Local gardening author brings talent to children's literature
SAXTONS RIVER -- Henry Homeyer has grown accustomed to seeing his name in print.
An avid gardener, he has published four books and writes a regular column in regional newspapers, including the Reformer. But he's used to detailing spades, soils and seeds -- not a boy born with facial hair.
Homeyer's fifth work, "Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet," was recently published by Bunker Hill Publishing and is on select bookshelves now. The story chronicles a young schoolboy named Wobar, who was born with a mustache and adopted by a married couple. Wobar is a bit of an outcast and is picked on by other children because of the hair above his upper lip.
Main Street Arts will host a reading and book-signing at 4 p.m. on Saturday. Homeyer will be present and copies of the 40-chapter book will be available for purchase.
But it isn't just a book. For Homeyer, it's "a life's dream come true."
The story of Wobar originated both on a Saxtons River playground and in Homeyer's own subconscious. In the summer of 1966, after completing his sophomore year at Dartmouth College, Homeyer was in desperate need of a seasonal job. He was offered the chance to help run a summer creation program in Saxtons River and happily accepted, living with a co-worker on the Kurn Hattin Homes campus in town.
"The first day I was expecting 50 or 60 kids -- 125 showed up. ... So I played every game I could think of. They were supposed to go home at 4, at 3:30 I was out of stuff to do. So I said, ‘Sit down under this tree and I'll tell you a story,'" he recalled with a smile. "I figured it would take them a half-hour to sit down and shut up. It was as if someone shot them out of the air and landed ‘clump.' So I had to tell them a story. But I didn't have a story prepared and I wasn't about to tell someone's story, so I made something up."
He is not quite sure how, but he came up with the idea of a newborn boy, named Wobar, who was found on a doorstep with a full head of hair and a mustache. Homeyer told the children a little more of the story each day and told the Reformer everyone can relate to Wobar in some way, as he was an outcast due to his appearance.
"Kids would tell the story at supper to their older brothers and sisters and their mom and dad and about halfway through the summer parents started coming to me and saying, ‘Henry, this is an amazing story you're telling. You ought to write it as a book.' And I said, ‘Yeah, I will some day,'" he said. "Well, I was a college student so I forgot about that."
Life went on for Homeyer, who graduated from Dartmouth with a degree in biology and taught elementary school for four years before going off to see the world. He went through Europe and across the Sahara Desert before arriving in Cameroon and joining the Peace Corps and spending nine years in Africa.
When he was getting ready to move back to the United States, he tried to figure out what to do with himself. He decided to write "Wobar" and, as he puts, "become rich and famous." He wrote one chapter a day, careful to leave on a cliff-hanger, and sent it to the Harper & Rowe publishing house in New York City. After a couple of months, he received a polite rejection letter and chose to put his dreams of publication on hold while writing little pieces of it from time to time.
It wasn't until about six years ago, when he got encouragement from friend Nardi Reeder Campion, that he again got serious about getting the book printed. Campion, who has since died, gave him a magnet with a Calvin Coolidge quote about persistence (found in the dedication page of ‘Wobar') and that piece of refrigerator decor acted as Homeyer's inspiration.
A co-publisher expressed some doubts about the book, so Homeyer told her to give it to her granddaughter.
"So she took the manuscript, read it and couldn't put it down. She said, ‘Grandma, this is the best book I've ever read,'" said Homeyer, 66. "So they published it -- thanks to a 9-year-old girl."
What makes the book's publication even more special to Homeyer is that his stepson, Josh Yunger, did all the illustrations. Homeyer said it was not easy for his stepson, an artist who has worked on more than a dozen books, to learn to read and "Wobar" made the process more enjoyable for him.
Yunger, who attended the Art Institute of Chicago, has done the art work for Homeyer's four gardening books and dedicated much of his time to freelance work for newspapers. He said he crafted his first drawing of the character Wobar when he was 10 or 11 years old and also knew he would be Homeyer's illustrator, even each the time the project got put on the back-burner.
"It's pretty magical that it's something I can now hold in my hand because it's something I've been thinking about for 25 years," he said, adding that "Wobar" was the first non-comic book that intrigued him. "I hadn't had a book that really grabbed me like that one."
Yunger, 37, ironically published his own children's book -- called "Hippo and Monkey" -- the same time "Wobar" came out.
The true origins of Homeyer's idea remain a mystery even to him, though he learned from his sister years after first telling the story that parts of his childhood were apparent.
There is a cougar, known as Roxie, in the book. Homeyer originally thought it was just a random name until his sister told him of a little bull terrier that lived next door to the family in Milford, Conn., when Homeyer was in the first grade. The dog's name was Roxie, named so because it used to chase and fetch rocks.
"I had totally forgotten that there was a dog named Roxie," Homeyer said. "The cougar's name is from a dog -- I didn't know that until 10 years after I told the story."
John Hitchcock was one of the children listening to the first tellings of "Wobar" underneath a maple tree in 1966. Though time has erased the specifics of the story, he said he definitely remembers bits and pieces of it.
"I'd love to get a hold of a copy of the book," said Hitchcock, now a cabinetmaker in White River Junction, who kept in touch with Homeyer over the years. "It was just a great time.
"(Henry) was great. He had a special way with kids," Hitchcock recalled. "All of my memories of him are very fond."
Heidi Lauricella, the program coordinator at Main Street Arts, said board member Sue Cota has been attempting to track down as many people as possible who were children at the Saxtons River summer recreation program in the summer of ‘66.
She said a local man named Tim Stevenson first approached her with the idea of holding a reading. She said the MSA loved the idea because writing is its own art form.
"Main Street Arts is definitely an arts center but it's also a community center," she said. "We have a Scrabble group that meets, we have foreign language pot lucks that happen ... so I think that part of our mission -- the bringing community members from Saxtons River together -- is really being met."
Homeyer said he tips his cap to MSA for looking at the bigger picture and taking on something that is a little out of its purview.
"I just feel so blessed that this diverse group of people and organizations are coming together to promote the book," he said. "Things throughout my life have sort of fallen into place. I'm kind of a believer in destiny."
Homeyer said his new book will be sold, among other locations, at Village Square Booksellers in Bellows Falls and he is in the process of speaking with bookstores in Brattleboro.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.
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