Once there was a mouse … it was paddling for dear life outside of Robert Villamagna’s art studio, trying to keep its poor little head above water during the flood of 2004.
Once there was another mouse … “who lived in the tall grass beside the Ohio River.” This Mouse is looking for higher ground because the river “rose high and rushing water filled” his house.
And 15 years after that first little mouse swam for his life, Villamagna is illustrating, “Once a Mouse,” a children’s book written by Cheryl Ryan Harshman for a project commissioned by Wheeling 250.
The backstory: Mayor Glenn Elliott traveled to Greenville, South Carolina, for a downtown revitalization conference, explained Jay Frey, chair of the Wheeling 250 celebration, and became aware of a children’s book that sent kids on a sort of scavenger hunt for downtown sites. Frey asked Harshman — “an award-winning” children’s author “right in our backyard,” he noted — to work on a similar project, and the tale of Mouse was set into in motion.
RHYME AND REASON
The Wheeling 250 committee wanted something to allow families with young children to interact with the city. “I thought, we already have those really nice statues downtown in that little park. … Then I started thinking about what they [the mouse, turtle, elephant and heron] have in common, what’s their story, why are they there,” Harshman said.
There really is no “rhyme or reason” for their existence, so she created her own rhyme and reason, and set her story in the Heritage Park & Sculpture Garden, located on Main Street between 11th and 12th streets.
“And while I was thinking about … what connections those animals have, I was also thinking about the history of Wheeling and how do you tell that to a 4-year-old. I chose them as my audience. So, for example, there’s no fort, there’s no fighting or arrows or gunpowder or girls carrying gunpowder. In the story there are no historic clichés,” she said.
“And because I wrote the story for the littlest people in Wheeling, I picked the littlest animal as the main character.”
The other three characters in “Once a Mouse” are Old Mother Turtle, Bobo the Elephant and Great Blue Heron, all of whom, she explained, are analogies for periods in Wheeling’s history.
Old Mother Turtle harkens back to the earliest days when the first inhabitants of Wheeling arrived. She tells Mouse how she’s been laying her eggs beside the river for a long time, watching her children grow up.
“Hello, little Mouse. Do not be afraid. I am Old Mother Turtle. Come sit on my back and rest after your escape. I have been climbing up from that mighty river for a long time.”
Bobo is from the 1930s, a very prosperous time in the city’s history. He tells Mouse the story of when the circus came to town, and the elephants paraded across the Wheeling Suspension Bridge.
“I am Bobo the Elephant. Come closer. Climb up my trunk. You are in need of a new home? Once I was in need of a new home too. You must wonder how an elephant came to live in Wheeling. What a story!”
The Great Blue Heron, who helps Mouse find a new house out of the river’s reach, looks to the future, to the time when the little children hearing the story will be grown up.
“Do you see a house for me,” Mouse asks Great Blue Heron. “I think I do. I think I see one,” Blue answers.
“I was honored to be asked because nobody asks me; they always ask somebody else in my family,” Harshman joked. Her husband is Marc Harshman, West Virginia’s poet laureate.
“It was a huge challenge,” the author and former children’s librarian said. Also an award-winning clay monoprint artist, she currently is the librarian at West Liberty University.
For Villamagna, this is his first stab at illustrating a children’s book. It has been a challenge, too, for the Wheeling artist, who is known for his assemblage, metal, paper and mixed-media collages. For this project, the retired West Liberty professor said he had a “flash of doing them on metal.”
What makes this project a challenge for him, he said, is that the characters must be consistent throughout the entire book. “The mouse that starts out at the beginning has to be the same mouse that is in the middle, and it has to be the same mouse that is at the end. The elephant has to be the same elephant. And so does the heron. And so does the turtle,” he said.
He noticed that in some of the early sketches — in which he used a brown ink given to him by artist and Wheeling native Thomas Wharton — his turtles looked more like cousins than the same turtle.
Villamagna has drawn his characters on old ledger paper, cutting them out, then placing them on plain paper — collage-like, which relates to his artistic style.
“I ripped out a few pages of old hotel registers and Union Pacific billing pages and started to draw them (the characters] on there. Then I started cutting them out. That’s what I’ve been doing — drawing and cutting, drawing and cutting, drawing and cutting. …”
Until he gets it just right.
Harshman thinks of the characters being made on old ledger paper as a metaphor for what Wheeling is doing now — “building on the old stuff,” the revitalization of a historic downtown.
Frey is “really excited” about the book, “because it’s something specifically for kids in preschool through grade one,” he said. “And I think — next to the planned Wheeling history museum — it’s going to be one of our best leave-behinds. And, it’s a coincidence, a very happy one, that [the project] coincides with the 100th anniversary of Children’s Book Week,” which he explained is a national initiative to encourage children to read.
‘The other layer of this is that the Rotary Club of Wheeling has a Rotary Readers Program in the Ohio County elementary schools, and a number of us volunteer to read once a month to kindergarten and first-grade classes. … This is another kind of beneficial thing to encourage children to read. Especially, it’s a Wheeling-centric book — kids get excited about that,” Frey added.
Frey believes the book fits well with the Wheeling 250 vision. “I think it celebrates downtown and what’s going on because the characters are right out of the park on Main Street, and I think that will lift the visibility of that space, and create an audience for both the space and the whimsy around it using that as a storyline.”
Along with inviting children to visit the sculpture garden where they can look for Mouse and his new house, Great Blue, Old Mother Turtle and Bobo, the book suggests traveling around town to find other statues: A fat pig, a rooster, a girl with paper dolls, a great stag, a crane high in her nest and others.
“I think kids … will be really excited that someone in their town wrote and illustrated a book for them about their town. I think there’s a lot rolled up in this little project. You know, if it does nothing but make everybody smile, then that’s a win.”
Bob and Cheryl will talk about their book at Lunch With Books at noon, Tuesday, April 30, at the Ohio County Public Library. Currently in production, the book should be available by mid-June. The first 250 children who ask for the book at the OCPL will receive one free book. Books will be distributed to area elementary schools, can be borrowed from the OCPL, and they will be for sale at the Wheeling Artisan Center shop.
• After nearly 38 years as reporter, bureau chief, lifestyles editor and managing editor at The Times Leader, and design editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, Phyllis Sigal has joined Weelunk as managing editor. She lives in Wheeling with her husband Bruce Wheeler. Along with their two children, son-in-law and two grandchildren, food, wine, travel, theater and music are close to their hearts.