Book Review

Reviewed by Rita J. Egan

When Richard Specht lost his son Richard Edwin-Ehmer (Rees) in a tragic drowning accident in 2012, he asked his aunt for advice on how to deal with the insurmountable pain. Having lost two children of her own, she told him he could let the pain consume him, or he could transcend it and find something to keep the darkness at bay. When he and his wife Samantha discovered that those who offered help during their time of need wouldn’t allow the couple to do anything in return for them, the Spechts decided to take the aunt’s advice to heart.

The couple began performing small acts of kindness for others and set out on a mission to honor their son by making the world a better place. Their efforts soon turned into the ReesSpecht Life Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes the importance of compassion and respect. The foundation has become known for its ReesSpecht Life cards that are used by those who perform random acts of kindness to pass on to the receiver in hopes that they will turn around and also carry out a kind act.

Rees Specht

The success of the foundation inspired Richard to leave teaching in 2015 and travel to schools with his presentation Cultivate Kindness. His hope is to teach youngsters the importance of compassion and deliver an important anti-bullying message to them as well.

When talking to children in grades K to 2, he uses the first book he has written, “A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness.” Specht said he encountered many road blocks when he first approached publishers, but he eventually self-published it in 2014. The result of his determination is the heartwarming story of a little boy who performs one kind act that plants a seed that cultivates a chain reaction of compassion in his community. Complemented with vibrant illustrations by Adam D. Smith, the book is one that will teach children a valuable lesson in a delightful way and even inspire adults to stop and lend a helping hand.

To date the book, which is sold exclusively through the foundation, has sold over 10,000 copies and all proceeds go to fund the nonprofit’s scholarship fund. Recently, Specht answered a few questions about the book via email.

The main character in “A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness” is based on your son who died tragically. How do you describe Rees to people?

This is a tough question because we only had 22 months with Rees. What 22-month-old isn’t sweet, loving, mischievous and full of energy? Rees was all of these things with every new day revealing a little more about him to us. When I wrote the book, I took those qualities I saw in him and tried to project what I felt Rees would be when he reached the age of the character in my book. The Rees in the book is the manifestation of the little boy I always envisioned him to be.

The book is an extension of your ReesSpecht Life movement. What does your organization do and how did it start?

The formation of the ReesSpecht Life Foundation is very similar to the concept of the book: It started with a little idea, a seed that kept growing with each kind act my family and I received in the wake of Rees’ death. My wife and I wanted to repay those acts of kindness, and no one would let us. We felt this obligation to do more than simply say “thank you” and grew frustrated that no one would let us pay them back. So, instead of paying people back, we decided to “pay it forward.”

The idea was to do 500 random acts of kindness and give each recipient a “ReesSpecht Life” card that had Rees’ caricature on the front and a little about his story on the back. We didn’t expect that once people received the cards they would want their own. Before we knew it, people were ordering cards from us, and we very quickly went through those 500 cards. That was almost four years ago.

Today, we have distributed 395,000 cards to every continent on Earth. In addition to the cards, the foundation now provides $1,000 scholarships for graduating high school seniors who show a commitment to kindness, grants for teachers to incorporate kindness into their lessons, meals and sundries for families suffering hardship, and we perform school assemblies to grades K to 12 to remind students of the importance of kindness.

What made you decide to write the book, and how would you describe it to those who haven’t read it yet?

Believe it or not, the idea for the story actually came about because of a problem we had with our original logo for the foundation. The first 20,000 cards we printed had a picture of Rees dressed like Superman on the front. We were informed that using the image of Superman, regardless of who was in the costume, was a trademark infringement and could cause legal issues.  We were devastated by this, and I struggled with how I could come up with a new logo that so perfectly fit our mission like the “Superman Rees” picture did. Then, out of the blue, the idea hit me: Rees loved tractors. It was one of the very few words he could use, and every time he saw one he would get excited and yell out “TRAKTA!!!” So, I realized that should be the focus.

The new logo was developed with Rees riding a tractor called Trakta, and the back-story just flowed from there. Rees, driving on Trakta, would cultivate kindness just like a farmer cultivates his crop. People responded so positively to the new logo that I realized there was something more there and I wrote the outline of a story focusing on Rees who discovers that kindness, just like the seeds he plants, can only grow if you do the things necessary to cultivate it. The book takes this idea that every kind act we do helps that “seed of kindness” grow. As the story progresses, we witness each kind act causing that seed to grow.

You use the book in your K to 2 presentations. What kind of feedback have you gotten from the children about the book?

The book is the backbone of our K to 2 presentations. I actually learned how to do 2D animation and developed an animated version of the book with sound effects that I use. When I present it, the children in the audience get to follow along as each kind act helps the seed of kindness to grow. There is nothing like hearing 200 5- to 8-year-olds exclaiming in unison, “grow seed grow!” Children seem to love it as they get to see that seed grow with each kind act.

In the book, Rees encounters other children. Are they based on people that were in his life?

Actually, the children in the book are indeed based off of real children, but they are not children Rees knew in his lifetime — but I hope he knows them now. All of the children in the book are actually based off the real life child-angels from parents who shared our pain and helped us through this difficult journey. Their particular stories in the book are actually based on their real life personalities and interests. For instance, the reason Kaylee is dressed similar to Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” is because that was her favorite movie. The same holds true for each of the children in the book.

