Local author Julia Heckathorn’s cross-cultural impact
“I’d always wanted to write and illustrate children’s books,” Nokesville resident Julia Heckathorn says. “I didn’t know how to start, though, and I always assumed it would be too hard.” But after Heckathorn’s work as a massage therapist became too fatiguing on her joints, “my husband, Jason, was asking me what I wanted to do, and I decided to tell him about my dream of becoming a children’s book author.” Jason’s response? “You can do it! I’ll help you get started.”
“Just having his support was huge,” Heckathorn says. “We were discussing the endeavor as we were walking in Hawaii, in the middle of a forest, and I had been talking about my love for nature and animals. So said, ‘Why don’t we write about that?’” Thus, the Search for the Hidden Clover book series was born.
“I started writing my books to get kids excited about nature as well as reading,” Heckathorn says. In 2009, she began working on the series, keeping true to its tagline of Search for a clover, discover the world. To provide readers the best sense of what the natural areas of the world in her books are like, Heckathorn travels to each region, intently researching and photographing it before she begins writing.
“It took me about two years from start to finish with the first two books,” Heckathorn says. In addition to publishing her children’s books, Heckathorn began conducting wildlife education events at venues like schools, museums, churches, and book festivals.
The fourth of Heckathorn’s Search for the Hidden Clover books takes place on Escudo Island. Here, an anteater named Noche Cuervo takes cartoon versions of Julia, Jason, and their animal friends on a mission to save the pygmy sloths. The brightly-colored characters describe the pygmy sloths’ plight, as well as conservation solutions, in catchy rhymes and games. Together, they tackle real-world answers like removing trash from the pygmy sloths’ mangrove habitat and replacing trees lost to timber harvesting. Heckathorn’s photographs from her trips to Escudo Island serve as a backdrop to the 28-page adventure.
Heckathorn’s other Search for the Hidden Clover books – Kangaroo Island, Costa Rica, Redwood Forest, and Tasmania – similarly started out as collections of photographs Heckathorn took while visiting these locations. “If we had an opportunity to go somewhere, then we would,” Heckathorn says. “We’d spend the whole time researching, talking to scientists, and sometimes spending hours outside an animal’s nest, waiting for it to come out.”
Once home, Heckathorn would sketch cartoons over her photographs, creating adventure stories that are “a different type of book than I had seen before, something even non-readers could get excited about,” she says. In each adventure, children meet the animals that live in that region, learn facts about them, and play games like picture hunts and counting games.
Heckathorn has cared for a number of exotic animals, including an anteater, a sloth, two sugar gliders, and a kangaroo, all of which were born in the United States. The Heckathorns have built special facilities for the animals at their Nokesville property and are USDA licensed to care for them.
Heckathorn’s kangaroo, Boomeroo, is a main character in all of her books. Boomeroo first joined the Heckathorn family five years ago. “The first year of her life, she went pretty much everywhere with us,” Heckathorn says. “She’s such a social animal; she just loves people.”
“Owning a kangaroo is kind of like owning a lazy dog,” Heckathorn says with a laugh. “They’re very loving. They love to be held, petted under the chin, and hand-fed snacks.”
Boomeroo and Heckathorn’s other exotic animals are not just pets; they play an important role in the educational outreach events Heckathorn has held. “Humans don’t generally try to care for things until they have a genuine love for them,” Heckathorn explains. She hopes that introducing children to Boomeroo and her friends will instill in them a love for these animals, and that love will motivate the next generation to conserve these animals and their habitats.
The emotional connection that the children make with Heckathorn’s animals is instantaneous and profound. “The kids just go nuts when they see a kangaroo hopping down the aisle at their school,” Heckathorn says. “It excites them, helps them learn to love creatures, and makes the memories from that event really stick.”
Heckathorn loves getting mail and email from children who say that the Hidden Clover series has encouraged them to read more or write their own stories. “Sometimes they even send me photographs of four-leaf clovers in their yards, or pictures of them reading the books,” Heckathorn says with a quiet smile.
While proud of her books’ impact here in the States, the series’ effect on Escudo Island most excites Heckathorn. “It’s been really cool because when we first went there, there was trash everywhere,” she says. Because the Ngäbe people of Escudo live beside the Panamanian beach, their garbage usually went straight into the ocean. It would wash up in the island animals’ habitats, where the waste posed a threat to the animals’ survival.
“The kids littered, the adults littered – they didn’t have any trash cans and didn’t know why it was good to throw away trash,” Heckathorn says. The Ngäbe, whose culture teaches them not to trust outsiders, caught Heckathorn’s conservation vision only after a miraculous chain of events during one of the couple’s visits. The conservation group she partnered said it would not be needed, but promised to send some antivenin as well as information about the area’s most dangerous snake, the Fer-de-lance pit viper.
During the trip, after a discouraging day of being shunned by the Ngäbe on the Panamanian mainland, Jason and Julia took a motorboat out to Escudo. While on Escudo, the couple’s luck seemed to change, and they made a series of new species discoveries. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a snake struck Julia in the finger. It was a Fer-de-lance pit viper.
The couple hurried Julia back to the mainland through a strong storm. When they reached the shore, “my entire arm was so blown up that I couldn’t move my fingers,” Heckathorn says. “I only had about two more hours to get the anti venom injected properly and then be taken someplace where I could be treated further.”
A doctor who had just arrived from Cuba and specialized in venomous snake bites happened to be on the beach when the Heckathorns arrived. Incredibly, he had 16 rounds of the antivenom that Julia needed. At the same time, a Panamanian congressman was visiting the remote area, and he brought electricity with him. This in turn was used to power the hospital Heckathorn was admitted to.
“Miracle after miracle occurred,” Heckathorn remembers. “In a place where survival from a snake bite of this magnitude is almost unheard of, God stepped in to make certain that this time would be different. He had a greater plan.”
Three days after a bite the Ngäbe people thought would put her in her grave, Julia walked out of the hospital to their cheers. “That was the moment they decided to trust us and work with us,” Heckathorn says.
During subsequent visits, Heckathorn went around reading translated versions of her books, teaching the importance to take care of the environment and how to do so. She gave copies of her books to the local schools. “The children were so amazed to have books in their language about the island they live on,” Heckathorn says.
In addition, her team put signage up around the pygmy sloths’ habitat, laying out guidelines that would help protect Escudo’s unique plants and animals. “We also brought over a whole bunch of trash cans for the island. The kids threw a party and actually built pedestals for the trash cans. It was a learning experience for us all, something new.”
Lately, Julia has been devoted to her role as stay-at-home mom of a baby and toddler. Jason now visits Escudo twice a year with a team of like-minded workers. “My husband actually got to go back to Escudo a few months ago, and he said, ‘Julia, it’s so clean, it’s amazing. They’re taking care of their environment.’”
To learn more about author Julia Heckathorn and her book series, visit http://searchforthehiddenclover.com.
Saving Pygmy Three-Toed Sloths
The proceeds from Heckathorn’s books and events go primarily toward saving pygmy three-toed sloths. The smallest of the sloth species, the pygmy three-toed sloth is found only in the mangroves of Escudo Island, a habitat of less than two square miles off the coast of Panama. The pygmy sloths are among the world’s 100 most threatened species, and are categorized as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.