Diana Renn

Mysteries that Matter


Q&A with Artist Franco Zacharzewski

Franco Zacharzewski and I met at Creature Conserve, which brings artists, creative writers, and scientists together to “study, celebrate, and protect animals and their habitats.” His illustrations address everything from climate anxiety and mental illness, to Uyghur cooking. His striking colors, textures, and subject matter always draw me in. So when he agreed to create a graphic for TROUBLE AT TURTLE POND, I was ecstatic, and equally excited when he agreed to answer a few questions for the blog. We also get a sneak peak into his studio where the magic happens!

Q: What got you into conservation work?

A: My generation grew up with a lot of great T.V. programming on the natural world. As a kid, my curiosity for animals was definitely sparked by Animal Planet and Discovery Channel shows. More recently though, I feel like my interest in conservation has been fueled by the professors I met in college that have been working in this field for a long time.

Q: How do you use art in service of conservation?

A: Art speaks to us in a way nothing else does. Even at its most representational and literal, I think art is always imbued with a sentiment that can only be felt. With that in mind, I try to use art to strike a chord with people in a way science can’t. Not to tell people about the value of wildlife conservation—to show them.

Q: What does conservation mean to you as an artist?

A: I’m not sure how my meaning of conservation differs to a scientist’s, or anyone else’s for that matter. In broad terms, I guess I see it as the responsibility to understand the creatures we share our planet with and work towards providing them with the best quality of life possible. As an artist, I’d say I channel that responsibility into making pictures.

Q: What inspires you?

A: Lately I’ve been inspired by cities and the stories unfolding in them. I like how small cities can make me feel, and in turn, how small a city can feel in relation to nature. There are so many fun visual compositions too that it’s hard not to find something to draw.

Q: What’s your favorite animal to draw?


Q: If you could say one thing to a young artist who wants to use their art for activism, what would you tell them?

A: If I had to summarize, I’d say: Art for activism is an act of love, so love wholeheartedly. Do your research. Make sure you understand what the issues are and how your art addresses them. Ask the affected community about their needs, see if they have proposed any solutions already. Assess how your art will impact the community who you are trying to support. And be ready to make mistakes, and correct them.

Q: What was fun about designing this image?

A: My favorite part was finding out how to use the least number of colors and shapes to convey the Blanding’s Turtle’s habitat and personality. I really appreciate the humility in trying to make an image as simple and clear as possible so that the greatest number of people can understand it.

Q: Did any unexpected challenges come up when creating this image and if so, what?

A: Designing text was something new for me! It was exciting to find ways to accommodate both the type and the art in a relatively small image. I had to be mindful of striking a balance between retaining the most important elements in the frame and making the text legible when printed.

Q: What’s your process like when you come up with ideas? What goes into your thinking?

A: As of recently, I’ve been trying to start my compositions from photographs. I like to get lost in pictures and find the painting within them. Then it’s just a matter of removing elements from the frame until I am left with the most synthesized composition possible.

Franco Zacharzewski is an Argentinian illustrator raised in Paraguay, Colombia, and the United States. He graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and is currently based in Brooklyn, NY. Franco is an advocate for climate action and environmental justice. He is currently the art director at Creature Conserve. Occasionally, you may find him relaxing by the waters of Prospect Park Lake. 

#Reallifebackyardranger Robert Shao

Meet Robert Shao!

Robert Shao is a Land Steward for The Nature Conservancy in New York, based off the East End of Long Island. He earned his Bachelors in Environmental Studies  from SUNY Purchase and worked as a Fish & Wildlife Technician with the  New York State Department of Environmental Conservation prior to joining The Nature Conservancy.

And what is a Land Steward, you ask? A Land Steward, to put it simply, is someone who takes care of the land! They make sure the building blocks of a healthy ecosystem are in place. For example: they monitor the soil to ensure it’s healthy, check for biological diversity, and keep tabs on the water and air to ensure it’s clean. In essence, they are masters at paying attention and protecting.

You can support The Nature Conservancy by visiting their site and checking out their programming!