Is this your first book? How long did it take to develop? 

Yes, this is the first book I have ever written. I actually wrote the outline for the story over the course of several nights while on a family vacation in Berlin, Germany. When we got home, I started writing the actual book right away. It took me about two months to get the story completed. Since I couldn’t draw, I wrote the book more like a novel, describing every scene as well as the dialogue. Once that was completed, I handed off the book to my illustrator Adam, who took my descriptions and turned them into the pictures you see in the book. All in all, the process took about 10 months from concept to our first printed copy.

Do you plan to write any more books in the future?

Originally, I had no concrete plans for any sequels. That changed when I got a call from a pair of Hollywood producers who got a copy of the book and asked me if I was interested in turning the ideas from the book into an animated series. They asked me if I had ideas for further stories, and I told them, “Of course!” They asked me if I could send them those ideas, and I got right to work developing a series of stories that build on the original premise of the first book.

Before I knew it, I had around 14 stories that would serve as the outline for the TV series, as well as my books. As of now, I have two more books completely written, and I am getting ready to send them to Adam for illustration.  In addition to those two books, I just completed the script for the pilot episode of the TV series, which is its own, stand-alone, story.

For more information about “A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness,” the ReesSpecht Life Foundation, and its school programs, visit www.reesspechtlife.com or www.cultivatekindness.org.

Clinton Kelly

BOOK SIGNING: Port Jefferson Station native Clinton Kelly will appear at the Book Revue, 313 New York Ave., Huntington on Monday, Jan. 9 at 7 p.m. The Emmy award-winning television co-host of “The Chew” will be signing copies of his new book, “I Hate Everyone, Except You,” a hilariously candid, deliciously snarky collection of essays about his journey from awkward kid to slightly-less-awkward adult. For further information, call 631-271-1442 or visit www.bookrevue.com.

Reviewed by Melissa Arnold

Jack Kohl

It becomes clear when you speak to Jack Kohl that he does nothing part-way. The 46-year-old Northport native is completely immersed in the arts, with an extensive career in music composition, piano and theater. Now, Kohl is sharing the stories that have captivated his imagination for decades. His first book, “That Iron String,” was critically acclaimed by reviewers. In late July, he released “Loco-Motive,” a philosophical novel that pays homage to his two greatest loves: Long Island and running.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Kohl about his latest venture. Both of your books are set on Long Island.

Were you born here?

Born in Manhattan, but we moved to Queens right after I was born, and then out to Northport when I was three. Except for a few brief periods of living away for work or school, I’ve always claimed Northport as my native place.

What do you love about this area?

What makes Long Island so remarkable is that whenever you go to the shoreline, you have all of New England looming in the distance, and at the same time, to the west, you have the whole of our republic, with so much to explore. I’ve never exhausted what the Island holds in my imagination.

Did you always want to be an author?

I think so. I was always a big pen-and-paper letter writer, and in my early 20s I had the will to write in large prose forms. A novel poured out of me about my happy childhood that was also set on Long Island, but it was never published. I grew up with my parents, particularly my mother, reading aloud to me from Dickens and Melville. I think the music of those two authors was inside me from very early on.

What are some of your other interests?

Most of my income is from my work as a pianist. I studied piano in pre-college in Juilliard and went on to get my master’s and doctorate in piano at the University of South Carolina as well. I teach some courses as an adjunct and do freelance performance as opportunities arise.

Are ‘Loco-Motive’ and your first book, ‘That Iron String,’ connected at all?

They are, in terms of setting. And if one reads both books very carefully, they’ll find that characters from “That Iron String” appear in the background of “Loco-Motive,” particularly the character Portsmouth Gord. I don’t intend to compare myself to Faulkner in any way, but he employed a similar weaving and overlapping of characters in his work as well.

Tell me about the story line.

I would say it’s a portrait of my experience learning to be a runner. I turned to running to help lose weight during my time in graduate school. I created a character who uses running in an irrational way to try to set the world’s problem’s aright. There are two very ordinary runners who, suddenly, during a race very much like Northport’s Great Cow Harbor 10K, break the world record significantly.

Part of the novel involves finding out why that was possible, and the great coincidence of those two people being in the same place. It also explores the almost sinister preoccupation of one of those runners with coaching the other to be even faster. The great theme of the book is whether or not improving our physical abilities can prove that the body (and physical matters) are superior to spiritual matters. The main character makes an argument that the physical realm is what we have to fight for.

What inspired you to write this book?

The narrator’s love affair with running is very much autobiographical. It’s a portrait of my experience learning to be a runner, as well as all the experiences I’ve had with the Northport Running Club and all of the wonderful characters I’ve met through running and fitness on Long Island. Of course, the town of Pauktaug is a stand-in for my own native village and so many other villages on the North Shore.

Even if one doesn’t quite follow all of the philosophical ideas in the book, I still think that people will enjoy its recognizable settings and the affectionate fallibility of the characters. They have a humorous preoccupation with their finish times, their fitness routines and all of the things that come with being a runner.

What do you like most about your books?

There’s so much literature out there about running, and I agree with the cliches — it makes you feel better and improves your way of life. I’ve made the majority of my best friends through running. But I think this book explores the psychic and spiritual elements of running like no other.

