Shaping Shapesville

Three "Kids" Publish an Important New Children's Book

The latest literary success at Kenyon involves three students, five professors, a serious need, an idea that in retrospect seems delightfully simple, months of work that was anything but simple, and a swimming pool in California.

The success in question is Shapesville, a whimsical, affirming book about body image for young children, written by three recent graduates who never dreamed that what began as an unusual independent-study project would result not only in publication but in an initial press run of 10,000 copies and extensive promotion to schools, libraries, book stores, families, and eating-disorder specialists.

"It's kind of surreal," says Andy Mills '02 , who wrote the book with fellow psychology major Becky Osborn '02 in the spring of their senior year. The two found the perfect illustrator in Erica Neitz '01, a studio-art graduate and builder of "fun, funky" furniture who had stayed in Gambier to work as a technician in the art department. Shapesville, about a happy, colorful world where Daisy the orange diamond and Sam the blue square revel in their individuality, unbothered by their size or shape, will be available in book stores this fall.

"Every kid who has seen it has loved it," says Leigh Cohn, who with his wife Lindsey Hall runs G ü rze Books, a California-based publishing house that specializes in literature on eating disorders. G ü rze had never published a children's book before, but Shapesville, with its simple rhymes and playful drawings, captured their imagination. And the publishers felt confident that the material was educationally appropriate because they knew and trusted two of the authors' mentors, Kenyon psychology professors (and eating-disorder experts) Linda Smolak and Michael Levine.

The idea for Shapesville began when Mills, as a junior, was conducting research with Smolak and her colleague Sarah Murnen about the media's influence on body image among elementary-school children. While most curricula designed to prevent eating disorders focus on middle- and high-school students, this research showed that younger children, too, were very much aware of body types glamorized in popular culture. Girls as young as six years old unhesitatingly said that one way they could try to look like Brittany Spears was to throw up or not eat at all.

Smolak and Levine had written a prevention curriculum aimed at adolescents. Mills felt that, for younger children, something more basic was needed. He suggested a children's book. To his surprise, Smolak and Murnen were enthusiastic about the idea. And Becky Osborn, who was involved in a different research project with Smolak, was so encouraging that Mills asked her to collaborate.

To call them neophytes would be to exaggerate their experience. Both of them had worked with kids and done research in schools, but they knew virtually nothing about creating children's literature. "We just knew that we wanted to write a book teaching kids to love their bodies," they would note later, in a paper about the project.

They began to read children's books relentlessly, learning in the process that there was nothing quite like what they had in mind. They met to do research and brainstorm during the summer after their junior year. Back at school, they visited book stores and libraries, drafted ideas, and grew frustrated by the difficulty of finding the right concept along with the right language.

"It's not easy to write children's books," says Osborn. "It's a totally different feeling, a totally different culture, a totally different flow. Every book has its own rhythm and mind-set."

They were not only frustrated; they were nervous, because Levine had agreed to make the book project a spring-semester independent-study course for them, but no book was emerging. "Our whole grade was dependent on producing a book," says Mills.

It wasn't until February that the idea hit them: in order to talk about how people come in different shapes and sizes, they would personify the shapes themselves; the shapes would be their characters. Sharing the work of writing, they came to understand the difficulties and rewards of collaboration--the sensitivity to criticism, the subtle competition, the gratitude when your partner exposes a problem that you knew was there but couldn't bring yourself to acknowledge, and eventually (in their case) the uncanny knack for thinking as one. "It got to the point," says Osborn, "where we could read each other's minds."

They found their illustrator after talking to the Kay and Barry Gunderson--Kay is a local teacher and Barry a long-time Kenyon art professor. At Barry's recommendation, they met wth Erica Neitz. "She really connected with our ideas," says Mills. "While we were talking, she started sketching. Her visual representation matched exactly what we wanted to do."

In developing her ideas, Neitz doodled endlessly until something grabbed her, then did her final drawings in felt marker. She scanned the drawings and used PhotoShop to fill in the colors, relying on technical pointers from another member of the art department, Claudia Esslinger.

The book emerged in a series of revisions, some in response to suggestions by the psychology professors, some in response to the reactions of children after they "tested" their work in local classrooms. Meanwhile, Mills and Osborn wrote a series of discussion questions for the book, to help teachers and parents use it as a springboard for talking with children about body-image issues. And, in order to interest publishers, they drafted a prospectus outlining the book's rationale, goals, and audience.

That spring, at the annual conference of the Academy of Eating Disorders in Boston, Levine showed a mockup of the book to Leigh Cohn of G ü rze Books. "I looked at it and thought, 'This really has some potential,'" Cohn recalls. "I took it back to Lindsey, and she loved it. And we were off and running."

In August, "the Kenyons" (as Cohn and Hall sometimes call the trio) flew out to the San Diego area to sign a contract. It's not typical for authors to meet in person with the publishers simply to put their names on the dotted line, let alone spend a day at their home, meet with their graphic designers, and jump in their pool for a game of water volleyball. But Cohn and Hall clearly have been taken with this project, and with its remarkable history. "We're thrilled at the idea that these kids just graduated from college and are getting a book published," says Cohn.

And the Kenyons, who worked with the publishers and graphic designers to fine-tune the book through the winter and spring of 2003, are thrilled as well. Mills is now a research analyst for a consulting firm in Dayton, Ohio, that studies decision-making. Osborn recently left a position with the admissions office of the Princeton Day School in Princeton, New Jersey. Neitz is about to move to Georgia to concentrate on her creative furniture.

Typical young graduates. Atypical authors.

"It seemed like an overwhelming task at first," says Mills, looking back at the whole experience.

"But we got great encouragement from our professors," adds Osborn. "They said, 'Go for it.' They had total confidence in us. That's why we had confidence in ourselves."

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