Children’s tale takes flight for senior author, illustrator

“The Adventures of a Sparrow Named Stanley” has a lesson good for any age, least of all for the creators of the children’s book.

Stanley is a common house sparrow who teaches readers to be the best sparrow they can be no matter how ordinary or insignificant they think they are. Author Betty Sydow, 89, and illustrator Carolou Lennon Nelsen, 88, speak from firsthand experience.

“I have children and grandchildren, and they love the fact that my friend and me worked together to accomplish this,” Nelsen says to Long-Term Living. “My daughter said to me, ‘You know, mother, if you were 50 years old, you would not be getting this much attention.’ The idea of us being older and still being creative I think is part of what has brought this to the forefront.”

“People don’t realize that old people still have lives and can be creative and do wonderful things,” Sydow chirps.

“We’re not sitting in a retirement home twiddling our thumbs,” Nelson pipes in.

Sydow and Nelsen live at Harwood Place, a senior living facility in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Sydow, a former psychiatric nurse, took her first creative writing course three years ago. There, she started experimenting with different kinds of writing formats, including poems, short stories and fables. Writing instructor Christi Craig said Sydow’s fable read like a children’s book. Sydow took it from there.

“It almost wrote itself,” Sydow says. “The rewriting took time and effort.” Sydow spend a year and a half on her book, but she’s quick to quip that Stanley has been a leisure hobby, not a full-time career. “I didn’t do this 9-to-5 every day. I’d spend a couple hours one day and then maybe I wouldn’t do anything for a week. I’d think about it, and then I’d go back and change some things. It was a slow process, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I enjoyed writing and rewriting.”

Sydow had chosen the characters and written the general plot when she asked Nelsen if she’d be interested in illustrating it. “She read the story and said she really liked it but said she had never done that kind of artwork,” Sydow says of Nelson, a former primary school art teacher and school social worker for special education children and their families. “I said, ‘That’s OK, I’ve never written a book. The two of us got together and finished it and then it was a question of then what, how do we get this published.”

The story of how Stanley got published seems like fiction. Harwood Place started a bucket list project as part of its 110th anniversary celebration. “I said, ‘Oh, you’re talking to me! All I want to do is get my children’s book published,’” Sydow says. Her entry was chosen and in no time Sydow was connected with a publisher and editor. They called themselves team Stanley and even had shirts made with Nelsen’s red vest wearing cartoon watercolor pencil Stanley.

Stanley is a young sparrow just old enough to leave his mother’s nest. Together they find a place, and she shows him how to gather dried grass, yarn and twigs to make his nest comfortable. Then he makes it his own: fashioning dryer lint into a soft, cozy bed and transforming a crumpled piece of aluminum foil into a mirror.

Once settled, Stanley decides he wants friends. Stanley’s adventures are more a quest to find his own kind, both literally as a type of bird to fly with and metaphorically as like-minded anthromorphized birds.

“I heard one person say, ‘Why did she choose a sparrow? That’s an insignificant bird,’” Nelsen says. ‘I said, ‘That’s the whole point!’ Stanley wanted to be famous so he could make friends. Well, all children want to make friends. So Betty had a good view of how children could relate, (but) I think the message is good for any age.”

Stanley is creative, persistent and resourceful. He repeatedly tries to make friends. “If at first you don’t succeed…” Sydow trails off. Try, try again. And try Stanley does. He licks his wounds for three days and then gets right back at it. “Well, if he’s going to be the hero of the story, heroes have to be persistent. Heroes have to overcome obstacles,” Sydow says.

Like Stanley, Sydow had to overcome her own obstacles to write the story. She has macular degeneration, so she wrote the story out by hand using a magnifying glass. She asked her Craig and her friend to type her story and rewrites for her. She asked another member of her creative writing class, who was a children’s librarian, to provide feedback. Nelsen corresponds with Team Stanley via e-mail.

Now her fellow residents and fans are asking about Sydows’s next work. “People come up to Betty in the hallway and say, ‘Are you going to do another book?’ Nelsen says. “She just smiles and says ‘I don’t know. Maybe. If that happens, It’s very much in the early making, right Betty?”

“Right,” Sydow says. “I have some ideas in mind but I don’t want to tell Carolou because she’s anxious to get back to her watercolors. Maybe next year.”

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