Working Together in Support of Literacy

"We started our Famous Faces children's literacy program to help create alove of reading in the community. When wetook the idea to the Barnes & Noble in Madison,we were met with a very warm response from Sherry Klinkner, the communityrelations manager. We had a meeting and in an hour ortwo figured out how Famous Faces was going to happen, drew up a list oflocal celebrities, and went to work. We had everybody from the Mayor to apopular local weatherman. Iknow that B&N sometimes gets a bad rap for being a heartlesschain, but in at least this one particular situation, nothing could befurther from the truth."


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A Family that Reads and Writes Together

Family publishing project speaks directly to children
With all the video games, cartoons, computers and DVD's pervading the average American household, how can parents keep their kids interested in reading? Might children be more prone to read if they were given books they can relate to? How do kids respond to books written and illustrated by other children?

This concept was put to the test by John Galligan and his family when they wrote and illustrated "Oh Brother," Said the Mother of Tony Pepperoni, about a kid who gets fed up with run-of-the-mill dinners and takes matters into his own hands.

"Adults take children's literature very seriously, and as a result, it has become highly sophisticated," says Galligan, a creative writing teacher in Madison, Wisconsin. "Children tend to get closed off. This book speaks to them directly because it was co-written by their peers. The imperfections are what make this book unique. The bottom line in FUN!"

John Galligan and Jinko Naganuma have worked hard to expose their children to different ideas. Joe, 8, and Sam, 5 are world-travelers, speak both English and Japanese, and have eaten exotic foods like raw horsemeat, candied grasshoppers and pickled quail eggs. So it comes as no surprise that the family began throwing around ideas and rhymes about crazy food concoctions such as "nectarines with jellybeans" and "fried eggs with frog legs."

"It all began as a family project," explains Galligan. "Specifically, the book started out as a pizza. We were all in the kitchen cooking supper together one night when a pizza dough suddenly became the face of a character we ended up calling Tony Pepperoni. Before long, we were rhyming all kinds of things with food, and soon enough we had a story going about a boy who would only eat foods that rhymed."

For some time, the family kicked the idea around in casual conversations, until finally a full story emerged and they decided to make a book out of it. "Our original plan was to 'self-publish' on the smallest and most independent level possible. Our intention was to draw the book in pencil, paste in the words from the word processor, photocopy and staple, and send Tony Pepperoni out to family and friends as a holiday gift. We did this, and got a great deal of satisfaction from the process. Cousins, nephews, classmates, and parents all loved it. But as far as we knew, this was the end of the road for Tony Pepperoni."

After the holidays, Galligan and his sons went to a Barnes & Noble story hour sponsored by the publisher of his novel, Red Sky, Red Dragonfly. Publishers Ben LeRoy and Blake Stewart of Diversity Incorporated had for some time been bringing local celebrities into the bookstore on Saturday mornings to read to children, and Galligan wanted to support them and see what the event was all about.

"We lingered afterwards to talk to Ben and Blake, and I mentioned that we had done this family book and that the whole family had taken turns illustrating it. They asked me what it was about, and I happened to remember the story word-for-word, and as I began to spin out the rhyming story of "Oh, Brother," Said the Mother of Tony Pepperoni, I was surprised to see Ben and Blake take a strong interest in it."

"When John actually showed me a copy of the book a few weeks later, a light bulb went off over my head," confirms Ben LeRoy. "Although we had no previous experience with children's books in a publishing sense, we had plenty of experience with them from a reader's point of view. Our company has taken an active stance on being an advocate for children's literacy. We think that instilling a love of reading, writing, and consequently, learning in general, is perhaps the biggest responsibility the general population should have for kids."

John Galligan wasn't really sure if LeRoy was serious or not about wanting to publish the book. He hadn't set out to do a children's book, hadn't studied about effective ways of communicating stories to children, hadn't tried for any particular standard page length.