What is the target audience for this book?

I think adults or even a thoughtful older teen who enjoys literary fiction would be able to grapple with the book and enjoy it. There are no themes in it that would be inappropriate for children; it’s more a question of whether they can be successfully grasped. I’ve been happily surprised by the variety of people who responded positively to this book … you don’t need to be steeped in Fitzgerald or Melville to appreciate it.

Your books are published by Pauktaug Press. Is that your own company?

It is, yes. I had read about successful authors that went the route that eliminated the middle man in publishing and, after some difficulty finding a publisher for my first book, chose to pursue that myself. I also take pleasure in creating a recognizable place that exists mythically in the book. Pauktaug Press is a newspaper that exists in “Loco-Motive,” so it’s fun to create the illusion that it also exists in the real world. Some people don’t even question its reality.

What’s on the horizon for you?

“That Iron String” and “Loco-Motive” are part of the Pauktaug trilogy of books. Their successor, “You, Knighted States” takes Pauktaug and sets it back in 19th century Long Island and the Old West. It uses many of the same themes while focusing on the families and ancestors of the characters in the first two books. That book is in copy editing now and should be available in the spring.

“Loco-Motive” and “That Iron String” are available at www.jacksonkohl.com, Amazon and other major online retailers. Copies are also available at the Super Runners Shop, located at 353 New York Avenue in Huntington.

Eddie K. Wright, right, with his sister Mimi and son Drew.

Reviewed by Rita J. Egan

Growing up in the primarily Caucasian town of Smithtown, Eddie K. Wright, the son of a white mother and black father, never felt like he fit in with the other children. By his teen years, he began to have run-ins with the law, and a few weeks shy of his 18th birthday, he became a father when his girlfriend gave birth to his son Drew.

eddies-book-coverDespite a troubled youth, Wright reveals in his first book, “Voice for the Silent Fathers,” that his toughest obstacle in life so far was accepting the fact that his son was gay. Now 12 years into a 45-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute drugs, the author has spent the last few years using his time in prison to work on his issues and relationship with his son by writing. Due to the experience, which he describes as emotionally therapeutic, many of his fellow inmates have dubbed him “Gangster Turned Guru.”

A few months ago, Wright released his book in the hopes that it will inspire fathers like him to strengthen their bond with their children and accept them for exactly who they are. The writer is raw and transparent as he discusses his former no-son-of-mine attitude, and the book invites readers into the mind of a father trying to understand his son’s homosexuality.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Wright via email about his new book.

Tell us about your background, and how you earned the title, ‘Gangster Turned Guru.’ 

I’ve been in trouble with the law since my youth, doing months in county jail, graduating to a four-year prison bid and ultimately being sentenced by the Feds, where I got my “head knocked off” with all these mandatory minimums. But, it was my wake-up call. I changed my street gangster mentality because that was what was constantly bringing turmoil and stress to my life experience.

Once I began to live a spiritual way of life, I gained an internal peace within, and of course, being in prison everyone wants to know what it is that kept me so positive and optimistic with life. Through the years, I’ve always been spiritually mentoring everyone and with teaching yoga, what started jokingly as calling me the Guru, just stuck, because a Guru is one who guides you on your own spiritual path.

Can you summarize the book? 

Being the father of a gay son is a taboo topic that’s never discussed. Most fathers won’t even admit they have a gay son, much less show loving support. I describe how I overcame my no-son-of-mine mentality to come to totally accepting who my son is, because my responsibilities as a father didn’t change just because my son is gay.

What made you decide to write about the struggle you had when you were younger with accepting your son’s homosexuality?

This book was needed for my son to read to understand what I was going through; why I made so many of the mistakes that I did as a young father. I was lost and confused because you never really heard of or seen fathers accepting their gay sons, most of the time they abandon them. It’s not because they don’t love them, it’s that their fears and anger are overshadowing that love. I wrote my story to be able to help others, fathers, in particular, to know what it means to love unconditionally.

Your relationship with your son is a strong one today. What do you think are the key ingredients to maintaining a great relationship with your child, even when your lives didn’t play out as you had planned?

The key ingredient is loving unconditionally and repeating the Serenity prayer whenever I needed, which was often. Being open and honest with my son has meant a lot for us both. It was OK for me to tell him, “I don’t understand your lifestyle but I don’t have to because I still love you.”

When you told family members and friends about the subject of the book, did anyone object? 

None of my family objected, but it was more of a shock from a few friends, because again, for a father to even admit to having a gay son is a surprise. Writing a book and telling the world, there weren’t objections, just praise for my courage for doing it.

Your sister Mimi Wright helped you self-publish the book. Can you give new writers any insight on how to get their book published?

I’ll have to go into my Guru mode on this question because we all have limitless potential, and as long as you keep your mind focused, the Universe will draw everything needed to make it happen. Just keep writing; building your social media platform and posting samples of what you write. Live as if you’re already signed to a major publisher.

I write like I have a deadline to meet that I’m under contract for. Act as if and it will become your reality. It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened at exactly the right moment as all things do. So just stick with it.  Once you’re ready, check out my sister’s company at www.mwrightgroup.com. She’s amazing.

What advice would you give to parents when they learn that their child is gay or a lesbian?

