The idea came to me to write a children’s novel back in 1998. At the time I was working for a publishing company called Children’s Book Press back in San Francisco. After interning there for a bit I started working as their submissions manager and helping with student outreach programs. When my boss up and left for a better job out in New York, I got my walking papers too.

Anyway, as I was slogging through the daily pile of submissions (which I would 99.9% have to reject because they only published bi-lingual and multi-cultural kids books from local authors and artists) this one story kind of caught my eye. It had something to do with a castle, some enchanted forest and all that jive. As I geared up to compose my “Thank you for submitting” refusal, this one word in the tale got my attention.

Thicket.

What the heck is a thicket, I wondered. Looking it up, I came across this: 1. A dense growth of shrubs or underbrush; a copse. 2. Something suggestive of a dense growth of plants, as in impenetrability or thickness: “the thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life” (Daniel J. Boorstin).

Huh, I thought. I liked that word.

In notebooks and journals I kept playing with the idea of some forest friends gathering in a thicket to do…something. I was planning to actually write a story but then I got caught up in the whole millennial “dot com” thing that ate up the Bay Area and started to seriously get into music journalism. All the while jumping from dead end job to dead end job, bad relationship to bad relationship. So, to say the least, that idea got shelved.

After much good times/bad times in San Francisco, which I chronicled in my first book, a memoir, “Rabbit Every Tuesday”, I finally fell madly in love and decided to leave my coastal home of 12 years. She lived in Tucson, AZ and the idea of solace, a new environment and cheap rent really hit home with me. In February of 2006, I packed up a rental car and drove the 15 hours to get to her.

Once there, Tucson proved to be a much rougher job market than I had anticipated. Nothing in my field was available to me; at least none that actually paid. No writing jobs, no publishing, no DJ gigs…heck, I couldn’t even get a job at the local used book store! So after a few failed endeavors (which included running a children’s dinosaur museum, writing for a crappy Arizona tourist newspaper, DJing weddings and even penning an interview with Los Lobos for a small weekly periodical), my now fiance She-Ra (Sherra, actually, but I’m a huge “Masters of the Universe” nerd so, you get the idea…) made this suggestion:

Just get a job where I work. Work in the kitchen, write your books and just get on with it!”

A kitchen? I’ve never worked in a kitchen before. Sure, I can cook like the wind but…a real actual restaurant kitchen? No way.

The managers and most of the staff already knew me there so when I applied I was in training to be the new daytime pizza chef before I knew it. Turns out, the job aint half bad. I show up, I do my job, I have fun, I go home, I write and that’s that. It’s actually the perfect job for a dork like me. There’s no “working from home” with this job, I’m not in an office, I don’t work with the public, it’s close by and, best of all, there’s free beer waiting for me at the bar after a particularly busy shift.

After I got settled in with the job, I sat down and composed my first novel, “Rabbit Every Tuesday”, which chronicles the last year of my life in San Francisco. It’s not one of those “Oh look how cool my life was” memoir, but rather “I’m stuck in this weird ex-girlfriend’s apartment working as a bartender with an alcoholic demon as a boss all the while getting addicted to cocaine because I’m miserable and lonely as my time as a heavy metal DJ is coming to an end” type of thing. But it has a happy ending. I met She-Ra. The end.

Once the editing and fine tuning of the book was completed, I set out to get it published. After endless submissions to agents and publishers, spending countless hours on query letters and author bios, along with shelling out money I really didn’t have for mailings, I now am in the possession of a large file drawer stuffed with rejections. Most of which say: “Love it, don’t know what to do with it.” Oh well, I thought. I’ll keep trying.

As I geared up to send out more submissions while at the same time outlining the “sequel” to the book, the Tucson years!, I came across something that would get the “Thicket” gears in motion.

A new “super” Target store opened up on one of the main drags here in Tucson. Like any good and diligent member of the consumer race, we had to go and check it out one afternoon. It was huge, sprawling, and much too bright for my eyes, which were used to a dark room and glowing computer screen. There was just too much stuff to take in. Eventually we made it to the “book section”, near all of the noisy TVs and video games, and slowly scanned the area. Outside of all of the Oprah book club rot, bland cookbooks, sad self help crap and once good novels now made into movies with the film poster art as the new cover, I found the kids section.

