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It all started with Beulah the beautiful basset hound, a dog who needs stilts to keep her belly out of the snow. Long-time friends Niki LeClair and Janet Murphy love to get together to hike and cross-country ski in the great outdoors to inspire one another. It was on one of those hikes that Murphy was first introduced to Beulah. Murphy was taking a short story class and the friends got to talking. “Niki said she wrote a poem as a little girl and could recite it by heart,” says Murphy. “So, she shared Beulah with me and I started cracking up envisioning this basset hound on stilts.” That poem sparked an idea. “Janet looked at me and said ‘We have to write a kid’s book!’” says LeClair.
With one story down, the pair set out to tell other critter stories. The book features four stories, two written by LeClair as a child and two new ones. “I Want A Horse” is a catchy song written by LeClair at age seven about her Palomino horse. When Murphy first heard the Palomino song she said it was stuck in her head for days. “Beulah the Beautiful Basset Hound” is the second story in the book, written by LeClair at the age of 10. The final two stories, “Sandhill Cranes” and “Feisty Fox,” are new creations inspired by the critters living around LeClair’s home.
“I wasn’t sure if I still had anything in me that was poetic,” says LeClair. She started keeping a journal and jotting down ideas as they came. “I would send them off to Janet and she would say ‘that sounds great!’ so I would continue to pursue it.”
With the stories written, Murphy, a lifelong artist, brought the characters to life in watercolor. Most of the illustrations where inspired by LeClair’s photographs. For the images of a young Niki and her Palomino, Murphy used a photo from LeClair’s childhood. “The photo is about two inches tall and in black and white,” says Murphy, “so I added color and gave her cowboy boots, but this is the actual outfit she was wearing.” When it came to the horse, they wanted to match the little girl’s curls to the horse’s mane. “We worked really hard on the horse to get the swirls and overlays and color of the mane just right,” says Murphy.
Similarly, the cranes were inspired by photos taken right outside of LeClair’s home. “Niki and I were walking down the road to her house and I whispered at her to run back and get her camera,” says Murphy. She then used those photos to do a sketch of the neck from one and the wing from another and the tail from a different photo. “Then we would bring it all together and work side-by-side on each and every illustration until we both agreed on all of the details,” says Murphy.
The entire writing, illustrating and publishing process took two years. LeClair and Murphy were involved in all stages of the book’s production, including decisions about the final font choice and title. “I was adamant about all lowercase lettering,” says LeClair. “Our printing company pushed back on that and I reminded them that E.E. Cummings never used a capital letter and they couldn’t argue with that.” The title is also unique. “Critter” is inspired by a close friend who always referred to the animals around her home as critters. Originally two words, critterstory evolved into one word and became a way to honor the memory of the friend who inspired them.
The success of the book is due to both LeClair and Murphy’s dedication to every detail and to its universal appeal. “Everyone has their own critter story,” says LeClair. From young children to LeClair’s 94-year-old neighbor, the book is a hit with all ages. “We like to say this book is for ages one to 101,” says LeClair.
They are now on their second printing of critterstory and working on a second book, critterstory 2. The second book will tell the story of Bobe and Bobette, two great horned owls that live near LeClair’s home, “Coyotes on the Run,” “The Grand Elk” and “Northbound Snow Geese.”
While LeClair and Murphy have their own favorite characters and stories, they agree that the best part about creating critterstory was getting to work together on the project. “We inspire each other so much,” says Murphy. “To get out in nature and share what you love and inspire each other…that is the beauty of friendship.”
Pick up your copy of critterstory at Barn Owl Books, May Hardware, Razzle Dazzle and Wild Onion in McCall or visit critterstory.com.