- Patrick Hulce
I have a deep relationship with my grandfather who has an incredible life story. As a father myself now, I wanted to share his story with my own children in a way that they could understand and enjoy from an early age, and as I read more to my son, I've begun to appreciate the importance of good flow and scansion in a children's book. I wanted to make sure that my book was not only relatable but also one I'd enjoy reading myself! Late last year, I started putting together plans for a children's book about my grandparents.
There are many stories to chose from, but my grandparents' escape from Hungary story has all the makings of a decent children's tale. It has adventure, action, suspense, and a happy ending.
The adult version of the story goes something like this: two teenage sweethearts start out happy and join the Hungarian revolution. Tragedy strikes when the Soviets strike back and threaten to imprison everyone who participated. They go on a great adventure to flee the country traversing snowy terrain, escape from a prison stint near the Austrian-Hungarian border, cross a minefield at the Iron Curtain, scurry under barbed wire, and live happily ever after in America. All I had to do was present it in a way that children could understand and enjoy.
To make the story more relatable for children, I represented my grandparents as two young lions (bonus: our family crest is a lion!). I swapped in "Boris the Bear" for the Soviet antagonist, replaced the minefield with careful footsteps across a frozen lake, and exchanged barbed wire with some thorns to make it more child-friendly.
I started working on the initial version of the text in December of last year. At first, I included some more specific details from my grandfather's retelling, such as all the lions walking in single file, carefully stepping in each other's paw prints across the ice. This mirrored the harsh reality my grandfather shared of a brave soul being the first to walk across the minefield and how they carefully stepped in his footprints left in the snow. If he didn't trigger a land mine by stepping there, neither would the others. However, I quickly realized that such dark themes and complex details made it challenging to maintain a light-hearted rhythmic meter that is essential in a children's book and adjusted accordingly.
To get some early feedback, I shared the first few versions with a cousin and good friend who's a wonderful musician and has written children's books himself. I probably went through about five revisions of the story across 2 months before I was happy with the basic content and flow.
Once I had the story locked down, it was time to focus on the illustrations. I had a pretty clear vision of what I wanted the book to look like, so I started by sketching out storyboards using clipart and stock photos. I went through a couple of test rounds with illustrators I found on Fiverr, but it took some time to find the right artist whose style I loved and whose background supported the mission of the book. I was so pleased to find an artist from Ukraine. It felt like a perfect fit to support someone who was currently in the midst of similar struggles the book focuses on.
Even with the storyboards though, there were still plenty of iterations and back and forth when it came to developing the main lion characters and ensuring consistency between the spreads. It was a multi-month process, but in the end, I'm absolutely thrilled with the final artwork she produced.
Publishing a book can be a daunting process, but there are plenty of resources out there to help aspiring authors. I chose to self-publish my book through BookBaby, which meant taking care of all the formatting and (non-existent) marketing but got to pay just a small fee for printing and distribution without any pleading to the publisher gods. The main goal of this was really to capture the story for my children in a way that felt indistinguishable from the other books on their shelf, not make money. The idea of having an actual book you could buy from a retailer though was also just a really exciting idea. I could have just bought a few one-off board books instead for a lot less, but it was fun to go through the publishing process and declare myself a published author too! 😂
This was definitely a ton of work (and not something I could have accomplished while running Optyx), but it was also incredibly rewarding to see my grandfather's story come to life in this way. In the end, the process of publishing a book for my kids about my grandfather was one of the most meaningful projects I've ever taken on. I hope that it inspires my children times in the same way my grandparents' storytelling inspired me. When I surprised my grandfather with the book at Christmas, I was thrilled to see that, for a pretty stoic fella, he was very moved, and it was a moment I'll never forget.
If you'd like to read the book, it's called The Great Lion Escape and is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or directly from the publisher. For any copies that are actually sold, I will be donating the proceeds to the non-profit Bardos Foundation. I hope that it brings as much joy to your family as it has to mine!