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California Watch and the business of coloring books

California Watch is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious nonprofit investigative news organization. Its award-winning reporters focus on crime and injustice, environmental issues and public safety.

So what the heck are we doing getting into the coloring book business?

It all started with an off-the-wall idea in an editorial meeting. While California Watch articles are written for adults, we recognize that oftentimes children are those most affected by the stories we report.

That’s exactly the case when it comes to our series on seismic safety oversight in the state’s K–12 schools. Thousands of children attend class each day in buildings or schools that have not received final safety certifications from the state’s chief building regulator. Some schools are located close to fault lines or within liquefaction zones.

We wanted to create a resource that would help prepare children when the ground starts shaking. So we decided the most effective way to reach and educate our littlest readers would be through an instructive coloring/activity book (we’ve named it “Ready to Rumble: California Watch explores earthquake safety”) and the creation of a furry fellow who could be fun and educational, a buddy and a teacher.

We quickly settled on a dog as our mascot. The idea just clicked, but it was much harder for us to select a breed – until we realized that nothing could be more representative of the melting pot that is California than a mutt. We asked staffers to send in pictures of their favorite dogs (some real, some cartoons) and turned those images over to illustrator Deanna Ewers who incorporated them all to create four scruffy sketches that we whittled down to one. Working closely with Ewers, we fine-tuned the sketch (tweaks to the eyebrows, adjustments to the ears) until we were all happy – an accomplishment in itself.

Our new watchdog mascot Sunny was suddenly a reality.

Meanwhile, I was busily researching earthquake safety materials for children. Hours were spent in the Berkeley Public Library’s children department and scouring the Internet. No shopping trip was complete without a stop in the kids’ section. I then crafted eight pages full of tips on what to do in the event of an earthquake and general facts about earthquakes in California and across the globe.

All the while, I worked closely with an American Red Cross emergency preparedness educator to ensure our coloring book was informative and that it provided safe, sound and appropriate advice.

The e-mails, phone calls and handwritten notes that have come in with order forms are heartwarming – and a little alarming: One Chinese school director called the books "urgently needed"; a Vietnamese reader said this would be the first time her mother had access to preparedness materials in a language she could understand.

As the public engagement manager at California Watch, it’s my job to always think about how we can reach new audiences and, in this case, those potentially less privy to earthquake preparedness tools. From the get-go, we knew that an English-language coloring book would not be enough.

Using information that reporter Joanna Lin provided me, we identified the most common foreign languages spoken in California homes and decided we should also create Spanish, Vietnamese, traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese versions. For our translations, we turned to Beam Translation & Media Corporation (a frequent partner), Linh Nguyen and our very own intern, Ariane Wu.

As we got closer to the finish line with the content of the coloring book, we also turned to teachers across the state. It’s one thing to know that we have created something factual and informative, but we had to be sure, too, that children ages 5 to 10 would also find it accessible and interesting.

Kathrine Lafleur, Anna Isler and Margaret Turner were among those wonderful elementary school teachers who volunteered to review it. Their suggestions were on point and extremely useful.

Now that we had the coloring book essentially complete, you would think that we were ready to relax. Anything but.

We initially assumed we’d be printing around 2,000 copies. But even to justify an order that large, we needed to reach out and see whether there was enough interest. I shared early drafts with a few nonprofits, as well as with a Chinese school association and some acquaintances. I was excited the first time we got an order for 30 books, thrilled when a school asked for 500, and completely blown away when the Oakland Head Start system came in for 1,300.

Our plan to order 2,000 quickly changed to 10,000. By the time we received a request for 15,000 copies, we knew we had to raise our expectations. Somehow we’d gone from 2,000 copies to an estimated first run of 36,000. (Click here to download an order form.) Our Editorial Director Mark Katches has set a target of 50,000 copies. A few weeks ago, that sounded nuts. But now it just may happen. 

Now my focus had to turn to acquiring the funds necessary to publish such a large order. I’ve worn my share of hats in the journalism world: intern, research editor, writer, copy editor, managing editor. But I’ve never done sales. Fortunately this is a product I’m pleased to share with potential underwriters, and Center for Investigative Reporting Executive Director Robert Rosenthal has been an excellent mentor. Within a matter of weeks, we were able to bring in KQED, public media for Northern California, Inkworks Press, Patch and the Public Insight Network as sponsors.

We have happily been making “Ready to Rumble” available completely free of charge to schools and nonprofits, but unfortunately we now have to place some limits in order to cover our substantial printing costs. Moving forward, we’ll charge $1 per book on orders larger than 50.

Throughout April, we will be touring California, hosting emergency preparedness classes, visiting schools and attending events focused on children’s safety.

To learn more, visit www.californiawatch.org/connect. If you are interested in becoming a future sponsor or collaborating on an event, please e-mail aalvarado@californiawatch.org. And you can always follow our adventures on Twitter – at @alvaradoCW and @SunnyCW – or with the hashtag #shakyground



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