Nancy Rose never anticipated that her hobby of photographing wildlife in her backyard would result in a book deal. But when Rose – a high-school guidance counsellor from Bedford, Nova Scotia – began taking staged photos of “Mr. Peanuts the squirrel,” her work took off online. To date, her Flickr account has received upward of 5 million page views and boasts nearly 5,000 followers.
Some of Rose’s photos are collected in the new picture book The Secret Life of Squirrels, published by Penguin Canada.
Q&Q chatted with Rose about her process and how her project came to become a book.
What inspired the project? I was just feeding the squirrels in my backyard. I kept taking pictures of them, and one Halloween I had a pumpkin sitting on my back-deck railing and this squirrel sat on top of it with his paw on the stem and just stared at me like he was a captain on a boat. That’s what made me think I should have a little boat, or some sort of prop that he could stand on. I started putting mugs and various things out so I’d have more than just a squirrel sitting on the railing.
A friend of mine told me about little mailboxes at Michael’s Arts & Crafts, and I thought, I could make a mailbox. So I made my first prop, a little red mailbox that I put letters in. I put peanuts inside and got hundreds of shots of the squirrel getting the mail, then put them on Flickr and it really took off. I’d sent my siblings a calendar for Christmas with an assortment of pictures of the squirrel, and thought next I’d have to do an Easter picture, a Halloween picture − seasonal things − which got me thinking along the lines of different scenes and different sets.
How did your project get picked up by Penguin Canada? I had a few photos on Flickr and they went viral, and I ended up having a couple of interviews with German television and the Washington Post. Someone saw the photos on Buzzfeed and then it got in the Chronicle Herald and the Toronto Star.
Three years ago, Jackie Kaiser at Westwood Creative Artists called me and said, “I think I see a book here; would you be interested?” I submitted an alphabet story to her and she presented it to Penguin Canada and Little, Brown/Hachette in the U.S. They both went for it, but said alphabet stories aren’t the best sellers, so they asked about me putting a story together.
Did you write the book as well as take the photos? They credited it to me, but Little, Brown/Hachette used a ghostwriter to do the text. I think basically they just wanted to get the book out fast, and so I submitted tons of pictures and they pulled it together and ran it by me.
How long does the process of making and photographing the sets take? Just before you called, I was busy cutting up a cardboard box. Penguin ran a contest for a scene that Mr. Peanuts should do, and someone suggested decorating his house for Halloween. I’m thinking I don’t have much time, so I don’t know if I’ll manage to get it all put together today. Sometimes they go together pretty fast, and sometimes I sort of pick away at them for a while until they fall together. I’ll set something up and take a few shots, look at it, and think, nah, let’s try that again.
Have you always been artistically inclined? My first teaching assignment was family studies, so I sewed everything and made things. As a kid, I always did crafts: dollhouses and dolls, paper clothes, and all of those kinds of things for dolls. I suppose I’m drawing back on those skills. I’m also kind of a collector − could be a hoarder, but I’m not that bad − so I have all sorts of craft supplies in the basement. Whenever I get an idea, I can usually just go rummaging through my craft boxes and find something.
Any other animals slated for their modelling debut? I have raccoons on my Flickr page, but my husband is discouraging that. The babies were just so cute, I thought, “You guys, I could do something with you, but I dare not.” The blue jays have been in several scenes, but they just don’t have the cute factor. I guess it’s because the squirrel can stand on its hind legs and it has little arms, so it does the anthropomorphizing thing a little better than other animals.
Will there be another Mr. Peanuts book? I do have another story that I think has the same tone, where the squirrel goes to visit his cousin in the North and experiences snow, winter, sledding, and building an igloo. I’ve got all the pictures, so I’m really crossing my fingers that they’re going to say, “Okay, we need another book.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.