Creating a Bookstore, Its Book, and a Dwelling for a Squirrel
What happens when three ingenious book people collaborate? An inspiring multi-media story filled with determination, skill, humor, and warmth that inspires us all. (Link at the end to coverage on NBC TV’s Hub Today.)
When Melissa Fetter moved back to Boston after years spent in Texas and California, she was shocked to find no bookstore in her Beacon Hill neighborhood. It had been 30 years since there had been one. Despite the pandemic, she focused her organizational skills and found a way to purchase and transform a derelict space into Beacon Hill Books & Café. She wanted a “residential” feel in the store’s interior design, so the décor is soothing. Among the stately bookshelves are comfortable chairs, fireplaces, and window seats where people can relax and browse. Most importantly, an entire third floor is intended for children’s books.
Since the logo that Melissa requested for the bookstore represented a squirrel holding an acorn while perched on a stack of books, her thoughts on this literary squirrel’s lifestyle began to evolve. Surely there should be a specific place designated for this bookish mascot. And how had the squirrel decided to live in a bookshop?
Melissa resolved to commission a picture book about this squirrel and an enticing alcove where the squirrel could reside. The story must be beautifully written and illustrated. An empty cabinet by the front door would be a fine place for a small home. But how would Melissa make the book and little abode happen?
Melissa’s friend, Amy Drinker, is a book layout editor. Amy connected Melissa with Sarah S. Brannen, author and illustrator of more than 20 books for children, including the 2022 Robert F. Sibert Honor book Summertime Sleepers, written by Melissa Stewart. Sarah’s portfolio samples and writing credentials convinced Melissa to commission Sarah for the book. Except for two easy stipulations, Sarah would have freedom over the story.
Melissa also needed to commission a craftsperson for the squirrel-sized home project. She told Sarah. Sarah’s good friend and critique group buddy, Brian Lies, is the author and illustrator of more than 30 books, among them the 2019 Randolph Caldecott Honor book The Rough Patch. When Sarah asked Brian if he knew anyone who would be a good candidate to create the squirrel alcove, he intrepidly raised his hand. He had done fine carpentry and was intrigued by the challenge. Brian would aim to create a well-appointed home that any literary squirrel would love.
Over the next six months, Sarah and Brian shared sketches and ideas so the images in the book and the accouterments of the physical abode would coordinate. Sarah gave Melissa Fetters’ squirrel a name – Paige – and eventually a delicately illustrated story with a satisfying arc. Brian learned new working methods, including casting resin, etching metal, and wiring branches with minuscule lights. Altogether he fabricated fifty furniture items and objects for Paige’s alcove.
Here is a book review, details about Paige’s abode, and conversations with all three creators.
Paige of Beacon Hill is a well-crafted and delicately illustrated tale of displacement, friendship, and finding a home. As the story opens, Paige the squirrel is content with her few possessions – four books and a postage stamp – and lives in a simple cupboard in an abandoned building. Perceptive children will notice a birdfeeder outside the window, her food supply.
When workmen arrive, “Drills buzzed. Saws whined. The air was full of dust.” They move Paige’s cupboard. She escapes in a panic, but where will she go in this busy city? Ferris, the white dog, recognizes her dire situation and points out the park at the end of the street. Paige scurries there and curls up, bereft, in a tree hole.
Charlie, another squirrel, befriends Paige, and soon other new friends appear. She misses her books, though. Surprised that Paige can read, Charlie asks her to tell him a story. Soon she shares tales with everyone. When Ferris reappears, Paige learns that her old building is now a bookstore. She investigates and finds a little door just her size. Inside she is surrounded by new books! Her cupboard is clean, and her precious books await.
Author Sarah S. Brannen’s narrative is economic and heartwarming. Children will feel the trauma of suddenly becoming displaced and the reassurance that friends can provide. Paige’s saga warmly unfolds in bright squirrels-eye-view watercolor washes and sepia ink lines.
The art depicts actual locales near Boston’s Beacon Hill: the Charles Street Supply hardware store, Victorian iron gates leading into the Public Garden with its popular swan boats, the sculpture of George Washington, and the picturesque footbridge. There is even a family of ducks like those in Robert McCloskey’s iconic book Make Way for Ducklings. And of course the real-life bookstore. This satisfying story and enchanting artwork will please book-loving children of all ages.
Note: For now, Paige of Beacon Hill by Sarah S. Brannen is exclusively available at Beacon Hill Books.
