‘Every word counts’ say scholars turned children’s book authors

September 22, 2021 by Sean McNeely - A&S News

One evening last summer, Erol Boran and his partner, Rachel Seelig, settled in to read a book to their four-year-old son, Rafi. But they were a little anxious.

They cracked open The Chestnut’s Three Wishes and wondered how it would be received, since they were the authors who had spent countless hours crafting this tale.

“I wondered, ‘What if he hates it?’” says Seelig.

Thankfully, it was given the stamp of approval when Rafi asked for the same story again and again.

In addition to being authors, Boran, an associate professor in the Department of Germanic Languages & Literatures, and Seelig, a literary scholar and lecturer, also recently launched their own children’s book imprint called Lovely Books.

It all started rather innocently.

Rachel Seeling and Erol Boran outside.
Rachel Seelig and Erol Boran.

“When Erol and I got to know each other 10 years ago — we met at U of T when I was a postdoc in his department — he wrote various things and there was one story about a seal who wanted a moustache,” says Seelig. “He read it to me, and I said, ‘That's cute, but I don't like the ending.’”

A collaboration followed which led to their first self-published book, A Moustache for Carlo in 2012. In it, Carlo the seal pup wants to feel important and is convinced getting an enormous moustache like his father is the key to be taken seriously.

“We ended up enjoying it so much that we thought, let's try our hand at another,” says Seelig. That led to their second self-published book, Lovely about a squirrel and a bear who are good friends and discover the importance of sharing.

Years passed that included successful academic careers, parental leaves and sabbaticals. Tack on the life-altering global pandemic, and Boran and Seelig decided to take their children’s books to the next level, creating the Lovely Books imprint in 2020, with a local printer and distributor based in Woodbridge, Ontario.

The Chestnut’s Three Wishes, published in August, is a story about a chestnut that falls from a tree and is helped by forest animals and given shade, water and a safe place to grow. That story originated from Rafi’s fascination with the chestnut tree outside their home. Their two previously self-published books — A Moustache for Carlo and Lovely — were later edited and reprinted, joining the Lovely Books series.

A watercolour illustration of a bear. Text: After his rest. Bear enjoyed a snack of sweet watermelon. I will share this with Squirrel he thought, slurping the sticky fruit.
A watercolour painting for the book Lovely, painted by Rachel Seelig’s father, Michael Seelig.

In addition to a love of storytelling, their interest in creating children’s books also grew from frustration in reading other books to their son. 

“After a week or two, some books that you initially liked, you can't read anymore,” says Boran. “Usually, it has something to do with the way the language flows, or there are too many words. When you read a novel, you’re not going to read one passage over and over again. In short texts like these, it's the individual words that count.”

“Children's books are meant to be read aloud,” agrees Seelig. “You're reading them as often as your kids are hearing them. They're meant to be recited, not just read quietly. You have to enjoy the sound of it coming out of your mouth. So that's one of the things we really played with. And the fun thing about writing them together is that we can read them to each other.”

With other books, Boran also occasionally noticed a disconnect between the story and the accompanying illustrations — sometimes they just didn’t match. For the Lovely Books series, all of the illustrations are a perfect complement to the story, thanks to Seelig’s father, Michael Seelig, who happens to be an artist and provides watercolour paintings. 

“We will play back and forth with the text and then give it to Rachel’s dad,” says Boran. “Sometimes when the paintings he creates are done, the story has to change a little, because it really has to go together.”

A painting of seal looking at fish in the water. Text: Schulz the goldfish popped his head out of the water. Hey Schulz, said Carlo, I want a moustache like my Papa's. Could you please give me some hair? I sure would Schulz replied, if only I had any.
A page from A Moustache for Carlo, painted by Michael Seelig.

Boran and Seelig also feel that the strength of a good children’s book is the story itself. It doesn’t necessarily need to have an underlying lesson. “It just needs to be enjoyable, something that draws them in and that parents enjoy reading aloud,” says Seelig.

A watercolour illustration of a fox under a chestnut tree. Text: A fox wandered over. Hello fox said the chestnut. I am so thirsty, could you please fetch some water from the river? Gladly said the fox, but I am not from around here.
A watercolour illustration by Michael Seelig for The Chestnut’s Three Wishes.

“I think kids are inundated with messaging and teaching them certain values in this very deliberate way,” she adds. “The most important thing is that kids enjoy these moments with their parents sharing books, sharing stories and sharing images.”

When Boran shares his books with Rafi, though he and Seelig have carefully chosen every word, he also feels he’s earned the right to take some liberties with the text.

A watercolour painting of a field with flowers. Text: In the morning the sun shone brightly. Rays of light danced over Bear's back and Squirrel's nose.
A page from Lovely, Erol Boran and Rachel Seelig feel illustrations and text must complement each other.

“Rafi is good at remembering exactly what the text is, so sometimes I change a word and he will remind me,” says Boran. “But over time, he starts enjoying the variation. He will listen and ask questions. And he will also let you know when something doesn't make sense.”

In time, Boran and Seelig look forward to reading their books to their youngest son, Leo. But at just 16 months, says Boran, “he doesn’t read the books yet, he’s better at throwing them.”