Iowa City author Jacqueline Briggs Martin and her friend Iowa City illustrator Claudia McGehee are both nature enthusiasts. It seems most fitting, then, that the creative duo teamed up to put together a lovely and inspiring new children’s picture book called “Creekfinding: A True Story.”
Set in the Driftless region of northeast Iowa, “Creekfinding” tells the story of a man who with the help of his friends (and some big trucks) works to uncover and reclaim a “lost” creek that had been filled in and buried under his farm. With bulldozers and excavators carving the curves and runs, the creek slowly comes to life — with dragonflies, leopard frogs, bluebirds and herons — and eventually, the surprising bright orange brook trout that are native to the Driftless area.
Indeed a true story, the man this book is based on, Michael Osterholm, grew up in the Driftless region of Iowa and now works as a professor at the University of Minnesota. Martin said she learned of his efforts when reading a Gazette article back in 2011 and knew right away that she wanted to tell the story.
“This book is important to me because it’s a story of restoring a damaged piece of our environment, a story of helping the earth to heal itself,” Briggs Martin said. “It’s also important because Mike’s work shows the difference one determined person can make.”
Briggs Martin said it was an added bonus that she got to work with her friend and colleague for the illustrations.
“I had been wanting to do a book with Claudia because I love her work so much,” Briggs Martin said. “‘Creekfinding’ was an unusual project in that Jackie shared her first enthusiastic discovery of creek restorer Mike Osterholm’s true story very early on with me, while she was still writing it,” added McGehee. “I was honored that Jackie envisioned my illustrations with her words, and it worked out when the manuscript was proposed and my illustration style suggested, that the University of Minnesota agreed and contracted us both. We were both thrilled.”
She said their camaraderie throughout the process was most rewarding.
“Traditionally author and illustrator don’t connect during the creation of a picture book, but we live close by, and trusted each other with early feedback,” McGehee said. “We got together several times to look over the book at certain ‘mile-markers’ like the finish of early sketches and the finish of final sketches. Illustrating can be lonely work and I looked forward to Jackie coming over, spreading the pages out over the dining room table, talking over the progress of the story, and getting the flow just right with her. And it’s just a solid feeling knowing a story has come forth as a collaborative effort.”
Plenty of research was involved in both the writing and illustrating of the story as well.
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“I do a lot of research and my first drafts include a lot of that research,” Briggs Martin said. “At one time it was about 1,200 words but the final draft is more like 400 words. I think of the process as something like sculpting. I have a lot of material and have to sculpt away the unnecessary parts to get to the heart of the story.”
“And I always love the research involved in illustrating new subjects,” added McGehee. “In ‘Creekfinding,’ Jackie has a few lines about trout reproduction and we decided a numbered, step-by-step was the best approach illustratively. It’s not every day one is asked to draw this!”
Making the story come together was not without its challenges the creators added.
“I loved finally getting the phrase ‘a creek is more than water,’” Briggs Martin said. “I had tried for months to figure out how to characterize an ecosystem.”
“The big machines — the excavators and dump trucks — are really the major stars of the story, but they made me nervous to draw because I am much more confident at illustrating things in the natural world,” added McGehee. “In the end, I think I managed to give them the energy and movement they needed. And by now, I’m glad to report that the book has been vetted and given the ‘thumbs up’ by my 2-year-old nephew, who is an expert on these construction machines.”
Briggs Martin said different readers will appreciate different aspects of the story.
“Some readers will enjoy the big machines that helped restore the creek and some will enjoy Claudia’s illustrations of brook trout,” she said. “What I most enjoy is that all the creatures in the ecosystem came back, not just the trout, which were added to the creek, but the frogs, bugs, birds and small mammals.”
McGehee agreed. “Creekfinding is a great story about following your dreams. I especially like that this dream involves the restoration and appreciation of the natural world, as that is where my heart is, too. I hope children will read and look and get excited about their outdoor world in general.”
“And I love that the words tell a story of following a curiosity, a love of nature and hard work to a satisfying and happy conclusion. I hope that readers enjoy the colors and textures of the pictures that mimic the same sentiments.
The author-illustrator duo will talk about the book, read the story, and do some art activities at an event Saturday at Next Page Books in Cedar Rapids. Working in collaboration with Trees Forever and the Indian Creek Nature Center, McGehee said the event will be fun for kids of all ages.
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“We are planning a lively reading with a creek mural back drop, followed by a couple of ‘fishy’ art activities,” McGehee said.
Author Jacqueline Briggs Martin and illustrator Claudia McGehee will read from their book “Creekfinding”
CEDAR RAPIDS: 10 a.m. April 1 at Next Page Books, 1103 Third St. SE; there will also be a kids’ art activity and other activities from Trees Forever; free
MOUNT VERNON: 3 p.m. April 15 at The Perfect Blend, 224 First St. SW