by Tena Starr
copyright the Chronicle 9-12-12
Higher Ground, by Kevin Fitton, is a simple little story for children. Basically, it’s about Tropical Storm Irene and one Vermont farmer’s efforts to keep his family and beloved dairy cows safe in the face of rapidly rising water.
This farm family doesn’t experience the devastation that many Vermont farmers did because of Irene, but it does know loss. However, their grief and recovery efforts are tendered by the neighborliness, the kindness and generosity that characterized the aftermath of Irene in Vermont.
Although the story itself is pretty basic, this is a gorgeously illustrated little book. Of course. The illustrations are by Plainfield artist Mary Azarian, who made a name for herself decades ago with her stunning woodcuts. In 1999, she won the Caldecott Medal for her book Snowflake Bentley, a picture book about the life of Wilson Bentley. She’s illustrated more than 50 books, and that doesn’t begin to describe her art.
The bigger mission behind the publication of this slim paperback is that 100 percent of the proceeds from its limited edition sale of 1,000 books will go to the Vermont Farm Disaster Relief Fund, which was established with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to help farmers hurt by Irene.
Mr. Fitton of Ferrisburgh is a pastor in South Burlington. He developed a love for books at an early age and is the author of several short stories. This is his first published book.
“It’s a lovely story that shows not only how community comes together in times of need, but also how important the farm animals are,” said Tanya Sousa of Radiant Hen Publishing. “They’re family to the characters in the book — not just moneymakers.”
Mr. Fitton had submitted the manuscript, and “we really liked it,” Ms. Sousa said. “Since it was about Tropical Storm Irene it crossed my mind that, by some chance, people might want to do it as a fund-raiser.”
Mr. Fitton immediately agreed to the fund-raiser.
Ms. Azarian also donated her time, as did the graphic arts and editing team of Theresa Perron-Janowski and Jeannine B. Young, both of West Glover. Carl and Susan Taylor of Derby paid for the printing so that all the money from book sales can go to the Vermont Farm Disaster Relief Fund. “Everyone agreed to do it for nothing,” Ms. Sousa said.
Ms. Sousa of Coventry started the Radiant Hen Publishing company about five years ago.
“My thinking was that, as an author myself, it’s very frustrating to me to be treated sometimes poorly, to sometimes not get paid even when there was a contract,” Ms. Sousa said. “I saw the need for companies that gave Vermont authors and illustrators a chance to break in in a way that they are treated like somebody, and they get decent royalties.”
People don’t make a lot of money with a book published by Radiant Hen because they don’t sell an awful lot of books, but they do get generous royalties on those they sell, Ms. Sousa said.
She doesn’t recommend either writing or publishing as a path to riches, but personally she doesn’t care. “We’re doing it for the love of it,” she said. “For the money to generate money for the next book.”
Radiant Hen’s goal is to publish three books a year, but that number recently slipped to one a year for economic reasons, although Ms. Sousa said business is picking up some again.
Authors submit their work to Radiant Hen and Ms. Sousa, as well as a team of volunteer readers, screen the manuscripts. To start with, they must meet Radiant Hen’s basic guidelines: The author must be a Vermonter and the book must be about either an environmental or agricultural subject.
At the moment, picture books likely stand the best chance of publication. “We’ve decided not to do chapter books,” Ms. Sousa said. “We did well with them, but they don’t bear the publication costs.”
Nor does Radiant Hen help people self-publish their books, she emphasized. Prospective authors can’t simply offer to pay the little company to print their book. “If it gets chosen, it gets chosen because it fits,” Ms. Sousa said. “We’re not a vanity publisher.”
Authors and illustrators get royalties; Radiant Hen keeps the rest of the money to cover printing and marketing costs, standard practice in the publishing business. That income usually does no more than pay the bills for printing and marketing.
“I’m not concerned about making money with it,” Ms. Sousa said. “I’m just concerned with giving people an option.”
She said Radiant Hen receives hundreds of manuscripts, many of them very good and worthy of publication. She can sometimes recommend another publisher. “Often we have to say no, but we try to give them a foot up, try to give them any help we can.”
The publishing company’s unlikely name starts with a sad story that ended with what Ms. Sousa views as a bit of a miracle.
She and her husband had a small flock of chickens, but for unavoidable reasons the chicken coop had not been fully tightened up. One day she walked out to the coop and found the entire flock slaughtered by a raccoon. There wasn’t a chicken left alive. In fact, there wasn’t a chicken left whole.
Ms. Sousa said that after she got done crying she went back out to the coop to clean up the mess and was amazed to find one white leghorn hen standing there unharmed. She had no idea where the hen had been or how it had survived.
“She was my beautiful white radiant hen, and when it came time for the publishing company I wanted a name that boded well for survival.”
Radiant Hen’s mission is to publish books, for both children and adults, that encourage good citizenship, kindness, and environmental awareness and debate, and to raise awareness of Vermont places and people and sustainable agriculture. Ms. Sousa also hopes to incubate promising authors and artists.
At the moment, Higher Ground is available through Radiant Hen. It can’t be sold through bookstores unless the store is willing to take no cut from its sales. The 30-page book is $10.95. Radiant Hen’s website is: www.radianthen.com.
contact Tena Starr at [email protected]
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