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Column: Meet children’s author Pam Fong and the little animal that inspired her big-hearted picture book

Maybe it will be the page where our heroine sees the dark smoke billowing on the horizon. Or the one where she and her sidekick arrive at the stump-filled clearing where their favorite trees used to be. Or maybe even the one capturing the happy moment when the forest turns green again.

Whether they are sniffles of loss or tears of joy, there’s a good chance Pam Fong‘s new picture book, “Once Upon a Forest,” will make you cry. And that’s OK. Because the woman behind the drawings does it all the time.

“My favorite drawings are the ones that I can’t finish because I can’t see through the tears,” the illustrator and author said from her home in Carmel Valley. “I try to introduce one into every book. I always feel like if I haven’t made myself cry, I’m not doing it right.”

Published earlier this month by Random House Studio, the big-hearted “Once Upon a Forest” follows two best friends as they battle to save a patch of forest that has been destroyed by a wildfire. The lead conservationist is a large, fluffy ground squirrel known as a marmot. Her assistant is an industrious bird.

Over the book’s 40 pages, we see the the little bird and the bushy-tailed marmot plant new seedlings. We see them save the baby trees from droughts, snow, high winds and hungry deer. And when their trees are tall, green and thriving, the forest friends pack their buckets and their gardening tools and head back to the little log cabin (and little log bird house) they call home.

The whole eco-conscious story is told through Fong’s delicate illustrations, which are mostly black-and-white, with strategic splashes of color. And except for the title page, there are no words anywhere.

There is a story behind that, too.

“We immigrated from Taiwan, and we didn’t know the language. Our one safe space was the library. Everyone speaks the same language at the library, which is not speaking at all,” said Fong, whose family moved from to the United States when she was was 2 years old.

“I felt very comfortable there, and that’s how I discovered picture books. I still love picture books. I have collected them all my life. Even though my boys are young men now, I still collect them. They are an incredible art form.”

An illustration from "Once Upon a Forest"

The brave marmot and bird duo from Pam Fong’s “Once Upon a Forest.”

(Copyright Pam Fong)

With the 2020 publication of “Rou & the Great Race,” a children’s book set in a shadowy world where flowers have become a prized rarity, the longtime collector of picture books became a creator of picture books. It was a natural outcome that was actually a long time coming.

Fong’s family moved to San Juan Capistrano when she was 7. She grew up knowing that her parents wanted her and her two brothers to study something practical once they reached college. Biology, maybe. Or accounting.

But when a high school art teacher introduced her to the joys of paint, canvas and museums, Fong traded practicality for passion, with a side of variety.

Fong earned her bachelor’s in visual arts and art history from UC San Diego and her master’s in arts management from Carnegie Mellon University.She worked at the San Jose Museum of Art and the San Diego Museum of Art. She ran a floral business and a graphic-design company. She worked at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation for four years.

It wasn’t until her sons graduated from high school that Fong got back to the business of making art. In addition to having passion, she also had a plan.

“When my boys went off to college, I finally had time to think on my own. Even picture books require some deep thinking,” said Fong, 55, who will be discussing and signing “Once Upon a Forest” at the DIESEL bookstore in Del Mar on Saturday.

“It was always my ideal to create picture books. I knew it couldn’t happen until the right time, and I was OK with that.”

Fong’s marmot star doesn’t have a name. She does not wear cute clothes or squeak even one line of dialogue. But what she lacks in anthropomorphic accessories she makes up for in personality.

As illustrated by Fong, the marmot exhibits a flurry of emotions ranging from alarmed and sad to determined, hopeful and finally, proud. As well she should be.

The fictional marmot was inspired by a real one the nature-loving Fong encountered while she was hiking with one of her sons in the Sierra Nevada mountains. She had a plan to make her picture-book dream into a reality, but when it came to “Once Upon a Forest,” having the right mascot didn’t hurt, either.

“I was feeling particularly tired. I was sitting on a rock feeling frustrated, when this little marmot came out from under a rock, sat up on its hind legs and looked at me. It had this expression on its face like, ‘Hey, I’m tired, too.’

“It turned and started up the trail, and it let me follow it. I kept following it, and I started thinking, ‘What do these creatures do all day?’ By the time I finished the hike, I had the story pretty much in my mind.”

Pam Fong will read and sign “Once Upon a Forest” and give a brief talk on “Crafting a Wordless Picture Book” on Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Diesel bookstore in Del Mar, 12843 El Camino Real, Suite 104. Go to dieselbookstore.com for information.