About Paige’s cabinet
I have known Brian Lies for some time as a talented craftsman whose attention to detail and emotion in his book illustrations have earned him a well-deserved Caldecott Honor award. His skill at adapting to small-scale dimensional media, as shown in his cubby for Paige, the squirrel, is a new forte. Brian referred to Melissa as a “visionary” for inspiring the bookstore, the book, and Paige’s home. His collaboration with Sarah, instigated by Melissa’s commissions, has yielded inspired results.
References to Boston abound. Brian constructed a tiny box from Mike’s Pastry, a North End favorite, with miniature cannolis inside. The famous Citgo sign appears on one wall. A sculpture of Nack, one of the ducklings from Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, stands on the floor. With the artist’s permission, Brian modeled it on one from Nancy Schön’s bronze sculpture of the duck family in the Public Garden. Above the fireplace hangs Brian’s version of the Rembrandt painting Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, one of the artworks stolen from the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in 1990. The globe on the mantel references Gilman Joslin, the renowned 1800s globe maker who lived at 71 Charles Street, now the home of Beacon Hill Books and Café. The swans on Paige’s stamp, which Sarah painted and Brian printed out and framed, refer to the Public Garden’s popular swan boats.
Brian’s craftsmanship is impressive. The fireplace and its hearth is one example. First, he constructed the shape of plywood with rabetted edges, then glued on actual beach pebbles. He said he “followed real masonry ‘best practices’ with two-over-one or one-over-two” stones to avoid long vertical or horizontal seams. He lined the hearth interior with firebricks cut from an egg carton and charred these walls over a candle flame. The hearth bricks were made of Das air-hardening modeling clay textured with a ball of foil and individually cut, then glued in and mortared with plaster of Paris. For andirons, he used beads and square brass stock soldered together.
Brian fabricated the acorn table lamp and cast the wall sconces in translucent resin and inserted LEDs. From the ceiling hangs a chandelier made of Japanese maple twigs and teeny LED lights. The fire in the hearth has red LEDs that flicker realistically. For Paige’s front door, identical to the human-scaled one, he made a model of wood, made a mold of that, then cast it in resin. The street number plate and the back plate of the doorknob are brass onto which he acid etched the numbers and dotted pattern. He also etched the brackets that hold the copper water pipe to the wall above the sink. In this subtle way, he signed this artful environment. Yes, Paige’s toothbrush is there, a tumbler made from a Covid test kit tube, soap in a soap dish, and a tube of “Fang” toothpaste over the sink, which Brian made with a scallop shell resting in a big acorn cap.
All the floorboards are individual wooden planks. On Paige’s bed is a red pillow with an H, a nod to Melissa Fetter’s husband, Trevor, who is a faculty member at Harvard. The two white pillows at the headboard are herbal tea bags. A storage shelf high on the wall is for boxes of random “stuff.” There are three doors to pique your curiosity. The one with the arched top is, of course, Paige’s bathroom. But what of the trapdoor on the floor? And the door high up on the wall with its cord and twig ladder? Only Paige (and maybe Brian) knows for sure.
JAZ: How did your bookstore’s logo come about? Which idea came first, the squirrel or the bookstore?
MF: The idea of establishing a bookstore on Beacon Hill came first after a 30-year hiatus without a bookstore in this neighborhood with a literary history. I asked the artist who designed our logo to create an image of a squirrel sitting on a stack of books with an acorn in hand that looked like an old engraving.
JAZ: Your logo concept is charming. What motivated you to then commission the book, and how did you choose Sarah Brannen?
MF: Since children’s books and programming were always an important part of my vision for the store, it was only natural to commission a children’s book about a squirrel living in a bookstore on Beacon Hill. I was connected with Sarah through my friend and book layout editor, Amy Drinker.
JAZ: An excellent choice! How did you present the commission for Paige’s abode to Brian?
MF: Sarah mentioned the project to her friend Brian and it sparked his interest. It was so fortunate for me as Brian was so invested in the project and he took great care to create each object with enormous skill and creativity.
JAZ: Bravo on bringing Sarah’s delightful picture book and Brian’s skilled artistry into the world!
MF: At this time, Paige of Beacon Hill will only be available at Beacon Hill Books. Come visit us and see where Paige lives!
JAZ: There were two concrete ideas in Melissa’s proposal – that a squirrel would live in a cupboard in the building and that the book and the real squirrel abode should coordinate. Anything else?
SB: Melissa mentioned that the squirrel might live in the bookstore at night, when it was closed, and go to the Public Garden during the day. She also had an idea that the squirrel will pick out a favorite book and mark it with an acorn in some way, but after toying with including that in the story we all decided to leave it out. Melissa wanted the book to be a good story; that was the most important thing for her.
