How a chance encounter in nature inspired independent record label owner Jonnie Forster to tell a children’s story about difference and acceptance.
Jonnie Forster got his start at Capitol Records and launched a career that has encompassed hip-hop, R&B, country and rock music production, as well as video game music supervision for Electronic Arts. His current project — a children’s book titled “The Bird and the Bee” — tells a story that touches on tolerance, acceptance and environmental issues.
Los Angeleno: What was the springboard that prompted you to write about a relationship between a bird and a bee?
Jonnie Forster:Well, I still am a music manager and independent record label owner, but we started creating a couple other projects and scripts, which started gaining some traction. And then I was on a vacation with a couple of friends in Lake Tahoe. I was by myself looking over the water when this hummingbird literally flew over my shoulder and hovered there for a good 35, 45 seconds or so.
So, I was kind of intrigued that it wasn’t scared of me. Then I looked over and I saw a bunch of bees feeding on the same group of flowers that the hummingbird was at. I had an epiphany right there that it’s cool to see these bees — first of all, everyone usually runs away from the bees in the human world — and here, you have a hummingbird that is usually kind of scared of everything and darts off. These two were both just chilling.
L.A.: So the relationship between the two makes sense in nature. How did you go from that to a story that explores the differences between us and how we react to them?
Forster: I’m Jewish and my wife identifies as African American. We just recently got married, and I started thinking of an idea of telling the story of this hummingbird and that bee based on identifying myself and my wife in these insects and birds that were in front of me. I came up with a couple of different things that were kind of funny. Then I realized that there had never been a movie feature — like an animated picture — with the birds and the bees. So, it became like, wow, I’m gonna write the movie telling the story of the birds and the bees with the perspective of the hummingbird being Jewish, with Jewish “Seinfeld”-type humor. And the bees — in my mind, my wife is a queen, so she’s the future queen of the hive. … So you converge those two types of things, which is what my family is, and we tell it in a “Shrek” kind of animated picture.
L.A.: How did you go from a script to an illustrated children’s book?
Forster: I got COVID for the third time because I was traveling a lot. And my wife told me it’s time to check into a hotel or go to the office. I ended up staying at the office. I said I’m going to write the book so I have something to present for when I want to pitch this as a movie. And I spent those five days finding the best illustrator I could find online.
L.A.: The best online doesn’t sound easy to find; how were you able to accomplish that?
Forster: Out of basically a thousand different illustrators, I narrowed it down to 10 off of this website online, and I hired 10 of them to do the exact same two characters, the two main figures of the book. One of the illustrators — Yuliia Danchuk — came back, and she was just head and shoulders above the rest. And she happened to be from the Ukraine.
L.A.: And that has a personal significance to you?
Forster: Well, I asked her, “Are you really in Ukraine?” and she said “Yes.” This was prior to the invasion. And I said, “Well, my grandparents are from Ukraine, they’re from Kyiv.” And she said, “That’s kind of where I’m from, I’m like an hour away. Everything is fine now, but everyone is nervous here.” Then I asked if she’d ever done anything like this, and she said, “Well, not a book, but I can do characters.” And I told her I had a good feeling about her and I wanted to hire her. I sent her the money upfront, and she ended up coming back with — I think — the most compelling visual ever created for a children’s book. It’s just breathtaking. It’s amazing. I found out, subsequently, that she was able to use the money to get out of the Ukraine and get into the Czech Republic, which is great.
L.A.: “The Bird and the Bee” comes with a theme song, one composed by M’Jestie, who’s known for writing Rihanna’s first big hit “Pon De Replay.” Where did the theme song come from and why include it in a book, which typically does not come with a theme song?
Forster: I think it has multiple purposes. … Just like you market everything else, you gotta do it yourself and gotta create the demand for it. So I figured, I have recording studios, and I represent some amazing artists and songwriters. Let me send out the book to them and see if they get inspired by anything. I gave some direction on a couple of songs based on the characters and what I’d like to see.
Ironically, M’Jestie left the music industry years ago and started a music school for kids. But when she found out about this project, she got so excited just because she wants to get more songs done — this is the project that’s getting her out of retirement. What she’s come up with, everyone is amazed. With adults, with kids, with moms, with grandmas, it’s kind of one of those features that work, but it’s also perfect for how I want to tell the story when I want to go into development of the scripted podcast and television show I’m currently involved in.
L.A.: Do you have any other ambitions or other projects in children’s literature in the future or that you’re currently working on that might branch off from “The Bird and the Bee”?
Forster: I’ve been approached to do a scripted podcast for this. And I had to take this book and see how we could develop it into a podcast and maybe a children’s television show. So I was trying to extrapolate the themes … When I think of all the different stories that can manifest from this, a series, perhaps, that looks at all of the different problems in nature and how these two characters help to fix those problems.