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‘Woolly Bear Winter’: A sisterly tale of Vermont’s animals and lore

Observer courtesy photo Sisters Cam Sato and Abbie Bowler recently finished their first children's book, "Wooly Bear Winter: How North Woods Creatures Weather the Cold".
Observer courtesy photo
Sisters Cam Sato and Abbie Bowler recently finished their first children’s book, “Wooly Bear Winter: How North Woods Creatures Weather the Cold”.

By Karen Sturtevant

Observer correspondent

Sisters Cam Sato and Abbie Bowker grew up appreciating the natural world, including all things winged, fuzzy and scaled. Their fifth-generation Williston family farm provided them with a direct connection to nature in all its wonder, leading to warm memories of animals and a chance to explore woodland trails with the curiosity that only children possess.

As adults, they would build upon this appreciation by pairing it with poetry and folklore to create their first children’s book, “Woolly Bear Winter: How North Woods Creatures Weather the Cold.”

During a walk through the park behind Williston Central School with her dog, Jazz, Sato noticed a plethora of wooly bear caterpillars. A poet and author, Sato’s creative mind sounded out with, “Woolly Bear, Woolly Bear, Crawling in the Grass, Tell Me, Tell Me, How Will Winter Pass?” After she shared it with Bowker, the stanza marinated for a few years until Bowker, an artist and art teacher, took workshops for illustration of children’s books at the Writers’ Barn in Shelburne. The poem was resurrected when the assignment of making a dummy book was given. Bowker shared her version of “Woolly Bear” with her fellow illustrators and received a resounding, “You need to publish this book!”

“I saw an opportunity as a parent,” Bowker said. “The poem was beautiful, and I recognized that I like stories where I could dig into a little bit of information so that it would mesh with Cam’s beautiful prose with some lore, sense of place and some science.” The sisters worked together over the next few years to create and recreate the text and illustrations.

“Each little stanza of poem comes with different creatures that are asking the woolly bear what kind of winter will it be,” Sato said. “That’s where Abbie takes the opportunity to not only make beautiful illustrations about the creatures, but also tells about hibernation with the bear or how squirrels store their nuts for winter.”

“Woolly Bear Winter” introduces the reader to Vermont’s native animals’ winter habitat while peppering in facts and folklore used to forecast the upcoming winter. Folk wisdom says that when the middle brown band on an autumn woolly bear caterpillar is narrow, it signifies a harsh winter is coming. The wider the brown band, the milder the winter will be. Was the woolly bear’s brown band extra wide last fall?

The story can be appreciated in a number of ways—by enjoying just the poem, reading text specific to a particular animal (hare, turtle, bees, geese), discerning fact from lore or using it as a reference. The facts allow a chance for open discussion and research on particular animals and habitat.

“The woolly bear caterpillar is like a little friend from childhood,” Bowker said. “Everyone has that connection and memory of seeing it crawl around and curl up, expecting them to be soft, but finding out they’re prickly. It’s such a fond memory for people and they seeing their own children experience some of that as they learn and grow and having a book that celebrates all those things is great.”

The sisters decided to send the story to several publishers in hopes of seeing it transformed into a book. Some responded with a kind ‘thanks for your inquiry’ while others never sent any acknowledgment. After several rejection notices, they were especially pleased to hear that Wind Ridge Books, an imprint of The Voices of Vermonters Publishing Group, based in Shelburne, was interested.

“What makes our publisher really unique is that part of their mission is to tell stories by Vermonters for Vermonters,” Bowker said. “Our book, being by two Vermonters and sisters, and the fact that’s it’s telling a story of Vermont’s woodland creatures, with Vermont lore is the perfect storm.”

Educators and artists, Bowker and Sato are working on lesson plans to share with students in kindergarten through grade three that link the next generation to common core state standards. “It’s a very exciting time for our Vermont communities to really see this as an opportunity as children of Vermont to get a better sense of place of the animals in their environment and how they prepare for winter and make connections in their world around them. That’s a thrilling aspect for me,” Bowker adds.

After an illustration tweak here and a cover change there, the picture book, available in hard and soft cover, is ready for its unveiling. The official book launch party, free and open to the public, is planned for Friday, April 1 (no kidding) at the Shelburne Town Hall from 4 – 6 p.m. Refreshments will be offered including a special treat of caterpillar cruller donuts made with brown sugar and chocolate to mimic the caterpillar’s bands. The story will be read while simultaneously displayed on a big screen.

Learn more about Cam Sato at www.camsato.com and Abbie Bowker at www.abbiebowker.com. Look for “Woolly Bear Winter: How North Woods Creatures Weather the Cold” at independent booksellers and online at www.windridgebooks.org.