We have many reasons to be proud to live in Lake Nona. Topping the list, of course, is our community’s intense pursuit of health and wellness. Our architecture is cutting-edge and world-class, and where else can you find such variety and color in the design of neighborhood homes? Then, there’s our Beep shuttles, the USTA, and plans to build the nation’s first vertiport. Perhaps the one asset our town still lacks – other than, of course, higher-end retail options – is a strong literary life. That, though, is about to change. Meet Sophia Gholz, Lake Nona’s resident children’s author, who is publishing yet another major children’s book this fall and will have more to come next year.
As a child growing up in Gainesville, Sophia always wanted to write, especially to tell stories. But a negative experience with a literary professor in college caused Sophia to shift her sights to telling stories through other avenues instead. Soon after, she drove cross-country to Los Angeles, chasing her reworked dream.
In California, she discovered that stage fright and acting did not mix. Shifting direction once again, Sophia enrolled in Santa Barbara’s Brooks Institute to study photography. The field of fashion photography most interested her. Not surprisingly, her career path led her next to New York City, where she worked for many years in fashion publishing. Now married and finding the prospect of raising a family in New York City unappealing, she returned in 2010 with her husband to Florida, this time to Jacksonville, where she returned, too, to her lifetime ambition: to write books. During her adult life, Sophia says she had “kept the words and stories inside of her.” Now, she felt it was time to bring out those stories to a world of young readers. But learning the craft of writing children’s books as well as the ins and outs of the children’s book industry took several years. Success came finally in 2019 with the publication of her first book, The Boy Who Grew a Forest, a genuine literary and visual masterpiece.
The Boy Who Grew a Forest tells the incredible story of Jadav Payeng, who lived on Majuli Island – the world’s largest river island – on Brahmaputra River in northeastern India. As a teenager, Jadav saw wildlife struggling to survive along the river’s barren sandbars, whose relentless expansion threatened to wash away the island entirely. In fact, over the past century, Majuli Island had lost half of its area to erosion. The barefoot Jadav, armed with only a stick, decided to take action and single-handedly began planting seedlings in the mud along the river. He kept planting month after month, year after year, and eventually produced a forest larger than Central Park in New York. Importantly, wildlife returned to the island forest, which now boasts of several Bengal tigers and one-horned rhinos, herds of buffalo and elephants, plus monkeys, snakes and vultures within a thriving ecosystem. With its gorgeous illustrations and a heart-warming, inspirational text, The Boy Who Grew a Forest has won several awards, most notably the Florida State Book Award Gold Medal.
This fall, we await the arrival of Sophia’s newest book, Jack Horner Dinosaur Hunter! Luckily, we have procured an advance copy so we can share some of its content with you. In an engaging comic book format, Sophia recounts the life of Jack Horner, one of the world’s most knowledgeable experts about dinosaurs. So knowledgeable, in fact, that he advised Stephen Spielberg about the behaviors of those enormous reptiles for the Jurassic Park movies. As a child growing up in rural Montana, Jack was drawn to fossils, and his discovery of a dinosaur bone at age eight cemented what would become a lifelong interest in paleontology.
Jack, however, struggled in school. Unbeknownst to him, he suffered from severe dyslexia. He could easily read fossils but could make little sense of words and numbers. On the basis of a successful high school science project, Jack was admitted to college but flunked out his freshman year, and was soon drafted into the army to serve in Vietnam. Returning home a couple of years later, Jack searched for a job in paleontology everywhere he could and was finally offered a job as a technician at Princeton University’s Natural History Museum.
On vacation in Montana, Jack kept hunting for dinosaurs and found what turned out to be the world’s first specimen of a dinosaur embryo. This discovery launched him upon an exceptionally productive academic career that brought him professorships, honorary doctorates, and acclaim for the scientific papers and books he produced over his lifetime. This is an inspirational tale of a boy who, through dogged determination, overcame a severe learning handicap and reached the top of his profession. And along the way, Jack Horner has given us a more enlightened understanding of our distant reptilian ancestors.
Recently, a college classmate of mine, now a professor emeritus of business at the University of Michigan, was asking me about life in Lake Nona. Though I could boast about our community’s passionate focus on health and wellness, I conceded that we seem to stumble in building a local intellectual life.
“But isn’t an intellectual life an important part of health and wellness?” she asked. Due to the extraordinary efforts accomplished by Ashley Cisneros Mejía and her team, we can expect a library to open in Lake Nona in the near future. This will be an important first step in bringing a literary life to our town, for young and old. Perhaps the library will also help to bring together our town’s readers – and writers. And by the way, shouldn’t that library’s first acquisitions include two special books penned by our community’s own writer of children’s literature? Of course! In the meantime, while we are waiting for our new library to open, let’s just be thankful that we have an author of the stature of Sophia Gholz living right here in Laureate Park.