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Illustrator M. L. Herring: Exploring Oregon with Ellie and Ricky

December 10, 2019

In today's blog post, coauthor and illustrator M.L. Herring gives a glimpse into the progression of a few of her illustrations featured in the Ellie and Ricky series (co-written with Judith L. Li). She also shares some of Ellie and Ricky’s various adventures throughout the series and highlights the ways their journeys have been integrated in the classroom and beyond. 



After four books covering four seasons, four regions, and four fields of science, our fictional eleven-year-olds, Ellie and Ricky, have completed their exploration of Oregon.


It’s been quite a journey for these intrepid kids, and for me and my coauthor Judy Li. Ellie’s Log began this adventure, as Ellie and Ricky explore the old-growth forest of the Oregon Cascades. The log, of course is not just a toppled old tree. The log is also Ellie’s journal, where she records what she and Ricky discover after a snowstorm delivers 220 feet of vertical life down to eye-level. The John Burroughs Society honored Ellie’s Log, the first time the society ever awarded a book of fiction.


Ellie’s Log struck a chord. It was clear that Oregon kids wanted to explore their own backyards and teachers needed engaging ways to meet new learning standards for science and the humanities. The OSU Press realized the importance of building a pipeline for future scientists and communicators. So the series was born.


Ricky’s Atlas allowed us to showcase Ellie’s friend Ricky, the son of Mexican immigrants, whose point of view expands Ellie’s world. In this summer story, Ricky invites Ellie to join him on a visit to his uncle’s ranch in Eastern Oregon. It’s fire season, and the kids see firsthand what wildfire means to people living in the West. Their journey gave us the chance to illustrate how fire continues to shape our arid lands and communities.

You have
to be quick to sketch wild animals. Sometimes you can draw only a few lines that you later develop into a realistic picture of what you saw.

Ricky, as it turns out, loves maps, and the atlas he creates during his visit is a playful exploration of time and space at multiple scales. However lighthearted, Ricky’s map-making follows the standards for geographic education established by the National Geographic Society. Ricky’s Atlas won the AAAS/Subaru award for the best hands-on science book of 2017.


In Ricky in the City, Ricky and Ellie travel to Portland on a school exchange in October. There they hone their skills of scientific observation to help monitor urban wildlife. Going beyond curiosity-led exploration, Ellie and Ricky are now working side-by-side with natural area managers on a citizen-science project to map wildlife connections throughout the metro area.


Ricky in the City gave me the chance to draw animals of the Willamette Valley, including these river otters, a common sight on Sauvie Island and on our farm. 

This gave Judy and me the chance to dive into the region’s many conservation organizations. We illustrate how the world is expanding for Ellie and Ricky, with new friends and new experiences in an urban setting familiar to half of Oregon’s kids.


And finally, Ellie’s Strand records one single winter day, when Ellie and Ricky travel to the coast to volunteer for a beach cleanup. By now, our two Oregon explorers are becoming adept at observation of the natural world around them. But the edge of the Pacific Ocean challenges them on a global scale.


Their day at the beach reveals amazing coastal creatures bathing in tidepools, hidden in beach wrack, and frolicking offshore. This was, of course, a joy to write and illustrate. But as they collect trash from their strand of beach, Ellie and Ricky soon realize the global scale of ocean pollution that threatens those creatures. It’s a feeling that is familiar to all of us who know and love the ocean, and we wanted especially to show how Ellie and Ricky rise to the enormity of the task. They realize the superpower of collaborative work, a recognition that is empowering children around the world.


I sketch what I see, and that means that I often sketch what’s in my hand. This is a drawing of California mussels for Ellie’s Strand 

The adventure continues. Judy and I are now at work with OSU Press to expand ways to encourage kids to explore nearby natural areas. Oregon Sea Grant has adopted Ellie’s Strand as a centerpiece for the Coast STEM Hub teacher training. Ellie’s Log and Ricky’s Atlas are used by the Oregon Natural Resources Education Program and OSU Extension Service for outdoor education. And the newest book, Ricky in the City, is quickly gaining a following among kids and teachers in Portland and beyond.


We hope that for years to come, young readers across the state will go outside with Ellie and Ricky to explore and record their own place in Oregon.




M.L. Herring lives on a peach farm in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, where she writes and illustrates works of science. She is an associate professor emeritus of science communication at Oregon State University.



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