I have always loved books. Let me correct myself. I have always loved children’s books. There is something so magical about the vibrant words that often give character to other inanimate objects. The glow of the illustration colors. It is just such a freeing feeling; hearing the stories of far off places and whimsical people. And now that I am a father of a 5-year old who is starting to read on her own and unlocking the magic of story books I have become extra sensitive to the sounds of those magical places within the slick pages of a new tale. Such was the case at this past summer’s Tiny House Jamboree when I heard the expressive voice of author Susan Bernardo reading through the pages of her latest book The Big Adventures of Tiny House. What a brilliant concept. An old farmhouse that is recycled into a tiny house on wheels — and sets off to discover the meaning of home. I had to learn more. I set out to speak with Susan and illustrator Courtenay Fletcher.
Andrew Odom: A number of people claim to enjoy writing but few people make the leap to published author. When did you make that leap yourself Susan? Did you have any formal education in literature?
Susan Bernardo: I was a published poet at 6 years old, when the Galveston Library kindly posted my tall tale of my dad’s fishing trip in their newsletter! I have always loved writing stories and poetry – it’s how I express all the emotions and ideas swirling around in my head. I had great teachers who encouraged me to keep writing. I studied English literature at UCLA, and went on to Yale to get my master’s degree. I planned to become an English professor until I realized I was spending more time critiquing other people’s work than focusing on my own creativity. For many years, I published my work where I could, mostly for free – literary journals, poetry contests, articles in the school paper, that sort of thing. My entry into the world of writing children’s books is recent, and happened spontaneously. Courtenay and I have been friends since our kids were tots and we met in a Mommy and Me class in 2004 . In 2012, we were both struggling through grief. I was going through a divorce and really missing my kids when they were with their dad, and Courtenay had just lost a friend to breast cancer. Our book Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs was born out of our desire to reassure our kids that love keeps us all connected forever, even if the people we love aren’t physically with us. So my career as a professional author really just began in my mid-40s. It’s never too late! Along the way I was a teacher, worked in public relations, was a homemaker, and volunteered a lot in my kids’ schools and the community. All of those experiences turned out to be steps on the road that brought me to this moment.
AO: Courtenay, you have illustrated all three of Susan’s books. What is about her writing that helps you bring the characters to life?
Courtenay Fletcher: Well, first off Susan and I don’t work in the traditional way most authors and illustrators work, which is usually the author selling the text to a publisher and then the publisher picking an illustrator to do the art. In that world, author and illustrator almost never meet or even talk. We work more like a creative team, throwing ideas out and working on story flow and ideas for the illustrations. We’re constantly brainstorming and editing and inspiring each other and sometimes disagreeing, but we have so much fun and trust with each other, the work always benefits. We can’t imagine doing it any other way. When I do go off to do the final illustrations, Susan’s lyrical poetry makes it easy. The words just flow off the page and create images in my head. I try to capture the essence of each passage but also add to it so that words and picture complement each other and enhance the storytelling.
AO: Tell us about your inspiration for the look of “the old farmhouse?” Did that change at all when he/she became the “tiny house”?
CF: When I was a kid, I lived in a neat old farmhouse in Escondido, California, with a big porch and a swing and a little barn out back where we kept our ponies. It sat surrounded by orange groves and alfalfa and it made me feel like it was summer all year long. I think that sweet house was floating around in my head, but of course I changed a few details. I made it bright yellow in the book. When Tiny gets salvaged, I retained that color and some of the farmhouse’s structural elements so that we could see where he came from.
AO: When were you introduced to the tiny house movement? Tell us about that meeting.
SB: My partner Kevin Polk is working on a program using tiny living to create affordable housing solutions in Los Angeles. The tiny house movement aligns with his values completely: community spirit, focus on sustainability, creative thinking – all that good stuff! He invited Alexis Stephens and Christian Parsons of Tiny House Expedition to be guest speakers at an event we hosted last spring. When they pulled and I laid eyes on their tiny house, it was love at first sight! Another tiny houser, Dominique Moody of the Nomad, had coincidentally just given Alexis a copy of Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs to stay connected to her own son. So we had that mom-to-mom heart connection right away. Alexis’ and Christian’s adventures across the country and all of the elements in their beautiful little home really sparked my imagination. I especially love the salvaged materials they used that were given new meaning and purpose instead of being tossed into a landfill – it’s such a great metaphor for how we pick up the pieces when life throws us a curve, and find ways to put ourselves back together in a new way. They have countertops that were handcrafted from trees that were knocked down by a North Carolina tornado, and walls made from an old farmhouse – that’s such a beautiful way to honor the past, while creating something new and functional. Someday, I’d love to build a life-size tiny house and take it n a book tour. That would be a fun challenge -Courtenay and I are pretty handy DIY-ers, but the biggest thing I’ve ever built is a little chicken coop.
The duo is currently holding a Kickstarter campaign to help publish their latest book. It goes without saying that it is one all tiny housers will enjoy. Tiny (the house, mind you) is creative and determined: “With some nails and a saw, and a hammer with a claw,” Tiny builds a new life for himself, a new way of living based on sharing and giving. In the end, he realizes something very important:
He could be a home anywhere, because home wasn’t a place.
Home was a feeling, a smile on your face.
It was friendship and singing and a full happy heart.
It was sharing good meals, and where you hung up your art.
Whether you anchored in place, or decided to roam,
What called to your heart could still be called home.
All donations will go towards their overall budget of $11,000, which will allow Courtenay the time she needs to complete the illustrations and book design, and cover the cost of printing 2,000 hardcover, 32-page picture books. Consider helping today and recapture that magical time in your life when even a farmhouse could find his real home!