One week till launch day!

Dear Readers,

There’s just one week until the launch of TROUBLE AT TURTLE POND, out from Fitzroy Books / Regal House on April 5!

I’m excited to share that TROUBLE AT TURTLE POND has been getting some love from news outlets, including my local newspaper, The Concord Journal!

The article is also online, if you’d like to give it a click.

I’ve also got a piece out on Zoo New England’s Field Conservation blog. Read on for a teaser!

How Volunteering with Blanding’s Turtles Hatched a Book Idea

“The road to writing my mystery novel for children, Trouble at Turtle Pond, began with a turtle. Soon after my family and I moved to Concord, Massachusetts, I swerved to avoid a large snapping turtle in our street. I had never seen one before. Nor would I have believed that turtles were about to enter my life in a big way.”

Continue Reading at Zoonewengland.com!

#RealLifeBackyardRanger Emilie Wilder

Meet Emilie Wilder!

Emilie manages local rare species conservation projects for Zoo New England. Emilie works with turtles, frogs, salamanders, and even rare plants, figuring out what’s going on with their populations and finding ways to help them. For example, the two turtles she’s holding are rare Blanding’s turtles. They got a “headstart” in life – raised in a local classroom as tiny hatchlings until they were bigger and stronger – and now she’s releasing them back into the swamp. These turtles are the next generation that will hopefully grow up to continue the population and keep our local swamps full of beautiful diversity.

You can support Emilie and her work by visiting the Zoo New England site.



#RealLifeBackyardRanger Sarah Kollar

Meet Sarah Kollar!

Sarah Kollar is the manager of Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup™ (ICC), the world’s largest single day volunteer effort for our ocean. The ICC started on a single beach in Texas in 1986 and has since mobilized millions of volunteers in more than 150 countries to remove approximately 340 million pounds of trash from beaches and waterways around the world. What makes the ICC so special is its focus on community science: in addition to collecting trash, volunteers log every item they find, helping Ocean Conservancy build the world’s largest marine debris database. By collecting this data, volunteers help scientists, policymakers, and others better understand the ocean plastic problem and help them to solve it. Sarah has loved marine ecosystems for many years, having grown up along the Great Lakes and now enjoys working with partners all over the world to make coastal -and inland- cleanups for the ICC possible.







#RealLifeBackyardRanger Tori Fox

Meet our first #RealLifeBackyardRanger, Victoria (Tori) Fox!


Tori is a restoration ecologist from the coast of the Salish Sea, Washington. She works to fight invasive plants in her community in order to save rare plants and animals from extinction. Victoria recently traveled from Washington to a distant, uninhabited atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, exploring new species of seabirds, reef fish, and tropical plants along the way. On Palmyra Atoll, Victoria and other scientists tackle fields of palm seedlings with their machetes to make space for native forest plants that seabirds prefer for nesting, such as the Pisonia grandis seedling pictured in this photo with Victoria. You can support Tori and her work by visiting the Nature Conservancy and TNC Hawaii and Palmyra.



Trouble At Turtle Pond comes out in one month!

We are officially one month away from the launch of Trouble at Turtle Pond, out from Fitzroy Books / Regal House on April 5!

This whole process of researching, writing, selling, and marketing this book has turned me into a conservationist, though I’m still learning how to be one. I don’t have a science background, so it took me awhile to learn that you don’t have to have a Ph.D or really any special training to be a conservationist. Anyone can be one! And lots of creative people can be “creative conservationists,” using their art to raise awareness of creatures that need our help.


That’s why I’m launching a series called Real Life Backyard Rangers on the blog and Instagram. It’s inspired by the Backyard Rangers in Trouble at Turtle Pond.




In Trouble at Turtle Pond, eleven-year-old Miles joins a group of self-appointed young wildlife rangers on his street, who call themselves the “Backyard Rangers.” They live adjacent to a wildlife refuge, but since they can’t always go there without parents, they focus on protecting creatures who occasionally travel outside of the bounds of the refuge and into their neighborhood . . . like nesting Blanding’s turtles, who need some help crossing roads. When they aren’t helping turtles, they run a ranger station out of a cardboard box, sell lemonade to raise money for a field biologist, and educate the public about local wildlife. Their main mission: speaking up for the creatures who cannot speak, and helping people pay attention to – and protect! – these creatures. 

