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Retired couple and high school student work on children's book together

When Daniel Bradford decided to publish his children's story, he knew it needed more to bring his words to life. Rather than hiring an established illustrator, however, the Sturgeon Lake resident decided to hold a competition for area high school...

collaborating on a children's book
Daniel Bradford (from left), Sherry Wojtaszek and Saydee Lanes are collaborating on a children's book, to be published in November. Bradford selected Lanes, a student a Cloquet High School, to illustrate his book after holding a competition for area high school students. Jana Peterson/jpeterson@pinejournal.com

When Daniel Bradford decided to publish his children's story, he knew it needed more to bring his words to life. Rather than hiring an established illustrator, however, the Sturgeon Lake resident decided to hold a competition for area high school students. In the end, six students from Willow River, Barnum and Cloquet participated in the competition.

Their task? To submit two drawings - one illustrating the first paragraph and the second illustrating any paragraph they chose - to visually depict Bradford's retelling of the Christ child's birth through the eyes of a spider.

The prize? They would get to illustrate the entire book.

Bradford announced his winner Feb. 14. It was, he said, an easy choice to make.

"Saydee's work was so far above and beyond the other work, there was no doubt in my mind," he said, referring to Cloquet High School junior Saydee Lanes, 17.

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Making the spider look friendly was one of the biggest challenges initially, Lanes said.

It is, after all, a spider.

In keeping with the Middle Eastern origins of Christianity, Lanes wrapped the spider's head in a cloth and gave her knitting needles and a delightfully appealing face.

The fact that the spider's name is Akkabish made the choice of knitting needles particularly appropriate, Bradford said.

"The literal translation of Akkabish from Hebrew to English is 'swift weaver,'" he said. "They use that word to describe spiders too."

Akkabish lives in the manger where Jesus was born, along with a bird that constantly flies through her web accidentally and the domesticated animals kept there by a herdsman and his family. The spider tells the story, first sharing thoughts on the birth of sheep and cows she had witnessed and how much care their mothers had to take of the babies - unlike spiders, whose babies are born ready to go - then how the birth of a human boy in the manger came about and all the wonders that preceded and followed his birth.

Bradford's story comes in at only 22 paragraphs. Each one, however, will rate its own drawing, so Lanes has her work cut out for her. In order to make their self-imposed August deadline, she has enlisted the help of an already published illustrator (who would rather not be named) to advise her on the technicalities of illustrating a book and give her feedback on her drawings. Together they are listed as "Saydee Rae Artworks" in the illustrator's credit for the book.

"It's always good to have another opinion, another set of eyes," Lanes said, adding that she's trying to finish one drawing every week.

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Retired teacher (and Bradford's fiancée) Sherry Wojtaszek is the other part of this literary collaboration. Just as Lanes has someone to help her, Wojtaszek edits Bradford's work and takes care of numerous other details.

First draft aside - writing that took Bradford two and a half hours after he'd been mulling over the idea for some time ­- the process of getting this book has been slow and

methodical.

The first paragraph was the hardest to illustrate, Lanes said, because she had to decide how to draw each character, as well as decide how to portray the manger and the background.

"I have a different style of illustrating than most illustrators," Lanes said. "Most illustrators have a storyboard laid out for every single picture, what it's going to look like, but I sometimes just read and start drawing things into the book."

Lanes draws each scene by hand first, then scans the picture and uses her computer to "color" the drawings. Using the computer for the colors makes them look cleaner and sharper, she said, and they "pop" more in the final product.

"I draw everything," she said, pointing to an affable looking camel. "The only thing the computer does is make him brown, after I pick the color."

Despite their difference in age - she is a junior in high school while he's retired - Bradford and Lanes appear to work as equals. After the interview, they discussed whether or not two longer paragraphs should be broken up to make them easier to read, and whether or not adding the extra breaks would add too much to Lanes' work load. During the discussion she is serious and confident beyond her years, while he is supportive and equally serious.

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When the book is published, Wojtaszek will likely be the one doing the readings, as she was the first to read the text to her grandchildren, an action that ultimately led to Bradford's decision to try to publish the story.

The group is close to selecting a publisher - Bradford and Wojtaszek will pay the costs of the initial run and other publisher services - and they hope to have the book in print by November. Profits will be shared as long as the book is in print, Bradford said.

Bradford said he'd like to see the story as an animated movie someday.

"They have all kinds of holiday animation, Charlie Brown, things like that" he said, revealing that he has also written an Akkabish Easter story. "Why not a spider?"

Wojtaszek smiled.

"I think I know an artist," she said.

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