It’s a 50-year-long publishing saga with several serendipitous turns. In the 1960s, John Miller, an American living in Rome, teamed up with a friend, Italian artist Giuliano Cucco, to create four nature-themed picture books. Back in New York City, Miller had no luck selling the projects to publishers, so he put them aside and lugged them from apartment to apartment whenever he moved. He finally stashed them away in the attic of his house in Sullivan Country, N.Y., north of the city, and forgot about them for decades. Now the books have found a home with Enchanted Lion Books, and the first, Winston & George, the story of the friendship between a crocodile and a crocodile bird, will be released in March. Here’s how the books came to be – and came to be published.

Miller, who is now 80, moved to Rome in 1956 with lofty literary aspirations. “I was living as an expatriate of sorts, trying to write the great American novel, believing that my true task in life was to be an author like Hemingway,” he said. The writer struck up a friendship with Cucco, whose studio in central Rome he often visited because, he said, “Giuliano was a very nice guy to hang out with.” Though Miller can’t recall which of them proposed that they collaborate on picture books, they had finished four of them by the time the author returned to New York in 1966, toting the manuscripts and artwork with him.

Miller said he received positive feedback from publishers to whom he showed the books, but there were no takers. “A number of them said they liked it, but didn’t want to publish it because the lavish illustrations were four-color, and at that time it was very costly to separate colors,” he recalled. “So I stored away the manuscripts and art, and didn’t think of them for years. Then, a couple of winters ago, I was laying down insulation in my attic and spotted the brown portfolio that I remembered carting around Manhattan years ago.”

The contents of the portfolio offered a pleasant surprise. “The art was still absolutely gorgeous, which is miraculous,” said Miller. “Over the years I’d heard squirrels and mice galore running around the attic, but the art was not at all damaged and looked exactly as it did when I left Rome 50 years before.”

The author was also pleased that his stories had stood the test of time. “As I reread the books, I realized that my true talent is writing about nature,” he said. “I was right on [target] with those stories, not with the dead-end novel I had been writing at the same time.” Though that endeavor did not pan out, Miller went on to write fiction and nonfiction stories about nature that have appeared in a number of magazines, including the New York Times Magazine and Audubon.

A House Opens Its Doors

Encouraged by friends, one of whom knew Muriel Bedrick, who started the eponymous Peter Bedrick Books with her husband in 1983, Miller decided to take another stab at finding a publisher for the picture books. Muriel Bedrick agreed to take a look at the works, and was sufficiently impressed that she recommended that Miller show them to her daughter, Claudia Zoe Bedrick, publisher and editorial director of Enchanted Lion Books, which she founded in 2003 with her father Peter (who died in 2004) and her sister Abigail.

The publisher, too, liked what Miller’s portfolio held. “I was astonished at the art’s composition and at the vibrancy of colors,” she said. “The illustrations have such wonderful detail, but they also have a spaciousness to them. They were very much within the aesthetic realm of what we look for here. And the stories are illuminating and offer such a compelling invitation to children to spend some time in the natural world. These are true little treasures, and I thought, ‘Since they exist on the margins, just like Enchanted Lion, I don’t want them to go anywhere else. They belong here with us.’ ”

Though Enchanted Lion is publishing an increasing number of originals, like the Miller-Cucco collaborations, the house has found a successful niche with picture books in translation. In fact, this year’s Mildred L. Batchelder Award for best work of translation was won by Enchanted Lion, for Mister Orange by Truus Matti, translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson, and two of the three Batchelder Honor books were also Enchanted Lion titles: My Father’s Arms Are a Boat by Stein Erik Lunde, illustrated by Øyvind Torseter, translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson; and The Bathing Costume or the Worst Vacation of My Life by Charlotte Moundlic, illustrated by Olivier Tallec, which Bedrick translated from the French.

When Miller learned that he had found a publisher for his collaborations with Cucco, with whom he’d lost contact, he tried to track down the artist. “I went hunting for all the Cuccos in Italy and looked through the membership lists of illustrators’ organizations worldwide, but I found nothing at all,” he said. The author finally connected with Cucco’s sister-in-law, who told him that the artist and his wife were killed in a motorcycle accident in 2006, but also mentioned that the couple had a son, Giovanni, who runs a computer company in northern Italy.

Miller reached out to Cucco’s son, who will receive the royalties that would have gone to his father. The author visited Giovanni’s family in Italy last summer (“I’m now kind of like the uncle from America,” he said), and recently arranged for a friend traveling to Italy to deliver a finished copy of Winston & George to him. Miller shared a note from Giovanni, part of which (in Miller’s translation) reads, “You can’t imagine my face when I pulled out the book – the smile that appeared on my lips. I expected a handsome book but never something so beautiful. It is a masterpiece and an extraordinary tribute to my father. I’ll never tire of thanking you.”

Winston & George will be followed by Miller and Cucco’s other books from the 1960s: The Whirligig’s Story, The Red Spider Hero, and The Cicada and the Katydid, whose pub dates are not yet finalized. And due in May 2015 is Before I Grew Up, the story of Cucco’s years as a young artist, recently written by Miller and illustrated with 22 of the artist’s paintings.

Miller, thrilled that the text and art of his collaborations with Cucco have “held up so beautifully,” is enjoying, after so many years, donning a new hat as children’s book author. “I’m very pleased, but it’s not really a new hat,” he said. “It’s an old hat, and it fits beautifully. I love it.”

Winston & George by John Miller, illus. by Giuliano Cucco. Enchanted Lion, $17.95 Mar. ISBN 978-1-59270-145-2