By Rachel Gill
A pink hippo, a Russian tortoise, six chocolate lab puppies and a woman determined to uncover secrets of her childhood are among the cast of characters brought to life by four local female authors whose new books do everything from inspire to educate.
Residents Karen Sturtevant and Bella Margi, former Williston teacher Justine O’Keefe and Williston business owner Helen Hipp have all recently published their first books. Their ties to Williston are not the only commonality. All four were inspired by impactful real–life experiences.
Hipp’s inspiration for “A Different Kind of Safari” came when she and her son, Raymond Chadwick, then 14, saw a pink hippo in the Mara River during an African safari in 2001.
Chadwick immediately named her Rosie, giving rise to the book’s character, Rosie the pink hippo. The book also stars a young boy named Raymond, inspired by Hipp’s son, who has Asperger’s syndrome. The story encourages readers to celebrate being different, following the pair on African safari adventures to explore a world free of labels.
“There are a lot of challenges and issues shared amongst children and adults around self–acceptance,” Hipp said. “It’s important to be reminded of that and to learn that for ourselves, so that was the wonderful opportunity that came out of this story.”
When they first saw the rare pink hippo, Hipp and Chadwick were in awe—but the hippo clearly was not popular.
“The hippo was being tolerated, but not necessarily accepted and that is such a huge piece that brought the story to the surface,” Hipp said. “The hippo’s pigmentation was the only difference, not her size or anything else, but to us she was Rosie, big and beautiful…. That pink hippo made me wonder, ‘why should everyone be the same when there are so many different kinds of different?’”
Chadwick, now 27, is living a happy, healthy and independent life.
“Rosie and my son’s life stories are so similar and to put their stories together helps people with self–acceptance issues,” Hipp said. “It’s really special that the story is written from a real–life experience to help us not make a diagnosis an identity, and that’s an issue that all of face at some point in our lives.”
Hipp, a psychotherapist, started WithinU Life Coaching in Williston in 2008. Her professional and personal experiences helped create this story.
“I am very proud of the work that created this book. Everyone involved I consider to be my safari family, they are great,” Hipp said. “I hope it gets people carried away on their own safari.”
For upcoming events and book locations, visit www.adifferentkindofsafari.com.
Getting creative with Gert, Stu and Zippy
“The Adventures of Gert & Stu and Zippy Too!” by Williston resident Karen Sturtevant also encourages readers to get carried away by imagination. The story follows friends Gert, Stu and Zippy, a Russian tortoise, during make–believe trips using Gert’s adventure box. The three must get creative when a dragon eats the adventure box, leaving them to find a new way home.
“The story is about how a simple cardboard box can create such a wonderful opportunity for adventure,” Sturtevant said. “The story celebrates kids’ real sense of wonder and that with just that they can go anywhere and do anything.”
Local artist Susan Bahr of Underhill illustrated the book in vividly bright watercolor.
“I love how she made the words and the characters really come alive through her artwork,” Sturtevant said.
Although this is Sturtevant’s first book, she is no stranger to writing. Sturtevant is the editor–in–chief of Vermont Bride Magazine and a contributing writer to the magazine. In the mid 1990s, she taught preschoolers, whose imaginations inspired her book.
“During story time, we used to create our own stories and that inspired me to create the characters Gert and Stu,” Sturtevant said. “Then I thought how great it would be to introduce them to my pet tortoise, Zippy.”
Zippy still lives in Sturtevant’s home, alongside two pet guinea pigs.
After formulating her characters, Sturtevant had a goal to hold the book in her hands.
“I always wanted to write a book and it was finally time to cross it off the bucket list,” Sturtevant said.
To connect with the book’s characters, Sturtevant encourages kids to create their own adventure boxes.
“Whenever I go into classrooms for readings, I bring along my adventure box filled with everything you need to make your own adventure box—crayons, markers, stamps and ribbon—you can use anything,” Sturtevant said. “This really lets the kids get excited about using their imaginations.”
The book is available at Buttered Noodles and the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library, among other places. Sturtevant is set to read from the book at the library on July 30. For more information, visit
Helping dogs with books
The youngest author of the pack is Bella Margi, an eighth grade student at Williston Central School, also inspired to write by a family pet.
In her book, “Home at Last,” Margi tells the story of a litter of six chocolate lab puppies and their mom, who need a home.
“It is about their journey to their forever home,” Margi said. “Once they are rescued into a foster home, they are all eventually adopted by different families.”
Margi’s family dog, Quinn, a 4–year–old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, was her inspiration.
“My own dog was rescued by a dog rescue and I want to educate people about why you should adopt dogs and what happens and the process,” Margi said. “Reading and writing are both something I love to do so I thought those would be good ways to educate people.”
The book’s proceeds will be donated to Champlain Valley Canine Rescue, the organization that connected Quinn with the Margis.
Margi said readers get to come along on the journey, as the story is told through the puppies’ perspectives.
“They are excited they got rescued and on their way to the foster home they try to hang their heads out the car windows, but they end up being too short,” Margi said. “They even get to play outside and they had never been outside, so they are really excited about that.”
Margi also illustrated the book with colored pencils and undertook getting the book published.
“I reached different printing companies for the most cost–effective and I chose Smart Press,” Margi said. “It is really good to know that I am actually helping, and once all the proceeds are collected, they will help dogs be rescued and it would be cool to know I helped get that done.”
Margi’s mom agrees.
“She has done an amazing job.She thought of the concept last summer and followed through,” Nancy Margi said. “Now she is raising awareness to an issue that some people are not aware of and how the process works.”
“Home at Last” will be available this summer at the Williston Farmers Market or by emailing [email protected]
Finding family secrets
Justine O’Keefe’s inspiration for her historical novel “Scattered Pages” came from her grandmother.
“My grandmother was given to her grandparents when she was 5. ‘Given away’ is how she used to put it,” O’Keefe said. “My aunt had a basket of letters my grandmother and grandfather exchanged during courtship and that’s where I got that inspiration.”
“Scattered Pages” explores a young woman’s struggle to uncover the truth surrounding her childhood abandonment during World War I. Gemma Enman was taken to New Hampshire as a child, away from her family on Prince Edward Island, to be raised by her grandparents on their small farm in the White Mountains. Despite loving her grandparents, she wanted to find the truth about her parents.
“We were really on the cusp of great change at that time, a huge amount that took place in that period,” O’Keefe said.
Since 2010, O’Keefe has focused on her novel and other writing projects.
“It is really amazing and I have learned so much,” O’Keefe said. “When you decide to take on something like this, it is the most interesting and rewarding choice.”
O’Keefe is especially excited when readers identify with the story.
“To hear people’s responses to the book is great,” O’Keefe said. “Folks identify with the story because everyone has grandparents and if not, there is another aspect of the story they think about.”
Before tackling her book project, O’Keefe taught in Williston schools for 26 years and at Waitsfield Elementary School for seven years. Years of writing as a teacher polished her skill, but it was her retirement in 2005 that sparked her interest in writing a book.
“I wanted to find another interest that took me completely in another direction,” O’Keefe said. “You have to keep going even if you get older and find a creative outlet.”
O’Keefe said the rest is history.
“I made a pact with myself to try to write a first draft, without breaks. I sat down and something came to me,” she said.
“Scattered Pages” is available at Barnes & Noble and can be ordered by local bookstores by request.