Thumbing through a thin, glossy book inside a coffee shop in her hometown of St. Joseph, mother of two Julee Laurent is transported into a world of the author’s creation – a world where horses play soccer, coyotes are rock stars and bears solve mysteries.
As she runs her hands along the pages, Julee quietly recites the first few lines of the book, which she knows by heart — after all, she wrote it.
“It’s a really fun book,” she says. “I had so much fun writing it. There is an innocence in writing a book and creating a world for children.”
In 2017, Julee wrote the children’s book “Lola and Lazlo: Into the Woods.” The book, illustrated by Edwardsburg artist Dennis Anderson, tells the story of a young girl named Lola, who loses her puppy, Lazlo, and has to enter into the woods to retrieve him, coming across all sorts of animals and adventures.
Intended to be educational, Julee says she hopes that the book makes a difference in the lives of children.
A former journalist, Julee has written pieces for publications such as the Village Voice, Marie Claire and the South Bend Tribune. She has also written books more geared toward adults. That stopped after she was inspired by a conversation with one of her children.
“My son told me that ‘prolly’ (text abbreviation for probably) was a word,” Julee says. “He told me it was text language. I said, ‘no. Chinese is a language. Spanish is a language.’ So, that brought me back around to this idea of writing a children’s book, because it made me ask, ‘how do we teach kids this literacy, language and vocabulary early?’ Because that is how they are going to learn it. That’s when I got serious about this.”
Julee says she believes it is important for children to thoroughly enjoy reading books, which is what truly inspired her to not only write a children’s book, but one that is focused on improving vocabulary.
“I’m not a teacher,” Julee says. “I don’t have a degree in this. It is just a passion of mine. I’m tired of seeing kids’ faces buried in their phones.”
One of the most unique traits of “Lola and Lazlo” is Julee’s use of collective nouns for animals. Nearly every page of the book contains the name for a group of animals from a sleuth of bears to a thunder of hippos to a generation of vipers.
“It was just a random idea,” Julee recalls. “I had a friend in an improv group called Bevy. I asked her ‘why Bevy?’ and she said it was like a bevy of beauties, the collective noun. I thought that was so cool, so I started looking up collective nouns on my computer, and once I saw all the ones for animals, I thought, ‘this would make a really cool children’s story one day.’”
For the next 10 years, Julee made a mental note every time she came across a collective noun, saving it to use in her eventual children’s book. When she finally wrote “Lola and Lazlo,” she says she added as many as she could to the story, some she did not even know existed. Julee says the hunt for the most fun and rare collective nouns became a challenge and a hobby for her.
“I just made a huge list of them all and started to see where they made sense in Lola’s story,” she says. “I knew I was going to write a story about a little girl going into the woods. At first, I thought that didn’t make sense to just have a girl in the woods with all these animals. There had to be a purpose. That’s when I added the puppy, Lazlo, and had a story to tell.”
Bringing the collective nouns to life through illustration was a fun challenge for Julee’s partner Dennis, who has a strong background in comic illustration and commercial design.
Dennis and Julee met when Dennis designed a poster for a band Julee was in. Julee was so impressed with the poster that Dennis’ name was one that stuck with her when she was ready to write “Lola and Lazlo: Into the Woods.”
Both Dennis and Julee said they enjoyed working together and taking on this project with each other.
“With the book, I tried to make the animals more realistic, but still fantastical,” he says. “I think that gave them kind of a comic book feel. … I’ve never illustrated a children’s book before, so that was really fun for me. It was really daunting because we did it all ourselves, but it was a good year and we had a lot of fun.”
For Dennis, one of the most rewarding parts of working on the book was the fact that he was able to share it with his own young daughter.
“Right after the book came out, my daughter took the book to share with her class, because it is perfect for their age group,” he said. “That was really cool to see.”
Coming off the success of “Lola and Lazlo: Into the Woods,” Julee and Dennis are already entertaining the thought of creating more children’s books together, considering a sequel to Lola’s story, as well as a standalone book.
“There is still a lot of territory to be covered here, I think,” Julee says. “[Writing ‘Lola and Lazlo’] was such a positive experience for me. … When I was a kid, I always had my nose in a book. I want kids today to have that same experience. Reading is the best way to expand a child’s intelligence, attention span and expose them new thoughts in the world.”
Photos by Wes Jerdon/Westley Leon Studios