OWATONNA — Although author David Kurud lived in Owatonna for many years, working as an advertising director for the People’s Press in the early ‘80s, it was in Winona that he had the spark of inspiration for his recently released children’s book.
“I went up the Winona Library and I don’t remember if I was researching something or what was going on, but all of a sudden the first four couplets of the story came to me. They just popped up,” he explained, of a moment that happened nearly 40 years back.
Now, he’s added over 200 additional rhyming couplets and partnered with illustrator Darcy Bell-Myers, to release “Needles: The First Christmas Tree,” which came out late last year. With the holiday season nearing, interest in Kurud’s festive book has once again been on the rise from old and young alike in his current home of Green Valley, Arizona.
“What has surprised me is that people have bought the book for their grandkids or their great-grandkids and they say, ‘I liked the book so much, I’m keeping it for myself. I’ll buy another one for my grandkids,’” Kurud laughed.
Although he said he initially envisioned the book for children ages 5 to 11, he believes his older friends have shown interest too because of the timeliness and fun nature of the tale, in addition to Bell-Myers illustrations.
The couplets themselves tell the story of a group of pines, living peacefully in a forest until Santa Claus comes and decides to take one home for decoration at the North Pole. After that first year, all the trees wonder what they can improve about themselves, in order to be chosen the next time around. As their vanity mounts, they begin to shun the other creatures of the forest — not wanting any birds or mice messing up their fine foliage.
On the other hand, protagonist Needles is a young tree who doesn’t have many branches to begin with. Still, he hopes desperately to be selected by Saint Nick and is encouraged by his mother to find other, less appearance-based ways to make himself a good candidate.
“He’ll want a pine who’s caring, good looks won’t suffice,” she tells her son.
In the process of taking in the furry friends that the other trees have abandoned, Needles learns the inherent value of doing the right thing.
“It’s a fun story. It’s a story about overcoming different disappointments and the importance of being kind and considerate,” Kurud explained.
He said he got plenty of practice for the more comic lines in the book by writing advertisements. Even before his job at the paper, he noted that he was coming up with slogans for homecoming candidates in high school and frequently impressing teachers with his poetry.
When it came to “Needles,” Kurud said it was important to him that the protagonist use brains instead of brawn to face his challenges.
When the other pines are invaded by caterpillars, and when Santa comes back to choose the next year’s tree, Needles has to make more than one tough decision — help the trees who bullied him? Leave his home to follow what he thought was his dream?
Over the course of 45 pages, and 229 couplets, the book turns into a year-long saga that can be read in one sitting or broken up into multiple episodes. Kurud also said he didn’t necessarily shy away from using longer words like “inquisitive” and “perseverance,” pointing out that students today have many more tools at their disposal to grow their vocabulary from a young age.
In addition to going and out and getting seasonal reads, children’s librarian Darla Lager said her staff at the Owatonna Public Library will be bringing in new books to check out, as well as welcoming students to the library over the holidays — making for plenty of opportunities to get younger residents learning through reading this winter.
Although not quite as busy as summer, Lager noted that the holidays are generally a pretty popular time in the building with children on break from school.
While she said the library hasn’t gone out and done its holiday buying yet, the annual tradition of getting new seasonal books will likely happen soon. Already, she noted that nearly all the department’s Thanksgiving-themed reads are checked out, and Christmas books usually fare the same way when December rounds the corner.
“We have a full cart of Christmas books, and most of those get checked out,” she said.
In addition to having books available to take home, the library will also be bringing in students from the Owatonna Public Schools, St. Mary’s and Medford for a visit.
“We always have the first-graders come and visit from here and Medford and we read them ‘The Polar Express,’” she explained. “They get a little backpack to carry and they get to check out books.”
Lager added that other holiday events may pop up throughout the season. The library is open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday; children’s books can be checked out for up to four weeks.