Reviewed by Heidi Sutton
Robert “Jungle Bob” Smith’s lifelong passion has been to learn everything he can about reptiles and amphibians. With a wealth of knowledge he has made it his mission to educate the public about these fascinating but mostly misunderstood creatures. The owner of Jungle Bob’s Reptile World in Selden and Oakdale presents hundreds of educational shows on Long Island every year and has a healthy following on YouTube.
Now the entrepreneur and educator can add author to his resume with the release of “Lenny … A Most Unusual Reptile,” the first in a series of children’s books with an anti-bullying message that teaches us that “our differences are what make us so unique.” Resembling a comic strip, the paperback also doubles as a coloring book with illustrations by Steve Sabella. I recently had the opportunity to interview Jungle Bob as he prepares for a book signing in Huntington on Oct. 3.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My family is from Hells Kitchen in Manhattan, but I grew up in West Babylon, which is my alma mater. I currently live in Islip Terrace.
When did you realize you had a special love for animals, especially reptiles?
It was when I first moved to West Babylon at age 6. Being from Manhattan everything was new to me, even grass and trees, but it was the wildlife that I couldn’t get enough of. West Babylon was more rural back in those days.
What was your favorite place to visit as a child?
My favorite place to go as a child was the pond down the block from my house, Beaver Lake. It was there that I encountered reptiles, amphibians, fishing, ice skating and first experienced the outdoors in general.
What was your favorite children’s book?
My mom was always reading to me as a child and there were many, but “Curious George” sticks out. Reading to my three kids, “Good Night Moon” was a favorite.
Aside from operating your pet stores, what else do you like to do?
Jungle Bob has performed over 1,000 educational shows in the area since opening 10 years ago. That has kept me pretty busy! I love the outdoors. Long Island has so many great places to hike. In the summer you can find me on any of the South Shore beaches, playing my favorite game Frisbee, which I am quite accomplished in. I am also a traveler with over 50 trips overseas, all in search of unusual wildlife and the outdoors.
What is your favorite animal?
A snake. Hands down. The first animal I ever captured was a garter snake in my front yard. I had been in the neighborhood for only a few days and didn’t connect with the local kids yet. One day I heard a scream from the other side of the hedges and this snake came slithering through to my side. I inexplicably picked it up just in time for all the locals to see as they had circled around the hedges to follow it. I was an instant celebrity. Then it bit me, and I was instantly cool. Luckily garter snakes aren’t venomous but I had no idea what species I was holding; it just fascinated me in the way it moved. It didn’t blink, it was smoother than it looked, and the kids were mesmerized. My dad was a WWII veteran and a NYC cop and he ran for his gun! My mother was praying in Italian! They had all the fake facts about snakes. I have been hooked ever since.
Did you have many pets growing up?
We had cats mostly, as my mom liked them, but in the basement I always had snakes, turtles and frogs.
What inspired you to write this book?
Reptiles truly suffer from fake news. Myths associated with them have survived for centuries, all the way back to the Bible in fact. And I saw this misinformation then seep into children’s books. Why are they always creepy, crawly and up to no good? I correct those misnomers in every lecture but then decided to go one step further and make a factual children’s book to reinforce the truth. Lenny was born.
How long have you been working on it?
Ten years! This book has been on my things to do list for a decade! I decided to just finish it in 2019 as a New Year’s resolution.
What is the book about?
Although the goal was to paint reptiles in the proper light, the book is about anti-bullying. We use animals instead of people to point out how wrong it is to make fun of someone else because they are different and acknowledge that not only is it okay to be different … it may work out to your advantage!
Tell us about the main character, Lenny. What kind of lizard is he and where does his species live?
Lenny is a reptile known as a legless lizard. There are many species of these around the globe. Steve and I modeled the drawing after the Russian/Eastern European legless, but the story takes place in more familiar turf: Florida. There are legless lizards there too.
What other creatures are represented in the book?
There are snakes, who are the antagonists to Lenny; a tortoise who is wise and helpful; a raccoon and an owl who are the “bad guys,” more appropriately predators; and another legless lizard named Lena who befriends Lenny and sets him straight about who he is.
Why did you pick the topic of bullying?
It wasn’t the forethought 10 years ago, but it clearly emerged as the topic after my many many edits over the years. I watched kids get bullied in my youth and no one ever stepped in to help. It’s a horrible thing to do and this is just one more way to reinforce how wrong it is.
What message do you hope to pass on?
I hope that all aged readers (parents for sure) learn something new about our natural world, like the differences between snakes and lizards, and that all these unusual animals aren’t evil in any way and that reptiles are often the victims of mammals and birds, not the other way around.
How cool that you decided to make it a coloring book also.
We figured they would just sell in the stores and the kids could bring in their work to show me! We are making individual sheets of certain pages for that and plan to hang them on the walls of the stores.
What kind of feedback have you gotten?
Of course it appeals to all reptile enthusiasts but every parent who picked it up has said something positive about the anti-bullying message, the quality of the drawings, the coloring book aspect, etc.
Is the book self-published?
Yes it is. It was fairly painless actually, once we understood the limitations of printing something in a short run and the costs involved in general we got it done fairly quickly.
What advice would you give to someone who is writing their first book?
Get it done! Make time away from all other daily interruptions. My excuse is running a retail business with live inventory for 10 years. It distracted me to say the least.
Who is your target audience ?
This book is geared for 3- to 7-year-olds plus parents and grandparents, who tend to know the least about reptiles.
What will your next book be about?
It’s a secret, but anyone who has seen my shows knows the cast of characters I travel with! Castro the Cuban iguana, Jabba the African bullfrog, Rosie the tarantula and a dozen more should all have a book about them.
“Lenny … A Most Unusual Reptile” is available at Jungle Bob’s Reptile World in Selden at 984 Middle Country Road, in Oakdale at 4130 Sunrise Highway, online at www.JungleBobsReptileWorld.com and at Book Revue, 313 New York Ave., Huntington. Meet Jungle Bob along with Lenny the Lizard and friends at a book signing event at Book Revue (631-271-1442) on Oct. 3 at 6 p.m.
Please note: This article has been updated to reflect a change in the time for the book signing.