When a parent learns or even suspects their child is gay or lesbian, just make sure the child knows that your love for them won’t change and allow them to discuss it with you. Support is super important because homosexual teens have the highest rate of suicide.

What is the biggest thing you learned about yourself while writing the book?

That I was causing all of my pain and frustration by trying to change who my son was, without ever thinking about changing myself. For so many years, that was the key, changing my way of thinking and stop being so judgmental.

What does Drew think of the book? 

Drew loved the book. It’s helped us heal our relationship and so that alone makes it a success for me. He told me that he now understands why I acted some of the ways I had. We were able to heal our wounds.

You are in the process of working on your next book. What is it about?

“The Evolution of a Gangster Turned Guru” is just what the title describes. It’s my personal spiritual transformation by learning about the Universal laws, God’s love, and most importantly, how to truly love myself. I discuss how we are each responsible for what we experience, the power of our thoughts and how by changing the way we think, we change our life situation.

Where can people go to learn more about ‘Voice for the Silent Fathers’ and you?

Like I mentioned, as an author your internet presence is everything. I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram @EddieKWright.  My author blog can be found at www.eddiekwright.com and each of my books has a website at www.voiceforthesilentfathers.com and www.gangstertoguru.com.

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Reviewed by Rebecca Anzel

A family of ducks living near a river by author Stacey Moshier’s home in Mastic was the inspiration for her new children’s book “Dylan the Singing Duck” (Squidgy Press). This 52-page book, with illustrations by Barry Sachs, is the heartwarming story of how a little duck, with the encouragement of new friends, discovers the importance of never giving up on a dream. Moshier recently took time out from writing new stories to answer a few questions about her first book and new-found passion for writing.

Tell me a little bit about your background.

I’m actually a New York State certified teacher. I subbed for many, many years in various districts but just didn’t land that full-time position.

Tell me about the book.

The story is about a little duck named Dylan who wants to sing. Despite everybody laughing at him or thinking that who heard of a singing duck, he still holds on to that and goes for it. With the help of some friends, he finally achieves that dream.

How would you describe Dylan?

I would say initially shy — determined though. And just a good little guy.

What inspired you to write this book?

One summer we had moved into a new house by a river, and there was a family of ducks there. On a whim I just started writing. My family was coming together. You have to believe in a dream, that it’s going to be okay and believe in each other and trust in that. That’s where that idea came from. And then, of course, not giving up on yourself and believing in your goals and dreams. I always want a lesson to be behind [a story] that you can carry with you throughout your life. Dylan’s lesson was “don’t give up on yourself, believe in your dreams.” I didn’t set out to be a writer but it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done. I’m working on other stories. Of course, life gets ahead of you, and you have to find the time. I have a bunch of ideas in my head so that’s pretty much how I got into it. I did it not knowing that I was a writer, but I am.

How did it feel when you saw the final book?

The publishing was like a dream come true. I couldn’t believe I did it. It was a very proud accomplishment to be published.

What do you hope children will learn from reading your book?

That they can be whatever they want to be and never to give up on themselves, and that it’s okay to be different.

Tell me a little about the new stories you’re working on.

One is going to be called “Why So Mean Norma-Jean?” It’s about anti-bullying. There are two cats, Norma-Jean and Babies. They are my cats actually. The other one is called “I Love You Just As Much.” It’s about Francesca who has been the only child for five years and now they’re having a baby. She’s not thrilled. And then the third one is “Tumbling Timothy Jay.” It’s about a turtle who wants to be a gymnast. Through the help of his friends he tries to overcome his obstacle.

What advice would you give to someone who is writing their first book?

Don’t give up — go for it. Even though it’s hard to get published, don’t give up that dream. If you have an idea and you’re inspired to write, do it. I carry a notebook around with me all the time. I write little things that come to my head, even if it’s just an idea. At least it came to my head, and I wrote it down and maybe I don’t do anything with it for a little bit, but I have it.

Why do you think reading to a child is important?

I know kids are all into the Kindle and all the electronics. But the physical act of holding a book is just the best thing of all. Just for you to actually read to that child I think inspires a love of reading and an interest in it. You know, if they see a parent or teacher or someone holding a book to read it to them, and they sit and enjoy it, I think that promotes a love of reading.

Readers can contact Moshier by phone (631-618-5889) or email (dylansadventures@gmail.com) for an autographed copy of “Dylan the Singing Duck,” which the author will send with free shipping anywhere on Long Island.

Charles F. Wurster

Reviewed by Melissa Arnold

The cover jacket of the author's latest book.
The cover jacket of the author’s latest book.

In 1972, the pesticide DDT was banned across the United States following proven harmful effects on wildlife. The positive impact of the ban cannot be understated. According to a recent study by the Connecticut Audubon Society, the population of ospreys is 31 times greater than it was in 1970. The bald eagle population is 25 times greater nationwide.

But before the ban, former Stony Brook University professor Charles Wurster found himself at the forefront of the battle to stop DDT. His book, “DDT Wars: Rescuing Our National Bird, Preventing Cancer, and Creating the Environmental Defense Fund” (Oxford University Press, 2015), recounts the story from Wurster’s perspective in vivid detail, from his childhood to the establishment of the Environmental Defense Fund and beyond.

