Ted and Betsy Lewin have made a career of writing and illustrating books for children. Each has received the Caldecott Honor—Ted in 1994 for Elisa Bartone’s Peppe the Lamplighter and Betsy in 2001 for Doreen Cronin’s Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type—and, collectively, they have written and/or illustrated nearly 200 books.
They have also led lives of adventure and copious travel. These are the subjects of their new collaboration, How to Babysit a Leopard: And Other True Stories from Our Travels Across Six Continents, on shelves last month. “We have seen amazing things in our lives,” the book opens:
“We have stepped out of a lavu at midnight 120 miles above the Arctic Circle at thirty
degrees below zero and seen the shimmering green lights of the aurora borealis.…
We have seen a pack of Cape hunting dogs tear an impala fawn to bits in the blink of
an eye.…We have seen a scorpion spider the size of a dinner plate on a night walk in the
And the list goes on.
This isn’t the first time Mr. and Mrs. Lewin have written about their adventures, but this is the first book that compiles their travels into one volume. “We were invited to do an exhibition of the picture books that resulted from our travels at the Pratt Library,” they explained to me via email, “which included a lot of the images that ended up in this book. Our editor, Neal Porter, came to the exhibit and said ‘Let's turn all this into a book.’” Filled with photos, drawings, and paintings, it highlights their adventures in South America (phantasmagoric flower gardens, anyone?); Mongolian wrestling in Dalanzadgad; broken ankles in Thailand (poor Betsy); sloth bear-sightings in Nepal; shrunken heads at Harry’s Harbor Bazaar in Germany; and much more.
“As children,” the Lewins tell me, “we were both fascinated by a book called I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson. It's about her and her husband Martin's travels to wild places around the world. We both aspired to their kind of life, and our childhood dreams came true. Our book is the culmination of all our travels.”
The book was six years in the making. “It wasn't easy deciding which stories to cull from forty years of travel,” Betsy says. It’s not organized chronologically, though entries are grouped by location (Africa, Asia Pacific, Europe, South America, and The United States). A series of essays about their travels and what they have learned, readers hop around a timeline that spans nearly 40 years. “Our travel life is episodic, so it seemed natural to do it this way,” they tell me.
Some essays are contemplative, moving: In “Thirty Years of War,” they reflect briefly upon Uganda’s reduction to “rubble by mortars and machine guns.” Many are funny; “It’s not easy going to the bathroom in the bush,” opens Betsy’s essay about a 2007 trip to Botswana. All are thrilling in one way or another. And never does the duo shy from the violence they have witnessed in their travels—from humans and other wild creatures. In one essay about a 1990 trip to France, they write about an aspiring bullfighter’s transition to a matador after killing his first big bull: “We could hear very clearly…the slicing of gristle and flesh as the sword cut back and forth…with each swing of the head. Blood gushed from the bull’s gaping mouth and lolling tongue.”
“We wanted to include stories from each of the six continents we have traveled,” the Lewins tell me. “We wanted humorous, serious, and scary stories. We also wanted to include the ‘yuck’ factor. We wanted to make this a true representation of what it felt like to be in these places. It would be less than honest if we made all our adventures look like a piece of cake.”
And how do they define the book, essentially? “They are all the stories behind the stories in our picture books,” they say. This makes the book a particular delight for those children and adults already familiar with their children’s books. But even those new to their hundreds of contributions in the field will find much to like in this fascinating glimpse into the lives of two people traveling the globe, facing down countless fears in the process.
It’s the best kind of true-story adventure book for readers of all ages.
HOW TO BABYSIT A LEOPARD: AND OTHER TRUE STORIES FROM OUR TRAVELS ACROSS SIX CONTINENTS. Copyright © 2014 by Ted and Betsy Lewin. Illustration used by permission of the publisher, Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press, New York.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.