A termite princess comes home & other stories in new book by Tucson author
Animal interactions in the Southwest are those of survival in an arid environment — and the topic of the latest book by Tucson author Alejandro Canelos' latest book: "The Neotenic Queen: Tales of Sex and Survival in the Sonoran desert."
The book is a collection of 25 short stories portraying the lives of creatures in Southern Arizona and how they do what "it takes to stay alive." The word neotenic, which Canelo said applies to animals such as termites, is when an adult animal still has features of their juvenile stages.
"The animal in the front cover of the book is a subterranean termite," Canelos said. "There aren't many book titles out there competing for the word 'neotenic'."
Nogales-born and raised in Tucson, Canelos graduated with a bachelor's degree in biology from Harvard University in 1992. He used his knowledge in biology to have a career in his family business importing produce from Mexico.
However, when the pandemic hit in 2020, Canelos found himself leaving the business and began writing full time.
"I started writing a short story every week," Canelos said. "I wrote about the rattlesnakes. I wrote a story about saguaros. I wrote a story about the black widows. Eventually, it became a pattern. I found I really loved writing about animals and plants."
Combining science with fable-like stories became a work of passion for Canelos. He met with professionals such as biologists at the University of Arizona, Arizona Game and Fish Department and Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to gather the protagonists of the stories he had been writing.
He drew on to the presences of rattlesnakes, javelina, desert subterranean termites and black widows in the desert landscape. And although the stories involve talking animals, they are not suitable for young readers.
"These stories can make readers relate to animals in a way they probably never did before," Canelos said. "Like, rattlesnakes shouldn't be feared. They're not evil creatures, they just need to be understood. They're friends, really. I used to want to cut off the mistletoe out of my mesquite trees I had in my yard, but I don't anymore because I see them as another organism that is surviving and thriving in a place that has extreme weather and very little water."
Canelos said the desert animals "have it rough" in the desert. He said the lives of the animals consist on them trying to survive and live long enough to reproduce.
"The desert is a strange place," Canelos said. "There's not much water. There's extreme and extreme cold, and they still manage to thrive."
Something that occurred to him was that not every reader was going to know what a Gila monster is or what a javelina looks like. He asked illustrator Rachel Ivanyi to create images of the animals for each of the stories.
Ivanyi, who teaches at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, painted colored watercolor illustrations for "The Neotenic Queen."
When readers purchase the audiobook, they'll receive a PDF of all the artwork in color. While the illustrations are printed in black and white for the paperback edition, it's also in color in the e-book version. Ivanyi has a bachelor's degree in zoology from U.C. Davis and a graduate certification in natural science illustration from U.C. Santa Cruz.
The audiobook can be purchased through Amazon and iTunes. The e-book is available through both Kindle and iBooks, and print copies are carried by local retailers such as Bookmans, the gift shop in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Antigone Books, and Petroglyphs.
Looking forward, Canelos will be attending a signing event at Petroglyphs on November 5. Ivanyi's artwork will be displayed at the museum September—October 2023.
Bianca Morales is TucsonSentinel.com’s Cultural Expression and Community Values reporter, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.