Valley News By Katie Beth Ryan / Staff Writer
Forty-six years ago, a group of children on a playground in Saxtons River, Vt., were the first to hear the story of Wobar, Roxie the cougar and the ghost of Simon, a Revolutionary War soldier, a tale now recounted in Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet, Henry Homeyer’s new book for children.
Homeyer, the Cornish gardening expert, was a 20-year-old Dartmouth sophomore, hired to run the village’s playground program for the summer. He spent his days supervising games of softball, kickball and Red Rover for 120 children.
One day, by 3:30 in the afternoon, “I’d run out of stuff to do, and they were there until 4,” Homeyer recalled last week in an interview at his home. So he made up the story on the spot, and watched a group of antsy children grow transfixed by the tale of Wobar, a mustachioed boy gifted with the ability to communicate with wild animals, and to run as fast as one, but who can’t manage to stay out of trouble in the tiny hamlet of Woodstown. Wobar is more at home in a place like Grantham Mountain, where he meets and befriends a cougar named Roxie before setting out on a quest to find a Native American calumet that, when placed in the right hands, can end all wars.
“Kids would go home and tell the story to their other brothers and sisters at the dinner table. They would share it with their parents,” Homeyer said.
“A reader wants to go to the next chapter,” he added, “and a kid would want to come back the next day,” to see where the story would pick up.
Wobar and Roxie’s tale has gone through various iterations, but the characters and plot in Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet are essentially the same as Homeyer told them on the Saxtons River playground.
After meeting on Grantham Mountain, Wobar and Roxie find refuge in a house haunted by the ghost of Simon, a Revolutionary War soldier who was given a calumet, or peace pipe, by a Native American, who believed that giving the calumet to Gen. George Washington would end the Revolutionary War and all future wars. But the calumet was stolen. Already on the run more than 200 years later, Wobar and Roxie travel to New Orleans, where they believe the calumet was taken by one of Simon’s soldiers, to search for the instrument and give it to the president of the United States. The journey takes them from Woodstown to places like New York and St. Louis, via freight train, bus and shipping crate, always trying to stay one step ahead of the people who would capture them and send Wobar to reform school and Roxie to a zoo.
Wobar and Roxie’s exhausting cross-country journey in search of the calumet parallels Homeyer’s own quest to bring the story of the mustachioed boy and his feline friend to the page.
After telling the story on the playground, Homeyer received some kind words from parents, who told him to commit it to paper. He finally did 16 years later, in 1982, having returned from several years in Africa, where, among other things, he served as director of the Peace Corps program in Mali. As he wrote the story, Homeyer had input from various young readers, and he submitted a peanut butter-and-jelly stained manuscript to Harper & Row and several other publishers, with plenty of optimism.
“I was so convinced they would call me right up that for two weeks, I didn’t want to leave the house,” he said. A couple of months later, Homeyer received a rejection letter from Harper & Row, followed by others from each of the publishing houses he contacted. So Wobar and Roxie were set aside in a drawer, occasionally emerging to be shared with readers like Joshua Yunger, Homeyer’s stepson, who devoured the manuscript by flashlight late at night (and who would eventually illustrate Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet). Homeyer also brought Wobar to the attention of Trina Schart Hyman, the Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator and Lyme resident, who unsuccessfully tried to shop it to publishers.
Eventually, in 2005, Homeyer shared the story with his friend and mentor, the late columnist Nardi Reed Campion, who was immediately captivated. That was “very encouraging,” Homeyer said, “because I valued her opinion very much. She was a fabulous writer and a fabulous human being. … Here was a woman in her 80s who was laughing and captivated by the story.”
Campion gave Homeyer some suggestions to make the story stronger, and he mentioned Wobar to Carole and Ib Bellew at Piermont-based Bunker Hill Publishing, which had published some of Homeyer’s gardening books. They were “cautiously interested,” in Homeyer’s words, but were sold on the project after Carole Bellew shared Wobar with a 9-year-old girl who devoured the novel.
With Wobar finally in book form, Homeyer returned to Saxtons River two weeks ago for a book release celebration at Main Street Arts, where children and their parents wore stick-on mustaches, in a nod to Wobar. The celebration “brought back a lot of memories of being a young man, at age 20, and being in a small Vermont town,” Homeyer said. “To go back to Saxtons River and shake hands with some of the people who knew my playground kids was wonderful.”