I recently had the opportunity to interview the 86-year-old professor emeritus, now living in Maryland, by phone.

Were you always an animal lover?

Yes, I think so. My parents weren’t much into wildlife, but they always showed excitement when they saw animals, so those were little encouragements for me. But from age 11 to 20, I spent every summer at a camp in the mountains of Pennsylvania — that put me in a natural environment and I learned bits and pieces about wildlife, especially birds, turtles and snakes. Later on, a high school teacher took a car full of students to Florida in the summer to learn about birds, which sparked my interest in a big way.

Do you remember when DDT was first used?

I was teaching at Dartmouth in 1962 and went to a cocktail party for a birding friend, who said they were spraying Dutch elm trees with DDT [to eradicate Dutch elm disease]. She told me it was killing birds and she had dead birds in her yard. I signed a petition at the party to stop the use of DDT in the town, but the town fathers ignored it, saying they were being very careful.

What made you realize that DDT was harmful?

When the town refused to stop using DDT, some of us decided to perform a study to see what happened. We compared bird populations before and after they sprayed the trees, and at first there were no dead birds. But within a few weeks, we began to find birds that were convulsing and then dying. At the time we had no knowledge of the [scientific] literature that was already published about DDT. Gradually, we began to catch up with it, and eventually we published a study in Science Magazine, which gave credibility to our work.

Did you ever see yourself getting involved with the effort to ban DDT?

I never dreamed I would get involved with such a thing. It was very incremental. I wanted to stop the use of DDT in Hanover [Massachusetts], and the effort succeeded by the next year. Eventually, I moved to Long Island, where I got involved in efforts there to stop the use of DDT. [In New York], they were focusing on its effects on ospreys, which were not reproducing properly and eating their own broken eggs. A group of us filed a lawsuit and were able to get an injunction in two weeks. That news was electrifying. It got us to start thinking bigger. In the fall of 1967, we incorporated the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), with the goal of bringing science into the courtroom. We hadn’t the remotest idea of what it would be at that time — we were just a group of 10 people with an idea.

What was it like to fight against the use of DDT? Did people listen or did they disregard you?

At that time, much of the general public was becoming environmentally aware and involved, so they were generally favorable to us. Wherever we went, there were droves of birders and environmentalists rushing out to help, which was an excellent support. But the (pesticide) industry also began pushing back, even though they didn’t have the science to support their case. Several federal agencies tried to throw us out of court, but they failed.

What were you feeling?

It was scary in a way, because we knew we could get shut down and the industry was saying nasty things about us. But we believed it was the right thing to do. It’s like watching a football game — you’re cheering for the team, and you’re likely to lose, but you stay in the stands anyway because anything could happen. The EDF got to a point where we knew we were the ones that could [ban DDT], and we really wanted to win this thing, so we pushed forward.

Did your life change in any way afterward?

After the ban of DDT, I really started to focus on the development of EDF and various other environmental issues. I still sit on the board of trustees today.

What made you want to write a book about this issue decades later?

Within the past ten years, I started to realize that our story was being forgotten. Most people didn’t know how DDT was banned, and there was a lot of false information given in the media saying that Congress had banned it. That was so annoying to me — we purposely avoided Congress! And that same junk science presented about DDT was being used to influence the climate change issue. I started to get after several people I knew who I thought could write a book, but in the end, almost everyone who was actually there for the ban had died. I thought, “Gosh, I’d better do this.” But it was never a plan of mine.

What is the greatest lesson you learned from your experience?

I think it’s that one person can begin to make a difference, but you can’t always be a one-man band. The critical work and studies on DDT were done by so many different people, and we weren’t all present at every hearing. It was important for us to work together.

Why do you think your book is relevant today?

One reason is because it’s just interesting — I intended it to read like a novel, even though it’s completely true. But it also gives a great case history for how a small group of people can make a difference. So much (in society) has changed, but that idea is still true. So many people have this hopeless feeling that they don’t matter and there’s nothing they can do, but this book sends the opposite message — if there’s something you feel strongly about, get out there and do something about it!

What can we do to aid in wildlife conservation efforts on Long Island?

Find a group of people that share a common purpose that matters to you. Working as part of a team, you can escalate those issues and help to create big changes.

“DDT Wars” is available online at www.barnesandnoble.com and www.Amazon.com.

The cover of Cindy Sommer's new children's book. Photo courtesy of Cindy Sommer

By Heidi Sutton

Just in time for fall, Stony Brook resident Cindy Sommer has released her first children’s book, “Saving Kate’s Flowers” (Arbordale Publishing). Recommended for ages 3 to 8, the 32-page picture book, with gorgeous illustrations by Laurie Allen Klein, follows little Kate the rabbit in her quest to save the flowers in her family’s garden from dying at the end of the summer. After her mother teaches her about perennials, annuals and how to save seeds, Kate asks to bring the annuals inside. Unfortunately, Kate’s father is allergic to flowers! Will Kate find homes for all the flowers before the cold weather sets in?

As an added bonus, the book also includes educational resources in the back to learn more about the parts of a plant, the life cycle of plants and how to pot and identify flowers. Sommer recently took time out from preparing for a book signing and reading at the Suffolk County Farm in Yaphank on Oct. 1 to answer a few questions about her adorable new book.

