Sonoma County Ecology Picture Book – Emily Richter, 15

For my project, I decided to create an elementary-level picture book/field guide highlighting some of the ecosystems and organisms of Sonoma County. When I was younger, I was always interested in natural and physical science. However, the only science books they had at our library besides books about animals were about anatomy and physiology, which I found disgusting. To my young self, I thought that the only way to be involved in science was to be a doctor. If there was a book that taught me about other types of science or about natural or physical science, I would’ve been able to explore my interests, and I would have felt empowered and confident in them. My elementary school did not provide much outdoor education for us, mostly because they chose to spend money on other types of enrichment. When I went on a hike with my family or saw an animal out of the car window on a drive through the country, I had virtually no knowledge about what I was seeing and experiencing. A book teaching me about the different ecosystems and organisms of Sonoma County and how they interacted with each other would have been a game changer for me. I created this book because I wanted children, and curious people of all ages, to have a resource that explains the applications of ecology in our county. I hope that my project explains this subject at a basic level, inspiring understanding, interest, and appreciation for nature.

Each page I created took me a total of about eight to ten hours. First I did research on what I wanted to include. Next, I did a layer of watercolor, and then a layer of colored pencil to add more detail. Then I drew in organisms in minimal detail and added the writing I wanted to include. After that, I drew the organisms, which was the most time consuming and frustrating step. Drawing is not my strongest skill, and I had no experience drawing anything like most of the organisms I drew. The Little Buzzer Grasshopper included in the coastal prairie took me the longest to draw, about two hours. After that, I went over all of the writing and some of the basic outlines in the drawing with micro pigment ink. The thing I struggled with the most overall was having enough space and large enough chunks of undistracted time to work. I also worried that the scientific ideas that I was communicating weren’t accurate enough. After lots of research and learning, I concluded two things. The first thing is that not everything in ecology is black and white – there are lots of animals who live in different types of ecosystems, and there are a lot of different ecosystems out there. The second thing is that my project is meant to be an introductory guide, not a scientific paper. I can’t include every single organism that lives in an ecosystem – that would be too much. Instead, I tried to focus on animals that fit two criteria: recognizable and very common in that ecosystem/specific to that ecosystem.

Overall, making this project was an enjoyable experience. I liked being able to connect something I know that I love (science) to something that I am not that comfortable with (art). I’m not the artist in my family, so I usually feel bad about any artwork that I do, as it looks unprofessional and sloppy compared with my mom’s artwork, because she has a master’s degree in painting. This time around, I made a promise to myself that no matter what, I would stay at my desk giving my artwork attention and exhibiting determination. The result was a product that I am proud of. This might be a long term project for me. I have only made a couple pages, and I hope to make a few more before making a couple copies of my book to sell. I want scientists of all ages to read this book and learn basic backyard ecology from it, because after all, that is why I made it. My dream job is to start my own business that inspires young scientists through programs, camps, classes, one-on-one lessons, and career networking opportunities, to be excited about science and to care about our world. I think this project helped me to take a personal step towards that long-term goal, and I see that as infinitely valuable. Doing this project has helped me learn more than I thought possible about ecology, research, our county, and the intersection of art and science, and I cannot wait to see where that learning will take me!

Get a look inside Emily’s book and hear more about her process here: