When living in England with her family beginning in 2004, Gigi Priebe of New Canaan became fascinated with a particular exhibit at Windsor Castle: Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, an exquisite piece never intended for play, but a showcase built in the early 1920s by England’s finest artists and craftsmen.
Designed on a 1:12 scale by the leading architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, it has four floors and 40 rooms, electricity, running water, flushing toilets and miniature replicas of furnishings and artworks, as well as a library of 700 specially created books.
Exhibited at the British Empire Exhibition, 1924–1925, the dollhouse has drawers beneath it to hold its contents when traveling. Priebe, who lived near Windsor Castle, often took guests to see it. On one visit, an odd thought crossed Priebe’s mind: “If I was a mouse, I’d like to live in those drawers…”
More than a decade later, that thought has morphed into a children’s book, The Adventures of Henry Whiskers, which was launched in January with a series of events at Stepping Stones Museum for Children in Norwalk. The location was especially appropriate as Priebe is the founder of the museum, which opened in 2000.
As described by the publisher, Aladdin/Simon & Schuster: “Twenty-five generations of Whiskers have lived in Windsor Castle’s famous exhibit: Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House … But when it undergoes unexpected repairs and his little sister disappears, Henry must risk everything on a tail-curling car ride through the halls, walls and tunnels of Windsor Castle to save her … and discover the courage he never knew he had.”
In keeping with the Windsor Castle theme, the mouse family characters are all named after someone in the Tudor family, starting with Henry VIII. The 160-page chapter book was written for children 7–10, second to fifth grade, and has been well received by reviewers. It has one illustration per chapter, created, along with the book cover, by Daniel Duncan.
Recently returned from her initial book tour, Priebe said, “I am learning so much along the way — including how much authors must do to promote their work!”
Reflecting on the launch, she said, “Stepping Stones, which was designed for children 10 and under, usually has picture book authors, and the authors read their book to the children, then talk about it. You can’t do that with a chapter book, so we needed to come up with ways to make the book interactive, to engage with the kids. The template we created with thematically tied-in activities can be adapted for bookstores and libraries, and I am hoping other children’s museums will adapt it for ‘older’ audiences so more authors can be presented in that environment.”
Using a PowerPoint presentation, Priebe said, “I am able to show them the real world setting and talk about backstories and intentions. I can punctuate what teachers are teaching about writing, how it takes practice, time and rewriting to produce a finished product. I also learn from the children, the questions they ask, because you have to know the answers. It is an opportunity to make a book come to life.”
The Adventures of Henry Whiskers had its genesis in England where Priebe had joined a writing group on a whim, and when she shared her idea of the mouse story, it was met with enthusiasm. “I wasn’t thinking about writing a book,” she said, “just writing ideas as they came up.” When the family returned to the States in 2006, she decided to study writing with Patricia Reilly Giff (author of Lily’s Crossing, among others).
“Initially, I just had the story glued together,” Priebe said, “but I got it read in schools to second and third graders and their response was affirming. A book buyer in Elm Street Books [in New Canaan] tipped me to getting published.”
She submitted the book, and was invited make changes and resubmit, which she found very encouraging. “I found a freelance editor, and was advised ‘Don’t sign anything without talking to someone who knows the publishing industry.’ Through networking, I got an agent and a publisher on the same day.”
She was signed to write two books with an option for a third by Aladdin/Simon & Schuster two years ago, which released thepaperback and hardcover simultaneously.
Priebe learned two weeks ago that the second book, The Long Way Home, further adventures of the Whiskers family, will be released in late August.
“I feel extremely fortunate; children like it, both boys and girls, and the reviews have been great,” she said. “And fortunately,” she continued, “sales of children’s books have gone up the last few years. The environment today is so full of distractions, parents need to find a way slow things down and focus on children, and reading a book with them is a great way to do it.”
Comparing her efforts with founding a children’s museum and writing books for children, both of which call on her background in children’s education, Priebe said, “While there is imagining in both, the craft of writing is the extreme opposite of working on Stepping Stones, where I worked with a lot of people versus writing, which is me, myself and I.
“It challenged me in a different way, but the positive reinforcement kept me going. In other ways, the two are not really different: Both the museum and the book compel children to enter in, in their own way, inspiring their imaginations. We want them to leave the museum wanting to visit other museums, and after finishing the book to read other books — that is the ultimate win.”
Philanthropy is also important to Priebe. “When I’ve done local appearances, I’ve suggested that people might want to donate a copy of my book, or another, to Circle of Care or other local children’s organization to create an awareness of them and getting books into children’s hands.”
She is also involved with Horizons, a summer enrichment program, providing academic and swimming and other activities for children, K–12, of low-income households.
The Adventures of Henry Whiskers is available in local bookstores and online; it is priced $16.99 hardcover and $5.99 paperback. For more information, visit gigipriebe.com.