The Rangers are essentially doing community science work even as they investigate a mystery involving the turtles. The more community science work they do – protecting their nests, tracking their whereabouts – the more clues they uncover. The more clues they uncover, the more they commit to their community science and, eventually, their activism. 

I got inspired to do community science work when my son’s fourth-grade class took care of Blanding’s turtle hatchlings several years ago. My son became deeply interested in them, and this became a family activity even after school ended as we joined a conservation group in tracking turtles to locate nests and protect eggs. We then fostered ten tiny turtle hatchlings in our home for a month. This experience changed our lives. My son went on to give presentations about his community science work, and went on to help other types of animals in other programs. And I wrote a book! 


Although my characters are fictitious, I wrote this book in part to make visible the very real work that conservationists do – scientists and non-scientists alike. To celebrate the sometimes invisible work that conservationists and community scientists do, I will be spotlighting a Real Life Backyard Ranger with a photo, bio, and inspiring quote. You’ll learn about these people, all kinds of animals, and organizations all over North America that are helping them. 

Here’s a sneak peak of our first Real Life Backyard Ranger, Tori Fox, who works with the Nature Conservancy. Tune in to Instagram next Thursday to learn more about Tori’s work! I hope you enjoy this series, which will post every Thursday, and please feel free to share!

Another important note: a great way to support authors with their launches is by pre-ordering the book, which you can do here. Pre-orders are super important. They help create some buzz around books so that retailers get excited about them and know to stock them in stores. So if you are in a position to pre-order, please know that every book counts, and I really do appreciate it! And if you’re not able, another thing that really helps is requesting that your local library carry the book!

The Five Best Middle Grade Novels Featuring Young Environmentalists

I had a lot of fun putting this list together! A new book browsing website, Shepherd.org, has been reaching out to authors and asking us to participate in the building of this site by creating book recommendation lists on a topic we love, ideally connected to one of our own books. This makes perfect sense to me, since I’m constantly recommending books to people, and I read widely and deeply on topics related to books that I am writing. I have at least a full shelf of books for every novel I’ve published. Strangely, after time passes I sometimes forget things that I wrote in those books, but I remember the novels I read along the way, that offered inspiration and kept me company like friends.

I’ve been reading lots of eco-themed books in the past several years, especially this year as I prepare to launch TROUBLE AT TURTLE POND and am intensely working on a book 2.

I also like how Shepherd book lists are short and give a sense of the writer’s personal connections to these books, as opposed to dry summaries – it feels like meeting up with friends at a cafe and hearing about what they’ve been reading if you only have a few minutes to spare. (Which is one of my favorite kinds of conversations, actually! Hi — how are you – but enough about you, what are you reading??)

My post at Shepherd went live today, and here it is! Click on the link below to find out who I’ve been reading!


Trouble at Turtle Pond Book Trailer!

I’ve always enjoyed making trailers for my books, and I think I had the most fun making this one!

A lot of the images you’ll see are pictures I took myself. Some of the scenery comes from the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, MA, where a population of endangered Blanding’s turtles (as well as other turtles) reside.

You’ll see a snapping turtle lumbering along a street; she’s actually one of my neighbors. You’ll also see some Blanding’s turtle hatchlings we fostered in our home in partnership with a local wildlife conservation program. You’ll see more turtles than people in this video, as I feel it’s important to see turtles in all their glory to understand why the kids in my novel are so entirely invested in saving them from the various dangers they face. And since endangered Blanding’s turtles reside only in specific areas of North America, I thought it was especially important to let you see them as both hatchlings and adults. (You’ll see one in particular who loves the limelight!)