Above, the author with her dog Pepper, a mini Australian shepherd. Photo courtesy of Cindy Sommer
Above, the author with her dog Pepper, a mini Australian shepherd. Photo courtesy of Cindy Sommer

Can you give a little background about yourself?

I have lived in Stony Brook all my life. I attended Three Village schools and graduated from Ward Melville High School. I then graduated from SUNY Oneonta with a BA in English. I’ve always been interested in reading and writing, particularly horse books. Once I had my two daughters, I found some time to finally write.

What was your favorite book as a child?

All the Black Stallion and Marguerite Henry books. I think I had them all. Why did you decide to write this children’s book? When my daughter, Samantha, was young, she asked me “Why do flowers die in winter?” and I thought that was a very good question. I wanted to give her a simple answer, but there was no easy way. So I wrote this story. Kate is actually Samantha.

Do you have a garden at home?

Yes, I have a big backyard but a small vegetable garden. I grow some cucumbers, tomatoes and basil. I have lots of flowers … I love flowers. I love anything that blooms for most of the summer; Stella d’oro lilies, hydrangeas and dianthus.

Do you have any rabbits in your yard?

Every year we have rabbits in our yard. This year there seemed to be a lot! I think they knew my book was coming out.

Will there be more adventures with Kate in the future?

There are plans for a sequel. I don’t want to give it away, but it might involve snow. Hopefully, there will be many more adventures.

You are a member of the Long Island Children’s Writers and Illustrators. Can you tell us a little about the group?

A local librarian told me about LICWI when I first started writing. I was so nervous the first time I went to a meeting, I didn’t go in! I found that they are a wonderful encouraging group, willing to help out any writer, beginner or experienced. I learn new things every time I go to a meeting. But they will tell you the truth in a constructive way. If you can’t take criticism, you should not join a writer’s group. It has made my writing stronger, and I appreciate all of their opinions and great advice.

We meet every second Saturday a month during the school year at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue. We usually have a break over the summer with a garden party. For more information, you can see visit their website: www.licwi.com.

What advice would you give to someone who is writing their first book?

Read the genre for the type of book you want to write. I have read hundreds of picture books. Get to know the structure, the language and the pacing. Join a local writer’s group and the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). Try to go to writing conferences. I used to go to Hofstra when they had their conferences. Sadly they no longer have them. I looked forward to meeting editors and going to workshops. SCBWI has started offering some writing events at the Huntington Public Library, and they hold many in NYC. Wait for your story to be the absolute best it can be before you send it out anywhere. And write because you love to write. Most authors do not make much money in real life.

Why do you think reading to a young child is so important?

Reading is something they will be doing for the rest of their lives, so it’s something that should be encouraged from the very start. If they are given good basics and a love of books at an early age, they will have the tools they need to accomplish whatever they want to in life.

Tell me about the book signing event on Oct. 3.

I will be in the Children’s Garden at the Suffolk County Farm and Education Center in Yaphank on Oct. 3 at 1 p.m. during the farm’s PumpkinFest, with a rain date of Oct. 4. I will probably read my book at 1:30 p.m. with signings followed by a flower-themed craft available until around 3:30 p.m.

Any more book signings in the works?

Since this is my first book, I am eager to get started. I am doing a presentation for a girls’ book club soon. My schedule is open for presentations in elementary schools. My program is registered through Eastern Suffolk and Nassau BOCES. I would love to do a reading and craft storytime for libraries and bookstores.

savingflowers_pic3“Saving Kate’s Flowers” is available at www.Amazon.com, the publisher’s website at www.arbordalepublishing.com and www.barnesandnoble.com. For more information about the author, visit www.cindysommer.com.

Please note that this article has been updated:

The PumpkinFest in Yaphank has been rescheduled to Oct. 3 and 4. 

The author with a copy of her new children's book

Reviewed by Rita J. Egan

When Commack resident Nancy Lang-Feldman wrote a story to comfort her sister Susan, it turned into her first children’s book, “Hermann Finds Home.” The heartwarming tale tells the story of Hermann, a cute, lovable tortoise, who sets out on an unexpected adventure. Recommended for children from 4 to 8 years old, the book, which includes some interesting facts about tortoises, is not only fun but educational, too. Lang-Feldman recently took time out from preparing for her book’s Sept. 6 debut to answer a few questions about “Hermann Finds Home.”

Tell me a little bit about your background.

I started out as a fine arts major in college, then switched to journalism. I spent my career as a magazine editor. After being laid off in 2006, I enjoyed not having to commute into Manhattan for a while. Then I was offered a freelance gig with Consumer Reports, working on its twice-yearly Electronics Buying Guide, but that special issue was discontinued last year. I think the pause from constant work was very beneficial for me, because I had the free time to get my creative juices flowing.

What inspired you to write ‘Hermann Finds Home’?

I never actually intended to write a children’s book. But my sister Susan was very distraught over the loss of her tortoise Hermann. So one night, while sitting on the couch watching “Two and a Half Men” reruns, I thought, “I wish there were a way I could make Susan believe Hermann might still be OK.” So in 20 minutes, the story of Hermann was born. Then I decided I would go all the way and illustrate it and present it to her as a Chanukah gift. This process was much more time-consuming; it took a few months, and I was just barely able to get it done in time to present it to her at her annual family Chanukah party. But when, with tears in her eyes, she said it was the best present she’d ever gotten, I knew it was totally worth all the time and effort.

