By Belle Fraser
Boston University News Service
While author Jamie Michalak and illustrator Kelly Murphy didn’t initially plan on going into the children’s book industry, they’ve now collaborated on a second story in their “Dakota Crumb” series. Dakota the protagonist mouse, finds herself on mini treasure hunts that young audiences can help solve while reading.
“The more I learned about children’s books, the more I wanted to start writing them on my own,” said Michalak, who was a journalism major in college. “I didn’t start sending stories out until after my son was born. I was reading stories to him a lot and really got a sense of the format and the pacing; everything I liked about children’s books and even the stuff that I didn’t like was educational.”
Murphy, on the other hand, went to the Rhode Island School of Design where her art developed a narrative quality, guiding her to experiment with visual storytelling. The pacing of children’s books –– the need for the ‘what happens next’ feeling –– resonated with her drawing style as she built stories around pictures first, then added words.
“I liked children’s books when I was younger, but I mostly liked the pictures. I actually wasn’t a very good reader as a kid, so I tended to gravitate towards all of the visual stories,” Murphy said.
When putting together a children’s book, Michalak focuses on the mindset and interests of younger readers. She says there has to be an incentive to flip the page and a hook that draws them in from the beginning.
“I do try to keep in mind having a problem to solve; the page turns are super important… Humor is really important and also the word count; you don’t want it to be super long,” Michalak said. “I feel like I’m a second grader inside. I love visiting second graders, they have the same sense of humor as me.”
This also translates to the illustrations, down to what shade of a color a child will recognize the most. Murphy explained that when kids are still learning their colors, you have to use the standard shade in stories, however, as the audience gets older, she adds more variation.
“Depending on the age, you have to guide your illustrations accordingly, but with this book it has such a fun range,” Murphy said. “The younger you get, you have to compensate, or you have to realize the scope of what they’re noticing. Even color palettes have to shift a bit if it’s for a younger audience.”
Michalak and Murphy were able to see how kids reacted to their new “Dakota Crumb” book during an April 29 reading event at the Brookline Booksmith. The author and illustrator did a read along and then set up a treasure hunt in the bookstore similar to the one Dakota went on in the story. The interactive nature of the narrative got all ages involved.
“That’s the best because you work on it in isolation for years,” Michalak said of finally seeing her book in children’s hands.
A majority of Michalak and Murphy’s audience are young kids that are just getting into books and growing an appreciation for storytelling. This gives the creators the opportunity to help them get excited about reading and learning.
The “Dakota Crumb” reading event was part of the Brookline Booksmith’s celebration of Independent Bookstore Day. The national holiday happens every year on the last Saturday in April to recognize and appreciate the impact of local bookshops to their direct communities.
“The bookstores are the soul of the town,” Michalak said. “There are real people that are so passionate about books that work at independent bookstores. They might connect you to a book you never even thought you wanted, but then it ends up being your favorite book.”
For Brookline, the Brookline Booksmith is a congregating place for booklovers and an important unifying piece of the community. Michalak’s next book, “Hazel is a Handful,” comes out in 2025 and ties her directly back to Harvard Avenue–– the story is based on a Brookline dog.
“Kids are the most amazing audience because not only are they incredibly honest, they’re incredibly excited,” Murphy said. “We have them when they’re first learning or seeing something for the first time and there is a certain fire in their eyes.”