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Insomnia Leads to Childrens' Book for Evanston Collaborators

Sleepless nights plus a Mother’s Day gift for his wife prompts a union of alphabetic proportion for author Steve Fiffer and illustrator Keiler Roberts. They published their book, Arctic Bears Chase, this spring.

One night in 2006, Evanston author Steve Fiffer couldn’t sleep. He jokes now that his usual method of lulling himself to sleep by recalling all the women he’s dated in alphabetical order* wasn’t working, so he attempted to string together a sentence using words beginning with all 26 letters — in alphabetical order.

It’s a lot harder than you might think.

After two days of very little sleep, Fiffer came up with, as he calls it, an alphabet string. He thought his 26-word sentence might work well in a picture book format, so Fiffer (who claims not to be a visual person) approached Evanston artist Keiler Roberts to add some illustrations.

Years prior, Fiffer and his children presented a Mother’s Day gift to Sharon Fiffer: A mosaic art class through ’s Adult Continuing Education program, taught by Keiler Roberts. The women became close friends. So when Steve Fiffer needed visuals for his picture book project, he thought of Roberts.

“I loved the structure of the book,” Roberts says. She’d been transitioning from painting to illustration when Fiffer approached her, and from the beginning of their collaboration, she appreciated working with such “great material.” She also says she liked how “there wasn’t too much repetition. I could visualize different settings for each page.” Roberts’ reluctant-to-take-credit husband, Scott, managed the text design.

Fiffer approached his literary agent with a mockup of their book that included Roberts’ visuals. But he was informed that most New York City publishers want text submissions only, preferring to select illustrators themselves. Not wanting to separate his text from Roberts’ art, Fiffer suggested self-publishing.

“She did all the heavy lifting on this project,” Fiffer says of Roberts, who illustrated the book and navigated the intricacies of Amazon’s self-publishing software.

The book, Arctic Bears Chase, was published in March. It's got two glowing reviews on Amazon. (Click the video above to hear a reading of the book.)

Fiffer showed the published book to Mark Larson, a former ETHS English teacher and Golden Apple award winner. According to Fiffer, Larson said he would have liked to use the book in his high school classes.

“We’d love to share Arctic Bears Chase with people in a literary setting,” Fiffer says, noting there’s a lot to learn from these 26 words. “It’s not like you can just string 26 nouns together,” he says. “It’s a challenge to create a sentence like this.”

I recently met with Fiffer and Roberts to learn about their favorite aspects of living and working in Evanston. For Roberts, it’s the lake and the beaches, and for Fiffer, it’s the casual feeling around town. That and, as he describes it, “the soul of the people and their outlook.” Roberts agrees, praising Evanston’s definite sense of community and personality.

Considering that a community art class brought them (indirectly) together in the first place, I’d say their assessments are spot on.

* As for his list of old dates, Fiffer claims he’s only missing the letters I, O, Q, X, Y and Z, though Keiler figures there may be many letters duplicated.

Can you string a sentence together using all 26 letters in alphabetical order? C'mon. I dare you.

Christine Wolf May 08, 2012 at 01:52 AM
Mark Larson, former Evanston Township High School English teacher and Golden Apple Award Winner, says, "I would have loved to share this book with my high school English students. Think of what they could learn about sentence structure, punctuation, and parts of speech and how they operate! plus, I know they would have loved the challenge of the task."

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