There’s a new children’s book called Reston A to Z, and local preschoolers and early readers are going to love it. My own kids adore this book about their town.
There are a lot of reasons Reston A to Z appeals to young children, including a charming squirrel narrator and entertaining rhymes. But what makes this book particularly special is that it is set in locations that are familiar to local children. Colorful photos of Reston scenes combine with cheerful illustrations to teach the alphabet in a hyperlocal way. “A” isn’t just for art; it’s for the ART sign at Lake Anne Plaza. “I” isn’t just for ice skating; it’s for the ice rink at Reston Town Center.
This book turns children’s neighborhoods into a series of fun learning opportunities. At the same time, it takes young readers on a tour of their community and helps them learn about aspects of this area that make it a particularly excellent place to be a kid.
Reston A to Z was created by two longtime Reston residents: author/photographer Watt Hamlett and illlustrator Jill Olinger Vinson. I recently spoke with Watt and Jill to learn more about the book and their creative process.
Modern Reston: What is your background?
Watt Hamlett: I grew up in Farmville, Virginia and attended UVA. My career has been in nonprofit and higher ed technology, but my extracurricular interests have always been around creative pursuits. I have acted in plays, done stand-up comedy and improv, written screenplays, and made short films. I also sing and play bass in a local cover band, Mandatory Recess. So conceiving of, photographing, and writing my first children’s book has been my latest creative pursuit.
Jill Vinson: I have been an artist and crafter all of my life, frequently creating pieces for family and friends and occasionally selling original drawings. I have also taught art to children and enjoy creating frequently with my own two sons. Making stuff has always been a great passion of mine even though I went to school for and became a civil engineer, working in the Land Development field here in Northern Virginia for many years.
How did you get the idea to create an alphabet book set in Reston?
WH: I love Reston. When my wife and I relocated to Northern Virginia in 2000, we looked for places to live all over the area. I feel extremely fortunate that we ended up in Reston. I knew a little bit about Reston at the time — that it was a planned community — but not much. In fact, it wasn’t until after we decided to buy our house on Brookshire Court that I discovered we were only steps away from Lake Anne Plaza. I remember the first time we were out for a walk and realized it. I was like “Whoa! This is in my neighborhood??”
My love of Reston has continued to grow since then. And learning about Robert E. Simon and the vision and history of Reston has deepened my appreciation of this unique community.
For my birthday several years ago, my wife gave me a nice camera. I began taking photos of the beauty I found around me here in Reston — the woods, the lakes, the wildlife, the architecture. After awhile I had a lot of pictures and I started thinking about something I could create that would let me share the photos, and Reston, with others. That’s when the idea of a book for children occurred to me.
In the many years of taking my kids to the Reston library when they were younger, I looked for but never found a book about Reston for kids. So I considered how I might make that happen. I immediately started playing with the approach of A to Z, because I felt that would give me a nice structure to work within. It became a fun puzzle to try to figure out how to choose topics that would help paint a representative picture of Reston in a way that would connect with kids, but also fit into the pattern of A to Z. As you might imagine, some letters were easier than others! From there I started my photo safari around Reston to capture just the right image for each topic. It took me over a year to do so, which was somewhat intentional as I wanted the book to include the beauty of all four seasons.
Could you tell me a little about the development of Bob the Squirrel, both in his character and his illustrations?
WH: Though my initial idea for the book was to use photos to take readers around Reston, I felt that photos alone would not make the book very compelling to kids. So I thought, what if it had some kind of illustrated character? And the idea of this squirrel who resembles Robert E. Simon and shares Bob’s love and enthusiasm for Reston just came to me. It really was just one of those moments of inspiration. It’s not something I labored over. Figuring out the right photos and the right verses – those are things I had to work hard on and took a lot of sweat and drafts and second-guessing. But Robert E. Squirrel was the first and only concept I had for the character of the tour guide who leads readers around Reston.
It was also the one part of the book that I knew I couldn’t do myself. But I didn’t know how realistic it would be to find an illustrator who would have enough affinity for Reston that they would be willing to work on the project with no real promise of return. After all, I had never written, let alone published a book before. There was no guarantee it would ever make it off of my hard drive.
The first thing I did was post to the “Reston, Remember When” Facebook group. Several people responded with suggestions. To my surprise, one of them was Jill Vinson who had been my neighbor on Brookshire Court for many years. Brookshire is a very social cluster, so we had interacted a lot, but I did not know she had an interest in illustration. We met up and I talked with her about the concept for the book, and she was eager to participate. The next time we met, she showed me her initial illustrations for Bob Squirrel and I was blown away. I feel so incredibly fortunate to have found Jill as a partner in this project. It was no small thing I was asking, for her to create over 30 illustrations. But she approached it with diligence and enthusiasm. She also was willing to help with many other aspects of the book, from finding a publisher to planning the marketing. I can’t overstate the part she played in making this book a reality.
JV: The idea of Robert E. Squirrel was Watt’s. He wanted the main character to be an anthropomorphic squirrel with many of Robert E. Simon’s distinguishing characteristics. If I look back in my sketchbook to September of 2015, there is a page where I pasted a photo of Robert E. Simon next to a photo of a squirrel. I started drawing the character and went through a couple of iterations before Watt and I decided on the final version. Getting the facial hair right was the trickiest part!
