what people can do to help. Published by Islandport Press in partnership with the Maine Audubon, the series was created for the youngest of readers to introduce children to wildlife conservation issues and ethics.
“Kids get it at an early age,” Melissa Kim, the author of the series, said. “They’re never too young to be told, ‘You can help animals’ or ‘You can make a difference.’”
A resident of Cape Elizabeth and the editorial director for Yarmouth-based Islandport Press, Kim worked closely illustrator Jada Fitch of Portland and naturalists at the Maine Audubon in writing the series, which began with “A Snowy Owl Story” in February of 2015, then continued with “A Little Brown Bat Story” and “A Blanding’s Turtle Story.” All four books highlight wild animals that interact with people as they move throughout the state of Maine, offering opportunities for lessons about wildlife conservation, hence the name of the series: Wildlife on the Move.
“We wanted to have species that migrated or moved in some way to show that animals do move around and are not just stuck in one place all the time,” Kim said. “Even though for a turtle that might mean just crossing the street, for an owl that might mean flying hundreds of miles and, for a monarch, thousands.”
Wrapping up the four-book project was no small task, Kim said. The monarch butterfly proved to be the most difficult species in the series to explore through a simple story because many things about monarchs are complex, from their life cycles and migration patterns to the many reasons for their plummeting population. Crafting a story for young readers about this complicated creature required Kim to do a lot of brainstorming and paper crumpling with Maine Audubon Director of Education, Eric Topper, and Maine Audubon staff naturalist Doug Hitchcox.
“We argued about the monarch for many months,” Kim said. “I think I probably wrote eight different outlines of stories. It was very difficult to keep it understandable to young kids and still be truthful to the species.”
Biologists cite several reasons for the recent decline in the monarch butterfly population, including the deforestation of the location in Mexico where the species winter, pesticide use throughout their long path migration and disappearing food sources such as milkweed, which is the only type of plant monarch caterpillars will feed upon.
“It was really hard to say, ‘Let’s just pick one thing to focus on,’” Kim said.
In the end, Kim chose an upbeat story that showed how people — including young children — can help monarch butterflies by growing milkweed and other plants that the species needs to survive. In recent years, the planting of butterfly gardens has become popular throughout Maine, and many schools are involved. In fact, Kim joined a class from Pond Cove Elementary School in Cape Elizabeth last June as they planted a butterfly garden at the town’s Fort Williams Park. The photographs taken during that trip were used by the book’s illustrator, Fitch, to inspire her watercolor paintings for the book.
A full-time artist, Fitch, 33, has built a reputation for her nature drawings and paintings. In recent years, she has created illustrations for children’s books, adult coloring books, posters and magazines. And when it comes to butterflies, last summer, she completed a detailed posted including dozens of Maine’s most colorful butterflies, and she was hired to design a T-shirt displaying butterflies of North America for Liberty Graphics.
In illustrating “A Monarch Butterfly Story,” she worked with Audubon naturalists to get every natural detail accurate.
“They tell me when I’ve got a plant flowering at the wrong time,” Fitch said.
Now that the series is wrapped up, Fitch is continuing to work with both the Islandport Press and Maine Audubon on other nature-related art projects.
“I’m really proud of [the series],” Fitch said. “I’m so glad that Maine Audubon contacted me to do it. I couldn’t have asked for a better gig.”
Kim, too, has enjoyed working on the series over the past three years. Throughout the time, she’s traveled the state to share the books with children at libraries, classrooms and Audubon centers. She’s currently working with the Maine Audubon to create curriculum guides for each book that teachers, parents, librarians and other educators can use to expand upon the topics. The guides are scheduled to be released this fall.
“It’s really clear the snowy owl and monarch books are the most popular, so everywhere I go I try to spread some bat and turtle love,” Kim said.
All four books in the series have been made into “story walks,” in which the pages are printed as large displays and spread throughout easy walking paths. These story walks are on rotation at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth. And “A Monarch Butterfly Story” storywalk will soon be places at the new Children’s Garden at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth.
Not far from the garden, at the Portland Head Light Museum & Gift Shop, Kim will be signing copies of “A Monarch Butterfly Story” from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, July 15. She’ll also be signing books at the Maine Authors and Storytellers event from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray.
Wildlife on the Move series books are available for sale at Maine Audubon centers throughout the state, on the Islandport Press online bookshop at islandportpress.com and where children’s books are sold.