Children’s author Cynthia Storrs Cotten grew up in Lockport and remembers being frightened of the Erie Canal. “I was scared to death of the canal when I was a kid and I don’t know why. It was deep, it was dark water, it was just pretty scary to me.” ¶ Now Cotten has taken a little-known aspect of life on the Erie Canal as the subject of a charming picture book – “The Book Boat’s In,” published by Holiday House ($16.95), with colorful folk art-style illustrations by gifted artist Frané Lessac. ¶ The book, set in the 1830s, tells the story of Jesse, a young boy who loves to visit the book boat, “the R. Edwards Library and Bookstore,” when it stops in his canal town. He finds various odd jobs (sweeping the store, chopping wood for the tavern, running errands for the doctor) to earn the extra pennies he needs to buy a used copy of “The Swiss Family Robinson” the next time the boat stops in town. ¶ Cotten, who lives with her husband in Dumfries, Va., first learned of the “floating libraries” that traveled the canal through an article in the Lockport Union Sun & Journal written by Douglas Farley, director of the Erie Canal Discovery Center in Lockport. “My mother cuts out these articles” and mails them to me, Cotten said. “When I saw this one, I just knew that there was something there.”
The article noted that packet boats of the 1800s competed for travelers and were often equipped with libraries – biographies, Bibles, classics, books of travel, adventure, science and history “to help passengers pass the time more agreeably” on the very slow canal journey. A traveling bookstore, with a billboard reading “E.& E. Wilcox, Bookstore and Lottery Office” and offering books for sale and for rent, stopped at “every port-of-call along the old Erie,” Farley wrote. “Bookboats” owned by entrepreneur Elihu Phinney also stopped at canal towns, “renting titles for two cents an hour or ten cents per day.”
Cotten said once she decided to come up with a story about a floating library, she knew “I’ve got to get a kid in there somehow.”
“Originally the character was going to be a girl. I thought probably a boy would have had a little more freedom to check out the book boat on his own. I pictured this boy browsing all the books and finding one he wanted and not having enough money for it. I remembered how I used to love to browse around bookstores. Who knows what you’re going to find?”
She said researching the era was a little tricky. She had to find a book that a boy of the 1830s might want to own, and “The Swiss Family Robinson,” published in 1812, seemed like a good choice. To research the money of the period, she turned to her brother, William, who collects coins. “He told me they didn’t have nickels, they had half-dimes.” They also had half-pennies.
Lockport is actually not mentioned in the story. “I didn’t want to give any specific town,” she said. “The canal is a long body of water. It could have been anyplace.”
Lessac wanted to join in the dedication Cotten came up with for her seventh published picture book: “For every librarian we have ever known – and those we have yet to meet.” “Librarians have been such an important group of people to me,” Cotten said. “Mr. Edwards was kind of like a librarian, so why not?”
Cotten said she got her love of reading from her parents, Mary Lou Storrs and the late William Storrs, an artist and longtime art teacher at Lockport Senior High School. “My parents were big readers,” she said. She recalls “as a very little girl, being taken to the library about once a week. When I was old enough to hop on my bike and go by myself, I’d go to the library every Saturday morning and get books. The library was a wonderful place. My idea of the best summer vacation was to find a cool spot in the house and read all week and then go to the library and get more books.”
Cotten and her husband are parents of two grown children, Amanda, 33, and Christopher, 27.
Her interest in writing children’s books began when her daughter was 2 years old and “I wanted to find a simple retelling of the Christmas story,” Cotten said. She took a correspondence course from the Institute of Children’s Literature, joined a children’s writers group at her local library and eventually enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children program at Vermont College, now the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She sold her first book, “Snow Ponies,” in 1998. More than 20 years after she first had the idea, her Christmas tale, “This Is the Stable,” was published, in 2006.
“The Book Boat’s In” was the first picture book she had sold in seven years, after steady success in the beginning selling one or two manuscripts a year. “I was afraid perhaps I had peaked and was on the downhill run,” she said.
While she has published one novel for children, she said she prefers “writing for younger kids. It’s harder to sustain the momentum of a novel.”
For now, Cotten is working on publicizing “The Book Boat’s In.” The book got a positive mention in Kirkus Reviews, which called it “a pleasing historical tale about a boy willing to work hard for what he desires most – a book.”
After discovering the existence of present-day “book boats” in England with a Google search, Cotten sent inquiries to both Word on the Water, a secondhand book shop in London, and the Book Barge, a floating bookshop in Lichfield, Staffordshire. Both expressed an interest in her book. “I sent them each a copy,” she said.
Lessac lives in Australia but visited the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse for her research. In an email interview, she said: “I gained information vital to the setting and period of Cynthia’s story. The clothing, the landscape, and most importantly the canal boats. Going on board a real canal boat was a highlight.”
Lessac’s brightly colored illustrations show colorful packet boats floating in brilliant blue water and scenes with humorous details, including a cat chasing a mouse at the general store. “I love the color, I think the style fits the period, I think they’re wonderful,” Cotten says.
One thing about the illustrations “did make me laugh,” she added. “I said, Frané, the canal has never been blue. I don’t think the canal has ever been blue, but it looked good in the illustration.”