By Melissa Arnold
Regardless of gender, age or hobbies, just about all kids are surrounded by “stuff” — games, toys, dolls and LEGOs are perennial favorites. Joanne Cucinello’s granddaughter, Lia Paris, was no exception in her younger years, her childhood bed literally overflowing with stuffed animals. It’s a cherished memory for Cucinello, a longtime poet, storyteller and resident of Port Jefferson. In late January, she published “Lia Paris Sleeps in a Zoo,” an adorable book for children that explores little Lia’s vivid imagination and those of her stuffed friends.
Tell me a bit about your upbringing. Were you creative as a child?
I grew up in Brooklyn and Queens, and came from a family of five children. I wound up being the caretaker of my younger brothers and sisters, whom I love very much. I ended up having five children myself!
When I was younger, we didn’t have much money, and we learned how to create things out of nothing. All of us were very resourceful and creative. I loved reading and writing, and I always had a pencil in my hand.
When did you first start writing? Was it a part of your career?
I have probably 10 children’s stories that I’ve written so far, though this is the second one that I’ve published. I’m also a poet at heart — I’ve published a book of poems, and have a blog called “I See the Bridge” that I’ve been writing on since 2007.
My husband and I had a few hair salons, first in Queens and then out here in Suffolk County. I also grew up cooking beside my mother, and ended up starting my own small catering business. When my children were grown, I partnered with my daughter Lisa to open up Tiger Lily Cafe in Port Jefferson. We’ve been in business for more than 20 years.
What made you want to write for children?
I love all stories, but I especially enjoy fairy tales. I think they’re very important for children to listen to. Fairy tales can connect with a child on a very deep level. My first book, “Wanda the Wilopent,” is a fairy tale.
What inspired you to write this book? Is it based on a true story?
It seems like today children never have just one favorite toy. There’s always more being added. That was the case with my first granddaughter, Lia. She and her parents lived with us for the first year of her life, and so I was able to be closely involved with her as a baby. She was a very sensitive child and very imaginative. She refused to put her stuffed animals in the closet, saying that they would start to miss her and cry.
For a while, Lia and her younger sister, Simone, shared a bedroom. Eventually, her parents turned an office into a bedroom, allowing both girls to have their own room. It seemed that initially she was feeling lonely being the big sister in her own room. Relatives saw how much she enjoyed animals and her stuffed pig, so they began to bring her additional stuffed animals for her collection. Over time, she kept putting more and more of them on her bed, until there was no more room and she ultimately fell out of bed.
How does Lia Paris feel about having a book written about her?
Lia is 16 years old now, a wonderful human being. She’s been thrilled about the whole process from the beginning. Her little cousins, my grandchildren, are always asking if I’m going to be writing a story about them, too. I do have plans to bring them into stories in the future.
How did you go about getting published?
My first book was self-published, but this time I was published through Austin Macauley Publishers. They were accepting submissions, and I looked at the kind of books they were printing. While they didn’t have any fairy tales, they did have funny, touching stories about children and their life experiences. I had written “Lia Paris” years ago, when she was around 5 years old, and it was dear to my heart.
What about the illustrations?
Austin Macauley has its own illustration department. I sent them pictures from when Lia was young, along with sketches my niece helped me with. Lia actually has many of the stuffed animals from the story still in her closet, so she got them all out for us to photograph. It was a lot of work, but they did a great job.
Is there a particular lesson you’re trying to teach with this book?
I think there is a lesson in it for both parents and children, that more isn’t always better. Today, we always have to have the latest, greatest thing. And so much gets thrown out. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Who is the book’s target audience?
I think that it would be best for children ages 4 to 7, though younger children can certainly have their families read it to them.
Any more books on the horizon?
Yes, I have plenty of stories that I hope to publish in the future if this book does well. One story is called “My Name is Rainbow,” about a little girl who has a condition called heterochromia — her eyes are two different colors, and she often gets picked on by other children for it. It’s about learning to love yourself and celebrating the things that make you different.
Meet the author at a Spring Local Author event at BookHampton in East Hampton on April 19 at 10:30 a.m. and at a special Storytime event at Barnes and Noble in Lake Grove on April 25 at noon. “Lia Paris Sleeps in a Zoo” is available for purchase online at www.austinmacauley.com, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.