by Sharron L. McElmeel

Given an Underwood typewriter when he was five, Roland Smith spent hours clacking away on the keys. He did not begin to view writing as a profession until his teens, but then he found himself side-tracked as a biologist and photographer whose work appeared on television and in such publications as National Geographic. He wrote numerous scientific papers and lectured to the public and to scientific organizations. But after 20 years as a scientist, he became an overnight success as a children's book writer.

Smith majored in English at Portland State University and planned on becoming a writer, but at the age of 19 he went to work at the Portland Zoo as part of a work-study program. His interest in animals led him to a job in the "big" zoo, and what was to have been a short-term job in the Children's Zoo became a 20-year career. He was the senior feline keeper at the Portland Zoo when he left to go to the Tacoma, Washington, Point Defiance Zoo, where he became the curator of mammals and birds. It was at Point Defiance that Smith "inherited" the red wolf program. Virtually extinct in the wild, the wolves, through this program, became the first nearly extinct carnivore to become reintroduced into the wild.

Smith's entry into writing children's books came when Dorothy Henshaw Patent interviewed him for a book she was writing about red wolves. Patent spent a day picking Smith's brains, then, says Smith, "I picked hers and told her about a couple ideas I had for children's books."

Patent introduced him to her editor at Cobblehill (Dutton), who bought Inside the Zoo Nursery. While working on the book, Smith was called to Alaska to lead a team of biologists working with sea otters during the Valdez oil spill. When he finished that project, he told the editor he wanted to write a book about saving the sea otters. Sea Otter Rescue turned out to be his first book. Since then Smith has written 16 books. The first were nonfiction titles, but what he really wanted to write was fiction. Now he is "working almost exclusively on novels," he says, but he still occasionally does a nonfiction book.

For a time he continued to work at the zoo and write. He would get up at four in the morning and write for a couple of hours. Four years and several books later, Smith gave up his day job and now writes full-time. He writes in any manner that works.

"I use a computer," he says, "write in longhand with a pencil, use a manual typewriter -- whatever works."

When Smith is at home he maintains a fairly rigorous routine. "I wake up early, go for a short run, eat breakfast, then go to my office and write," he says. When deadlines are near, he sometimes writes up to 10 hours a day. When he goes on the road, his writing schedule "is really crazy," he says. "I write on airplanes, in airline gates, hotel rooms, and in my rental car if I get someplace early."

His newest novel is The Last Lobo, a sequel to Jaguar. Jake Lansa takes his grandfather Taw back to the Hopi Indian reservation in Arizona and together they get involved with the Mexican Wolf program -- a program Smith was involved with during his days as a wolf biologist. He calls the book an "eco-adventure novel." Another novel, which may be out as early as fall 1999, is about the Lewis and Clark expedition. The working title is The Captain's Dog. Smith has been researching this title for the past three years.

Roland Smith and his wife Marie live on 40 acres in Oregon near Portland. Smith says, "There is not a more beautiful place in the summer and we really enjoy hanging out here with our family." When Smith is not writing he is often traveling; Marie is often with him. Marie, he says, "does virtually everything for me except write the books. She handles all of my speaking engagements, promotions, and scheduling. I may be the author of my books, but Marie is the author of my success."

A message to Readers and Writers from Roland Smith

Read everything you can get your hands on. Books are time machines that can take you into the future and into the past. I read four or five books a week! It's my favorite thing to do. Write every day! Keep a private, personal journal and write in it every day for FUN! This is how you will discover your own stories, which I hope you do, because then I'll be able read your book!

For more information about Roland Smith visit his Web page at <>.

Selected book titles by Roland Smith


Thundercave (Hyperion, 1995)

Jaguar (Hyperion, 1997)

Sasquatch (Hyperion, 1998)


Journey of the Red Wolf (Cobblehill, 1996)

In the Forest with the Elephants(Harcourt Brace, 1998)

African Elephants (Lerner, 1995) Vultures (Lerner, 1997)


Sharron L. McElmeel is director of McBookwords (a literacy organization) and an instructor of children's literature and young adult literature at the University of Wisconsin Stout's online education programs. She often writes and speaks about authors/illustrators and their books.

This article first appeared in  Library Talk (first publication rights only). Copyright for all other uses copyright by Sharron L. McElmeel.  The contents of this article may not be copied or e-mailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder`s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or e-mail articles for individual use.
First appeared: Library Talk, Mar/Apr99, Vol. 12 Issue 2, p6, 1p    Current source:

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