How would you describe Hermann the Tortoise?

Hermann is an adorable tortoise who just wants to love and be loved. He enjoys playing with children and has a penchant for strawberries.

How would you summarize the book?

Well, as I mentioned, “Hermann Finds Home” is the story of my sister’s tortoise. So the first part is about how Susan, a school teacher, adopts Hermann from a boy who brought him to school. Hermann spends winters with Susan at school and summers with Susan at the day camp where she works. Tragically, one morning, when Susan arrived at camp, she learned that Herman had disappeared from the building in which the animals slept at night. (Hermann spent weeknights at camp and weekends with Susan.) There was no sign of damage to his habitat, so his disappearance was a mystery. Susan was devastated. She had grown very attached to Hermann, and he had become a member of her family. The camp staff searched high and low for Hermann, but they found no sign of him. The rest of the story is obviously fiction, as Hermann tells the story of how he sets out in search of Susan.

How did it feel when you received the finished version of the book from the publisher?

We had just gotten home from a long weekend, and there was a big stack of boxes in front of the house. At first, I thought they were for my husband, but then I realized what they were, and I was very excited. The publisher did a great job and the books look fantastic.

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of your book will be donated to Galapagos Conservancy. Why did you choose this organization?

A few years back, my husband and I cruised the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago of volcanic islands near Ecuador. The islands have been on my bucket list for many years, and the trip turned out to be everything I dreamed it would be. It’s a very special place that’s home to the greatest number of animal species found nowhere else on Earth. And as we all learned in school, Charles Darwin’s study of these species led to his theory of evolution. The islands’ fragile ecosystem is in dire need of protection, and Galapagos Conservancy has done incredible work toward this end. I want many future generations to be able to get up close and personal with the blue-footed boobies, the Galapagos penguins and, of course, the amazing giant tortoises, which can be found in only one other place on the planet.

Darwin Animal Doctors is also receiving a part of the proceeds. Why did you choose it?

Darwin Animal Doctors is another great organization. It helps protect the biodiversity of the Galapagos by providing lifesaving veterinary care to its endemic wildlife and free spaying and neutering of domestic animals.

In the About the Author section, it’s mentioned that you and your sisters always had turtles growing up? Do you remember how many?

My first experience with turtles was when my cousin Lori and I visited my aunt Lillian, who lived across the street from Coney Island Amusement Park. She would give us each $2 to spend however we wanted, and I spent mine on a little green turtle. We left it in the car when my parents came to get us, and it died of sunstroke. I cried hysterically until my parents bought me another one to quiet me down, and I always remember my sisters and I having at least one turtle ever since, until I was about 15.

What do you hope children will learn from reading your book?

While the love of a child for his or her pet is very special, it is also important for animals to experience the love and companionship of their own kind. Like humans, animals do feel love — and loss — whether for the children or adults who care for them or for their own mates and offspring.

Do you have plans for a new book?

I have some Hermann sequel ideas percolating in my head, but I’d like to make Hermann famous before I take him to the next level. Let’s hope everyone loves him as much as Susan and I do.

Cover of 'Hermann Finds Home'
Cover of ‘Hermann Finds Home’

Little readers can meet Lang-Feldman at the “Hermann Finds Home” launch party at Book Revue, 313 New York Ave., Huntington, on Sept. 15 from 7 to 9 p.m. In addition to the author signing copies, the event will include a reading by her sister Susan, as well as face painting and a crafts project. Lang-Feldman said she also hopes to bake some of her Hermann the Tortoise cookies for the party. After Sept. 6, “Hermann Finds Home” may be purchased online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble as well as other bookstore websites. For more information or to purchase a signed copy of the book, visit www.hermannfindshome.com.

By Heidi Sutton

Arcadia Publishing recently released “Whaling on Long Island” as part of its Images of America series. Written by Nomi Dayan, the executive director of the Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor, the book explores the impact that the whaling industry had in shaping Long Island’s maritime heritage. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dayan about her new book and her view on the future of whales.

What made you write this book? Any more books on the horizon?

One objective in our museum’s strategic plan is to become more involved with research projects. When we were approached by Arcadia, the publisher, to put together a whaling-themed pictorial book, we jumped on the idea. I was surprised to find that there has not been a book published about Long Island’s whaling history in 50 years! There are good articles, journals and sections in other books, but no all-encompassing source for this incredible story of Long Island’s heritage. When I discussed this lack of information over dinner with my husband, he said, “Why don’t you do it?” Perhaps now is the time when we can document and share the full story of our whaling history, especially because Arcadia’s Images of America series is template-based — I was constrained by the set number of pictures and text on each page. So, I saw this book more as a beginning than as an end.

What surprised you, if anything, during the making of this book?

