Life rather handily imitates art in Harcourt's promotional plans for an April picture book, The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman. In this tale, written by Darcy Pattison and illustrated by Joe Cepeda. a girl invites her Uncle Ray, a carpenter in South Carolina, to visit her in California. Since he's too busy to make the trip, he sends a surrogate guest: a fellow he fashions from wood, who carries a backpack and a sign announcing "California or Bust." As various travelers pick up Oliver K. Woodman and transport him closer to his destination, they send Ray notes chronicling Oliver's progress.
Grabbing a solid publicity handle, Harcourt has created a four-foot-tall wooden model of Oliver that will crisscross the country this spring, making stops at bookstores and libraries.
According to Lori Benton, publisher of Harcourt's children's book division, the idea of building a replica of Oliver suddenly occurred to her at a spring launch meeting. "It seemed a natural extension of the story," she said. "The wooden Oliver will not only get people excited about the character, but will give the book a longer life. And he will serve to promote not only the book, but letter-writing."
Oliver will travel in a trunk containing event kits that include an activity guide plus postcards, so that youngsters can write their own reports on the lad's whereabouts—and place them in his backpack.
Making Oliver Real
Though illustrator Cepeda is also a woodworker, he was not able to spare the time to create the model. Luckily, the publisher did not have to venture far to find willing woodworkers. Assistant editor Deborah Halverson (who works with Jeanette Larson, the book's editor) volunteered her husband's services. "My husband is a science teacher who teaches a class in wood shop," she explained. "We drew up schematics for the model of Oliver based on the book's illustrations and built him from ash, because it is durable but more lightweight than some woods. We attached some of Oliver's joints with wing nuts so that he can be disassembled at the hips for easier traveling."
The duo devoted five months of weekends to making three wooden Olivers: one to travel to bookstores, one to visit libraries and one as a spare. Making the project even more of a family affair, the mother of another Harcourt staffer stitched Oliver's leather satchel.
Re-creating Oliver in wood, Halverson remarked, presented the woodworking couple with a significant challenge. "Joe Cepeda worked a kind of magic giving Oliver such personality in the book," she said, "and we were hoping we could capture the essence of that personality. We didn't know if we had succeeded until we gave our Oliver his eyes. I knew that he had taken on an actual life when one point I stepped around him as he sat on the sofa with his feet sticking out. I couldn't get by easily and without thinking I said to him, 'Excuse me.' I knew then that he had become very real to us."
Oliver Meets His Public
Oliver's decidedly not-so-wooden personality also became quite apparent to visitors to Harcourt's booth at last month's ALA midwinter conference, where he made his debut. "He had an incredible presence in our booth," Benton commented. Convention-goers were apparently quite taken with this ready-to-roam fellow: the box that the publisher provided for librarians to place requests for a visit from Oliver was stuffed by the end of the show.
Oliver will be quite the busy boy in the coming months—Harcourt reports that response from retailers eager to host the character has been equally enthusiastic. After touching down at a variety of latitudes and longitudes (his itinerary already includes stops in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Texas and California), Oliver will journey to BEA in Los Angeles in late May, where the bookseller-visiting version will be auctioned off (along with his backpack filled with kids' correspondence) at the annual auction to benefit the Association of Booksellers for Children.
One bookseller who anxiously awaits Oliver's arrival on her turf is Jonatha Foli, children's book buyer for Copperfield's Books, which has six stores in California's Sonoma and Napa counties. "I was absolutely taken by the book and by this character who—though he doesn't even have a mouth—somehow lets readers know what he's thinking and feeling," she said. "I know that kids will respond to the book's sense of imagination."
Foli (who notes that of the spring picture books she has purchased for her stores, "this is one of my larger buys") predicted that "with its charm, the book will take care of itself, but this promotion will surely scoot it along. We will be handselling this with grins on our faces." And she anticipates another cause for amusement: "My plan is to escort Oliver to three of our stores during the week he is with us. I'm especially excited to be traveling with him since in California we have a commuter lane on the freeway, which you can only use if you have two people riding in a car. So when I drive from store to store with Oliver in the front seat, I'll be able to use the commuter lane. I can just see people smiling as they see us driving along. I know I will be smiling!"
And undoubtedly Oliver would smile as well—if he only had a mouth.