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Ashland teacher publishes children's book

Matt Damon set out to write the great American novel.

It didn’t happen, but the longtime Ashland educator’s ambitious attempt did produce some valuable fruit. Talking fruit, actually. And vegetables. And pastries. And a nasty, war-mongering custard.

Those and other items found on refrigerator shelves are given catchy names and strong personalities as characters in Damon’s first children’s book, a creation some 25 years in the making titled “The Fall of General Custard, or the Overthrow of a Leftover.” The book, available for purchase at whitecloudpress.com, was brought to colorful life by Gideon Kendall, a prolific illustrator who’s worked for The New York Times, Scholastic and Disney, among others. White Cloud Press is the publisher.

Damon, 52, who has worked in the Ashland School District since 1999, most recently as a third-grade teacher at Helman Elementary, began working on a novel he hoped would become his masterpiece in the early 1990s. After abandoning the idea, he realized his lifelong love of rhyme and storytelling, combined with his passion for teaching children, may be better suited for children’s literature.

“I found myself playing with rhyme and writing more children’s stories, probably because I had been working with kids as a camp counselor and as a teacher at some private schools at that time,” said Damon, who will be at the Ashland Public Library Aug. 3 for a reading and book-signing. “So I would get distracted from my novel, and then I just realized I should just run with that (writing for children) and it actually fits me a lot better. So then I realized how much I loved playing with words and the challenge of telling a story but having to work with the rhyme. Sometimes the rhyme feels like it’s keeping you from what you want to say, and then all of a sudden you’ll find a rhyme and it’ll take you in a direction that you didn’t expect.”

Damon’s journey from aspiring author to published author also took him in a direction he didn’t expect, one that led to two dead ends, including a tough-luck rejection that indirectly involved Scottish folk singer Donovan, and a chance meeting with a publisher that ultimately turned out to be the break Damon needed.

He thought he found a publisher in 1997 when, following a reading on a radio station in Santa Cruz, California, where he wrote the book and lived at the time, he was contacted by an artist who loved his stories. The artist had an agent who said “Custard” could sell, and began shopping it to the big publishing houses in New York. Damon said a Scholastic representative held the manuscript for sixth months and a deal seemed imminent, but it fell through at the last minute.

A year later, Damon read the story to a class at Lincoln Elementary, where he worked as a student teacher. Afterward, he was approached by one of the students’ parents, Steve Scholl, who happened to be the founder of Ashland-based publisher White Cloud Press. Scholl loved “Custard” and wanted to meet Damon to talk about publishing possibilities. At the time, White Cloud Press was looking to break into the children’s book market and already had its first offering lined up, a project that would turn some of Donovan’s song lyrics into a book. The profits from that book was expected to be used as seed money to help get “Custard” off the ground but, explains Damon, when Donovan backed out at the last minute, “Custard” also went back to the shelf.

“Now,” he says, “I just skip Donovan if he comes on Pandora.”

Fifteen years passed as “Custard” took a backseat to Damon’s teaching career. He continued to read his stories — he’s written several others — to his students, but had stopped pursuing potential publishers. Scholl, however, never forgot “Custard” or Damon, and in 2014 he approached Damon again about the possibility of publishing an “author’s edition” as the next installment of White Cloud Press’ humanKIND Project. The project, Damon explains, includes books that focus on cooperation, conflict resolution and kindness.

“So this really appealed to them,” he said.

It’s easy to see why. The protagonists in Damon’s story, which is set in a jam-packed refrigerator, are an olive named Romeo and a Maraschino cherry named Rosaline, who become fast friends after the jar of cherries Romeo inhabits are placed on the top shelf with the rest of the fruit. That doesn’t sit well with a leftover custard named General Custard the Infamous, who demands the cherries be moved down to the dessert shelf. Queen Honeydew responds with a sweeping statement: “Maraschinos are sweets. That is partially true. But truth can depend on a food’s point of view. Now, I say the cherries my chose what they do. Since they say they’re fruit, I declare they are too.”

Honeydew’s speech can be interpreted any number of ways, by adults or savvy children, and Damon’s fine with that.

“And so to me, that relates to a lot of what’s going on today,” he said. “You’ve got people of different genders saying I want to chose what my gender is, whether you agree with that or not. They get to decide. I don’t want to get too deep into it, but it’s characters in society saying, ‘This is what I chose to do.’ And then the society backing it, but then someone else creating fear, saying, ‘If they get to do that, wait a minute … so then next thing you know, peaches will be called burgers.’

“If you want to go to the under-layers, it’s about accepting diversity.”

But for younger audiences, Damon’s book also works well as a playful, imaginative story with some clever rhymes and an easily digestible message probably most clearly expressed during a speech by Rosaline near the end of the 34-page book: “We food groups have different shapes and tastes, and now fears in our hearts, which Old Custard has placed. But look — we’re all foods, and the fact must be faced, that mashing each other is simply a waste.”

Damon said the original manuscript took about six months to complete, but has been tweaked and, he believes, improved from its original form. Once Scholl decided to work with Damon using an author’s edition model — sort of a mash of traditional and self, or vanity, publishing (both Damon and White Cloud Press have put money into the project, Damon says) — he began meeting with Kendall and Scholl by conference call about once a month. The story remained the same, Damon said, but he made a few changes to sync up with Kendall’s illustrations and changed the ending.

“So to be part of that collaborative process as a first-time author and to have someone as professional and flexible as (Kendall), it was fantastic,” Damon said. “I think we got a really good product as a result of that.”

Damon received the first copies of the book by airmail in June and was blown away by the quality of the printing. “It was just the greatest feeling,” he said of seeing the book for the first time. Three thousand copies have been printed, and 1,000 have been ordered by bookstores. If it sells well, more will be on the way. To help sales, Damon will do what he can to promote the book. Besides the reading at the Ashland Public Library, he’s also going to read at other locations in the Rogue Valley and at the public library in Santa Cruz. An event organized by the Ashland Schools Foundation is also in the works.

Simultaneously, he’ll be working on the “Custard” sequel. He’s still considering story possibilities. One involves General Custard recruiting rotten dumpster food for a fridge coup d'etat. Another could employ food-caused fridge-warming as a plot device.

Either way, Damon won’t change how he approaches the storytelling process. He writes freehand on notebook paper, crossing out rhymes that don’t quite fit and brainstorming fresh ideas on whatever’s available when inspiration strikes — a napkin perhaps, or the notebook he keeps on his bedside table.

“Somebody told me a long time ago a good children’s writer should be a philosopher, and that always stuck with me,” he said. “And one of my rules for telling a story is I never tell a story that I wouldn’t want to hear even as an adult. I want to have layers of humor, layers of meaning, something to be learned from it — not necessarily a huge didactic message, but some truth revealed.

“Sometimes I tell kids, ‘This story isn’t true but it has truth in it.’”

"The Fall of General Custard, or the Overthrow of a Leftover" can be purchased for $13.46 at whitecloudpress.com. Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.