Otis Russell of Chatham, well-known locally after 45 years in the hospitality business, has just published his first book for “edgy children,” “Sammy Finds a Home” (Wicked Whale Publishing, 2021).
The 49-page hardcover combines Russell’s words with the gorgeous illustrations of award-winning artist Barbara Harmon. Harmon has made a name for herself as a biological and medical illustrator. She lives in Orleans and Ocala, Fla. Russell and Harmon met many years ago when she worked as a hostess at the Chatham Squire, where she also displayed her art. Russell himself worked at the Squire for 28 years, for most of that time as the bar manager.
The book includes many familiar seascapes such as Lighthouse Beach. That illustration also features Russell’s “wonderful olden golden” retriever Luna, who died the day after Christmas. Luna is pictured with a small boy in a red shirt. The book even pictures a seal who looks less cute than a bit, well, vicious as it snaps at Sammy.
Sammy, the book’s hero (or anti-hero, as the case may be) is a herring gull, and on Cape Cod, “gulls are a fact of life,” Russell said in a telephone interview last week. “I love them.”
The book’s settings are well known to Russell, who moved to the Cape full-time in the early 1970s after summering here with his parents since 1949. An English major in college, for six years Russell worked at a downtown Chatham book and toy store called Lorania’s which morphed into a different bookstore in 1983. Back then, “winters on the Cape were pretty gruesome,” he says. “There were long stretches of nothing to do but dust books or take children’s books out and read them.” Russell credits his time at Lorania’s for acquainting him with contemporary children’s literature.
His own taste in children’s fiction runs to “something a little bit out of the ordinary.” The subtitle of “Sammy Finds a Home,” “An Uplifting Tale for Edgy Children,” is meant to signal that “Sammy” isn’t “quite a typical children’s book.” With the word “edgy,” readers “don’t expect children’s book normalcy.” Russell describes his voice as “a little bit snarky.”
Growing up, Russell was a fan of Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline series. All told, Bemelmans wrote and illustrated seven Madeline books, each of which begins with the words, “In an old house in Paris, that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines… the smallest one was Madeline.” Russell says he loved the “tempo” of the Madeline books, and he recalled that tempo as he wrote his own rhyming book. “It was a little bit from that — tempo and a line that didn’t quite fit.” He says his book is meant to be read aloud to a child. The repeating rhyme pattern is supposed to be “welcoming” but not “sing-song.”
Another model for “Sammy” was Kay Thompson’s “Eloise at the Plaza.” Eloise is a six-year-old girl who lives in the iconic hotel. Sammy, likewise, is a seagull who lives at — or above and around – the Wequassett Resort and Golf Club in East Harwich (which isn’t mentioned by name in the book).
Russell, who was president of the Art of Charity Foundation for more than two decades, now works as a bellman at the Wequassett Resort. He says that as well as offering him a place to meet all sorts of interesting people, the job requires eight months of hard work which is followed by four months off in the winter to write books. Russell hopes that Sammy the seagull can be a mascot to the Wequassett as Eloise is to the Plaza.
The book is arranged according to the alphabet and begins, “A long time ago/But a short walk away/A colony of herring gulls/Lived by the bay; They were raucous and loud/An unsavory crowd/And they scrambled for left-overs/Day after day.” But Sammy wants something better than week-old food, something different. And so he goes on a quest and samples blue crabs, donuts, fish guts, popcorn, boaters’ lunches. Finally, he spies a tall tent and settles on a perch. “And his view from this steeple/Showed him all kinds of people/Who were eating and dropping… This gull needed no urging.” The two-page illustration shows, in gorgeous detail and color, a scene outside the Wequassett Inn. In the left foreground is LiBAYtion, a beachfront bar under a pergola. Diners are seated at outdoor tables. On the right is a row of blue umbrellas, and a pool. In the background is Pleasant Bay. Here, Sammy snags a seafood kebab. “His options were plentiful/He had a whole tent full/ Of food choices/Better than putrefied oysters.”
The book ends with a happy and well-fed Sammy perched on the top of two arms of a “W.” The Wequassett Inn’s actual “W” logo has a small seagull atop it. In fact, Russell says, his older brother Ted Russell, who worked in public relations, suggested putting the seagull above the “W” logo many years ago.
Harmon, “a very exact illustrator,” worked from photos that Russell provided her.
Russell, who is working on a second children’s book, and Harmon will both sign “Sammy Finds a Home” on Saturday, May 29 from noon to 2 p.m. at Yellow Umbrella Books in Chatham. The book is also available at Where the Sidewalk Ends Books, also in Chatham.