Now, there were a good amount of picture books, mainly new and popular titles along with all the Disney fare, but the biggest section of them all, the one that trumped any in the book area, was the young adult expanse of shelves. In it, you had your Harry Potter’s, below them, were countless rip offs of adolescent wizards and their problems. I mean, dozens of titles and new series, even some with the Potter font to get you duped into buying it. Then there were the pink and light blue hued “tweens that love to shop and gossip” area. Just absolute pulp for the poor little girl who wants to be popular but is stuck in her room, listening to Avril Levine and reading junk like “Shoptastic Besties” and “The New Cute Guy That Caught All of Our Eyes!” Ugh.

Then, and this was the section that made me slap my forehead, hard, were the endless, countless, worthless copycats of the “Twilight” phenomenon. I mean, for real…it went on and on! Nothing but black covers with teenage girls bearing fangs with titles such as “Bitten”, “Night Falls”, “Blood Oaths”, “Marked” etc etc etc. I could go on but I stopped around the 20th book and went to the game section to get some Hungry Hungry Hippos therapy. Literally, I felt both overwhelmed and let down. And, honestly, I wasn’t too sure why.

Basically, it comes down to this: I have been an advocate of children’s literacy and a fan of kids books for years now. My time at the publishing house, my stint as a volunteer with the San Francisco and even Tucson library, along with my love of books in general just kind of made me feel as if kids and teens these days are just being fed over-marketed pablum to get you to buy tickets to the next movie, tee shirts, whatnot, without much substance to go with the product. Now, here’s the thing! I actually liked the “Harry Potter” books and most people I know (all girls) love “Twilight”, She-Ra and my cousin Lisa included. So, there must be something there.

Thing is, those books were original, even if they aren’t the be all end all of literature. They’re fun! They’re written and aimed at the young reader. It’s just the ripoff factor that was getting to me. And I know kids are a lot smarter than we pretend to think they aren’t. Especially when it comes to trends and the next cool thing.

The next morning, I woke up with an idea. An epiphany if you will. Not only do I love to write but I also love kids books. Mixed that with my resentment I felt in the young reader book section at target and whammo!, I knew my next move.

I’m gonna write a kids novel.

But what? Where do I start? I don’t want to write about vampires in love, or young wizards or even a boy and his dragon. Oh, and that whole pre-teen girls that love to shop is definitely out of the question. So I sat on the porch with a notebook and began to sketch and brainstorm.

It didn’t take long, as this is not only one of my all time favorite subjects but also the title of my blog, for me to write down: “Furry woodland creatures”.

That’s it!, I thought. I then went to my file drawer, pulled out an old notebook with “Kids Book” crudely written on it in black Sharpie and found my outline for something called “In The Thicket”.

Perfect. But…what’s it about?

For the next month I literally pulled my hair out going nuts over the storyline. The characters I had; I wanted forest and woodland friends, so a squirrel, elk, beaver, fox and rabbit began to take shape. The squirrel was most important. My love and fascination with those guys runs deep. Heck, in film school I had to come up with a name for my “production company”, an assignment for a class, and the only thing I could come up with was Hindu Squirrel Ent., which combined my favorite religion and favorite animal. The others, well, I picked them for their personality types.

Elk would be a strong leader, fox would be cocky and wily, beaver would be steadfast and curmudgeonly and the rabbit would be kooky and weird. But as I leafed through that notebook, one sentence kept coming up:

And a squirrel shall save them all…”

Then I had to come up with names. At first I was going to base their names off of the sounds each character made. All I came up with, after listening to endless nature sounds on various websites (mostly hunting sites so you could download the mating call of said animal to get them to come near enough for you to, well, you know…), were names like “Rar”, “Whee”, “Chippa” and stuff like that. Not even close.

Then I began researching animal deities of various myths and religions. The origins have been lost from negligence on my part, most likely the pages of notes got thrown away from my constant need to clean away clutter, but I settled on these:

Oskar”, for the squirrel, which I believe is Native American in origin. Just shortened a longer name to make a fairly normal one.

Uwa” for the elk, which is Scandinavian if memory serves me correct.

Jorty”, for the fox. Again, Native American.

Dobran” for the beaver which I’m pretty sure is a derivative from a Sumerian folk tale, a beaver character named ‘Doboranian’ or something like that.

