John Shay’s Journey from Science to Storytelling – Panda Demick

A Tale of Empathy and Environmental Awakening

John Shay, retired scientist, discusses inspiration behind Panda Demick, weaving empathy, environmental themes amidst the pandemic. Collaboration with illustrator enriches narrative.

John Shay, a retired Earth scientist and high-tech entrepreneur residing in the vibrant city of Seattle, Washington, alongside his accomplished oceanographer wife, Joan, unveils a captivating narrative that intertwines the essence of familial joy with the global challenges of our time. With academic prowess steeped in chemistry and geophysics, Shay’s journey spans groundbreaking achievements in the nascent era of streaming media to a tranquil retreat near the shores of Lake Washington, where he delves into a literary endeavour.

In the midst of a global pandemic that seized the world’s attention, Shay welcomed the arrival of his grandson, a moment that juxtaposed the profound joy of familial bonds with the stark reality of a health crisis engulfing nations. It was within this juncture of personal bliss and societal upheaval that the seeds of inspiration for “Panda Demick” were sown. A tale not merely of a panda’s adventures, but a poignant allegory reflecting our interconnectedness with nature, community, and the profound lessons gleaned from adversity.

Through the lens of Panda Demick’s extraordinary ability to communicate with children, animals, and even the minutiae of viruses, Shay imparts a timeless message of empathy and resilience. Amidst the backdrop of a world in turmoil, readers are beckoned into a realm where compassion and understanding transcend boundaries, fostering a deeper appreciation for the delicate balance of our ecosystems.

Collaborating with the talented illustrator Jenny Zandona, Shay’s narrative finds visual expression in a tapestry of illustrations that evoke the nuances of emotional transformation and environmental awakening. From the somber hues depicting ecological imbalance to the vibrant palette symbolizing renewal and hope, Zandona’s artistry enriches Shay’s storytelling, inviting readers of all ages to embark on a journey of self-discovery and collective renewal.

At its core, “Panda Demick” serves as a beacon of hope, resonating with readers young and old alike, navigating the tumultuous seas of life’s challenges. Rooted in Shay’s profound insights gleaned from a career bridging Earth science and entrepreneurship, the narrative transcends the confines of a mere children’s tale, offering a poignant reflection on the urgent imperative of environmental stewardship and the enduring power of empathy in shaping a brighter tomorrow.

As Shay’s magnum opus continues to captivate hearts and minds, Panda Demick stands as a testament to the indomitable spirit of human resilience, weaving together threads of compassion, friendship, and environmental consciousness in a tapestry of profound significance.

What inspired you to write Panda Demick, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic?

 I became a grandfather on March 13, 2020, three days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. The stark juxtaposition of familial joy and global health threat got me thinking about my grandson’s life and the world that he will be inheriting. It inspired me to write Panda Demick to provide caretakers a tool to help explain the pandemic in the context of the greater environmental crisis facing our planet. Panda Demick offers children insight into those complex issues in an uplifting and life-affirming manner.

 The story is about a Panda, named Demick, who has the unique ability to talk to children, animals, and even itsy-bitsy viruses. His empathy and ability to listen to others provides him with the knowledge he needs to help his friends and others.

 Can you tell us more about the message you aimed to convey through Panda Demick’s adventures and friendships?

 The one common experience we all had during the pandemic was the dramatic slowing of daily life. Instead of commuting into the office or school, we stayed close to home and reconnected with family members. As the roads and stores emptied our hearths and hearts filled up. We began to recall the importance of friendships and reconnecting deeply with our loved ones.

 That slowing down of daily life is depicted in the story by illustrations of gathered family life during the pandemic as well as the calming of the animal kingdom as the world became quieter. Demick and his friends offer the reader an opportunity to imagine a world in better balance with nature.

 Could you share a bit about your collaboration with illustrator Jenny Zandona? How did the illustrations complement your storytelling?

 Jenny is a very talented children’s book illustrator who is like a daughter to me. She was the first person I called when I decided to write the book. Her beautiful illustrations show the sadness of the environmental imbalance that preceded the arrival of the Coronavirus. Then, as the story unfolds, the experience of helping others during a time of crisis changes Demick, transforming him from a worrisome panda into a more confident and joyful panda. Demick’s internal transformation is skillfully illustrated by a subtle color palette change that eventually results in our hero bursting into glorious color. His deep love for his friends and nature becomes visible to everyone.

Panda Demick seems to emphasise the importance of empathy and helping others in need. How do you believe this message can resonate with both children and adults, especially in challenging times like a pandemic?

 One of my favorite illustrations in the book shows a nurse helping a masked elderly patient in a wheel chair. Resting on the floor next to them is an empty pair of nurse shoes. Those empty shoes represent the front-line healthcare workers we lost to the pandemic. That single image illustrates the best and worst of what we experienced during the pandemic. Children see the empathy of the nurse helping an elderly patient while an adult may recall the suffered losses and be able to offer insight to a child.

 To help facilitate conversations with children about the pandemic, over 200 copies of Panda Demick have been gifted to front-line healthcare workers. The response from those healthcare works has been very positive.

How did your background in Earth science and high tech entrepreneurship influence the themes or ideas explored in the book?

From the beginning, I knew that the story of Panda Demick needed to be bigger than the Coronavirus. It needed to offer insight into how a tiny part of nature emerged and how its sudden arrival was a reflection of an ongoing environmental crisis. That environmental context for the story is tied directly to my early career as an Earth scientist. I hold degrees in both chemistry and geophysics. My first job out of college was working for The Greenhouse Gas Project at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. It was while working at Scripps that I met my wife, Joan, who holds a doctorate degree in oceanography. Together, we have had a front row seat to the hard-fact science behind climate change and its impact on ecosystems worldwide for over 45 years. 

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