Duluth writer, artist collaborate on a timely and timeless book for children
"A Common Thirst" by Gary Boelhower and Sarah Brokke considers a world short on water and a joint effort to find it.
In “A Common Thirst,” a parable-style telling of age-old rivals, kings and queens, and wisdom from a young voice, water is scarce. It’s not in the towering mountains ruled by the sure-footed goats; it’s not on the plains, where the sheeps’ creeks have gone dry.
And it’s a point of tension author Gary Boelhower, Duluth’s poet laureate, was thinking about 30 years ago when his children were young and continues to think about now, as he considers the world his grandchildren live in.
“My yearning to have a livable world for them is really great,” Boelhower said. “And I think all of that is in danger. Both because of climate and because of the rhetoric of division and disrespect.
“To create a world for those grandkids and maybe their kids to thrive, we need to get back to a deeper sense of civility and realization that we’re all sisters and brothers in this common family and we’ve got to make it work together.”
So he wrote the book.
“A Common Thirst” is a first childrens’ book for both Boelhower and illustrator Sarah Brokke, who combine concise colorful words and slant rhymes with bold seasonal shades, textured landscapes and lovable creatures. The book, published by Beaver’s Pond Press, is available at Zenith Bookstore, the Bookstore at Fitger’s and Amazon.com.
The creators will offer a kid-friendly Zoom meet-up at noon Nov. 20 to talk about their book. It is free and open to the public, but attendees need to register in advance .
The story of a story
Early on, all is well in the land of goats and the land of sheep — but an off-year for precipitation leads to dry land and deep thirst. The separate factions, both with a royal leader and rivals since biblical times, leave their familiar grounds in search of relief. When they finally find something that gurgles and splashes, there is a dispute over whom the water belongs to — a debate easily solved by a young and unselfish youngest kid, who offers in a “weak but clear voice:
“I won’t drink this water unless it is shared by us all. We all have stories and dreams and thirst.”
Boelhower, who teaches theology and religious studies — focused on health care ethic, living, dying and grieving — at the College of St. Scholastica, wrote a variation on this story 30 years ago, he said, and it resonates now.
“I think maybe now more than ever, this notion, this idea of the common good is so critical,” he said. “We have to get beyond our own individual perspective. We have to get beyond our own understanding of what is good for me. We had to enlarge our vision to make wise decisions for the good of the whole.”
Boelhower and Brokke are colleagues at St. Scholastica, where the latter is associate professor of art and director of the art program. He approached her about illustrating the book.
“I’ve loved her artwork for so many years,” he said. “The colors, the sense of connection to nature in all of her work, I really thought she could do this.”
Brokke has long been interested in this type of project. She loves children's books, she said, and was drawn to their illustrations long beyond the years that children typically check out picture books from the library.
For her part of the book, she drew on the animals and vistas from time spent in Ireland two years ago — in addition to the neighborhood goats she sees now. She considered the “camera angle” of her perspective, the phases of the moon, changes in a tree, and the warming color palate of the Superior Hiking Trail. She worked in colored pencil to offer accessibility — the idea that kids could do this themselves.
She wanted something that agreed with readers and those who are read to.
“I love this idea that there is this visual form of communication tied to the narrative that can appeal to multiple ages at the same time,” she said.
They had an audience even before the project came to fruition. Their Kickstarter campaign overshot its $15,000 goal, with more than 220 backers.
A true collaboration
The past week, the duo has had a few Zoom launches to meet with friends, fans and other readers. Pre-ordered book deliveries to contributors have landed on porches. The project took about 18 months, Boelhower said, and was a lesson in a different style of writing.
“I learned that a children’s book has to get to the essence of the story very quickly,” he said. “So I had to take out anything that was extraneous, or close to icing. That was a real process for me.”
For Brokke, work that she initially thought of as Boelhower’s project shifted into a true collaboration. They talked about the layout and the moods, then Brokke, led by the story, turned doodles into fully-formed pages. She works with others in community mural projects, but her paintings are typically created alone.
"Collaborating challenges you in a powerful way," she said.
Both were satisfied to get ahold of finished copies of the book. Brokke described it as, unintentionally, an artifact of the COVID-19 quarantine, which makes the physicality of the product more impactful, she said. Plus:
“I think the message of this story is something that we need more of in the world,” she said.