Now that Wobar has made it to the page, Homeyer believes the sky is the limit when it comes to getting Wobar in readers’ hands, and perhaps on the silver screen.
“I really believe that Wobar is going to be marketed nationally,” he said. “I think it will be a great movie. I think (Steven) Spielberg should do it.”
And though Wobar and Roxie find themselves in many scary, sometimes life-threatening situations in Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet, the novel remains a hopeful story, perhaps an extension of Homeyer’s own optimistic worldview.
On Wobar’s book jacket, Homeyer’s biography says that he “dreams of a real calumet that can end all wars.”
Henry Homeyer will read from “Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet” at 5 p.m. on Dec. 7 at the Dartmouth Bookstor in Hanover. For more information about the book, visit www.henryhomeyer.com.
Hippo Press by Jeff Mucciarone
Wobar children’s book 46 years in the making
Hippo readers know Henry Homeyer as the Gardening Guy. Homeyer, who lives in Cornish Flats, writes a weekly gardening column and has published three gardening books. A few weeks ago, Homeyer published his first children’s book, Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet.
Q: [Homeyer touched on how the book was a 46-year project.]
In the summer of 1966 I was a sophomore in college. I was working for a summer recreation program, and on my first day … I was playing with 50 – 75 kids. … I was tired, so I told them we could sit down under a tree and I’d tell them a story. … I made up a fictional character. I don’t know what part of my brain it came fro, but I came up with a boy named Wobar … who was found on a door-step. … he was born with a mustache. … He was always picked on because he was different. … So Wobar runs away up into the mountains and he meets a cougar. … he is able to speak to animals … and he makes friends with the cougar, and they go on a quest for a magical peace pipe that can end all wars. … I told the story probably three afternoons per week and I’d always leave the kids at a cliffhanger, so they’d want to come back and hear more the next day.
[Parents told Homeyer he had to turn the story into a book. ]
I just thought, “Year, yeah, maybe some day. But I’m busy now.” … so in 1982, after spending 10 years in Africa — I’d gone off to see the world as a young man. I joined the Peace Corps. … I didn’t know a thing about how to sell a book. This was the pre-computer age. I had a manuscript … and I shipped it off to the biggest publishing house of children’s books at the time. … I literally didn’t want to go away from the house thinking they would be calling. Three months later, I got a message about how it didn’t quite fit their list. … I ended up putting it in a drawer and forgetting about it. Then about 10 years later I took it out and worked on it some more. … In 1999 I got serious about it. I went to a writer workshop on the West Coast. … And last year I sold it to Bunker Hill Publishing.
[Homeyer had some family help.]
The illustrator is Joshua Yunger, who is my stepson. … He went to the Art Institute of Chicago. he’s a professional artist now. As a child, Wobar was the first chapter book he read. He’d be the first to tell you, he had trouble with words. He was more of an arts person, not a words person. When he got to Wobar, he said he couldn’t put it down. … He did drawings for it when he was 9 or 10 years old, and now, 25 years later, he did the official work. [Yunger also wrote and illustrated a children's book called Hippo and Monkey.]
How much has the story changed since you first told it?
That’s hard for me to know. I imagine it changed quite a bit. The characters remained the same. They traveled and went on a quest. Certainly, I was influenced by Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer going down the Mississippi. … the book isn’t like Tom Sawyer at all, but they did steal a boat to try to get away. … They hop a freight train …. I have hopped trains myself, so I could add authentic details.
What was your favorite part about the whole process?
I think the most exciting thing for me is that my boy Josh got to illustrate it. … It’s really wroth a Caldecott award [given annually by the Association for Library Service to Children for illustration]. They are fabulous illustrations. … Josh’s participation has made this so much more rich for me and so much more wonderful. It makes my soul feel good.
What ages is the book written for?
Third-graders can read the book. It’s got 40 chapters, and each chapter has one illustration. The chapters are relatively short, about 1,000 words each.
What’s the response been so far?
It’s been out two weeks or so. I have seen two reviews and they both were positive. I am doing a lot of book signings and readings in Vermont and new Hampshire.
