Meet the Creators of Rupert the Rabbit - with Patti Wigington
In September, I got a real treat. I had a chance to meet the author and the illustrator of Rupert's Tales: The Wheel of the Year, an adorable children's book I reviewed this summer. Kyrja is an absolute hoot - a purple-haired firecracker armed with a glitter wand -- and she was delightful. Tonia Bennington Osborn provides calm and balance from the Zen-like space of the gallery she's renovating. Together, they're a force to be reckoned with, and we had a fantastic time. Read on to find out how Rupert came to be, and what's coming up for him next!
In September 2011, I had the pleasure of meeting not only the author of the children’s book Rupert’s Tales: The Wheel of the Year but the illustrator as well. They took some time out of their busy schedules to talk to me about the evolution of this amazing little rabbit and his adventures, as well as what’s coming next.
Kyrja Withers says she first found inspiration for Rupert and his adventures when she was working at, of all places, her job at a construction site. “I just had this verse in my head, of Rupert the rabbit sitting on top of the hill,” she says. It wasn’t the first time she’d been inspired to write something down – at a gathering some years ago, family members encouraged her to write down the story “The Monster Got Mom.”
Gradually the stories of Rupert, a curious young rabbit, began to take form, and Kyrja posted them online so she could share them with friends. After a while, people began expressing interest in buying them. Although the stories are written in rhyming verse, Kyrja says they’re not poetry. “Everyone was asking me where they could buy Rupert books, and that was when I started thinking I might have something valuable here.”
Although she tried contacting a few publishers with her ideas, it was Pete Schiffer of Schiffer Publishing who took a personal interest in Rupert and his adventures. Originally, the book was planned to be a series of eight stories, but that changed quickly. Now, the first Rupert book covers four of the Pagan holidays, and a second volume will cover the remaining four Sabbats in the Wheel of the Year.
“I was worried at first,” Kyrja confesses. “I actually wanted it to be eight separate books, to keep the costs low. I was afraid people wouldn’t want to buy a hardcover book because of the price, but Pete [Schiffer] insisted that it was better to do a larger book. And he was right.”
Tonia Bennington Osborn has a background in fine art – and never imagined she’d be illustrating a commercial children’s book. In fact, when she first was first contacted by Kyrja back in 2009, she was a little skeptical. “There are a lot of scams in the art world, so I’m pretty cautious about committing to something when I don’t know the person,” she says. However, her brother – who worked construction with Kyrja – suggested Tonia take a look at the story of Rupert. So, she agreed to take a peek.
“I’m not a typical artist,” Osborn says. While some artists may take weeks and even months to create a single work, Osborn says that if the inspiration is there, she can work fairly quickly. She created Rupert in soft pastels on suede, and when the date for the first book approached, Tonia found herself putting things together on a three-week deadline.
Both Kyrja and Tonia were committed to making Rupert happen. In fact, when Schiffer Publishing asked for original artwork to be shipped to them overnight – which would have cost about $400 – Tonia loaded her work into the car and drove six hours to drop it off in person at the publishing house.
Their hard work has clearly paid off – a Rupert’s Tales event at Paragraphs, an independent bookstore in central Ohio, sold sixty copies the day Tonia showed up to sign books. “It brought people in from all over the state, and not just Pagans,” Tonia says.
Kyrja’s husband, Randy, says, “What’s amazing to me is we’ve met people who are Christians that bought the book because they said they had learned something from it.”
Rupert’s Tales: The Wheel of the Year tells the story of Rupert, a young rabbit who learns about the celebrations of Beltane, Litha, Lammas, and Mabon. Kyrja says one of the things readers find so appealing about Rupert is that “He’s inclusive. You don’t have to be Pagan to understand the message that Rupert is sharing. He’s the silent observer, a part of nature, and he’s constantly learning as well as teaching. As readers, we get to watch things unfold through his eyes.”
So far, Rupert’s adventure has done so well that Schiffer Publishing has already committed to publishing a second volume, covering Samhain, Yule, Imbolc and Ostara in spring 2012. Rupert will be going green with Rupert Helps Clean Up, to be released in fall 2012, and focusing on reducing, reusing and recycling. In addition, an activity book is forthcoming, which will include coloring pages, word searches and mazes. Kyrja would like to see a "huggable Rupert" as well.
Kyrja is keeping Rupert busy. “We’ve had so much support,” she says. “There is a Friends of Rupert page on Facebook, and we’ve even adopted a road in New Port Ritchey, Florida. Rupert is also making the rounds of a number of Pagan Pride events.”
When she’s not working on artwork for the newest Rupert book, Tonia Bennington Osborn runs the Red Z Gallery in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Illustrations from Rupert’s Tales are available through the Gallery, and the book can be purchased online via Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Also, Friends of Rupert t-shirts are available at Mystical Scents, a Pagan shop in Tampa.
Kyrja has pink and purple streaked hair, a brightly colored house and an equally colorful name she picked for herself — from a Viking word meaning "choosers of the slain." "I chose the name Kyrja because I choose to be who I am. I take full responsibility for my own choices," said Kyrja (pronounced KEE-ruh), who prefers just the first name, no last name, thank you very much.
Kyrja spent years operating a steel drum roller and dump trucks and digging ditches. When she was laid off from the construction industry in 2008, she saw the opportunity to put her pent-up creativity on paper.
Out came Rupert's Tales, a children's book featuring pagan stories of tolerance and respect.
