Big Ideas, Small People

Photo: Illustration by Jed Helmers

Tales of Local Children’s Authors

By Tim Walker

If you’re a book lover like I am, then chances are your love of reading began during childhood. You may think back to a parent or grandparent who loved to read to you at bedtime, or maybe you fell in love with the school library at an impressionable age, or perhaps you visited a beloved family member who had rooms filled with books, all dry and dusty on their shelves, waiting to be discovered and explored. I know, I spent many a rainy afternoon in the cool of my Grandmother Walker’s basement in West Virginia, digging through and reading her paperbacks, although the adult titles I worked my way through—“Jaws,” “The Exorcist,” “Scruples”—might have given both Grandma and my parents pause, as I was only 10.

Over the decades, the names of many beloved children’s books have become an indelible part of our culture—“Where the Wild Things Are,” “The Wizard of Oz,” the world of Harry Potter—and universal familiarity with their colorful characters and ideas is often taken for granted, even by adults.

For those unfamiliar with the variegated landscape of children’s literature, it may appear simple on the surface: rhyming picture books with comforting, nurturing stories and images of bears, dogs, and cats, meant to amuse little children and familiarize them with basic concepts. The reality, however, is that the subjects addressed in children’s books are often complex, sometimes even dark, and the writers who create those books are as hardworking and serious in their craft as any novelist or any other writer of short fiction.

“This was my first publication, and it definitely won’t be my last,” says Vanessa Marsell, local author of the children’s book “A Christmas Star Wish.” “I have seven nieces and nephews, and the book—my first children’s book—is dedicated to all of them.”

When asked what prompted her to write a book for children, Marsell answers, “Back in 2015, I started writing a mystery novel, and it took me about seven months to write it. Then I woke up one day in December of that same year, and I had this idea: ‘Oh…Franklin the Ferret. Hmmm…’ And the next thing I know I was like, ‘I wonder what I can do with that idea?’ I thought of my nieces and nephews and how every year I read them the story ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,’ and I thought to myself, ‘I need something else to read to them.’ So I sat for a couple of days and finally, about three days later, I started writing and the book just came out.”

The book, “A Christmas Star Wish” by V.L. Marsell and illustrated by Lucie Greasely, is an ideal tale for fledgling book lovers. The Christmas-themed story of Franklin the Ferret, a little guy who was born blind in one eye and with a bad leg, uses the ferret’s situation and that of his new owners to teach young people that we all have a purpose and that everyone matters, regardless of physical or mental disabilities. 

Although Marsell is still working on her novel, she has four more children’s stories already written. “They all have to deal with important subjects. I like to use animals; I don’t want to use children as much because I’m afraid other children might not relate to that child I’m writing about. At least with an animal as the main character, they might be able to relate a little better.” Marsells’ books usually deal with overcoming something, or being an outcast, being different. The one she just finished is all about bullying.

Although Marsell considers children in elementary and middle school her target audience, she doesn’t assign limits to the age of her readers.

“I think adults, as well as kids of any age, will enjoy reading my books,” she says, explaining that a social media friend told her how her mother, recovering from a stroke that left her blind in one eye with limited arm mobility, picked up “Franklin the Ferret,” and said, “This book is me.”

“My book was the first book in years that she actually had sat and read, and it really touched her,” Marsell says. “It really spoke to her, and gave her hope.”

Children’s publishing is a very lucrative business. A July 2016 report from the Association of American Publishers revealed that, though the market for Children’s and Young Adult Books declined slightly from 2014 to 2015, U.S. sales of children’s books still totaled over $4.27 billion in 2015. The fastest growing category, in terms of units sold, were board books, which were up 14 percent, but online audio downloads and sales of hardcover young adult books also saw growth over that previous fiscal year. The field of children’s literature is a lucrative one for writers as well as publishers. Although competition is fierce, placing a short story or an article in popular children’s magazines such as Highlights, Ladybug, or National Geographic Kids can result in a fat paycheck—and a wide audience—for what might seem to be a relatively short piece of work.

Ideas of length and simplicity can be misleading when it comes to writing for children, however. Although the limited vocabulary of younger readers must be kept in mind, the concepts and situations in popular children’s books are often made of sterner stuff, in order to keep young readers engaged.

These mature subjects often raise the ire of parents’ groups and people who would like to control—and sanitize—the way children think.

Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax,” for example, features a little yellow character with a moustache who “speaks for the trees.” The Lorax protests big business and the attendant pollution and destruction of our natural world, which go hand-in-hand with out-of-control progress. (I’m a big fan of The Lorax, and have an image of him tattooed on my left arm). “Heather Has Two Mommies” is a book by Leslie Newman that frankly discusses the LGBT relationship of 3-year-old Heather’s two female parents. Both of these books are frequently challenged by censors and have been removed from many school library shelves.

Another commonly challenged book, Maurice Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen,” features a young boy named Mickey who is naked throughout most of the book. In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Sendak says that his depiction of the cooks in his book, with their Hitler-esque mustaches and the fact that they tried to cook the little boy in their oven were references to the Holocaust, a subject prominent in his thoughts, especially due to his Jewish heritage.

I advise readers who are curious about children’s literature and its effects on impressionable young minds to seek out “Should We Burn Babar? Essays on Children’s Literature and the Power of Stories” by celebrated writer, teacher, and children’s advocate Herbert Kohl. Kohl, the author of more than 40 books, has repeatedly stated that children are capable of understanding far more than we give them credit for.

“Never in my whole teaching career has it occurred to me that there are limits to what any student can do,” Kohl once wrote. “The limitations I perceive are to do with how ingenious or sensitive I can be in devising the right situation or discovering the right materials to reach into my students. I am hopelessly optimistic when it comes to believing in people’s capacity to grow and learn.”

Marcella Barrett, a respected local educator, is also a children’s author. She teaches at Valerie PreK-6 school in the Dayton Public School system and has written a number of books for young readers. She says that she sees her writing as an extension of her career in education, using her fiction to convey important messages to children.

Barrett started writing children’s books about seven years ago but is just finishing up her second book, following a series of family deaths.

“I would try to go through the [grieving] process, then I would go back to writing my books, then the grieving process would start up again,” she says, explaining the gap between books. “But everything I write is geared toward children.”

Her first book, “And the Tree Cried Out,” is about a tree that teaches children to be kind.

“Kindness to others, kindness to older people—these are concepts [that] are important. And you know children, they get involved in so many activities, and sometimes they forget about family members and others,” she says. “I want to teach them that we have to learn to make time for others. It’s not always about what we want.”

A valuable lesson, and one that each of us might be able to learn from, regardless of our chronological age.

‘A Christmas Star Wish’ by V.L. Marsell is available on Amazon. For more information on Marcella Barrett, please visit BarrettBooksDayton.com.

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Ashley K Collins

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