Micha” for the rabbit, which was Asian. ‘Mi kah’ was a bad bunny in some Japanese fairy tale. Not a pleasant fellow at all…

There, I had my protagonists. Now what?

As I sketched in my notebooks, my longtime love of mythology and fascination with theology kept coming up. I wanted to create a whole new world, yet it had to be absolutely familiar. A forest setting, of course. “The Woodland” as I call it. Then the notion of a “higher power” kept creeping in. Now, I didn’t want this to be some “christian” book or have the religious overtones of some CS Lewis series, but I do like the idea of the great artist creating the play field for our forest friends. After much shifting and moving ideas around, I settled on the innocuous “Almighty” as the governor in the sky. These are animals mind you. Who makes the rain? What makes the sun rise and fall? Etc. Plus divine intervention is always a fun thing to play with.

Then the story started to evolve. I wanted our five friends, the beaver, squirrel, elk, fox and rabbit, to be sort of outcasts within the Woodland. In an environment filled with simple hunters and gatherers, these five want just a bit more than a life laid out in such simple terms. Through trial and error, they found each other and, although they are all quite different from one another, rely on one other for support. Their bond and friendship is essentially misunderstood and even looked down upon by the other inhabitants and clans of the Woodland. So they keep their group a secret and even meet in a secret and hidden away place.

The Thicket.

Now I just needed a story. I had this idea about the bears governing the Woodland like some lazy, spoiled royal family. The idea of bears just lounging around and being “in charge” was compelling and rather amusing to me. Fat kings and queens with servants at their beck and call, so to speak. But that needed more substance. So I threw in a connection with the owls, which are birds that are always related to ‘wisdom’. Why? Owls are essentially vicious predators, but because they look the part of some wise old creature, along with endless tales and tomes about them being so, I wanted to smash that. So an allegiance between the two factions started to take form; a sort of dictatorship over the Woodland so to speak.

But that storyline could only go so far for a writer like me. I’m not very political and I really didn’t want kids and their parents to be bored by some furry woodland creatures being overrun by bears and owls and they somehow triumph over them in the end somehow. Still, it was intriguing.

One afternoon, as I was peddling around in the garden, I had my stereo on with music on shuffle, playing fairly loudly as I pruned and planted. A song came on that would get the serious and exciting meat of the story going in the direction that I wanted. A band called Scorn, which, at the time, was a very heavy and brooding industrial metal band, did a very long and almost ambient cover of Black Sabbath’s “The Wizard”. Clocking in at almost 12 minutes, it chimed with thundering beats, distorted guitars, lulling soundscapes and vocals echoing into near obscurity. After a lengthy instrumental break, and me sitting on the porch calmly repotting, these words fell over the cool afternoon breeze:

Black sun rising…”

For some odd reason, those words and the way they were said, moved me to stop what I was doing, run into the house, grab a pencil and paper and scribble it down, dirty hands and all. That’s it, I realized. I now have my starting point and dark mythological edge to the book. But what caused the sun to black out? Who cares? Let’s get writing!

Early the next morning I opened a blank word document and began typing. Hours later, I had the characters introduced, the menace of a blacked out sun looming, panic and terror within the Woodland and other threats and pitfalls for our protagonists to play with. The words and story just started to come and every morning, for five months straight, before and after my shift at the restaurant and on my days off, I wrote and wrote, getting deeper and deeper into the Woodland and all the secrets it holds.

The journey started early November of 2009, and one sleepy afternoon in late March of 2010, 300 + pages later, I finally typed those both welcome and dreaded two words:

The End.

Then some tears came, a beer was opened and I sat on the patio looking out onto the brisk Arizona spring air and sighed.

Now what?”, I wondered.

As with my first book, “Rabbit Every Tuesday”, which was a wonderful learning tool, I now knew that the hard part was upon me. Editing, writing query letters, an author bio, synopsis of a book that is hard to explain outside of just reading it, and trying to find the right agent and publisher to get such a heady and epic (yet still funny and cute!) book out there for a whole new generation of readers.

Waning is the time of young vampires in love, adolescent wizards in trouble and tweens that love to shop. Arise the age of furry woodland creature!

Oh and this is just the beginning. Wait till you read book two. Hoo doggies!

Thank you.

-Mark Whittaker