Trouble at Turtle Pond will be published on April 5, 2022! It’s available for pre-order as an original paperback or in special hardcover edition on the Fitzroy Books / Regal House website, on Bookshop (a healthier alternative to a larger online entity), and, if you’d like a signed copy, my local bookstore, Silver Unicorn Books in Acton, MA.

And so without further ado .  . . I’m so excited to share with you the book trailer for Trouble at Turtle Pond! Here it is!


On Becoming a “Creative Conservationist” and Partnering with Creature Conserve

What happens when a non-scientist writes about science?

She might wade through a deep pool of self-doubt and imposter syndrome, for starters. At least I did.

I have always had a strong interest in science, especially environmental science. I enjoyed science classes throughout my education, even if I struggled sometimes, and I really loved the few science classes I took in college. Yet I somehow let myself get steered exclusively toward the Humanities, and into an English major, never really considering how these fields need not be mutually exclusive. I told myself a lot of super unhelpful stories as early as ninth grade: I’m not good at math. You need to be good at math to be good at science. I’m not really a scientist type.

I don’t know where I got the idea that I had to pick one path and stick with it, and why I never let myself fully explore an interest in science, or get the help I might have needed in math to boost my confidence. I graduated from high school just before a big push to get girls into science began.

A Blanding’s turtle hatchling we fostered in our home

Whatever the reason, I continued to tell myself unhelpful stories about my aptitude for science even as I cultivated the idea for my new eco-mystery, Trouble at Turtle Pond, back in 2017. I wanted to write about the turtles my son and I were caring for as part of a conservation program his school had partnered with. I wanted to show the fascinating work that wildlife biologists were doing in the field to bring back our area’s native population of endangered Blanding’s turtles. I would scribble ideas – and scribble them out, telling myself I wasn’t qualified because I wasn’t a biologist, I had no degree in science, I didn’t really know what I was talking about. Or did I?

Eventually the urge to tell the story overcame the fear. And I completed the draft of the book. I decided if I had written outside my comfort zone and immediate knowledge before – which I had done in all my previous novels, writing of places and professions that were not my own — I could do it again. It just felt scarier this time around, because, well, science. As I had with the other books, I sought expert help when I was ready. This time it was in the form of a wildlife biologist, who read the book very carefully and offered incredible feedback. I was surprised how much my research had paid off, how much I’d gotten right. And yes, I’d gotten some things wrong, and was very grateful for his patient corrections! But at no point did he or anyone suggest I was doing the wrong thing by writing about science, and about citizen science sleuths helping a local wildlife biologist to solve some turtle mysteries.

Not only that, when I applied for a mentorship program to get guidance on writing a teachers’ guide and a series of related talks and workshops, my application was selected! I am now a 2021-22 mentee in Creature Conserve‘s mentorship program.

Creature Conserve is an organization founded by Dr. Lucy Spelman, who is a board-certified veterinarian in zoological medicine, a media consultant, a writer, and an educator. The mission of Creature Conserve is to bring artists, creative writers, and scientists together to study, celebrate, and protect animals and their habitats. In addition to this mentorship program I’m participating in, they run a series of professional development workshops for artists, writers and scientists, which you can read about here. The workshops are open to anyone for a fee. I attend my first one yesterday, and came away feeling inspired and empowered to work for conservation as a creative person. Dr. Spelman acknowledged that conservation efforts are lagging partly because scientific literacy is low, scientific information about conservation issues is not always accessible, and people tend to feel either hopeless or intimidated – or trust that “other people” are out there working to save the climate, animals, etc. But we need not be scientists to do conservation work. I learned this is a multifaceted problem that requires an interdisciplinary approach. Artists and writers make important contributions to conservation efforts by helping people to connect to nature, and by raising awareness of the need to protect specific creatures and their habitats. Narrative and imagery are important tools, just as scientific data is an important tool.

I am proud of bringing my turtle book and supporting materials into the world to help do my part as a creative conservationist, and look forward to posting updates here as I progress through the program!

A child's handwritten notes on hatchling turtles being observed

My son’s notes on the hatchlings we fostered; a young citizen scientist in action!




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