Would you try another children’s book at some point?
If this version of Wobar is a big success, then I would definitely consider writing a sequel. Frankly, I think it could be a nice movie. … There is a clause about movie rights [in the contract with the publisher]. I think it would be perfect for Spielberg to work with — there are so many cliffhangers. It’s such a fast-paced adventure.
By DOMENIC POLI / Reformer Staff
SAXTONS RIVER — Henry Homeyer has grown accustomed to seeing his name in print.
An avid gardener, he has published four books and writes a regular column in regional newspapers, including the Reformer. But he’s used to detailing spades, soils and seeds — not a boy born with facial hair.
Homeyer’s fifth work, “Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet,” was recently published by Bunker Hill Publishing and is on select bookshelves now. The story chronicles a young schoolboy named Wobar, who was born with a mustache and adopted by a married couple. Wobar is a bit of an outcast and is picked on by other children because of the hair above his upper lip.
Main Street Arts will host a reading and book-signing at 4 p.m. on Saturday. Homeyer will be present and copies of the 40-chapter book will be available for purchase.
But it isn’t just a book. For Homeyer, it’s “a life’s dream come true.”
The story of Wobar originated both on a Saxtons River playground and in Homeyer’s own subconscious. In the summer of 1966, after completing his sophomore year at Dartmouth College, Homeyer was in desperate need of a seasonal job. He was offered the chance to help run a summer creation program in Saxtons River and happily accepted, living with a co-worker on the Kurn Hattin Homes campus in town.
“The first day I was expecting 50 or 60 kids — 125 showed up. … So I played every game I could think of. They were supposed to go home at 4, at 3:30 I was out of stuff to do. So I said, ‘Sit down under this tree and I’ll tell you a story,’” he recalled with a smile. “I figured it would take them a half-hour to sit down and shut up. It was as if someone shot them out of the air and landed ‘clump.’ So I had to tell them a story. But I didn’t have a story prepared and I wasn’t about to tell someone’s story, so I made something up.”
He is not quite sure how, but he came up with the idea of a newborn boy, named Wobar, who was found on a doorstep with a full head of hair and a mustache. Homeyer told the children a little more of the story each day and told the Reformer everyone can relate to Wobar in some way, as he was an outcast due to his appearance.
“Kids would tell the story at supper to their older brothers and sisters and their mom and dad and about halfway through the summer parents started coming to me and saying, ‘Henry, this is an amazing story you’re telling. You ought to write it as a book.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I will some day,’” he said. “Well, I was a college student so I forgot about that.”
Life went on for Homeyer, who graduated from Dartmouth with a degree in biology and taught elementary school for four years before going off to see the world. He went through Europe and across the Sahara Desert before arriving in Cameroon and joining the Peace Corps and spending nine years in Africa.
When he was getting ready to move back to the United States, he tried to figure out what to do with himself. He decided to write “Wobar” and, as he puts, “become rich and famous.” He wrote one chapter a day, careful to leave on a cliff-hanger, and sent it to the Harper & Rowe publishing house in New York City. After a couple of months, he received a polite rejection letter and chose to put his dreams of publication on hold while writing little pieces of it from time to time.
It wasn’t until about six years ago, when he got encouragement from friend Nardi Reeder Campion, that he again got serious about getting the book printed. Campion, who has since died, gave him a magnet with a Calvin Coolidge quote about persistence (found in the dedication page of ‘Wobar’) and that piece of refrigerator decor acted as Homeyer’s inspiration.
A co-publisher expressed some doubts about the book, so Homeyer told her to give it to her granddaughter.
“So she took the manuscript, read it and couldn’t put it down. She said, ‘Grandma, this is the best book I’ve ever read,’” said Homeyer, 66. “So they published it — thanks to a 9-year-old girl.”
What makes the book’s publication even more special to Homeyer is that his stepson, Josh Yunger, did all the illustrations. Homeyer said it was not easy for his stepson, an artist who has worked on more than a dozen books, to learn to read and “Wobar” made the process more enjoyable for him.
