North Dakota Farmers Union’s new children’s book, “Our Family Farm,” features two pages that lay out how grain goes from an elevator to dinner plates in other countries.
Author-illustrator Dana Sullivan knows the pages well — he struggled with them right away.
“That was the hardest spread of the whole book,” said Sullivan, who resides near Seattle. “I tried a few approaches to it. That probably took the longest, getting that sequence right.”
The NDFU Foundation commissioned Sullivan to write and illustrate the book earlier this year, and he delivered with vibrant colors and an educational experience.
NDFU President Mark Watne said the book is about consumer education.
“It’s one of many tools we’re using to educate the public about the importance of family farm agriculture to our state and nation,” Watne said. “Its subtitle, ‘Everyone Works on a Family Farm,’ definitely will resonate with anyone who has ever lived on a farm or visited a farm.”
Sullivan said the spread that teaches children about how grain goes to other countries was time-consuming because he wanted to get it right.
“My first attempt focused on machinery, but it was lifeless,” he said. “I just kept looking at books and remembering, ‘I’m a picture book illustrator. I can do anything I want.’ I really needed to put people in there, and I wanted it to be kids. That’s where all this was going.”
Sullivan, a native of Los Angeles, didn’t grow up around farms, though he did visit his aunt and uncle’s farm in Wisconsin when he was young.
He was head of creative services for Costco before he decided to pursue his current passion.
“I was participating in a leadership course and they talked about figuring out what you truly want,” he said. “I realized what I truly wanted was to illustrate books. I knew I wasn’t being creatively fulfilled.”
Sullivan worked hard, taking classes and submitting book ideas to editors. After getting an agent, Sullivan broke through with “Ozzie and the Art Contest” in 2011. He’s also authored and illustrated “Kay Kay’s Alphabet Soup” and “My Red Velvet Cape.”
With NDFU looking for someone to take on its children’s book, Sullivan said his agent felt he would be perfect.
“I’ve never done anything like this,” Sullivan said. “It’s been great working with (NDFU).”
NDFU gave input on family farms, and Sullivan did additional research to ensure accuracy.
“A book is almost always a team effort,” Sullivan said. “Everybody wants the best book they can get. It’s keeping an open mind, and working with (NDFU) was pretty easy. I really wanted to be accurate so I could tell a good story.”
Sullivan said the storyline started with the family dog, Rocky.
“I had the idea of Rocky doing chores, but I wasn’t sure how to incorporate the whole rest of the farm,” he said. “The multi-generational family aspect is important and real, and farmers’ mission and sense of purpose — I really wanted to put that in there. It was challenging, but it’s a fun story.”
One aspect from Watne was the idea of giving the machinery personalities.
“Once I got on board with that, I thought that this could be really fun,” Sullivan said. “I stretch my characters and try to have as much fun as I can and see what jokes I can make that’ll interest kids. I figure if it makes me laugh, it’ll make kids laugh.”
The book is full of color including an incredible sunset familiar to most North Dakotans.
“My colors tend to be pretty bright — it’s who I am,” Sullivan said. “I once had an illustrator friend tell me my colors are turned up to 11. I think kids like bright colors. You want colors to be instantly recognizable from page to page. Kids are just learning to read. You don’t want to confuse them too much or have too many costume changes.”
Sullivan believes the sound effects will be enjoyable for both kids and parents, and he even has a favorite page — perhaps indicative of Sullivan finishing the book.
“My favorite picture is the very final one, with Rocky asleep in Tricia’s bucket,” Sullivan said.
The book hits on the important aspects of agriculture and why family farms are integral to the way of life in North Dakota, and that includes cooperatives, which are prominent in the book. All proceeds for the book go to the NDFU Foundation, which supports the youth program.
Sullivan will be at the state convention Dec. 14-15 at the Bismarck Event Center. The book costs $16.95 and will be for sale not far from where Sullivan will be free to autograph it. He’ll also have a presentation for the convention, where he’ll do some live art, as well as read the book to the youth convention on stage.
Sullivan said he’s looking forward to the state convention, and his message to NDFU’s 50,000 members was simple: “Every day, we should thank a farmer. Thanks to all of you. Not only for this opportunity to write and illustrate this fun book, but also for my dinner.”
– Chris Aarhus, NDFU