The 50-year-old Port Richey woman shares her stories with a radiant smile and a star-shaped wand that rains glitter.
"Grouchy people," she explained, "don't stay here long."
Kyrja, whose legal name is Kathie Withers, grew up a devout Catholic. She raised her own two children in the faith, served in her church as a Eucharistic minister and taught religious education classes for children.
Then about seven years ago, as she was going through one of the religious workbooks, the description of the Crusades jumped off the page. The workbook explained that Christians went to Muslims to introduce their God.
"I said, 'No, that's not what happened.' I really had a hard time," she said. "You can't shove all this horror that happened down children's throats, but I could no longer perpetuate that kind of soft sell."
The Crusades included a series of violent, church-sanctioned military campaigns against Muslims, Jews, pagans, and others who were not part of the Roman Catholic Church.
After doing a lot of thinking, she told the children, "This is what the book says but there's a lot more to it."
She wanted to make sure they realized that "it was the people, and not God or Jesus, that commanded these actions. Bad things happen because of bad people."
"The most important thing is your relationship with God; it doesn't matter whether you kneel, sit or stand," she said.
She came up with her own curriculum and lessons — then realized she was teaching her own beliefs, not church doctrine.
She said she left the church on good terms and began searching. Curiosity led her to a meeting of the "Pasco Pagans," where members have different ways of living their nature-based spirituality. Kyrja now believes in multiple gods as well as divine intervention. In February she married a fellow pagan named Randy.
"I did a lot of research and found what resonated within me," Kyrja said. She described "a homecoming feeling" that she had "found that right place to be."
• • •
Kyrja first got the itch to write a children's story after a family gathering a few years ago. Her two brothers and their wives were telling a story about their mother snoring and how they thought a monster had gotten her.
Her first story was called The Monster Got Mom.
"It's really funny and I never did anything further," Kyrja said. But she had "all this rhyming stuff, children's stuff in my head."
At the same time, she encountered people who were judgmental of her pagan beliefs. She remembers one woman telling her: "You're going to burn in hell."
"I felt more sorry for her than angry," she said.
It also fueled her passion to develop a children's book with themes of love, acceptance and tolerance.
Her favorite line from Rupert's Tales: "That's the nature of nature. There isn't anything wrong. The days will grow shorter and the nights will grow long."
The book came out in February.
Michelle "Zoe" Flood, the Hudson woman who started Pasco Pagans about nine years ago, said she recommends Rupert's Tales even for adults who are new to "the path" because the stories help people understand the basics of paganism, including the different holidays.
Flood said she has seen Kyrja lead guided meditations and has been very impressed by the way she affects others.
"She doesn't think she is, but she's very much a leader in the way she practices," Flood said.
Kyrja continues searching and educating herself.
"All knowledge is worth having," she said. "It doesn't matter what your faith is, all knowledge is a good thing."
New Port Richey Clean Up - article by Andy Kern
At 7 a.m. on Saturday, a small group of people showed up at the Sims Park Boat Ramp to pick up trash. By 9 a.m., hundreds of people had joined. By noon it was all over.
For more than 20 years, citizens of Pasco County have come together on the third Saturday in September to participate in the Cotee River Clean-Up.
The event, sponsored by the New Port Richey Parks and Recreation Department, is a community effort to clean up trash in the river and city parks. In addition, Pasco County sponsors a Coastal Cleanup, in conjunction with the International Coastal Cleanup, to remove trash and debris from streets and roads. The two events run concurrently.
“This event is one of the things I love,” said Elaine Smith, director of parks and recreation for New Port Richey. “The community involvement is tremendous. People are here, and they are willing to help with any project we need.”
Teams of citizens were sent out to collect trash; some by boat, some on foot. Participants were given t-shirts, gloves and plenty of 30 gallon trash bags.
Dozens of high school students showed up to log community service hours that would count toward their graduation. Team members ranged in age from 6 to 84.
Last year, 1.72 tons of trash and garbage was collected. Smith hoped this year to exceed that amount.
The history of the event goes back a long way. Otto Georgi says he worked for the health department in the late 80s. He and his crew found that the Cotee River was beginning to get polluted. Swimming areas were filled with trash. He and a group of concerned citizens formed the Cotee River Task Force. One of their major tasks was a community cleanup. The event has grown every year since.
“My wife and I take our kayak and paddle out to Durney Key,” said Philip Canniff, a resident of New Port Richey. "This is our ninth consecutive year. I try to get my neighbors to help as well.”
The river, parks, and streets can be a haven for illegal dumping. Over the years, the cleanup efforts have removed debris of every kind, included sofas, rusty bicycles and every kind of garbage you can imagine.
Jennifer Seney, Pasco County recycling coordinator, reached out to all Adopt-a-Road groups for their help.
One such group, the Kyrja Withers Friends of Rupert, has members police the road easements and sidewalks. There are 20 groups registered with the Pasco Coastal Clean-Up.
The Friends of Rupert ensure that a 2.3 mile stretch of road from Mass Ave & Rowan to Rowan & Trouble Creek Road is spotless. Kyrja and her crew of 18, clean the area four times a year.
“I’m a Pagan,” said Kyrja. “I help take care of Mother Earth all year long.”
All of the clean-up teams met at Sims Park at lunchtime to turn in their trash bags. Participants filled out a trash score card that listed the various kinds of trash removed from the river and community.
The cleanup was over, and so was the trash talk: until the third Saturday in April, when the next clean-up event will take place.