Vermont children’s book aims to tear down walls

Jaimie Scanlon, Ellen Tumavicus

Brattleboro writer Jaimie Scanlon and illustrator Ellen Tumavicus have created the new children’s book “Ralph Flies the Coop: A Tail of Transformation,” a 36-page hardcover published by Vermont’s Green Writers Press. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Brattleboro writer Jaimie Scanlon has traveled the Earth as a language teacher, but her new children’s book of worldly wordplay was inspired by a rooster crowing cock-a-doodle-doo.

“Around the globe, we as human beings express that differently,” she says, “but it’s not something everybody thinks about.”

Sound cockamamie? Not for Scanlon, who began researching the bird’s early-morning call in Spanish (quiquiriquí) and Swahili (kokoriko), nor for artist Ellen Tumavicus, who was creating the book’s illustration of a Paris café when she learned of last year’s terrorist attacks on the French city.

“Watching the news,” Tumavicus says, “we started to realize how timely this book was.”

The result, “Ralph Flies the Coop: A Tail of Transformation” by Vermont’s Green Writers Press, is simultaneously a children’s story about a fenced-in farm and an adult call for inclusion at a time of divisive debate over immigration.

“I had the idea for this while working in Japan,” Scanlon recalls. “I was teaching a group of kindergartners the sounds that animals make in English. They thought it was hysterical and wanted to teach me the sounds in Japanese.”

Tumavicus, for her part, was also traveling the world, having met Scanlon when they were students 20 years ago before heading in separate directions, not knowing they’d return to New England and reunite on the book project.

“You could say all paths had been leading us to this place,” Scanlon says.

The 36-page hardcover opens with Ralph Rooster acting proud as a peacock — so much so, “Ralph learned that big trouble was brewing. The ducks had gone quackers. The cows were all mooing. And the pigs were disgruntled about the same thing, snorting, ‘That rooster acts like he’s fit to be king!’”

His feathers ruffled, the title character sets off on a horizon-expanding journey. He stops in Brazil, where his Portuguese peers say “cucurucu.” And China, where Mandarin cousins say “wo wo wo.” And Egypt, where Arabic birds cry “kookookookoo.”

“We wanted to capture the fun of animal sounds to introduce the concept of language learning,” Scanlon says.

Then came news of global terror attacks, followed by month upon polarizing month of U.S. presidential politics.

“As events started happening, we realized Ralph has a deeper message,” says Tumavicus, a teacher at Putney Central School. “In a lot of ways he learns how to be a global citizen.”

Or as the book concludes: “And from that morning on, he greeted each day, crowing ‘cock-a-doodle-doo!” in a new worldly way.”

The authors are promoting their work through a Facebook page (2017 is the Chinese Year of the Rooster, they note) and proposing ways to share it in places such as Rutland, where residents are divided over plans to host 100 Syrian refugees.

Says Scanlon: “We want to encourage children to be curious and open and accepting of differences. We’re all here and connected on this shared planet.”

And Tumavicus: “What can others teach us and what can we teach them? In this political climate, it’s a more important book than we thought.”

Kevin O'Connor

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