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Susan Nipp: 'It's all about kids'

by Nick Rotunno
| December 26, 2010 8:00 PM

COEUR d'ALENE - In 2007, author Susan Nipp began work on a children's story about Coeur d'Alene. She created a fun, whimsical tale that goes like this:

On a fine summer day in the Lake City, Mudgy Moose and Millie Mouse play a long game of hide-and-seek, with Mudgy wandering around town in search of his tiny friend. He explores Tubbs Hill, goes to the library, strolls along Sherman Avenue and trots to Independence Point, all to no avail.

Finally (spoiler alert), a hapless Mudgy finds little Millie, who's been hiding in his big moose antlers the whole time.

Story complete, Nipp put together a hardcover book called "Mudgy & Millie," illustrated by the talented Charles Reasoner and published by Eastern Washington University Press.

Of course, the author's story grew into the well-known Mudgy Moose Trail, a walking path that follows Mudgy's journey around Coeur d'Alene. To mark the route, acclaimed artist Terry Lee crafted bronze, life-sized sculptures of the two lovable critters.

"It took a long time to put everything together," said the 66 year-old Nipp, who lives in Coeur d'Alene. "I had to really envision the whole thing and how it would work."

The entire Mudgy & Millie project was finished in September 2008. Since then, the tale's popularity has continued to grow. Area students often walk the trail, reading the story plaques and learning about the city's unique topography. Nipp also speaks with students at the Coeur d'Alene Public Library, where she gives special presentations.

"Oh, it's much larger than I had ever thought," Nipp said. "There's a lot of schools that come and have the experience with 'Mudgy and Millie.'"

The book is available at the library and Figpickels Toy Emporium on Sherman. Because "Mudgy & Millie" was a gift to the city, Nipp does not receive any royalties from the book, she said - proceeds benefit the Coeur d'Alene Public Library Foundation.

Born and raised in Spokane, Nipp studied music and education at Whitworth College. She taught high school and elementary students in Washington and Oregon, then partnered with Pamela Beall, a fellow teacher from Klamath Falls, Ore., to publish their first book in the late 1970s, Wee Sing Children's Songs and Fingerplays.

That project laid the groundwork for Wee Sing, a now 30-year-old company that publishes children's books, CDs and DVDs, and keeps Nipp very busy. Over the last three decades, she has written 80 books - mainly music and song collections - and written screenplays for nine videos.

"Mudgy & Millie," though, was her first true picture book for children.

Last Saturday, the author signed copies of the book at a library Christmas celebration. Terry Lee was on hand, and so was a full-size Mudgy Moose, carrying Millie in his antlers. As the critters posed for photographs and local kids met with Santa Claus, Nipp sat down and chatted about the Mudgy & Millie project - how it started, what she thinks of the book, and where the story goes from here.

Where did the book idea originate?

Actually, my daughter-in-law was going to Boston for a convention, and she was so excited to go because she wanted to see the bronze ducklings. I don't know if you've read the book "Make Way for Ducklings..." In that, some ducks are flying over Boston, and finding a place to nest, and you learn the different areas of Boston, so you get kind of familiar with Boston. So that was written in the '40s, and in the '70s or '80s somebody had the sculptures made that go along with the book. So I thought, if Boston can do that, why can't we do that? I thought, let's have a book about Coeur d'Alene, and have some kind of statues that kids would really love, and then I thought besides just one, what if we had a trail that kids could walk to and have more of an adventure?

How did your idea become the whole "Mudgy & Millie" experience?

(I wondered), what would my story be? And I even had to think about what characters would be fun. So I thought of the moose, that are indigenous to the area. Then I wrote my story, and I thought OK, I need statues and I need an illustrator. The illustrator I've done some books with (Charles Reasoner), so I asked him, and Terry of course is fabulous, and so wonderful to work with, so I asked if he'd be involved in the sculpture part. But then, it's not just me. I mean, there's a city involved, because this is city property. And I didn't want to take any money from this project at all. It was a gift to the city. And I thought, what entity could receive any money, any royalties that come? I'm on the library foundation, so I talked to them, and it was a perfect mix, because it's literacy, it's public art, it's children. So they were very willing to receive the money, but also to help things like this (she gestures toward the ongoing Christmas event).

Was the city receptive?

Actually, when I thought of the whole project, I went to (Coeur d'Alene Mayor) Sandi Bloem first, and explained the whole thing to her. And she loved it, because she used to be a teacher. So she understood the whole project. Then obviously you have to go through all the paths, ultimately going to the City Council, and getting buy-ins from everybody who's involved. I probably met with 60 different individuals and groups, to explain it, to get their approvals, their enthusiasm. So that's why it became a pretty big project. And of course they asked good questions along the way, and we had it all figured out. And then Terry Lee, of course, with all the sculptures, is really involved.

Do you stay involved with "Mudgy & Millie?"

We do projects like this (holiday event) all the time. I've gone to all the schools and presented to the children, and read the story, just like I did here. So all of that is just an outreach at the library. It's all about kids.

Why do you think "Mudgy & Millie" has become so popular?

I think because the book is about Coeur d'Alene, and Coeur d'Alene will be here forever, and the statues are here forever. And right by the statues it explains that a book goes with it. So even tourists are understanding it's more than a book, it's more than a statue. So you put the whole package together, and children keep being born. So it really can live on and on forever.

How do the students react to the story?

You know, it's interesting. The little, little tiny kids are just kind of overwhelmed with the Mudgy in costume, and they love to sing the song, and they're just kind of overwhelmed with the story of a real talking moose, going around the community. And then they see the moose so that makes it even more real. And they'll hug the moose. At the end, (the story) is really open-ended, which is on purpose. "Well, now its my turn to hide," (Mudgy says). Then older kids think, OK, well, where did Mudgy hide, and they then can write their own stories, and get into that whole literacy side. Then older kids will read it to younger kids, too, so it really kind of hits all ages differently.

Was it a challenging book to write?

I'm the type that I always have my formula, in my writing and my videos. I know I want to have so much dialogue, and then music ... So I figure out the little framework, and it was the same with this. I knew my framework. I knew I wanted it to be about Coeur d'Alene, I wanted to have something kind of magical about it. So I figure out my form, and I figure out my story that goes in it. But it was difficult, because it was different for me. I'm used to writing songs, more than I am a story. And I had to do a lot of rewrites, to keep making it work, and my most hated thing to do is to do rewrites. Again, it seems like a simple story, but there's a lot that goes into it. And with this I wanted to use alliteration, and repetition, and a lot of action words... you know, "they skip, and they gallop." So I had all these little formulas that I wanted to do within the story as well.

Did the story turn out the way you had envisioned?

It's worked really well. And I think the gratifying part is just to see those little faces, and their excitement, and then seeing them sitting up on the statues, and playing on the statues, which of course Terry Lee brought those to life. And working with him, which was absolutely incredible.

Did you expect the book to become so popular?

The library has made a lot of money. I bet we've sold 14,000 books, which for a local product is very good. In publishing, even in the New York houses, they'll call that a mid-list book. Those are good sales. I never thought about numbers. Not at all, which is interesting. I just thought about what's great for kids. In all my work, whatever I do, it's never about numbers or money or anything. It's like, what's right for kids, what's good for kids, and then put my thinking cap on for them.

What's next for "Mudgy & Millie?" Will the story go on?

I'm always working on Wee Sing, my real job. And I've sketched out a couple stories for future Mudgy & Millies, but I haven't gone there yet because I'm so busy doing my other work. I hope (the story will continue). That's my plan.

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