A.L. “Buddy” Collins is vice chair of the State Board of Education. But since 2012, he has worked on a different contribution to students: A children’s book called, “Jack and the Kerner Princess,” from Telemachus Press. EducationNC spoke with Collins about the genesis of the book and when readers can expect its release.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Granados: When did you start writing the book?
Collins: Let me start out by telling you how I got there. And then we’ll talk about the story.
In the third grade, I had a teacher who was a really stern, no-nonsense teacher that nobody really wanted because she was that way. Two things: One, she was stern, no nonsense, but her husband owned the local putt putt, and she was known to give out free putt putt passes, so it was kind of an equal swap, I guess. But after recess every day, she would read from Richard Chase’s book “Jack Tales.” And what Jack Tales are is part of the oral storytelling tradition of the mountains. And what Richard Chase did in 1949 was research this, talk to people whose grandparents had told them the stories in the 19th century, and recorded a collection of Jack Tales. And recently, there has been a revival of storytelling in the mountains, and there has been many different story-telling conventions, and they all kind of center around Jack.
So, fast forward 30, 40 years later. I’m at Piney Grove Elementary School when I’m serving on the local board of education in Winston Salem, and the third grade is doing a section on folklore, and they’re doing Jack Tales. And I had not thought about Jack Tales for many, many years. And I told them how excited I was that they were doing it, and my own experience in the third grade, and the third grade teachers invited me back to read a Jack Tale to the third graders. So I found a Jack Tale they had never heard and did it and had a great time. And at the end of it, a third or fourth grade class, I can’t remember which one, they had a writing assignment: and that was writing a story about Jack coming to Kernersville.
And so each one of the children had their own idea about how Jack had come to Kernersville, and so I went home that night and talked to my wife, and I said, “You know, Jack could come to Kernersville.” So I decided to pen a story, a modern day Jack Tale, off of the concept that this is Jack’s last great adventure, and he’s coming to Kernersville. The historical Jack, the oral story-telling Jack, he is a sort of lazy teenager, who has great ambition and has not figured out that he has to work to get that to which he aspires. And what happens is, he finds himself in all kind of fantastic adventures with all kinds of fantastic creatures, and either through sheer luck or cleverness, he always wins out and is successful.
Jack is the youngest of three brothers. Will and Tom are his big brothers, and just like most big brothers, they pick on him. And in this particular story, Will and Tom are now in their early 20s and they have married. And according to ma, they have married the prettiest girls in the mountains. And every time there is a family gathering ma makes sure to point out how pretty Will and Tom’s wives are, and how shiftless and lazy Jack is. And so Jack gets mad one day and says “I am going to flatlands, and I’m going to find the prettiest blond headed girl in the flatlands. I’m going to make her my wife, and I’m going to come back here with a wagonload of gold.” And that begins Jack’s last great adventure. It takes him to a fictional town, called Dobsontown, which resembles in many ways the town of Kernersville where I live. And I’ve incorporated in the story traditional Jack type of tales. All of them original, but they are traditional tales that people would have told about Jack. He encounters witches and other creatures all throughout the adventure of securing the prettiest blond headed girl in the flatlands and a wagon of gold.
Granados: How did you go about writing this? Did you study other children’s stories?
Collins: I actually didn’t. I intentionally did not read and refresh my mind of any Jack Tales, because I wanted what I wrote to be an original Jack Tale, and I didn’t want to be tempted to take someone else’s work and try to weave it into mine. My vision of the story was based upon things that I had encountered. And so some of the fictional characters are actually characters that I’ve encountered in my life. The stories are stories that I have heard in one frame or another throughout my life. And so it took me, oh I don’t know, off and on, I wrote for nine months probably.
The reason why it’s taken so long to come to publish is that I’ve had an illustrator working on it and she’s done an incredibly good job and we’ve both had distractions, but now we’re at a point where we’re ready to go.
Granados: How did you find the illustrator?
Collins: She is a local, a young lady who graduated from high school in the Kernersville area. Her name is Abby Esterly. And her mother came to me and asked if I needed an illustrator, not knowing that I had written the book. And I brought her in and she immediately captured the images. When you write something, you have this mental image of the characters, and she caught them, and the detail with which she’s taken this has been just phenomenal. She’s now working in Texas. She’s a designer of computer graphics and cartoon type images and things. She’s done just incredible work. In fact, part of the story has to do with magic coins. And we describe the coins as kind of a silver dollar type coin with a lady on one side and an eagle on the other. That’s the only description that the story gives. When the illustration came back, it had a Latin term on it which means, “Virtue has joined together, death shall not separate.” And when you read the book you will realize that’s just the perfect inscription on the magic coin as to what happens. And she found it somewhere. And she’s just been an incredible joy to work with because she is a much more talented illustrator than I am a writer.
Granados: What are your hopes for the book?
Collins: My hopes for the book: first of all, I had fun doing it. I think the book is a fun read. It’s a fun story. It’s one that, probably from third grade on up, I think it fits very well with some of the standards in education as far as teaching folklore, and I’ve talked even to high school teachers about doing a section on the oral storytelling traditions of the mountains.
Any success that I get out of it is a bonus. I think Jack in the story tells a tale. He tells a tale about how, in his words, things always work out for good, for those people who try to do right. And I think that is the message that I’m hoping to provide to the young reader. If you concentrate on doing what’s right, you may not understand how you’re going to get there, but somehow it works out, and that’s kind of Jack’s story.
Jack is a lazy, shiftless, dreamer, in many respects, like every boy. I don’t really want to work that hard, but I want a lot of success. So I think boys will identify with Jack. I think girls will identify with the princess. The princess is a young lady who is caught in a family situation who has a lot of talent, who has things out of her control, but again, things worked out for her in the end. Hopefully people will enjoy it. I hope people will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Check out the book on Amazon.