JAZ: How did you prepare for this project? (You said that your father was an architect and for awhile you freelanced making renderings of buildings based on architectural plan drawings.)
SB: I went into Boston – my first visit since the start of the pandemic – and visited the building, which was gutted and empty. It really inspired me. I went into town a couple of times and walked all around Beacon Hill and the Public Garden and took tons of pictures. It was funny getting the shots from a squirrel’s point of view. But no one batted an eyelash. Bostonians have seen everything.
JAZ: How did Brian get involved?
SB: I knew Brian was a skilled fine carpenter and very crafty. I asked him whether he knew anyone who might want to build Paige’s house and I was THRILLED when he raised his own hand.
JAZ: Character names are so significant. How did you arrive at choosing Paige?
SB: I love naming my characters. I had many ideas and I just played around, imagining how the book would read if the character had that name. I thought of Charlie for a while, because of the Charles River. Then I was thinking of book-related names and got attached to Paige. I wanted the squirrel to be female so I was looking for a name that would make that clear.
JAZ: There’s a bit of trauma when Paige suddenly becomes homeless, evidenced by that single tear as she curls up in the tree hole. Fortunately, her new friends support her – especially Charlie and Ferris. How did you determine the perfect balance between calamity and resolution?
SB: Oh, that went through many drafts. There has to be *some* conflict or drama in a story, it can’t all be warm and sweet! For a while, poor Paige got chased by Ferris, but I felt bad about making him the villain. Ferris, sadly now departed, was Melissa’s own sweet dog. She had wanted him to appear in an illustration somewhere, but it was my idea to make him a character.
JAZ: Kids who pay attention will realize that the reason Paige is not familiar with acorns is that the birdfeeder outside the building window has been providing her meals. An interesting detail.
SB: Thanks! Since she never leaves the building in the beginning, I had to figure out how she was getting food.
JAZ: Did the story arc evolve easily or were there parts that needed deep effort?
SB: Oh, it took some effort, for sure. I had written and polished a whole story that we all decided to discard, and I had to start over from scratch after about a month.
JAZ: When revising do you follow a specific strategy? (Years ago I heard a well-known children’s author say that she had a seven-stage revision process – imagine going through once for sentence variation and structure, another time for trimming needless words, etc.)
SB: Gosh, that’s so organized! What a great idea. No, I don’t do anything like that. I read drafts aloud a lot, which is very revealing. And I share them with two critique groups. I really rely on my writer/illustrator friends to notice places that need work.
JAZ: And how did you coordinate your art with Brian’s work? Tricky to be both developing visuals simultaneously.
SB: Once I had a rough dummy I sent it to Brian and we talked a lot about what the house might look like. Then he sent me sketches, and I sent some back, etc. He made a rough cardboard model of the house and we got together to look at that. He was great about sharing most of his ideas as he went along.
There was a moment where I had to push him to finish a few things, because I had left those illustrations for last and there was no time left. I gave him a list of the things that HAD to be finalized, and he sent me pictures of what I needed.
JAZ: As you did the sketches and finished illustrations, did you have input from the book’s designer, Amy Drinker?
SB: Yes, Amy and I worked closely throughout. She was great. She has a very sharp eye for details, both for art and writing.
JAZ: About the cover?
SB: I just wanted to convey an emotion of joy in the place. And I wanted to show some motion, so I gave her a scarf and had it blow in the wind.
JAZ: About Paige’s stamp and the four books…why those personal items and what were their specifics? Did you actually make three-dimensional versions of Paige’s four books and the stamp?
SB: I needed to show that Paige loved books from the beginning. The stamp was just an idea that popped into my head unexpectedly and I liked the rhythm of the sentence. I did indeed create the art for those items. At the absolute last minute I realized that they needed to be in the house and since I had drawn them in the illustrations I needed to make them for real. I did the book covers and Brian printed them and put them around little books he had made.
JAZ: A kindhearted detail is Melissa walking her dog Ferris on the dedication page. Ferris had a major role in the book in that he pointed out the Public Garden to Paige during her initial emergency. Any other “hidden” references to whatever?
SB: Yes, I put that in as a little salute to Melissa. She didn’t know I was going to. As for the rest, well, the ducks next to the Swan Boat are obviously the duck family from Make Way for Ducklings. And, look very very carefully at the books on the shelf above Paige on page 32.