"Who needs theory on connecting to children when children are doing the creating?" asks LeRoy. "What was in front of me was a black and white collection of drawings, the text pasted over the top in a variety of fonts. What was in my head was a full color version, hardcover, something that a new generation of mothers and fathers could read to their children and laugh about, and read together. What was in my head was an idea to help instill a love of reading, writing, and even drawing in kids, in whole families"

"It stands to reason that kids would know what kids would want. The shared experience for the family is something that we thought everybody would want. And now here we are, with a brand new children's book created by a whole family for the whole family."

Being aware of the expense of publishing picture books, Galligan was impressed and heartened by LeRoy's affection for the book and the energy and courage Diversity Incorporated put into bringing it out. "One of the most significant elements of this story is the level of trust and respect I have for Ben and Blake," says Galligan. "I was able to build and strong and comfortable personal relationship with them while working on the publication of my novel, and to me, that relationship is worth more than whatever prestige and perhaps money I might be giving up by working with a small, independent publisher."

"I was very concerned about how the publication of Tony Pepperoni would affect my family. But because of my personal relationship, and because I had been given such a strong, inside role in my first experience, I knew I could trust Diversity Incorporated to handle the project in a healthy way for my family."

"At this point, I wouldn't trade anything for the experience of working so closely with my publisher. Maybe I'm kidding myself, but I feel like I have some control. I certainly have access, and I always know what's going on. This gives me a level of comfort and confidence that I believe I would miss if working with a large publishing house."

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"Oh, Brother," Said the Mother of Tony Pepperoni
Written and illustrated by the Naganuma-Galligan Family
Published by James Street Press, a division of Diversity Incorporated
Publication date: March 2003
Hardcover; 24 pages; $16.95
ISBN: 0-9704098-8-5

* * * * *

John Galligan on Ben LeRoy, Blake Stewart, and Diversity Incorporated:

A Story
"Several years ago, one of my good writer friends had his first novel accepted by a major publishing house. The book was highly praised in the New York Times Review of Books. But before its release, the editor responsible quit and went to work for a rival publisher. My friend's book literally died on the vine, and there was nothing he could do about it. His publisher printed a small run, zeroed out the promotion budget, and put the books in a warehouse. Since then, my friend has had trouble selling a second book because his first "didn't sell."

This may be a worst-case scenario, but it's always been in the back of my mind as I considered the risks of working with a small, independent publisher. Sure, I'm gambling that my books may fail to gain all the respect and attention I might hope for. But I also feel I'm protected against the kind of empty and impersonal failure my friend was subjected to. With my publisher, know who I'm working with, I see first-hand their commitment to my project, and I can trust that they are doing everything within their resources to support my work. If my publisher can work the magic of connecting me with readers, I'm happy.

An Observation
I'm always overwhelmed when I walk into a big bookstore like Barnes and Noble. So damn many books! And yet that's only a small fraction of the books out there vying for space on the shelves. What I always think is that you have to be a real tiger to fight your way in here and occupy some space. Ben LeRoy of Diversity Incorporated is that tiger. The man is fiercely committed to the success of the projects he takes on. The other thing I think is that you have to be patient, and Ben's partner, Blake Stewart, is nothing if not the kind of guy who, once he believes in something, calmly and patiently goes about making sure it happens. The size (small) and independence (total) of their company both requires and rewards these qualities, and writers could do a lot worse than publish under these conditions.

