At the age of 60, after seven years of writing, and at least 30 drafts of the story, my first picture book was published this summer—Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story. (Sleeping Bear Press; Ages 5-9.) I find it fitting that Gwen, the nature artist, enjoyed a long career—working into her 90’s in her shop in the woods.
I’ve saved ideas for books for years, like a squirrel hoarding acorns for winter. I thought I’d share a little back story here, as this one surprised me.
While growing up in Minnesota in the 1970’s, my friends and I embraced the new environmental movement as teens by energetically smashing glass at the recycling truck and gifting each other with Gwen Frostic’s gorgeous nature themed greeting cards. Awareness of air and water pollution was rising and we dreamed of finding our own pristine corner of the woods one day.
Fast forward 45 years–I was living in Ann Arbor, Michigan when like a hawk spying a tiny mouse, I spotted a brochure up north about Gwen’s shop and studio. It’s a fairy-like spot in the forest near the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore on Lake Michigan. (Are you noting my nature similes yet?)
Gwen died in 2001, but happily Gwen’s shop remains open under new owners. Gwen’s beautiful nature inspired cards made from linoleum blocks carved by her hardworking hands. Her nephew Bill Frostic continues to operate her Heidelberg printing presses as he has for more than fifty years.
My initial research revealed what a pioneering woman Gwen was in her era–a strong role model for young girls. Gwen Frostic lived with physical challenges caused by an unknown childhood illness, perhaps polio, but it was never diagnosed. Yet Gwen never believed she was handicapped. It frustrated her that others did—that they noticed mainly how she was different and made judgments about her.
Gwen was no scared chipmunk hiding under the woodpile. She built a successful business around her art and consistently challenged stereotypes of disability and also of women. In the later years of her amazing life she tackled the low expectations of old age. “Just because a person is older doesn’t mean they don’t have new ideas,” she said.
Fairly late in her life Gwen became both rich and famous—all due to her own efforts. She wrote and illustrated 22 stunning books and sold her greeting cards via mail order around the world.
An astute business woman, Gwen donated 13 million dollars to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. The college’s art school is now named the “Gwen Frostic School of Art.” Her generous bequest funds scholarships, awards and facilities benefiting students in art, creative writing and environmental studies.
My research also revealed the depth of the environmental challenges America faced in the 1960’s and ‘70’s.The Cuyahoga River that flows into Lake Erie famously burned in 1969 and it regularly emptied its oily sludge into the Great Lake. But it was not the only polluted waterway in America. River fires and massive fish kills were common occurrences then.
Gwen never called herself an environmentalist, but she was one of many who raised the profile of the environmental movement so new back then. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was widely credited with igniting the movement in 1962. Like Rachel, Gwen believed people would protect only what they noticed and appreciated.
People who valued nature pushed Congress for change. The Clean Water Act passed in 1972 and made a vast difference to water quality, and the plants and wildlife dependent upon it. Something for us all to recall with today’s environmental challenges. People have accomplished great things before.
I revised my story of Gwen’s life at least 20 times—I carefully carved away words like Gwen chipped away at her linoleum printing blocks. I finessed all 32 pages with feedback from fellow writers and the help of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators).
As a picture book biography for ages 6-9, it is all true, but written in a lyrical read-a-loud format. I recall having a hard time letting go of my initial beginning, but finally had to “kill my darling” as they say.
An early draft of my beginning that you won’t see in the book—
In 1906, a small child with a fierce fever often did not survive. On Christmas Eve in Croswell, Michigan the worries loomed large. But this tiny girl, Sara Gwendolen Frostic, would never do just what folks expected. This girl had toughness and spirit, and a talent to share. Live she did—for a very long time.
The fever that raged through Gwen’s body had changed it forever. Mama and Papa knew coddling their curly-haired girl wouldn’t help. They had a hunch about hard work, along with a little luck. And Mama possessed a talent for finding lucky four-leafed clovers by the bunch.
My manuscript caught the eye of an editor at Sleeping Bear Press when I paid for her critique through the online Kidlit College. SBP makes beautiful books and they’re located in Michigan so I’d hoped they’d be aware of Gwen’s work. But I had no way of knowing the editor had a tiny tattoo of Gwen’s art! (Talk about luck!)
A few more tweaks and a book contract followed the talented editor’s suggestions. What a thrill when Sleeping Bear Press selected the amazing Eileen Ryan Ewen as illustrator. Her pictures evoke the magic of nature and skillfully show Gwen Frostic aging over her long life.
Our book debuted in July 2018, along with a billboard celebrating the book and the 20th anniversary of Sleeping Bear Press. My story, Gwen’s story, is now in beautiful book form.
If you are interested in purchasing* Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story, you can find it in all the usual places. Or perhaps you’d consider asking a local bookstore or library to order it.
*In appreciation for spreading the word about the need for positive images of aging in books for kids I’m offering to send you a signed bookplate via regular mail if you’ve purchased my book. (Just message me through my contact page here at the website.) Thank you and Happy Holidays!
View a brief book trailer on YouTube.
Illustrations by Eileen Ryan Ewen. Photographs by Lindsey McDivitt.