JAZ: You used watercolor and sepia ink to create clean, bright artwork. For the illustrators reading this article, what weight of paper do you prefer? What brand(s) of watercolor? A steel nib or crowquill pen?
SB: The paper is 300 lb. Arches bright white cold press. The ink work was done with Faber Castell Pitt pens in dark sepia, and for the finest work, Graphik line markers in sepia. Despite a lifetime of trying, I’ve just never gotten the hang of crow quill or fountain pens.
JAZ: The spread when Paige sees the interior of the new bookstore is very specific. Presumably, you had by then seen the finished renovation?
SB: Indeed I had not. The work had barely begun at that point. I did the illustration based on the architect’s plans and elevations, and I had paint chips and fabric swatches. I had to call on my previous architectural illustration skills.
JAZ: Details in the art coordinate so well with Brian’s depiction of the real abode: the table lamp, pattern within the wainscotting, bed, cutting board, fireplace and chandelier. Brian made them, then you illustrated them, or you depicted the items, and he made them match?
SB: Both. I had a lot of ideas about the items that would show in my illustrations, so I kind of designed the bed and the lamp next to the bed, and the chandelier. But Brian is responsible for most of the furnishings.
JAZ: Your coda at the end, that each night Paige would read, then each day she would share the story with her friends “And that was the best part.” is brilliant, btw.
SB: Thank you!
JAZ: While creating and accessorizing Paige’s space you succeeded in bridging from the illustrated environments within your picture books to small-scale sculpture. How do you like this tactile work?
BL: I’ve always made things, but they’ve mostly been one-off things, like an Arts & Crafts bookshelf, a pair of bedside tables, etc. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try to create a magical, small space, and the demands of figuring out exactly how I was going to create each of the objects, using a wide variety of materials and techniques, hit that “I gotta try this!” part of my brain. I doubt I’ll ever do a full miniature interior like this again, but I’ve gained a whole new set of “maker skills” that I’m sure I’ll be able to use in other projects.
JAZ: Among these new materials and techniques, what are you especially proud of?
BL: There were several things I’d never done before—pouring silicone molds for casting objects like acorn sconce lights, or a tiny replica of one of the “Make Way for Ducklings” statues in the Boston Public Garden. I enjoyed etching with ferric chloride, too, and can see making engraved brass labels/plates in the future. I was impressed by the intricate detail that both the epoxy molding and etching give.
JAZ: Three doors are visible in Paige’s habitat. What about these other spaces?
BL: Haha— I’ll never tell! One is fairly obvious: the arched door on the back wall with the mini squirrel silhouette on it must be Paige’s bathroom. But the other two—one hidden in the floorboards, and the other high up, accessible by a twig-and-rope ladder—are there for us to wonder about what’s beyond. I’ve seen what’s there, but there’s something about not knowing for sure that sparks the imagination of viewers. An attic space? A root cellar or a media room? Who knows?
JAZ: Your attention to detail is remarkable. Even the squirrel-sized door you made for beside the human entry to the bookstore has a number and doorknob back plate of acid-etched brass. How did you do those tiny designs?
BL: I learned about etching brass and copper with ferric chloride from the internet. You print out a reversed image with a laser printer set to its highest toner density. Then you warm the metal you want to etch, attach the paper toner-side-down, and iron the paper to transfer the toner to the metal. Once the whole thing cools, you very gently rub the paper off under water, leaving only the toner behind on the metal, as a stencil or mask. A bath in ferric chloride etches where the toner isn’t, and when you’re satisfied with the depth of the etch, you wash everything off and then polish the metal surface. The details you can get with this process are exquisite! I did both the front door plates and the escutcheon straps holding Paige’s copper water supply pipe in place with this process.
JAZ: Brian, thanks for sharing your newest talents and inventive solutions!
Melissa Fetter, Sarah Brannen, and Brian Lies have added enormously to the book lore available to the world. This fruitful relationship between a bookstore, an animal, a tiny home, and a picture book should be invigorating for children and those who buy books for them.
For more on Brian Lies check out Interview with Totally Talented Brian Lies.
The day of the reception a TV crew filmed the bookstore and interviews with Sarah and Brian which which aired on The Hub Today on Channel 10. Watch it here.
Beacon Hill Books and Café
71 Charles Street
Boston, MA 02114
Paige of Beacon Hill
Published by Beacon Hill Books
32 pages ©2022 Printed in Canada
Photographs by Egils Zarins except for images of Mike’s Pastry, backscratcher, escutcheon straps and copper pipe, which were by Brian Lies.