The writing and publishing process for my children’s book was quite different than for the memoir, “A CANYON TRILOGY: Life Before, During and After the Cedar Fire.” For one, I had the privilege of working with a wonderful local artist, Dorothy Mushet. She owns the Banner Queen Art Gallery in Julian. After I wrote the manuscript and formatted the text around the descriptions of the future illustrations, along with my own poorly executed attempts at sketching them, Dorothy painted the pictures.
“The Tale of Broken Tail” is actually a true story. My mother, “Gramaset,” accidentally dug up a nest of three baby ground squirrels and then took responsibility for their care, sharing the experience with my daughter, Kali. They raised them until they were ready to live on their own. I felt the story needed to be told.
While writing this book I had numerous encounters with squirrels, usually just outside my bedroom window. One day, a scraggly old one looked through the glass at me, less than three feet away, barfed into the dirt, and then lay down on top of the rock wall for a couple hours. I don’t think he felt very well. Another day, one came down the boulder and looked in at me, dug a hole, relieved himself and then buried it. Many, many times I’ve watched them staring in at me for prolonged periods of time. “What?” I’ve asked them. It happens so often it’s become the norm.
When I asked Dorothy if she would be interested in illustrating this book, she told me that my mom had asked her for two paintings: one of a wolf and the other a ground squirrel. Unfortunately, Mom had passed away shortly thereafter and Dorothy felt a little guilty.
“Really?” I asked. “Maybe I can play on that guilt a little.” This seemed to provide a little incentive.
I gathered various photos of Mom, Kali, our dogs — but still needed some images of ground squirrels. I had one morning left before I would take the pictures and manuscript to the artist so I went outside with my camera. Almost immediately a ground squirrel appeared on a rock. Lacking much faith in the likelihood of getting this little guy to cooperate, I decided to ask his permission, just in case. I told him that he could be a star in my children’s book about squirrels. Well, I kid you not, this little ham let me follow him around for a good half-hour stopping here and there to pose for me. He sat on a stump, lay in the grass, stood on a rock…
I delivered my photos and read the story to Dorothy and her 10-year-old grandson. She watched his expressions while I read and noticed how interested he was. She also began to realize what a big project this was going to be. Her relatives were coming to visit soon and she would have to get things ready for them so she wouldn’t be able to start right away.
Dorothy called the next morning. “I’m going to start today!”
“Wow. That’s terrific. I thought you were too busy right now,” I said.
Evidently, providence was at work. When she was arranging the bedroom for her company, two sketch pads fell out of the bookcase in front of her. Picking them up she realized that they were just the right sizes for the book illustrations and decided that my mom was trying to tell her something. Both of us got goose bumps.
For the next six months she sketched and painted. When she needed more photographs of ground squirrels, one appeared outside her kitchen window and willingly obliged. She got her twin grandsons to pose for her so she could paint her pictures more accurately to scale. These photos are funny. How she managed to get 10-year-old boys to cooperate is testament to her being a good grandmother. They would ask her, “Which one am I, Kali or Gramaset?”
This whole process has been an interesting adventure. Now that I’m a grandma, too, I hope that I can carry the legacy with honor. There are so many stories to tell with no shortage of fodder for the imagination. Our family has lived in this rural canyon for five generations and the Native Americans before that. If only the boulders and trees could talk.
Chi Varnado’s children’s book, “The Tale of Broken Tail,” and her memoir, “A CANYON TRILOGY: Life Before, During and After the Cedar Fire,” are available on www.amazon.com. A Ramona resident, she directs The Dance Centre of Ramona. Her collection of essays, “Quail Mutterings,” can be found on www.chivarnado.com.