It took seven years for Solon Springs native Eliza Wheeler to weave her grandmother Marvel Swanson’s Depression-era history into a children’s picture book. The author/illustrator's book, “Home in the Woods,” focuses on 6-year-old Marvel, her seven siblings and their mother.
It opens in 1932 with the death of Marvel’s father and the family’s move to a tar-paper shack in Bennett. They pull together to turn the cold, empty shack into a home filled with love.
Published by Penguin Random House, the picture book has received three-starred reviews since its Oct. 1 release. It’s been called stunningly beautiful and quietly compelling, striking a balance between melancholy and hope.
Nell Rae Forrest, owner of The Little Gift Shop, has known Marvel Swanson for years.
“The story of her childhood is an inspiration to children who have grown up in the woods,” Forrest said. “Sharing these memories with the family has been a wonderful journey through the past and keeps the history of the area alive.”
It was a story Wheeler, who now lives in Minneapolis, never expected to share with the world. Growing up in Solon Springs, 10 miles from where the shack once stood, her grandmother’s stories captivated Wheeler as a child. She planned to create a booklet for family members someday about their childhood at the shack, where the family lived for five years. On a whim, Wheeler added the concept to a handful of future story ideas she sent to editor Nancy Paulson.
“Her response was immediate: ‘That’s the one I want to hear,’’” Wheeler said. “It was really surprising to me because I didn’t think it could be done for a more universal audience.”
The next challenge was to distill family history into a handful of pages and illustrations.
“It’s really my grandma’s story, not my own. How do I take that and turn it into a picture book?” Wheeler said. “It took a really long time to sort of find the balance and the rhythm and the themes of the book and to try and make it work in a universal way and sort of also keep these personal aspects of it.”
It’s not a true biography, she said, “but it’s hopefully capturing the spirit of the experience.”
As with her New York Times bestselling children’s book, “Miss Maple’s Seeds,” Wheeler drew on her roots in the north woods to create illustrations bursting with local flora. She revisited her childhood during a camping trip in the Brule River State Forest, filling a sketchbook with pictures of foliage. As she worked on “Home in the Woods,” Wheeler realized how special it was to share a book about the region. Not many children’s books take place in the town of Bennett.
Wheeler said she's happy with the positive feedback “Home in the Woods” has received. The most important review came from Swanson, now 93, and her three remaining siblings: Rich, 97; Lowell, 91; and Eva, 87.
“It was really great to share it with them when the first early proofs came out,” Wheeler said. “They seemed really honored and sort of tickled by seeing this family portrait and their names. That was probably the most rewarding thing was getting their approval.”
Two days before the book was released, Lowell died. Rich passed away a few weeks later.
“It’s like kind of amazing timing,” Wheeler said. “It took me seven years to work on this and they got to see it, which I’m so grateful for.”
If you go
'Home in the Woods' book signing
Who: Eliza Wheeler, Solon Springs native and author
What: Book reading and signing
Where: The Little Gift House, 9234 E. Main St., Solon Springs
When: Nov. 16, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
More info: wheelerstudio.com