Kentucky folk artists combine talents again for children's book

By Rich Copley — rcopley@herald-leader.com
kentucky.com

The first time Mike Norris met Minnie Adkins, he didn’t have much to give her. So he gave her some music.

Specifically, he gave her a CD by his group, the Raggedy Robin String Band. She found herself drawn to a song called Bright Blue Rooster.

“It was so foolish,” Adkins says. “‘Got a bright blue rooster and a three-legged hog, a wore-out tractor and a no-count dog.’ Doesn’t that sound foolish for a highly educated man?”

Norris responds, “I didn’t get enough education to hurt anything.”

At the time, Norris was director of communications for Centre College in Danville and moonlighting as a folk musician. Adkins already was a nationally acclaimed folk artist, known for her wood carvings of animals. In fact, that first meeting was a 1992 event where Adkins was honored by Centre.

She got an award and something of a muse in Norris’ music.

Soon, he was receiving characters from the song, whittled from wood by Adkins.

The bright blue rooster.

The three-legged hog.

The wore-out tractor.

The no-count dog.

“Actually, she sent me two dogs with a note that said, ‘You can decide which one is more no-count,'” Norris says. “I thought, if she carves them all, we could have a book.”

And they did, releasing the children’s book Bright Blue Rooster (Down on the Farm) in 1997.

Now, 16 years later, Norris has retired from Centre, and he and Adkins decided it was time for a sequel

Sonny the Monkey, which Norris wrote 10 years ago over a Christmas break, tells the story of the title character’s hapless quest for a banana, including being tricked by a fox and saved by a mouse. For the story, Adkins, 78, went about carving the characters, including a human couple named Minnie and Herman, after Adkins and her second husband, Herman Peters.

Norris and Adkins worked on the book off and on for several years.

In March at Kentucky Crafted: The Market, Norris met Doug Sikes, publisher of Acclaim Press in Morley, Mo. Sikes was interested in the idea of books with three-dimensional art like the photos of Adkins’ work. The pair had a venue for a new book in Acclaim’s Joey Books imprint and for publishing a new edition of Bright Blue Rooster.

The first book brings back good memories for Adkins and Norris, who enjoyed touring schools together, reading and sharing their art.

“I would whittle and make a little something, and the teacher would tell Mike which child really deserved it — a child that would really be pleased with it,” Adkins says. “So Mike would listen to the little piece talk, and he’d talk to it and say, ‘You want to go with so and so?’ That would always be so much fun. The child would be so tickled.”

Norris says, “Minnie would always do it great because I’d be telling them something about the book, and she’d interrupt me. I’d act like I didn’t want to be interrupted.

“She’d go, ‘Mike,’ and I’d say, ‘I’m talking now,’ and she’d just insist. I’d say, ‘What?’ and she’d say, ‘This fox is talking to me,’ and I’d say, ‘Foxes can’t talk.’ So she’d hand it to me and say, ‘See what you think.'”

The pair always asked for the name of a child who could use “a bit of a boost,” Norris says.

The school appearances also were a boost for Adkins, whose first husband and longtime collaborator, Garland Adkins, died in 1997.

Second husband Peters, a retired pipe fitter, works with Adkins on steel versions of her signature critters.

Norris says the original book did well in schools, illustrated with a combination of Adkins’ drawings and photos of her carvings. But when Acclaim got involved in the reprint, they wanted all the pages to have three-dimensional art, so Adkins went to work on characters for Sonny the Monkey and characters such as the Kudzu Man who had been drawn in the original Rooster.

“Minnie would drive from Isonville; I’d drive from Lexington,” Norris says, “and we’d meet in Morehead in the Shoney’s parking lot, lay everything out on the trunk lid of her Cadillac, and figure what needed to be done next.”

Adkins jokes, “People probably thought we were doing a drug deal.”

The duo hope that the new book and new Rooster, which will be released in January, will meet success similar to their first effort.

They don’t plan to wait 16 years for the next follow-up.

“We are going to make some about Mommy Goose rhymes,” Adkins says. “We want to do that nd we want to do at least seven books before I get too old to help with them.”

Norris says, “That’s seven total, including these books.” He adds that Mommy Goose is an Appalachian version of Mother Goose.

“I can just see Minnie’s carvings for these,” he says, reciting a rhyme about raccoons that take over a house.

Adkins says she is most productive when the weather is bad and she has to stay inside. She says she dreads winter. But if you like the Bright Blue Rooster and Sonny the Monkey, you might want to wish for snow this year.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: copiousnotes.bloginky.com.