BRATTLEBORO—Ralph the Rooster, the main character of Jaimie Scanlon and Ellen Tumavicus’s new book, “Ralph Flies the Coop,” starts out as a somewhat lazy, bombastic, clueless character.
But, after overhearing his barnyard pals, including a pair of disgruntled pigs, complain about him over their morning coffee and pastries, Ralph decides to hitch a ride on a goose and fly the coop.
Although Ralph is nervous about leaving the familiarity of the farm, he soon finds himself enjoying his trip around the world on the back of Goose.
Throughout his travels, he meets many fowl friends and learns new things like acceptance — and how to translate “cock-a-doodle-doo” into many languages.
“I think ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ is the funniest animal sound in the English language,” Scanlon mused.
“Ralph Flies the Coop” is Scanlon and Tumavicus’s first book — the former wrote the story and the latter illustrated. Both women live within a few blocks of one another in Brattleboro.
A chance encounter
Although they worked together in a Northampton, Massachusetts, restaurant in the early 1990s, their friendship took a 20-year hiatus until they both found themselves living in Brattleboro.
Then they reconnected after a chance encounter in the grocery store, and Scanlon, who had long wanted to write a children’s book, saw an opportunity.
“About six years ago, I said to Ellen, ‘I see your art around town, and I have this children’s book,’” that needed an illustrator, Scanlon said.
“Ellen’s art is colorful, with multi-cultural scenes,” Scanlon said. “There’s such diversity. I thought, ‘That’s just perfect for this story I’d been thinking about for about 15 years.’"
But at first, Tumavicus turned her down. “I had too much going on,” she said.
So the book project was put off.
“I shelved it when Ellen said she was too busy,” Scanlon said, adding, “I couldn’t imagine doing this with someone else’s art. I figured, she’ll come around. And she did!"
At the end of last summer, just before Tumavicus returned to her job at the Putney Central School teaching art, she asked Scanlon, “Are you still thinking about that rooster book?”
“My job is intense, but I do my best teaching when I have my own project,” Tumavicus said.
She also had another motivation for agreeing to work on the book.
“My late sister, Connie, wasn’t one to give advice, but before she died she said to me, ‘Ellen, you need to follow through.’ It’s a good lesson in ‘life is short,’” Tumavicus said.
Collaboration at the café
Another serendipitous source for inspiration came in the form of a new café near both women’s homes.
As Scanlon and Tumavicus were planning their first meeting to discuss the book, Scanlon called her friend and said, “Ellen, you wouldn’t believe it! There’s a new place called The Restless Rooster, and they have a world map, just like in the book!”
The two met often at The Restless Rooster to plan and work on the book, which took just under a year to complete.
To celebrate the book’s launch on Sept. 6, they are having the book release party at the Elliot Street restaurant. They promise music and food from the countries Ralph visits in the book, and plenty of crowing.
“I’m sure there’ll be some cock-a-doodle-doo-ing in various languages,” at the party, Tumavicus said.
This was the first project of its kind for both of them. Although Tumavicus is an artist and an art teacher, she said, “I’d never illustrated someone else’s words."
She said the page where Ralph and Goose visit Japan was one of the most challenging she had painted. In it, the fowl pair visit Tokyo, and are portrayed walking across a street adorned with multiple layers of signs, all in Japanese.
“Jaimie’s husband is Japanese. He edited the characters on the signs. Some signs in Japan say things you wouldn’t want in a kids’ book,” Tumavicus said.
A clever plan
Last October, although the pair had barely a rough draft for the book — “a full text, some ideas, and two acrylic paintings,” they said — they had a plan: “We were going to ambush Dede Cummings at her table at the Brattleboro Literary Fest!” said Scanlon.
But, Cummings, the publisher and managing editor of the Brattleboro-based publishing house, Green Writers Press, wasn’t at the table, Scanlon said. No matter. The duo contacted her and arranged for a meeting upon her return.
Both women said working with Green Writers Press allowed them to publish the book the way they wanted to publish it: together.
“This is an atypical collaboration between a writer and an artist,” Scanlon said, noting most children’s books are typically assigned an illustrator by the publisher, with no input from the author.
“We’re lucky to have the flexibility to make it what we want it to be,” Scanlon said. Tumavicus agreed, adding, “the collaboration was key to the speed of the project.”
One of the duo’s goals for the book is to provide exposure to other cultures to children who have no opportunity to travel.
Tumavicus said she and Scanlon have a little bit of Ralph in them. “We often go away [to other countries] to teach, and sometimes I find myself wanting to live elsewhere, but then I always come back. There’s a strong community here,” she said.
New dances, new friends
Ralph learns new dances and meets new friends, and his persona changes, Tumavicus said, noting he goes from an amorphous rooster to a fabulous rooster, just by “going way out of his comfort zone.”
“Traveling opens your perspective, it makes you appreciate home. You bring those new pieces of yourself home with you,” she said, pointing out how in the book, the further Ralph travels, the more ornate and colorful his feathers get.
He starts out as a rooster mostly dressed in blues, greens, and purples. By the time he comes back to the farm, his wings are rainbow-hued and his tail feathers have patterns such as palm trees, pyramids, and polka dots from every place he’s been.
“We want to bring to the young reader the idea that you don’t have to be afraid of different kids — those with a different language or religion — and to be curious, because there are too many negative images out there about difference,” Tumavicus said.
“The terror attack on Paris happened when we were making this book,” Scanlon said, and “we felt the sense of urgency of capturing the idea of interacting with other cultures, and understanding different people, and if kids can understand the value of reaching across cultural barriers, it can change the future.”
Speaking from the heart
“We heard so much political rhetoric during the book’s creation,” she said, and the pair wanted to impress upon young readers that “people who speak other languages and live in other places can be friends.”
To illustrate, Tumavicus quoted Nelson Mandela: “Speak to a man in a language he understands, and it goes to his head. Speak to him in his language, and it goes to his heart.”
“Take the risk of trying to speak a new language,” she said, “even if you sound silly.”
“With all the Islamophobia out there, we wanted to include a Middle Eastern Muslim in the book’s imagery,” Scanlon said, noting the book contains positive cultural images, a restorative justice model, and, at the end of the book, points of reference for teachers to use in their curricula.
“The other takeaway is emotional intelligence,” Tumavicus said, explaining that Ralph is clueless about how his behavior affects others in the beginning of the book.
When he overhears his friends griping about him, instead of “escalating the drama,” she said, “he sat and reflected, like Rodin’s ‘The Thinker.’ He considered his choices.”
“How to problem-solve and get along,” Scanlon added.