Do you have a particular goal that you hope to accomplish through this book?
WH: Books are special in the lives of children. And they are a major way that parents and children spend time together and bond. I still remember when I was six years old, and my mom reading books to me at bed time. And I know how special it was to read bed time stories to my own kids. The thought that most delights me is that somewhere tonight there might be a kid who is cuddled up with a parent or grandparent enjoying this book together, looking at the pictures, having fun with the rhymes, and searching for Bob Squirrel’s acorn. And hopefully, in the course of doing so, they can learn something about Reston and bond, in a sense, with this community. As I said, I love Reston and I hope this book can play a small part in honoring this community and inspiring that love in others.
JV: Our main goal, first and foremost, was to write a children’s book that honors both Reston and its founder. A second goal was to give back to the Reston community through our partnership with the Reston Museum. A personal goal is that this project will give me the experience and momentum to pursue additional illustration work.
Do you have any interesting anecdotes about the book or its development?
WH: My most treasured anecdote is Robert Simon’s response to the idea of the book, which his wife Cheryl was kind enough to take to him for his consideration: “Let ‘er rip!” Unfortunately he passed away before he could see the finished product, but it is special to me that he was in support of it, and I hope he would he find it to be a fitting tribute to his spirit and his community.
Some of the topics and rhymes in the book came much easier than others. One night, I was struggling to come up with something for the letter “E,” and I had gotten punchy so I came up with “E is for Ebola.” I probably shouldn’t share this, because isn’t really in keeping with the rest of the book, but at the time I thought it was hilarious:
Reston is known for many good things, that’s true
But we’re also known for one not-good thing too
E is for Ebola, the one special kind
Discovered right here back in ‘89
But, not to worry, once you know the facts
That it was discovered in crab-eating macaques
And it only affects monkeys, not humans, so there.
But just to be safe, we’ll skip Isaac Newton Square.
I included this verse in a draft of the book I sent to Jill to review. And I don’t think she realized I had done so as a joke. But it’s to her credit that she was willing to question me on it!
JV: For the record, I couldn’t quite tell if he was joking [about the ebola] or not! I’m glad he was!
I feel like Watt and I need to give a shout-out to La Madeleine in Reston. For nearly a year we used La Madeleine as our “office” for our meetings. It is such a nice cozy space to work and they have a great hot tea assortment!
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
WH: One of the goals for the book is that it can be a way that others can give back to the community. The Reston Museum was an early partner in the project in that regard. Before we even had a publisher confirmed, Jill and I approached them with the offer to purchase a quantity of the books at cost that they could then sell as a fundraiser, which they did. I’m grateful for that because it was early validation that others saw the potential in the book, and it was incentive for us push to see the book get published and make it as good as it could be. So now for every book purchased at the Museum, all of the proceeds go directly to Reston Historic Trust. They are also selling cute squirrel plushies wearing Reston bandanas to go along with the book. Everyone should stop by Lake Anne Plaza and support them with their holiday shopping!
We are also hoping to work with other local community nonprofits who might also be interested in selling the book as a fundraiser. And Jill and I would love to visit Reston schools to read the book to students. So if any local teachers or librarians are interested, please contact us through our Web site, www.restonatoz.com.
Though the book is finished, Bob Squirrel’s tours of Reston still continue. He has a Twitter account and an Instagram account where you can follow him on his further adventures. This fall, he’s been to the South Lakes Homecoming Parade, the Washington West Film Festival at the Town Center, and joined Santa at Lake Anne Plaza, to name a few stops. You can find him at @robertesquirrel on Instagram and Twitter. Also, there is a Fun with Bob Squirrel page on our Web site with downloadable activity sheets including the coloring page from the book, a Reston word find, a maze, and more. We plan to continue to add activities.
JV: The support that Watt and I have received and continue to receive has been truly humbling. I have had people that I haven’t seen or heard from in 20 years approach me about this book. I am so thankful to this project for reconnecting me with old friends and introducing me to new ones! Reston is an incredibly special and unique community.
Many thanks to Watt and Jill for the fun look into the creation of their book!
The best review that I can give for Reston A to Z comes from my own children. I have a three-year-old daughter and five-year-old son, and both of them adore the book. They were captivated by it from the moment they first saw the cover and recognized familiar Reston scenes. They examine every page in great detail, and enthusiastically relate to the activities and children in the photos. Bob the Squirrel is beloved in our house. (Even though they cackle every time they get to the page where poor Bob gets his tail caught in the Metro’s sliding doors.) As for me, I love the way that this book combines two of my favorite things to do with my kids — reading and exploring our community.
Watt and Jill have created something truly special for Reston’s children, and I’m so grateful that my own kids happen to be the perfect ages for it. If you know a preschooler or early reader in Reston, I highly recommend it. It would also make a great gift for a new baby, or for teachers of preschool or kindergarten. Or just buy it for yourself or anyone who loves Reston and would like a delightful book to add to a local collection.
Reston A to Z was published in 2016 by Mascot Books. It was written and photographed by Watt Hamlett and illustrated by Jill Olinger Vinson.
You can buy the book on Amazon HERE, and it is also available at the Reston Museum.