Finding useful photographs is, of course, a treasure, but what surprised me most was connecting with other individuals across Long Island (and beyond!) who were genuinely eager to help me tell this story — people I would likely not have met if I didn’t put this book together. Forming that network was a surprise gift! Other surprises [included] how far back whaling really goes on the Island, both with the Native Americans, as well as settlers, who started whaling almost immediately after arriving. The first commercial whaling in the New World happened on our shores! And after farming, whaling was Long Island’s first industry. I also didn’t realize how exploited Native Americans were in the beginning stages of commercial shore whaling. The Shinnecock, Montaukett and Unkechaug tribes played a fundamental role in the development of shore whaling, and it was so disheartening for me to see how quickly they became tied into seasonal cycles of exploitation and debt.

How did you go about compiling all the photographs and material for the book?

Research was like a treasure hunt! Yankee whaling and photography essentially missed each other, so I had to piece together this story in the best visual way that I could. Many of the photographs were sourced directly from the museum’s collection of 6,000 objects — and there were more images that didn’t make it in the book! Other photographs were taken from the collections of other museums and historical societies, as well as local history collections in libraries and their very helpful staff, particularly at the East End.

The cover of Nomi Dayan's book, 'Whaling on Long Island.' Image from Nomi Dayan
The cover of Nomi Dayan’s book, ‘Whaling on Long Island.’ Image from Nomi Dayan

Did you get to choose the cover photo? If so, why did you choose this one?

Yes, I chose the cover photo. I felt this photo, taken by one of the museum’s founders, Robert Cushman Murphy (perhaps the foremost scientist to come out of Long Island) while aboard the Daisy [from] 1912 to 1913, showed a moment in time which was a mix of history and art. The overhead view shows the iconic image of human vs. whale, and captures the excitement, courage and drive behind venturing into the dangerous ocean to catch the largest animals on Earth. I wanted to show the whaleboat — a brilliant innovation — with its harpoons aimed forward. Will those harpoons catch a whale? Will the whale get away? Will the men return in the same shape they set out? … All we know is how hard these whalers will try, and they will risk their lives doing so. I liked how the photo shows men of color, as whaling was our country’s first integrated industry, and this photo shows how physically laborious their job was. You almost feel your arms hurt looking at them!

What kind of future do whales face? Which ones are in danger of extinction?

Whaling was one of our country’s — and planet’s — most lucrative businesses. Whale products changed the course of history. But in this process, people nearly wiped whales off the face of the Earth. Many whale species are endangered or show low population numbers, some critically, such as the North Atlantic right whale — there are only approximately 500 left! This means we have a great responsibility today — a responsibility to reflect on the repercussions of our actions, and to apply our knowledge to future decisions affecting the marine environment. Advocating for cleaner and quieter waters is saying “welcome back!” to these whales. The museum is currently installing a new exhibit, Thar She Blows!: Whaling History on Long Island which will open Oct. 2 (the opening event is called SeaFaire and is a family-friendly celebration of our maritime heritage). One aspect of this exhibit will discuss modern threats whales face, and visitors will be invited to take a pledge to help whales. One pledge will be not releasing balloons, which often end up in the ocean and can be devastating when ingested by whales and marine life. Another pledge for people who eat fish will be ensuring seafood is sustainably caught to protect healthy fish populations.

What is the whale’s biggest threat right now?

In one word — humans! Whales are facing new human-caused threats today. While commercial whaling is still a threat (Norway, Japan and Iceland defiantly kill thousands of whales annually, primarily for dietary reasons) on a global scale, there are larger threats, such as entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes, which are serious concerns, as well as pollution — particularly plastic pollution. Many whales who are found beached have plastic in their stomachs. The ocean is also becoming noisier and noisier, which affects whale communication. Climate change, and its effect on the marine food chain, is one of the most important concerns today — changes in sea temperature, changes in food sources. Cumulatively, it’s getting harder to be a whale!

What can we do to help them?

Reducing pollution and reducing greenhouse emissions is very important. I know we may feel our actions are removed from the lives of whales, but collectively, our actions really are changing the Earth. When I went whale watching two weeks ago out of Montauk, I was so disheartened to see the floating Poland Spring plastic bottles bobbing in the ocean. We can do better. Consider using a reusable bottle! Readers should also consider the needs of the marine environment in their decision in our upcoming election. While it can take a while for populations to recover, it can happen. Humpback whales and gray whales are showing remarkable signs of population recovery, which is encouraging and inspiring. As our country’s energy needs continue to grow today, and we continue to exploit natural resources, whaling offers the timely lesson that nature is not infinite and will one day run out. We have the responsibility of applying our knowledge of whaling history to current and future decisions affecting the marine environment.

“Whaling on Long Island” is available for purchase at The Whaling Museum & Educational Center’s gift shop, Barnes & Noble and www.amazon.com.

Author Nomi Dayan (holding book) with community members after the event. Photo by Heidi Sutton

By Heidi Sutton

The Friends of the Huntington Public Library hosted a book signing with author Nomi Dayan last Thursday evening. Dayan, who is the executive director of The Whaling Museum & Education Center in Cold Spring Harbor, gave an informative and evocative pictorial presentation exploring the rise and fall of whaling on Long Island before signing copies of her new book, “Whaling on Long Island” (Arcadia Press). Artifacts from the museum’s collection, including a whale ear bone and scrimshaw items crafted by whalers at sea, were passed around during the event. The book is available for purchase at The Whaling Museum’s gift shop.

Check out next week’s issue of Arts & Lifestyles in Times Beacon Record Newspapers for a book review of “Whaling on Long Island.”

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