JASPER — A little bowtie-clad hamster named Harry Hugger is here to teach children about the COVID-19 pandemic from the pages of a children’s book.
The brown and white rodent is the creation of Mike Marshall of Jasper, who used his free time during the COVID-19 shutdown to realize his dream of writing a book. The first book of the Harry Hugger picture book series, “Harry Hugger and the Delightful Day,” became available on Amazon in June.
Modeled after Dr. Seuss books, the story follows Harry, who loves to spread happiness by sharing hugs through a pandemic. The book begins with Harry giving hugs to his family, friends and teacher, only to be told later that the hugs would have to stop for a while. An “invisible germ” that made the hugs dangerous had come to town. Readers see Harry sitting at home sad that he can’t share the hugs that he knows bring people joy. Then, the germ is finally gone and the hugs can resume. Harry rushes out of his family’s tree house to hug everyone he’s missed.
“The whole theme is how young kids deal with the pandemic,” Mike said of the book.
Three people from his life inspired the book. First, his daughter, Taylor, who attends Jasper High School, gave him the idea. Although Taylor is older than the book’s target audience, watching her grapple with the changes the pandemic brought to her life led Mike to consider how younger children were reacting. Then, his sister-in-law, Paula Marshall, who is a huge hugger, inspired the character of Harry.
“Of course, with the pandemic, there’s no hugging,” Mike said. “She was just devastated.”
Finally, a friend’s preschool age son inspired Harry’s signature bowtie. The boy always wears a bowtie when he’s out and about, just like Harry.
Writing a book has been on Mike’s mind for years, but the process of writing it, finding someone to illustrate it and ultimately getting it published seemed daunting. With the COVID-19 pandemic, however, he had more free time that he could use to figure out the process.
“I figured the best way to figure out how to do it is just to go do it,” he said.
Once he wrote the book, he had some friends and their kids edit it and looked for an illustrator on Fiverr, an online marketplace for freelance services. Once he connected with an artist, he sent over the text of the book and a one-sentence description of each scene. The artist then sent him back some sketches. Many of the images were exactly what Mike had envisioned. As for the ones that weren’t exactly what he wanted, he and the artist worked back and forth to create the right look.
“There was this wonderful collaboration with someone I’ve never met or spoken to on the phone,” he said.
Once the illustrations were complete, he took the book to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing where he self-published paperback copies of the book. He also built a website — harryhugger.com — and a Facebook page to market the book. So far, he’s sold about 200 copies.
“It’s not on the New York Times Best Seller list, but it’s doing pretty well,” he said.
Mike is already working on the second Harry Hugger story, which will look at racial issues and how to relate to people who are different than you. He’s given a draft of that story to some of his friends’ children to see if it’s entertaining for them, and so far, it’s gotten good reviews. Mike is also thinking of a third book, but he isn’t sure what adventure will come next for Harry Hugger. Some of the kids and parents suggested a story where Harry goes back to school after the pandemic and navigates readjusting to in-class school work, so that’s a possibility.
Regardless of what adventures await Harry, Mike said the main thing will be making sure he’s writing stories that kids want to read and that will spark conversations for families.
“That’s part of the process — does [the story] resonate with kids and does it create conversations you would want to have with your kids about racism or the pandemic,” he said. “The kids always have more ideas of what they want to see Harry tackle next.”
“Harry Hugger and the Delightful Day” is available for purchase on Amazon or through www.harryhugger.com.