ESSEX — This is the story of how an injured lamb named Sweet Pea started a war. Well, a bidding war.
About a year ago, John and Jennifer Churchman's border collie, Laddie, found that one of their lambs had hurt a leg in the barn on the Vermont farm where they keep sheep, ducks and geese.
John Churchman called a veterinarian and kept the couple's Facebook group up to date on Sweet Pea's recovery. Online supporters urged a celebration. Giving in to whimsy, the Churchmans dressed their animals up in hats and leis, and fed them delicacies like pumpkin slices.
Through the process, John Churchman took photos of the animals, the sun and ice patterns — all images that formed the illustrations for "Sweet Pea & Friends: The SheepOver," a children's book they initially self-published with support and suggestions from online followers. They used a crowdfunding campaign to raise the money for a print run of 4,000 books, which has almost sold out.
John Churchman took a copy to The Flying Pig Bookstore in nearby Shelburne and sold three books while showing it to owner Elizabeth Bluemle, who ordinarily turns down self-published books.
The next day she wrote a post that appeared on the Publisher's Weekly ShelfTalker blog. "It was hard not to jump over the counter and pump his hand in congratulations," she wrote.
"This is the unicorn of self-published books because you never find the trifecta of beautiful production, a lovely story and authors who understand what it takes to create a wonderful book that kids love," Bluemle said last week in an interview at her store.
"We've gone through cases of this book," she said.
Within days, the Churchmans were represented by New York literary agent Brenda Bowen, who in an earlier job was part of the team at Scholastic Press that acquired the North American rights for the first "Harry Potter" book.
What followed was a bidding war for Sweet Pea's story among five major publishing houses. Now the Churchmans have a generous six-figure advance; the story of Sweet Pea, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, is in stores in time for Christmas; and they're working on the second installment of their three-book deal, continuing to tell stories with words and images that are inspired by their animals.
John Churchman is a fine art photographer with a background in painting and graphic design. Jennifer Churchman is a writer with a background in marketing and product branding.
They have dozens of animals on their Essex farm, which they consider models for their photographs. In the process, they get to know their distinct personalities.
"As we watch them every day little story lines unfold and then we pair them with John's images," Jennifer Churchman said. "It just creates this wonderful story, a true story that we think really resonates, especially with children, and many, many adults."