Stories to Tell to Children: The Crown of Secrets

This past Sunday afternoon, my good friend and former co-worker Andy came up to my apartment in downtown Shijiazhuang to visit my cat. After the requisite playtime, we left (sans cat) and biked a block east under the smoggy grey sky to meet Eva, another friend, outside Fangbei Printers. We were there to price out the book I’ll be publishing in a few months, The Crown of Secrets.

at the printer's
Eva, business consultant, and Andy, translator, while we wait for an estimate at Fengbei Printing

The project had its spark a little over four years ago when Adelle, a university friend who was teaching in Vietnam, posted pictures of some innocent-looking children’s books she’d come across in Hanoi. The stories started nicely enough, but they didn’t follow the pattern of happy peaceful endings that we in the West are accustomed to telling our kids. Instead, animals exploded, devoured each other, and caused general chaos, unresolved by the end save for a pretty unambiguous moral like “DON’T MAKE LIONS ANGRY.” I was hooked.

Elephant and Rabbit 1
The rabbit gets stuck in the sap of a tree.
Elephant and Rabbit 2
The rabbit aggravates an elephant and loses half of his bum. THE END.

Around the same time, my sister had her first son, Braxton. The thought of him growing up in a world without bizarre, perplexing, hilarious, and sometimes twisted stories was deeply saddening to me, so I resolved to fill the void by writing children’s stories of my own.

The process was slow at first. I began by collaborating with local artist Kristin Richland. Her paintings and sketches gave me new ideas to write about; my stories (so she says) were great ground for growing art from. We started working first on my story The Evening Day and Grey, then on another inspired by her pictures of living clothes, Hunting My Dress.

It was fun. Before long I was writing more stories and had the vague idea of collecting them into a big, fat, colorful book like the ones I’d grown up reading. I had worked at Borders before its untimely demise, though, and I knew that the children’s book market was tough to break into. But, you know, whatever. I kept writing.

In the fall of 2012, just before the end of the world, I moved to China to begin teaching. I kept writing, kept having visions of the art that could happen, started designing pages for a book that could happen. I slowly began reaching out to other artists that I’d met along the way, some in real life and others in the magical world of the internet. I started thinking about how to build a Kickstarter campaign. Kristin would send me more drawings. I’d think of things I liked (“Goldfish! Goldfish are cool. And robots. Man. I really like robots. What if there was a story about them? What if I wrote it? I could totally do that.”). Artists wrote back and said they loved the stories and wanted to be a part of the project.

And suddenly, around Christmas of 2014, I realized I’d gradually gained enough momentum to actually do the thing I’d been dreaming of for several years: to write, have illustrated, and publish a book of weird stories for children.

Cow and Frog
Mother Frog is truly an inspiration to us all.

Now, to put your mind at ease, none of the stories are – quite – as odd as the Vietnamese ones. Some are funny; some are wistful or sad; others are magic and fantastical; and still others simply slightly different perspectives on what might otherwise be mundane. Some are only a few dozen words; others take up ten pages. They’re written with a sense of wonder and credulity, and from what I’ve seen, they resonate with readers of all ages. And the artwork will be as diverse as the tales themselves – and phenomenal.

Here on this devblog, I’ll be introducing the artists over the next few weeks, sharing what drew me to them and their art. For now, let it suffice to say that I’m working with artists in four states and three foreign countries, and that I’m incredibly excited to be working with each one of them. I’ll also present a few of the stories to be featured, show drafts of the art as it comes in, and document the formation of the book – brainstorming, writing, art direction, fundraising, printing, shipping, distribution, and all the steps in between – as it goes from scribblings in my notebook to a real and solid book in your hands. I’m excited and honored to have you along for the journey.

Tiyu Street and Fengbei Printing
Right next door.

At the printer’s, our laoban measured the page thickness of Shaun Tan’s Tales from Outer Suburbia, the book I’d brought along as an example, and patiently listened as Andy translated my requirements for page size and quality. I gave estimates of how many copies I’d be printing and learned about the printing process itself, which would be handled about twenty minutes away, just south of the city’s second ring road. Eva handled the business questions – being Chinese, she knows how to deal with Chinese businesspeople much better than I. I got estimates that surprised me, in a very nice way, and did my best to keep a neutral face.

We weren’t finished; after an hour at Fengbei, we went on to check out a few other print shops, most of whose owners acted as though they’d never seen a book before. One was helpful, though, and provided a similar estimate to the first company. This I took to be a good sign.

As I biked back home, satchel filled with business cards and pricing documentation, I felt equal parts nervous and elated.

I’m going to make a book.

Read more about the ideas behind The Crown of Secrets.

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