Yunger, who attended the Art Institute of Chicago, has done the art work for Homeyer’s four gardening books and dedicated much of his time to freelance work for newspapers. He said he crafted his first drawing of the character Wobar when he was 10 or 11 years old and also knew he would be Homeyer’s illustrator, even each the time the project got put on the back-burner.
“It’s pretty magical that it’s something I can now hold in my hand because it’s something I’ve been thinking about for 25 years,” he said, adding that “Wobar” was the first non-comic book that intrigued him. “I hadn’t had a book that really grabbed me like that one.”
Yunger, 37, ironically published his own children’s book — called “Hippo and Monkey” — the same time “Wobar” came out.
The true origins of Homeyer’s idea remain a mystery even to him, though he learned from his sister years after first telling the story that parts of his childhood were apparent.
There is a cougar, known as Roxie, in the book. Homeyer originally thought it was just a random name until his sister told him of a little bull terrier that lived next door to the family in Milford, Conn., when Homeyer was in the first grade. The dog’s name was Roxie, named so because it used to chase and fetch rocks.
“I had totally forgotten that there was a dog named Roxie,” Homeyer said. “The cougar’s name is from a dog — I didn’t know that until 10 years after I told the story.”
John Hitchcock was one of the children listening to the first tellings of “Wobar” underneath a maple tree in 1966. Though time has erased the specifics of the story, he said he definitely remembers bits and pieces of it.
“I’d love to get a hold of a copy of the book,” said Hitchcock, now a cabinetmaker in White River Junction, who kept in touch with Homeyer over the years. “It was just a great time.
“(Henry) was great. He had a special way with kids,” Hitchcock recalled. “All of my memories of him are very fond.”
Heidi Lauricella, the program coordinator at Main Street Arts, said board member Sue Cota has been attempting to track down as many people as possible who were children at the Saxtons River summer recreation program in the summer of ‘66.
She said a local man named Tim Stevenson first approached her with the idea of holding a reading. She said the MSA loved the idea because writing is its own art form.
“Main Street Arts is definitely an arts center but it’s also a community center,” she said. “We have a Scrabble group that meets, we have foreign language pot lucks that happen … so I think that part of our mission — the bringing community members from Saxtons River together — is really being met.”
Homeyer said he tips his cap to MSA for looking at the bigger picture and taking on something that is a little out of its purview.
“I just feel so blessed that this diverse group of people and organizations are coming together to promote the book,” he said. “Things throughout my life have sort of fallen into place. I’m kind of a believer in destiny.”
Homeyer said his new book will be sold, among other locations, at Village Square Booksellers in Bellows Falls and he is in the process of speaking with bookstores in Brattleboro.
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.
SAXTONS RIVER—Henry Homeyer will read from his children’s book Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet at Main Street Arts Saturday, Nov. 10, at 4 p.m.
Accompanying him for the reading and signing will be the book’s illustrator, Josh Yunger.
Best known for his weekly gardening column, Homeyer is a writer, storyteller, and grandfather who taught third and fourth grade long ago. Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet is a tale he told one summer while running a playground program in Saxtons River when he was still in college. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa and has been a peace activist since the Vietnam War. Currently residing in Cornish Flat, N.H., he is the author of gardening books, including Gardening in the Northeast.
Yunger is a faculty member of the AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon, N.H. In his spare time, he writes and records songs for his band The Ologists. He lives in South Stafford. He is the author and illustrator of several children’s books, including the recently released Hippo and Monkey.
Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet is a fantasy-adventure story about a boy born with a mustache and an ability to talk with animals. Wobar’s adventures begin when he runs away from home after getting in trouble at his new school.
Hiding out in a cave, he meets a cougar, Roxie, who becomes his best friend and constant companion. They encounter the ghost of a Revolutionary War soldier who was given — and had stolen from him—a calumet, or Native American peace pipe. The pipe has the power to end all wars, and until it is found and returned to the American president, the ghost must remain in limbo. Thus begins their quest to find the magic calumet and release the ghost.
It is published by Bunker Hill Publishing.
In addition to Main Street Arts, sponsors of the event are Village Square Booksellers, Greater Falls Community Garden Collaboration, and Saxtons River Community Garden. There is no charge for the event, and books will be available for purchase.
Further information is available by contacting MSA at 802-869-2960 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook.