At 77, still sporting that infamous blond ponytail, the woman who looks like a million bucks in safari gear, plays with chimpanzees, and opens her public talks with a chimpanzee greeting, has inspired millions around the world.
The story is legendary: When the British primatologist, anthropologist, and United Nations Messenger of Peace Jane Goodall was a little girl growing up in England, her father gave her a toy chimpanzee named Jubilee. That toy triggered young Jane’s thinking about animals. Taking Jubilee along she observed the birds, spiders, and squirrels around her. She dreamed of living in the jungles of Africa, just as the other Jane, in the Tarzan of the Apes books, did.
African wildlife adventures were an unlikely calling for a little girl in the 1930s and ’40s, but Jane’s mother, a writer, was encouraging. “You can do whatever you set your mind to,” she said. And so through inspiration, perspiration, and a little bit of luck, Jane achieved her dream.
When he was a little boy, Patrick McDonnell dreamed of telling stories with pictures and words. He, too, achieved his dream, first with his internationally syndicated award-winning comic strip Mutts, started in 1994, and, since 2005, with his seven children’s books. McDonnell, a resident of Edison, will read from and sign his latest picture book, “Me. . . Jane” (Little, Brown and Company, $15.99), about a young Jane Goodall achieving her dream, at JaZams, 25 Palmer Square East, on Saturday, April 16.
Achieving childhood dreams is not the only thing Goodall and McDonnell have in common — both are passionate advocates for animal welfare. Goodall worked with famed anthropologist Louis Leakey, studying chimpanzees at the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania in 1960. She discovered that chimpanzees can make and use tools.
Goodall continues to travel the world today, 300 days a year, to raise awareness about chimpanzees and environmental conservation. The Jane Goodall Institute helps communities near wild places meet their basic needs for food, clean water, and educating children, at the same time teaching how to protect wildlife.
Goodall’s Roots & Shoots program, now in its 20th year, helps teach young people worldwide how to take action to protect the environment and addresss social problems.
McDonnell, who builds compassion for animals in the comic strip Peanuts creator Charles Schulz described as “one of the best comic strips of all time,” is a member of the board of directors for both the Humane Society of the United States, where he helps promote the message of confronting cruelty, and the Fund for Animals. He and his wife, Karen, have been vegetarians (as is Goodall) for 20 years, and have adopted a formerly feral cat and a terrier.
McDonnell was just another Goodall admirer several years ago. “She was an inspiration to me for many years,” he says in a phone interview from his studio.
The illustrator is empathetic to those who feel bombarded by all the worthy causes demanding attention and money. McDonnell created a strip in which the character Jules, a tabby cat also known as Shtinky Puddin’, admits to sometimes getting “compassion fatigue.”
“What do you do to get over something like that?” asks Mr. Noodles, a much larger cat who sits in a bucket.
“My autographed photo of Dr. Jane Goodall helps,” replies Jules.
The strip, carried by more than 700 newspapers, was spotted by the Jane Goodall Institute and requested for its website. When McDonnell learned that Goodall would be in New York to give a talk, he offered to bring the original to her, and got to meet Goodall in her hotel, where he spoke with her for about 15 minutes.
So inspired, he went home and read her autobiography, “Reasons for Hope: A Spiritual Journey” (1999, New York: Warner Books). In it he saw her photograph as a young girl, holding a much-loved Jubilee, and that became the catalyst for “Me . . .Jane.”
“I had her blessing,” says McDonnell, who was born in Elizabeth and grew up in Metuchen. His second meeting with Goodall was to show her the dummy for the book.
Both Goodall and McDonnell have a “love for all life,” he says. “The sacredness of knowing as humans we need to take better care of what we have, and do a better job of taking care of the planet.”
In Mutts, McDonnell tackles issues in a humorous way to help get his message across without being preachy. “And it’s also a big part of the picture books, getting the message to young readers about walking away from the TV and phones and enjoying the natural world outdoors.”
He knows he has had an impact because of the letters he receives from readers who were inspired to adopt a dog, volunteer at a shelter, become a veterinarian, or help animals in other ways.
“It’s natural for young kids to be attuned to animals in their backyard,” says McDonnell. “Jane had a great combination of the mind of a scientist and the heart of a poet. I was more of a poet; I always wanted to be a cartoonist and combine my love for art and animals. The book’s message is, follow your heart and make your dreams come true.”
McDonnell’s parents met when they were art students at Cooper Union. His mother became an art teacher and, ultimately, an assistant superintendent. His father was a salesman for Ballantine beer, and both continued to dabble in art. They encouraged their son’s creativity.
McDonnell attended the School of Visual Arts, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1978. After graduation he shopped his portfolio to magazines and was turned down a number of times until landing his first job: illustrating the weekly column of Russell Baker for the New York Times Magazine.
In the pre-electronic age, McDonnell would go to the newspaper’s office to pick up the manuscript, then return with concept sketches, meeting Baker only a few times. Then the fax machine was invented and he stopped going to the office.
Illustrating Baker’s column would be a dream job for most, but McDonnell’s childhood dream was still burning inside. He was a huge fan of Charles Schulz and Peanuts, and so he sat down and created Mutts. After that, “I got lucky,” he says. “I felt like I was home.”
The main characters of Mutts are Earl, based on McDonnell’s first dog who lived 19 years, and Mooch, Earl’s feline pal, the tuxedo kitty who has such pronunciations as “Yesh!”
“He’s based on a lot of cats I’ve had,” says McDonnell. “I’m a big fan of old-time comics where characters have a funny way of talking.”
What’s it like trying to come up with a new strip every single day? What if you’re just not feeling funny? “Cartoonists aren’t allowed writer’s block,” he says. “It’s tough, but you develop a muscle for it. If I calm my mind, it comes. And after years of doing it, you know the characters, and they help write themselves. You know how they think.”
The characters may talk about food, the weather, nature, or bonds with animals. “The topics are simple,” says McDonnell. It’s his spin that is anything but simple. “There are little elements I go back to, to do a variation on a theme, such as birds returning and talking about migration.”
How is the current newspaper crisis affecting the cartoon business? “Newspapers are not doing that well, and some are dropping cartoons to save money, or folding altogether,” he says candidly. “But comics will live on. Newspapers will survive, but are shifting. When young cartoonists ask me about careers, I lead them to graphic novels and animation. There are still plenty of places to tell stories with words and pictures.”
That’s another reason why McDonnell added children’s books to his repertoire in 2005. “It’s still telling stories with words and pictures.”
“Me . . . Jane” contains watercolors of Jane and Jubilee amid backyard flora and fauna. On the text pages are 19th- and 20th-century engravings and illustrations of animals, leaves, insects, and other story elements — the types of illustrations Jane would have been looking at as a child. “This was, for me, an exciting part of the book,” says McDonnell. “My watercolors represent her poetic side.”
There are also illustrations Jane did as a child, and there’s even a drawing she made of a chimp sleeping in a bed under a tent while she sleeps in a hammock in a tree above the tent. Rounding out the book’s visuals are photographs of Jane as a little girl holding Jubilee and Goodall as a young woman encountering a real chimpanzee.
“That photograph shows how the little girl who dreamed of working with animals in Africa came true,” says McDonnell, “and how one woman changed the world.”
Author Event, JaZams, 25 Palmer Square East, Princeton. Saturday, April 16, 1 p.m. Patrick McDonnell, author of “Me . . . Jane,” a childhood portrait of Jane Goodall, hero to animal lovers everywhere. Also appearing, Peter Brown, author of “Children Make Terrible Pets” about Lucy the bear and a little boy. 609-924-toys.