By Danielle Haynes
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — Do you have any idea what a tenrec is? How about a water dragon? Or a zebu?
In case you’re lost, those are animals, and Kenny Coogan, former aquarist at the Aquarium of Niagara and current pet columnist for the News, wants to teach you — and more specifically, your kids — all about them.
Coogan, who is now an animal trainer at Tampa, Fla.,’s Lowry Park Zoo, has just released his first children’s book meant to teach youngsters all about the lesser-known members of the animal kingdom alongside the more rarely used letters of the alphabet.
“The book is my response to working at different zoos and aquariums that hold weekly preschool and kindergarten classes,” Coogan said of the book, “A Tenrec Named Trey.” “Each week they usually go through a different letter (of the alphabet) and they always start with A, B and C, and around the second half of the school year, they started getting frustrated that the second half of the alphabet was always going to be the same animals, or a really odd animal that they couldn’t relate to their students.”
So Coogan put together a book of eight stories in which children are introduced to Velma Quinn the valley quail, Trey the tenrec, Uberto the umbrella cockatoo, Ella the vulture, Wade the water dragon, Tish the X-ray fish, Yago, the yellow-banded poison dart frog, and Zach and Zoe the zebus.
And just as many of these animals might be completely foreign to the 5- and 7-year-olds the book is meant for, illustrator Chris Padovan said he had to do quite a bit of research to get the animals and their habitats just right.
“I hadn’t even heard of half of those animals so I had to do a lot of research on them and I really enjoyed that,” he said, adding that he spent a lot of time “looking up photographs and reading where (the animals) were from for the background settings.”
Coogan’s first book is Padovan’s 50th, a proliferation the Newport Richey, Fla., illustrator credits to his willingness to allow authors to make as many corrections as they want without an charging extra fee.
Padovan said his extra attention to detail paid off in the end.
“The zoo people were really happy to see (the cockatoo) was living in a hallow tree because that’s where they live,” he said. “Little details like that is going to make a difference.”
And while the illustrated animals in Coogan’s book may look like their real-life counterparts, their stories are more in tune with what human children encounter in their daily lives.
Trey’s story encourages children to accept that what may be gross to some — slimy bugs — may be delicious to others. Zach and Zoe are a little hesitant about starting pre-school, but by the end of the school year they have lots of friends and are ready to move up a grade level.
Each story is told with rhyming language Coogan said was influenced by Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss.
Ultimately Coogan said he’s pleased with the outcome of the book, which he completed writing long ago. It took two years to get the final product in the hands of children after the author decided to reach out to crowdfunding website Kickstarter.
Through Kickstarter, Coogan was able to send out a plea to family, friends, co-workers and friends of friends to help fund the $3,100 he needed to publish his book. The idea behind the website is that consumers who want a product or service can help fund its creation.
The book raised $3,100 through 79 different donors over the course of 21 days. Depending on how much they gave, donors were treated with an acknowledgement mention in the book or even a free copy of the book itself.
“You can take as long as you want to reach your goal but (the website) said projects shorter than 30 days are more successful,” Coogan said. “I was very impressed and happy with the first day or two and then there was kind of a lull.
After reaching out to friends and asking them to share with their friends, Coogan said he was relaxed a bit as he watched the his goal graph go higher and higher on the website.
Now that the book is out in the world, Coogan said he hopes zoos can use it in their education programming.
“But it’s also a good reference for children entering kindergarten who are unfamiliar with interacting with children of the same age. It deals with doubts and fears of entering a new school year and making new friends,” he said.
“A Tenrec Named Trey” can be purchased online at www.amazon.com.Contact features editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 4116.