About three years ago, well-known Sisters artist and musician Dennis McGregor painted a picture of a turtle climbing on a fence. “Just for fun” he added a turtle dove sitting on the fence watching the turtle. As McGregor wondered why two creatures that seemed nothing alike shared a name, the idea was born for a series of paintings featuring pairs of different animals with names in common.
“I had no intention at first of making a book,” McGregor said. “But I got a great response from even my toughest critics — my adult twin daughters who now have young kids of their own — and it just made me smile and wonder how many more times I could do that.”
Around 10 of the first paintings in the series were displayed at the Cottonwood Cafe in Sisters, and the feedback McGregor received about how customers engaged with the artwork convinced him the concept would make a great children’s book.
The result is “You Stole My Name,” a 9-by-14-inch hardcover illustrated children’s book released in June. McGregor will present the book, read (and sing) from it and sign copies at a book launch event on July 27 at Paulina Springs Books (252 W. Hood Ave., Sisters). Original framed paintings from the book will be displayed and available for purchase at Sisters Gallery & Frame Shop next door.
“You Stole My Name” features 15 of McGregor’s paintings reproduced in full color, with an accompanying four-line rhyming verse on the facing page. There are also several additional illustrations on the cover, dust jacket flap, title and acknowledgment pages. Each humorous and detailed picture depicts two dissimilar animals who happen to share a name. The duos include a bull and a bullfrog on the cover, a tiger and a tiger shrimp, a cat and a catfish, and a kangaroo and a kangaroo rat.
Perspective and proportion
McGregor actually painted 20 pieces in the series — more than he thought he would need — so he could select the best ones for the book. One of the biggest challenges was determining how to compose the images with enough detail when small creatures were pictured with much larger ones. He could play with perspective and exaggerate the size of the smaller creatures only so much before things became too distorted.
“I actually got about halfway done with the ‘ZebraFinch’ painting and felt like I needed to start over because there was too much zebra and not enough finch,” McGregor said.
He solved the problem by painting the finch perched on the zebra’s tail, with the zebra nipping at its own tail. He recently went back to the abandoned “ZebraFinch” canvas and added a whole flock of finches on the zebra so it wouldn’t be wasted.
At first, McGregor planned to have only each illustration’s title on its facing page. But his daughters pointed out that parents sharing the books with their children would want something to read. McGregor called on his songwriting background — local music fans will recognize him from his solo work and his folk-rock band, Dennis McGregor and the Spoilers — to craft the text. The resulting verses for each illustration are witty and rhythmic, entertaining to both adults and the book’s younger readers and listeners.
“There’s no story with a message or a moral,” McGregor said. “But at the same time it’s very engaging, and kids are loving it. Several have done drawings and written letters to me and posted pictures on my Facebook page of them with the book.”
McGregor called on several friends and family members to review and edit the writing. His daughters nixed his first draft of the verse for “TurkeyVulture” as too dark for young children at bedtime:
“When you try to be my friend, / I fear I might be near the end. / But I plan to keep on living, / at least until next Thanksgiving.”
So McGregor made it more kid-friendly:
“Up, up, up you circle ’round. / I gobble gobble here on the ground. / Of all the bird names you could steal, / you chose mine, what’s the deal?”
Time and money
Each painting took McGregor about two to three weeks to complete in between his commissioned work. For the original pieces, which measured 20-by-13-inches, he used his preferred medium of gouache (opaque watercolors).
“For years I’d wanted to do something like this but couldn’t find a way to have time for it without being paid,” McGregor said.
The costs of self-publishing were another impediment. McGregor didn’t want to pursue traditional publishers — a process that can take years with no guarantee of success. However, with the format he had in mind and a planned first print run of 2,500 copies, the up-front costs to self-publish would have been substantial.
So McGregor used a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund the production costs. He’d successfully done the same thing with his first illustrated children’s book, “Dream Again,” in 2013. This time, more than 400 people pledged over $27,000 by pre-ordering around 700 copies of the book, along with cards, signed prints and T-shirts featuring the artwork from the book.
The positive response has encouraged McGregor to consider a possible sequel. The Old Mill District has commissioned a series of three murals based on the book. They are expected to be on display by late summer.
“You Stole My Name” retails for $25 and is available in Central Oregon at Dudley’s Bookshop Cafe (135 NW Minnesota Ave., Bend), Newport Avenue Market (1121 NW Newport Ave., Bend) and Paulina Springs Books, or online at dennismcgregor.com.