Orca Rescue! dives into the only successful orca reunion in history
Donna Sandstrom is a lifelong writer, former software developer, and longtime fan of orcas. In 2002, she was a community organizer in the effort to return an orphaned orca named Springer to her pod. This experience led her to develop The Whale Trail, a series of sites to watch whales from the pacific shores. Sandstrom is a Brooklyn, New York native who moved to Seattle, Washington about 40 years ago.
Orca Rescue! is Sandstrom’s first book, which was illustrated by Sig Burwash. Currently residing in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Burwash’s artistic practice includes watercolor, collage, illustration, and comics. Their work is both imaginative and linked to their life experiences, many of which involve nature. They have participated in residencies in Canada, the United States, and Europe.
We chatted with Sandstorm and Burwash about the writing and illustration process for Orca Rescue! The answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell us a little bit about what Orca Rescue is all about?
DS: Orca Rescue details the true story of the only successful orca reunion in history. It’s about how a young orphaned orca, Springer, was discovered near Seattle—lost, alone and 300 miles away from home. Six months later, she was rescued and returned to her pod on the north end of Vancouver Island. Today, Springer is thriving with two calves of her own. The book tells the story as-it-happened, from my perspective as a community organizer on the project.
What in particular inspired the writing of this children’s book?
DS: I’ve wanted to tell this story since the day Springer went home. I knew I had witnessed and been part of something extraordinary—from the way people worked together, to the way the orcas responded. This story had never been told by someone who was part of it, so I wanted to share what really happened as we lived it. I wrote it for young readers in hopes it would inspire curiosity, compassion, and connection to the natural world.
Why do you think it’s important for children to learn about this rescue mission?
DS: This is an all-too-rare example of a community coming together to help a wild animal, and it worked! Not many people will have the chance to rescue an orca, but the lessons we learned can be put to good use to solve other problems today.
The book incorporates narrative storytelling with factual information about life sciences, so there is a clear educational component. What do you hope children (and parents) will take away from this book?
DS: First, I hope that readers will have a new and deeper understanding of orcas and our history with them. I hope it builds awareness about their significance to First Nations, and the roles that we all can play in protecting animals and their environment. There are so many facets to the story—from biology and research to problem-solving and art. I’d encourage families and classes to read the book together to see what curiosities are sparked. This is a true story of hope about one of the world’s most fascinating creatures. Above all, I hope everyone walks away feeling inspired, empowered, and at least a little in love with orcas, especially Springer!
Tell us about the illustration process. How did you come to collaborate with Sig?
DS: My publisher suggested Sig, and I am so glad they did. This was the first book for both of us, and a learning curve for sure. Because this is nonfiction, we had to find the right balance between accuracy—the way things really looked—and imagination, letting the charm and energy of the drawings shine through. I am over the moon with how the illustrations turned out.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when writing this book? What about the illustrations?
DS: The hardest part for me was having to leave out the names of so many people, and refer to them generically, for example, “researcher” instead. For this age level, we had to limit the number of named characters. Everyone is listed later on but I wish we could have included them all in the text. There were so many heroes in this story.
SB: The specifics and nuances of orca anatomy was a big learning curve—from the fin shape, to Springers’ unique saddle patch, etcetera. It’s the first time I’ve illustrated something non-fiction, which left less room for the creative liberties I’m used to taking with fiction illustration. It required a lot of attention to detail. I learned a lot about orcas in the process.
What key advice would you give to aspiring children’s book writers and illustrators?
DS: Never give up! I’ve been writing since I was a child, and this is my first book. Also, read what you write out loud. It’s the best way to find out what’s working, and what needs to change or come out. And finally, share the draft with a few trusted friends or subject matter experts, especially if it is nonfiction. Another set of eyes always helps!
SB: Look at a lot of illustration and art and read lots of illustrated books. Narrow in on what you like about specific illustrators’ work, new and old, from their use of colour, texture, expressions, to their sparseness or their detail. What makes you feel something? Learn what you enjoy and what your strengths are. Find illustrators you like and see what their career trajectory has been. I look at artists CV’s to see where they started off and where they’ve gone with their career, where they’ve studied, and who they’ve worked for.
By Cristina Sanza
Author bio: Cristina Sanza is a Digital Journalism Instructor and Writing Coach in the Department of Journalism at Concordia University in Montreal. She also coordinates the Concordia Science Journalism Project team and the Projected Futures international science journalism graduate summer school. At the SWCC, she serves as the blog editor and digital media committee volunteer.
Social media: @cristina_sanza