Sonoma artist reaches bestseller status with book by Chelsea Clinton

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The giraffe is Gianna Marino’s favorite animal to illustrate, so life is especially grand right now that she has two recently-published children’s books with the tallest animal on earth gazing out from the covers.

Having her drawings paired with the words of a power-packed name like Chelsea Clinton, who grew up in the White House and has previously penned best-selling children’s books, gave “Don’t Let Them Disappear” an almost immediate hop to the fourth spot on the New York Times Children’s Picture Books bestseller list last month.

“Just Like My Brother,” the 13th children’s book Marino has both written and illustrated, has only been out two weeks and already shows promise of popularity, but Marino doesn’t focus on sales. Although book proceeds afford the Sonoma resident a lovely livelihood, Marino’s passion is to bring smiles to young faces and encourage learning.

“I want to work on books that inspire little readers to keep on reading,” she said.

Marino and Clinton are both published by imprints of Penguin Random House, and when Clinton’s copy for “Don’t Let Them Disappear” arrived it was an editor there who suggested that Marino illustrate the book on endangered animals. All of Marino’s books feature animals, and Clinton agreed that Marino’s illustrations of giant pandas, polar bears and orangutans would make her words come alive.

The two have met only twice. The first time was more than a year ago when Marino was at work on the illustrations and Clinton was in San Francisco promoting a different project. It seemed so appropriate that they had tea at the Ritz-Carlton, where Marino recalls that she immediately felt “like I was having tea with a friend. Chelsea is kind and funny, well spoken and easy to know.”

Earlier this month Marino attended a book reading and signing event with Clinton at the San Jose Women’s Club. “People love Chelsea, she has a huge following,” Marina said of the sold-out event where she signed more than 600 books alongside the only child of former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Chelsea Clinton, who is expecting her third child with husband Marc Mezvinsky, wanted to get a message out to all children that some animals need protection. The book tells the stories of 12 endangered species, each section ending with the words “Don’t let them disappear.”

“If I was a kid I’d be freaking out right now,” Marino said, explaining that with the dangers of climate change it is the current children who will be faced finding answers. “Kids are going to be the next ones in charge, and this book inspires them to take a stand, to ask what we can do to save the animals and the environment.”

Marino has been an animal lover all her life, describing herself as being a very shy child. “I wouldn’t talk. I just drew pictures all day,” said the now-chatty illustrator with long, dark curly hair. She mostly drew animals, always starting off with a circle. She grew up in San Francisco, where she loved riding horses in Golden Gate Park.

After high school she began studying to be an architect, soon realizing she was not suited to the structure and precision required. She started traveling extensively, first all over Africa then Thailand, Nepal, Myanmar. Everywhere she went she would draw what she saw, especially the animals. When in the Bay Area she always had creative jobs, once working as a muralist and eventually drawing toy prototypes for Galoop Toys.

Then she would return, studying at several Bay Area universities and working, and then be off again on another adventure. She eventually took a UC Berkeley extension class on children’s books and found her niche. A book she wrote and illustrated while taking the class, “Zoopa,” was published by Chronicle Books in 2005. Chronicle published her second book and then declined her third. She was devastated.

When her mother passed away, she was inspired to write “Meet Me at the Moon,” about a Mama elephant and her Little One. “Mama, you told me you’d meet me at the moon, but how can I reach it?” is a poignant line from the story, where the Little One eventually sees the Mama as the moon touches the horizon.

That book, which was published in 2012 and led to a three-book contract, “took off like crazy,” Marino said, quickly selling 60,000 copies and still in print. It was chosen for distribution by Dolly Parton’s foundation, the Imagination Library, which provides free books for underprivileged children, and there are now more than a million copies floating around in the world.

Marino’s stories tend to be about family relationships. Her current book was written for her brother, who lost his Paradise home in the Camp fire. Her next book comes from the sense of community that took place during the Sonoma 2017 wildfires, and will be called “Through the Eyes of a Deer.”

She can’t choose which of her books is her favorite, but says she loves “Night Animals,” about nocturnal animals that are afraid of the dark, because of the way children always laugh when she reads it to them. It was chosen for distribution by the Scholastic Book Club, and Marino just finished its sequel, “Night Animals Need Sleep, Too,” which is now in production.

Marino, 51, lives with her boyfriend and dog, and keeps her horse in Glen Ellen. She clearly knows how to reach children’s hearts. “I love kids but I never wanted them. I love traveling and I’m a little bit of a 5-year-old myself. So I am Auntie G to a lot of other people’s kids.”

Recent trips have taken her to Ecuador and Costa Rica. “I loved Mongolia, and I want to see Antarctica before it melts away.” She recently added a freestanding art studio to her wooded property, with white walls and perfectly placed windows to illuminate her illustrations as she works, usually eight hours a day, most days. It seems like a dream job, and she exudes appreciation, but she says it does have stresses and deadlines and “a lot of time alone.”

Her mind is full of stories and the images that tell them and she knows she will be sharing them forever.

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