Josh Verhagen is a busy man.
He and his wife are raising two young boys. He helps operate a contracting business with his brothers. He is the mayor of Nenana. And he just wrote, illustrated and published his first children’s book.
“Eddie the Ermine: Alaskan Animal Adventures” is a hardcover book that tells the story of a little creature he finds mesmerizing and is an animal that is often overlooked.
“I started the actual book, writing and illustrating, in November 2016, so it’s been over two years,” Verhagen said.
The path that led to this project really began when he learned to speak the Mandarin language.
“I actually started writing a book in 2010 on how to learn Mandarin Chinese,” he said. “When I learned Mandarin, I could not find any good books that were step by step, from ground zero.”
That draft is still sitting in a drawer. His attention turned instead to children’s books after his family began growing. He regularly reads to his two boys and he found he was more and more dissatisfied with the books he was reading.
“I remember ‘Otto the Fish,’ ‘Millions of Cats,’ ‘The Hungry Caterpillar,’ ‘Five Chinese Brothers,’” he said. “In my opinion, classic books that taught a moral to the story, with decent illustrations and were fun.”
He also has a love for art and a talent for illustrating on a computer. When he discovered software that would allow him to use his own photographs and then adapt them to his story, he got excited.
“I’m not a professional photographer, but I feel like I have an eye for photography,” Verhagen said. “I just never spent any time developing it.”
Verhagen began photographing the scenery around his hometown of Nenana and combined those images to illustrate the story. He pointed out some of the local scenery in pages of the book.
“These roots of a spruce tree are a real photo,” he said. “Those are hills actually behind the Monderosa. That’s a rose bush in my yard. That’s sunset over the Tanana River.”
He runs the photos through a special filter, digitally paints over them and then adds the characters. Each page is really the result of dozens of images.
“It’s not a quick and easy process, which is why it took over two years to illustrate,” he said.
Growing up on a hillside overlooking the Tanana River and the town of Nenana, Verhagen was familiar with ermines. But once he began researching them, he became even more fascinated. The book now includes a page showing all the other mammals the ermine is related to. He couldn’t find a page in any other children’s book that displayed all the members of the Mustelidae family in one spot. His may be the first.
Each page of the book also features a local flower.
“There are tons of flowers in Nenana,” he said. “They’re so pretty. I wanted to showcase some of that.
The animals that became characters in the book are also a little unusual. They include a boreal chickadee, a cross fox and a great gray owl.
There are also hidden animals on each page, something that can catch the attention of perceptive readers.
Most importantly, Eddie the Ermine’s story shares a lesson or two.
“Success doesn’t come in an instant,” Verhagen said. “Sometimes it takes quite awhile, but in the end, it’s worth it.
“Also, it’s easy to take something from somebody else, but you don’t feel good afterwards. Not the way you feel when you put in the work and time of building something.
“I also wanted to share that in most cases, there is enough to go around,” he said.
In the story, Eddie the Ermine is looking for new straw for his nest. He finds other animals already have straw, but they won’t share. In fact, he gets turned down repeatedly.
“I also wanted to portray a good father-son relationship,” Verhagen said. It is Eddie’s dad who gives him the responsibility of finding new straw.
“Also, I just really wanted to have fun learning about nature,” Verhagan said. “We have moved to such a digital age, everyone is just behind a screen.”
The fun bit of repetition in the story itself is tailor-made for little readers. And when the adult reader gets to the part where there can be a peck on the nose or a nip of the toes, lots of giggling may ensue.
The book is 16 pages, with 32 illustrations and it is a large size for a board book. That is because of his two little boys. He wanted the book to be durable.
There are more adventures in Eddie the Ermine’s future. This book takes place in the summer. Future books featuring Eddie will happen during the other seasons.
The next project may not take two years, but it won’t happen right away either.
As mayor, Verhagan has a city to manage. His main mission is to make sure he and his staff have a positive attitude and a good work ethic. Just a year into his term, Verhagen is helping Nenana climb out of a financial hole and has instituted payment plans for outstanding bills.
Verhagen has a bachelor’s degree in East Asian politics and languages. In college, he also started learning the Athabascan language and now regularly attends language nights in Nenana.
“It’s important to preserve Native language,” he said. “Especially when 40% of the population is Athabascan.”
He likes living in his hometown of Nenana and has no plans to leave. Besides, Eddie the Ermine will have some future adventures here and he needs to document those adventures for new little readers.
See more about Eddie the Ermine on Facebook: eddietheermine. Or visit his website to order a book: bit.ly/2ZgIxqp.
Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at firstname.lastname@example.org. Call her at the office 459-7546. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMKris.