In the second or third grade, I wrote a letter to James Howe, co-author of “Bunnicula” – the children’s book about a vampire bunny that sucks the life out of vegetables.
The only thing I remember from my letter was a question, “How did you get the idea of using dark fur to represent a cape?” More than anything, I think I wanted the author to be impressed that I “got it.”
Our entire class had to write letters to authors and nobody got a response – except for me. Mr. Howe wrote me back and was happy that I noticed the fur/cape thing and said the reference (obviously, duh) came from the popular representation of Dracula in a black cape.
I was so juiced that an author took the time to read my letter, let alone respond to it. I can’t say this experience made me want to write, but it’s something I will always remember. And every time I remember it, I get a rush similar to when I finish writing a story or column.
So, I can only imagine what the kids feel or think as they meet so many well-known authors during UCM’s annual Children’s Literature Festival. Each spring, thousands of children fill the campus while the college kids are out cavorting in Panama City.
This year, 4,600 students registered for the three-day festival, and 34 authors and illustrators were scheduled to talk and host workshops.
I sat in on two authors Monday, Henry Cole of Florida and Terry Trueman of Washington – two polar opposites. Cole is an author and illustrator whose fascination with drawing and wildlife fuels his creative impulses.
Trueman writes young adult novels and lists Charles Bukowski as one of his heroes – which makes sense as words like “hell” and “pissed off” seasoned his talk with seventh- and eighth-graders.
Cole’s body language and overall goofiness was enough to keep his fourth- and fifth-graders entertained and giggling.
“All you need to create a story is a piece of paper and something to write or draw on and let your imaginations go wild!” Cole said, accentuating the word “wild” like he just ate a hot pepper.
However, both men shared a similar message – good art takes time and practice. Cole illustrated this advice with an anecdote. One day he drew a picture of the Statue of Liberty, which his mother thought was good enough for the kitchen wall. Cole was so happy he drew another, slightly better version.
Thirty-seven drawings later, Cole said his Lady Liberty picture now had helicopters circling, skyscrapers in the background and ships in the harbor.
Trueman’s tale of inspiration is more of the “Barfly” variety.
After 10 years of feeling sorry for himself and living a self-destructive lifestyle, he awoke one day, “unemployed, divorced, friendless, six months behind on my mortgage” and realized he had to “pull my head out of my you know what.”
But Trueman’s story is also one of heartache and redemption. His son, Sheehan, was born with a brain injury and even at 33 he still cannot care for himself. Sheehan became a central figure and inspiration for Trueman’s award-winning book, “Stuck in Neutral.”
“I would give anything in my life for him to not be the way he is, for him to be like you guys and be sitting there comparing tennis shoes and ignoring a famous author,” Trueman said, singling out two dudes in the sparse crowd. “But that’s not the way it works.”
Trueman said he graduated high school with a D-average and flunked out of junior college. The words of his alcoholic father, “You’re so stupid” began to fade after he moved away. And he did better, graduating with a degree in English and a master’s in applied psychology. He worked as a counseling therapist, got an MFA in creative writing and taught college courses for some 20 years.
“I’m really interested in the human soul,” he said. “We are social beings. We’re all these things and then we’re something more. There’s something else about us, too. That’s our soul. That’s our spirit.”
Cole said he was in the fifth grade when he discovered John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” book.
“It must have been so exciting to have been him,” Cole said as he breathlessly detailed Audubon’s story of traveling the country documenting and painting life-sized pictures of birds.
Cole was fascinated when he learned that Audubon painted the birds but someone else painted the leaves, fruits and berries in the pictures – his 13-year-old assistant, Joseph Mason. That gave Cole an idea for a story.
Audubon and Mason lived in the Oakley Plantation in Louisiana, which is where Cole set his story “A Nest for Celeste.” Celeste is a mouse that lives in the same house. One of the primary characters is an osprey, which was also one of Cole’s favorite Audubon paintings.
Here was a teaching moment. Cole said it is important that you don’t copy someone else’s work. You make it your own. And he described the tedious editing and redrawing process.
Cole described the premise of another one of his books, “On Meadowview Street.” A little girl saw a wildflower in their yard and roped it off so her father wouldn’t mow it down. Another flower appeared and the roped-off area expanded and expanded until the whole yard was allowed to go wild. She later had a pond installed and their yard became a wildlife habitat, “all because of one flower.”
Cole had a similar experience at his Florida home, showing before-and-after pictures of his lawn.
“You cannot see the house from the street,” he said. “The jungle has taken over! Sometimes I go in and don’t come out for days because I can’t find my way out.”