The Colgate Scene
Janet Morgan Stoeke's Minerva Louise is flying high
|by Sally Baker|
© 1993, 1994 Janet Morgan Stoeke/Published by Puffin Books
When Janet Morgan Stoeke '79 returned to work at Washingtonian magazine after a family vacation in 1988, her boss handed her an article about the Dutton Picture Book Contest. The deadline was just 10 days away. Stoeke took it as a dare.Recalling a recent dream about a chicken sitting on a windowsill, she went about creating a loveable but dimwitted hen named Minerva Louise. She won the contest. Six books, several major awards and 14 years later, Minerva Louise is the beloved of the playground set, and Stoeke's books have been reviewed enthusiastically in publications such as The New York Times, Publisher's Weekly, Parents magazine and School Library Journal.
"First things first," said Publisher's Review in a piece about the second Minerva book, A Hat for Minerva, "the eponymous hen . . . is a paragon of whimsy and charm. In a manner reminiscent of Charles Schulz's deceptively simple renderings of Snoopy, Stoeke invests her poultry protagonist with an abundance of character at the merest stroke of her pen."
Now the mother of four children, Stoeke was childless when she published Minerva Louise. "I always thank my lucky stars that I didn't do this after children," she said, "because of the way having children influences you." Although her sons occasionally laugh at one of Minerva Louise's goofy predicaments, they aren't the chicken's biggest fans. If she were writing for them, Stoeke says, she would "do your typical truck books and your typical dinosaur books. That's what my kids love." Instead, Stoeke found her inspiration within. "It's a much better place to start, with a germ of something that's just part of yourself," she said.
Stoeke grew up in Connecticut in an artistic family -- her mother still paints, sculpts and teaches art. To this day, when Stoeke and her mother and siblings get together, they paint. Although she hoped to make her living as a painter, Stoeke chose to pursue a liberal arts education, at Colgate, rather than go to art school.
"I knew I needed to go to a college that could help me figure out who I would become and where to go with that knowledge," she said. "I was really happy in the art department at Colgate, but if it had been a school about art, I think I might have gotten swallowed up in that part of it. At Colgate I got everything."
Before landing at Washingtonian as an ad designer, Stoeke had several jobs that brought her into contact with children, including gymnastics instructor, baby photographer and manager of the children's section of a bookstore. She credits those experiences -- as well as the hundreds of times she has read and discussed her books with children during classroom visits -- with giving her a broad sense of what children like.
She is clearly on to something with the Minerva Louise series, which is written for very young children. "These books are funny on an appropriate level," Stoeke said. "[Minerva Louise] really is a one-trick pony; she doesn't have a lot of breadth. But what's funny really works because the kids are just at that point where they are very attached to what they know is true. They're a couple of steps ahead of that chicken, so it's not just funny; it's funny and there's some pride mixed in. You're laughing at the chicken, but you're also saying `But I know,' and that feels good to a kid." The books have won a combined 10 major awards; A Hat for Minerva Louise was featured on PBS's Storytime.
Stoeke left her Washingtonian job when she was pregnant with her twin sons, Colin and Harrison, now 9. By then she had published two more books: Hunky Dory Ate It and Lawrence. After the boys were born, she and her husband, Barrett Brooks, an underwater researcher for the Smithsonian Institution, decided it made more sense for Stoeke to stay home than to try to pay for daycare for two babies. So she kept producing books for children.
"There was a real drive to do it," she said. "I not only loved being a mom to my kids, I loved doing the work. When I explain it to kids I say, `My job is the kind of job where you lose track of the fact that time is going by and that you're actually working. And if you can find a job that's like that for you, go get it.'"
The second Minerva Louise book wasn't published until 1994 -- Stoeke hadn't written the first with the idea of a series in mind. A Hat for Minerva Louise, which Stoeke considers the book with the "fewest flaws" (she doesn't like to choose a favorite), was followed by three more Minerva Louise tales. The sixth is due for publication next fall.
"I told myself there would be five Minerva Louise books, and that's it," Stoeke said, "and then I just couldn't help it, because at the end of the book about her going to the fair she gets a ride in a red truck, and I really wanted to make a book about that. I started drawing cement mixers and bulldozers and before I knew it I had a great truck book." Finally, a book her sons can appreciate.
Stoeke also is at work on a book called Waiting for May, based on her family's experience adopting daughter Hailey, 15 months old, from China.
It took two years of chasing paperwork and permissions for the adoption to be final, and Stoeke said she realized that the process was a huge experience for her children -- in addition to the twins, Stoeke and Brooks have another son, Elliott, 5.
"They watched it all and kept asking questions like `When will we see our little sister?' and `Why can't she come today?' and `Why are kids in orphanages, anyway?'" Stoeke said. "All that started to produce in my mind a story for kids who are waiting for a sibling from somewhere like that. This way of enlarging a family has lots of advantages, disadvantages and unusual facets to it. It just needed a book."
Waiting for May is a departure for Stoeke. "I think it's time to start stretching," she said. "I'm hoping the artwork in this book will be a real breakthrough for me, because I've done these very cartoon-y children's books that are light as all get-out and humorous and silly -- and flat. I'm working hard on the artwork so it's not so simple that it feels simplistic. The whole book is more complex and serious."
Stoeke and her husband brought their new daughter home to Virginia in February, and Stoeke says her "big adventure" for the moment is helping Hailey adjust to a new life. "It's wonderful in many ways, but it also has some heartbreaking parts to it. When you take her away from her home and ask her to leave everything that's familiar to her -- and you can't explain it," she said. Perhaps Waiting for May will.
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