I have put my business on the line to test a theory I’ve had for 16 years.
Chester’s history adventures began in the Daily Press newspaper in Newport News, Virginia, in 1995. His origin was specifically shaped by his region: As any student who has heard my Author’s Purpose talk knows, I first tried a turtle as a narrator for a series of Earth Day cartoons, but the editors at the paper wanted a mascot that was more colorful and more specific to our Tidewater region of Virginia. So: a Chesapeake Bay blue crab!
And in our region, he was hit. Chester’s stories grew over several years until they became a daily feature in 1999. I never let Chester’s origin limit his reach. If someone wanted a really technical answer to the question of WHY a CRAB to teach HISTORY?!?!? I would mention that the Chesapeake Bay watershed covers a lot of early American history. But really, the important thing is that this crab is cute and funny and curious. Inside the stories, Chester the Crab wanders everywhere. The Chesapeake Bay is his home, but the pollutants that absorbed into his shell when he was a young buster gave him the power to travel across all continents and all centuries. Simple!
After just a few months of daily Chester stories, it was clear that teachers and students and parents loved the history adventures. How to get them beyond the reach of the Daily Press’ circulation? I began shopping the stories to syndicates because I thought kids in Nebraska and Texas would be interested – for once they could see an American history narrator that wasn’t a stuffy, stereotypical bald eagle. But the syndicates and large educational publishers did not agree with me. (For awhile I sent a packet of samples to Scholastic every year, trying different avenues into their corporate operation. Nothing.)
So I clawed ahead on my own. Since 2003, my business Chester Comix LLC has made books of Chester’s stories and sold them across the continent. My success has pulled me to speak in front of students in Texas, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Louisiana and South Dakota. But it’s also true that most of my speaking gigs are in that Tidewater region across Virginia and Maryland and North Carolina. Hmmmmmm.
After 20 years of drawing Chester from a desk in Williamsburg, Virginia, it was time to shake things up, to REALLY test his reach. Because a decade of hammering away at this business had taught me what the great city-based cartoonist Ben Katchor just told an interviewer this month:
“[A city] is still a place to get an audience if you want to put on a concert or a show. There’s a density of population that would give you an audience for a live show, and I think that’s harder to do in a small town. But as far as making things and reading and studying, a lot of great universities are in small towns in America, so it doesn’t make sense to be in a big city. It’s the most expensive place to do a lot of work. I tell my students to find a cheap place to live for 10 years so you can at least make some work.”
So that was my plan: downsize to a cheaper place near a good cross-section of school districts and then draw. And draw. And draw. Last August my Williamsburg nest emptied of the interesting young men that I had raised there, and in September my artist father inspiration muse died, and so in October I moved to a beautiful farmhouse in the quiet Ohio farmland where he and I were born.
Then there was a fire.
Then I got a really good day job in the college town where I was a toddler.
Now I’m in a temporary downtown apartment, two blocks from the hospital where I was born.
But the plan is still in effect, and soon I will set up my drawing desk again, and from there I will work harder on more stories and begin to explore American history beyond the colonial Virginia tales I have told so often (During my Virginia years I drew the Battle of Yorktown for professional publication three times!). And from this little college town in Ohio, I can easily give my Author’s Purpose talks to students across Ohio, western Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kentucky . . .
There may be a surcharge to go to Michigan, though.
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