A Strategy
I like the way Diversity Incorporated goes about the business of getting noticed. They don't sulk about under the pretense of being small because their tastes are so exquisite. Nor do they pursue loud, frivolous projects in the single-minded hope of hitting the "big time." Instead, their approach is very personal, and based on the act of making connections-with writers, other publishers, and especially with the reading/writing public through their participation and sponsorship of writers' groups and children's literacy programs. This approach really connects with me because I think it knits together the writer, the book, and the reader/community. I think when you proceed this way you are focusing on being grounded and integrated rather than merely profitable-and I'm confident that the necessary income will follow. Ben LeRoy on John Galligan, Family, and Literacy:

Who's Mentoring Whom?
"I have a very circular relationship with John Galligan and by extension, his family. I took a leave from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for a few semesters, and moved back to Madison where I took a creative writing class that John was teaching back in 1996, not long after his son Joe was born. I remembered that John was working on a novel, and had connections to the writing world. He brought in a published author to discuss the craft of writing, and I was impressed. He also had many positive things to say about my own writing. John's support helped me believe that I could really be a writer (although, I'm not sure what exactly that means, financially or socially), and after I was done with his class, I often wondered how he was doing with his book."

"In the fall of 2000 I had to take one more class to get my degree (double major English and Philosophy B.A.), and was able to take it at the college John teaches at. By then I had self-published a collection of short stories with Diversity Incorporated, and I dropped a copy off with him, proud author that I was. We talked about what Diversity was doing, he talked about his wife and his two kids, and he mentioned that he had a novel that he had finished, and he wondered if I would take a look at it. I did. So did everybody in the office at the time, and we were all excited by it. We published Red Sky, Red Dragonfly in the fall of 2001. John spent many hours in our office, on the road with us at trade shows, learning what he could from us, teaching us what he could. It's always been a mutually beneficial relationship."

Literacy Movement in Madison
"Literacy should be a flagship issue for any publisher. Without readers, books aren't good for much but keeping an unbalanced table leg from shifting. We see literacy/advocacy of writing, as an issue that has two main fronts. First you have to create readers, and then you have to encourage the writer. Madison, as a city, has a reputation as being a town hot for debate and good conversation. I think it follows that being an informed debater comes from absorbing information, and books are a wonderful source of information."

"Last year we were fortunate to have the first annual Wisconsin Book Festival in Madison which brought in nationally well known authors to discuss their best-selling books. A few of the local publishers in Madison (including us) organized a coinciding event that brought together thirty local and regional authors to discuss books, sign books, talk books, etc. Barnes & Noble gave us the space and the time. We wanted to take some of the mystery out of publishing, make it less intimidating by inviting people to come and see us, get the face to face recognition that's nearly impossible for a larger publisher. We were swamped by people, all sorts of books, some authors were there to speak shop, some just wanted to know how the process worked. I stayed for an extra hour or two trying to get every question answered -- I'm very passionate about publishing and reading and I could talk about it all day to anybody who wanted to listen."

"I would encourage authors and publishers to approach Barnes & Noble or any other chain or independent store and explain what you offer, and be prepared to work to make it happen. No bookstore is a media service. You have to send out postcards, email people, tell people in the street. Drive people to the store. If you want a bookstore to take you seriously, make them. Show that you are serious and dedicated and they won't be able to see you any other way."

Love of Reading Starts Early
"I know that my love of reading comes as a direct result of sitting on my father's lap and reading through the entire Hardy Boys series. I couldn't get enough of the stories. I have a great relationship with my father. As a published author, and as a publisher, I have a great relationship with the written word. I get excited to read things that come in, and it can all be traced back to reading with my family. I was 10 years younger than my closest brother, and so I was spoiled by the whole family. Everybody would read to me, and everybody would sit down and let me read to them. It's a beautiful shared experience. As a 26 year-old uncle now, I get so excited when I hear my niece reading, when I see the joy of discovery and conquering in her eyes as she sounds out a story. It's a scene played out in living rooms from one side of the globe to the other."

"What's great about John and his family is that they didn't stop with reading. The love of books bubbled over into creating, "Oh, Brother!" said the Mother of Tony Pepperoni. Anybody who spends an hour with the Naganuma-Galligan family can just sense how much fun the family must have together. sat down on the floor to play with Sam and Joe a few weeks back and I was marveling at how articulate they were. I have no doubt that comes from the way their parents are raising them."