I visited my first school of 2008 yesterday. For my first school of the year, I always try to visit someplace local, in this case a K-8 school in a small logging town near where I live. The school was a delightful experience. The librarian had prepared the kids well and they asked wonderful questions after each presentation. The visit, though, also reminded me of a lesson I’ve learned rather late in my career—the value of local stories.
For most of my writing life, I’ve written about global and exotic topics, topics such as tropical rain forests, the problem of invasive species, animal adaptations, and more recently, famous historical figures. A few years ago, however, I landed the contract to write B is for Big Sky Country: A Montana Alphabet, my state’s entry in Sleeping Bear Press’s fifty-state series of alphabet books. My entry for the letter ‘S’ in that book led to a second book, Shep—Our Most Loyal Dog.
Shep is a true story of a working sheep dog that lived outside the town of Fort Benton, Montana in the 1930s. At one point, his master fell ill and died, and Shep watched as they loaded the coffin onto a train and shipped it back east for burial. For the next five and a half years, Shep met every passenger train that came into the Fort Benton station, waiting for his master to return. Along the way, Shep made new friends and became famous through newspaper and magazine articles published all around the world.
I felt very fortunate to have discovered Shep’s story—and that no one else had written a children’s picture book about him. What I didn’t realize with both B is for Big Sky Country and Shep, however, is what they would do for my career. Even with its local focus, B is for Big Sky Country has become my third bestselling book out of the fifty or so I’ve had published. Shep is off to a slightly slower start, except here in Montana, where it is by far my most popular title.
But the benefits of these local books are not limited to book sales. Their popularity immediately multiplied the number of school visits I get in and around Montana. Shep is up for the state’s readers choice award this year. Perhaps most importantly, I feel like I’ve made a contribution to the awareness and knowledge kids have about their state and its history and culture. Everywhere I go, the books stimulate lively conversations about peoples’ own histories and interests, and I like to think the books have been a catalyst for bringing people together in the state, even in small ways.
All of this points to a valuable lesson: don’t ignore local and regional topics in your writing. Even if the stories are published by smaller presses, a writer can reap significant benefits from them, both professionally and personally. I know I’ve got my ears and eyes wide open, looking for the next Montana story that heads my way.