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Fall 2016


The Book of Buddy

What happens when you find inspiration in a chocolate brown, fluffy kids' toy?

When opportunity knocks, even in the form of a plush bison, you grab it. That’s exactly what Ilona Holland, Ed.M.’85, Ed.D.’91, did a couple of years ago when she was having lunch with a friend, Grace Lee. Lee, the executive director of the nonprofit National Park Trust, brought along toys for Holland’s granddaughters: two stuffed brown bison named Buddy. Curious, Holland asked if there was a story to go along with Buddy, who serves as the trust’s mascot. (The bison also happens to be the national mammal for the country.) When Lee said no, Holland’s wheels started spinning.

She had always wanted to write a children’s book and, now retired from teaching at the Ed School after 14 years, she knew the timing was right. And so she proposed a story to Lee and the trust centered on Buddy. To her surprise, she was given the green light to move forward with a book.

Immediately she sat down and started thinking about what she wanted to write. Luckily, her years involved in formative evaluation for educational programs, including children’s television shows like Wild Kratts and Word Girl, helped her avoid making a rookie mistake: jumping into the writing without knowing all the important details.

“With my previous work, I got to know how a show gets put together,” she says. “I took that knowledge and was able to apply it to what the TV industry calls the ‘bible’” — a guidebook containing all of the minute details about a show’s characters and setting. “All that work gets done prior to the show, so I did the same thing for the Buddy story. I knew who these characters would be, even the names,” before the story was even written.

With their Buddy bible in hand, Holland and Lee next approached the publishing team at National Geographic. “Having that bible made a huge difference,” Holland says. “We were prepared for any question, and it really helped the folks at National Geographic get their heads around what we were trying to do.” This phase of the process was lengthy, lasting a year and included pitch meetings to all of the key decisionmakers at National Geographic. It also involved research trips to Yellowstone, where Holland proposed setting her story, both in person and online.

The Book of Buddy“What a joy it is to have Google Maps,” she says, talking about the research. “I was able to trace the trail I wanted my characters to take. I could see the actual shrubbery and the terrain. I was like, wow, I’m in my book!”

Holland also turned to park rangers for help — thankfully. At one point, her characters were walking on a particular trail. One of the rangers wrote back to say that trail had just been closed, indefinitely.

“They needed to give [the vegetation] a rest,” she says. Knowing accuracy is important to any book, but particularly for an organization like National Geographic that has a reputation for getting details right, Holland went back to her story and rerouted the characters.

This past February, Holland published her 32-page book, Buddy Bison’s Yellowstone Adventure, geared toward elementary school students. A mix of illustration and actual photos, the book is the story of a brother and sister who visit Yellowstone with their aunt, a ranger at the park, and have a chance meeting with Buddy when one of the kids gets lost. The book, with the iconic National Geographic yellow border, includes a journal entry from one of the characters, fun facts, and a history of the park. In July, it was featured on Today with Kathie Lee and Hoda. Holland says the book may eventually be bundled with the very thing that started this whole adventure for her: a chocolate brown, fluffy Buddy.