PORTER – An artistic collaboration has brought together a town historian and village pastor in the creation of a new children’s book that addresses social justice.
“Johnnie’s Adventures: Lewiston’s Underground Railroad” is the second in a series by author Suzanne Simon Dietz based on a real person – John Dietz, who was the grandfather of her husband, Ray. He lived in Porter in the late 1800s. Her first “Johnnie’s Adventures” book was “The Search for Guinevere.”
Rex Taylor Stewart has been pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Youngstown for more than two decades.
A native of California, he graduated with an art degree from California State University at Fullerton and worked as a technical illustrator for the University of New Mexico for a year before his call to the ministry, he said.
“Art has been my hobby for the past 25 to 30 years,” said Stewart.
The book explores Lewiston’s history as a stop on the Underground Railroad, as seen through the eyes of a child. It is written for children, but it also includes information for adults, Dietz said.
“It addresses social issues, slavery, and although it’s based on my husband’s grandfather, I also created a fictional little girl for this story,” she explained.
“I spent close to 200 hours researching this story – going through church records, looking at census records of who owned slaves in this area and the history of legislation in New York State,” Dietz said. “New York State was ahead on this. New York State legislated the emancipation of slaves prior to the Civil War. It was decades before the federal Emancipation Proclamation. ”
This is the first book that Stewart has illustrated, and he created 13 watercolors for the 41-page book.
“It was challenging because, due to production limitations, I had to create the illustrations in the same size that they would be published, 8 inches by 8 inches, and it’s difficult to get details into little compositions,” Stewart recalled.
He also had to work from historical black and white photos.
“The photos are static from the 1880s, with everyone standing stock-still and no smiles,” he said. “I needed to illustrate them gesturing and smiling, so that was a challenge.”
“The illustrations are very dramatic, and young kids will like them,” Dietz said. “Adults will, too.”
Dietz and Stewart will sell the $12.99 book at the Dory on Main Street during “Christmas in the Village” Saturday and following services at First Presbyterian Church on Sunday. The book also is available on Amazon.
This is Dietz’s tenth book, and Stewart is looking forward to future potential collaborations.
“I’ve thought a lot about how people were breaking the laws of the time when they were part of the Underground Railroad, yet they felt this was the moral thing to do,” he said. “I like to think I would be brave enough to do this, myself, if I was in this situation. And so much about the Underground Railroad has been recorded in oral history – not written – so that makes it so much more difficult to document. I really admire what Sue has done here. And there are so many more stories in the churches and homes of Western New York.”
“The photos are static from the 1880s, with everyone standing stock-still and no smiles. I needed to illustrate them gesturing and smiling, so that was a challenge.” – Pastor Rex Taylor Stewart, illustrator