Hunched over light tables, award-winning wildlife photographers Carl R. Sams II and his wife Jean Stoick were determined to pull perfect images from among 60,000 shots for their next book–one that was supposed to feature whitetail deer. They needed to edit the collection down to 140 images representing the best of four seasons. The task was tedious and seemingly endless. But when Jean came across a series of pictures of deer and birds interacting with a snowman, it sparked another idea–a children’s book.
“We knew,” Jean explained, “that in a book on whitetail deer we’d only get away with using one or two of the snowman pictures. In a children’s book, we could use so many more fun images.”
“At first, I thought Jeannie had lost her mind,” Carl said. “After 14 years of taking photos for a deer book, how could she change directions without a moment’s notice?”
But Jean took her notebook, curled up in her favorite chair by the fire, sketched pages, and wrote an outline. An hour later, she handed it to Carl. They knew immediately that they were onto something. As if on cue, the snow outside began to fall, the pair went out to build a snowman, and Stranger in the Woods came to life. From that moment, Carl and Jean were totally committed. Whenever it snowed, they could be found with their cameras, plenty of film, and a snowman in a red, floppy-eared hat.
Beating Harry Out
Wanting to maintain complete control of design, layout, and printing, Carl and Jean moved full-force into the expensive endeavor of self-publishing. The couple went on press in late 1999 printing 20,000 books. They’d invested nearly every cent they had. Without a wholesaler, Carl and Jean had to personally carry copies of their book to bookstores in Northern Michigan.
Only a few weeks after its release, the book went to number one on the regional hardcover fiction best-seller list. For 16 weeks, it held that position, beating both the ever-popular Harry Potter and John Grisham’s The Brethren.
According to Carl, one of the best things about the success of Stranger in the Woods is the opportunity that it has provided for him and his wife to team up with causes close to their hearts. The book’s dedication, “For those who protect wild places and to the snowman that lives in every child’s heart,” is more than just words. They have used sales of their book to raise thousands of dollars for the Nature Conservancy, the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and the Rainbow Connection (an organization that makes wishes come true for children with life-threatening illnesses).
[subhead] Capturing Attention & Awards
“Using the book as a fund-raiser came back to us ten times over,” Carl said. “We started to get attention from the press. Newspapers, radio, and television stations opened up to us immediately.”
Another successful marketing tool is a mailing list of more than 30,000 customers who have purchased wildlife prints at art shows that the photographers participated in around the country over the past 18 years.
With its combination of photographs and a story about animals in the woods visited on a snowy winter night by a stranger (the snowman in the red, floppy-eared hat), the book appeals to a much broader audience than Carl and Jean originally intended. Reaching adults as well as children, it has sold more than 600,000 copies and earned a collection of awards, including the 2000 Benjamin Franklin Award for the Best Children’s Picture Book. “We even spent most of the last two winters on The New York Times’ best-seller list and the American Booksellers BookSense list,” Carl said proudly. “We climbed as high as #2 on each list!”
[subhead] The Spin-off Stories
In November 2001, the couple added an award-winning video and an upbeat, read-along soundtrack to their repertoire to create Stranger in the Woods: The Movie.
“We’d been shooting video along with our traditional photography. We wanted to incorporate the two,” Carl explained. “And teachers wanted a how-to video on making a children’s book,” so Making of the Stranger in the Woods is included as a bonus on the video. Another spin-off, Stranger in the Woods: The Soundtrack, is directed, edited, and written by Carl’s cousins, Laura and Robert Sams, who also composed and performed most of the music, songs, and character voices featured in the movie. The brother and sister team visits classrooms with a guitar and an electric keyboard to present an interactive program on how a book comes together.
Laura and Robert have garnered their own collection of awards, including the Dove Family Approval Seal, The 2002 Award of Excellence from the Film Advisory Board of Hollywood, California, and two Tele Awards (children’s and nature).
As for Carl and Jean, they’re off and running on their next project–a second children’s book. “We’d like eventually to make it a series that covers all the seasons,” Jean says. “But not another snowman book. We’ve already told that story. And,” she added with a smile, “there’s still that whitetail deer book to finish.”
Karen McDiarmid is a writer and graphic artist from Farmington Hills, Michigan. She led the team that worked on the pre-press work and did the final edit on “Stranger in the Woods.” Karen will be teaming up full-time with Carl and Jean with hopes to spark the same kind of magic in future projects.To read more about the snowman book and see additional photos, visit