When Alyson Braden accompanied Purdue roommate Loran Pelecky’s family on a trip to Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks, she got more than she anticipated.
Beyond simply enjoying a fun vacation, Braden also met a future creative collaborator: Loran’s grandmother, Debbie.
“She kind of became an adopted granddaughter when she would come with Loran on vacation, so we had that connection,” Debbie Pelecky recalled.
Fast forward a few years and, while battling COVID-related creative fatigue and searching for a way to contribute something useful during the pandemic, Braden had an idea.
Knowing that Pelecky had written several children’s books for her grandchildren, she proposed a book collaboration – Debbie would provide the words and Alyson the illustrations – that would encourage and comfort children during the pandemic. The e-version of their book, “Carrie’s Caravan,” would be free to download from Braden’s personal website, with proceeds from hard-copy sales going to food pantries like Lafayette’s Food Finders Food Bank.
“Since the pandemic hit, there’s been a 60% increase in need at food pantries. So that was really motivating to look at those numbers,” said Braden, a graphic designer and 2020 graduate in public relations and strategic communication. “We realized with the theme of the book that it would mean a lot more to us if this was doing something greater than going into our own pockets, so that’s when we decided on donating to local food pantries.”
In the book, 7-year-old Carrie notices a long line of cars at her local food bank, with parents who lost their jobs during the pandemic waiting to collect food for their families. During an online chat, Carrie’s grandmother advises her to lift her own spirits by helping others, so she proposes to her teacher and classmates that they collect food to donate. Their food drive becomes a tremendous success, and everyone meets at school on a Saturday to join “Carrie’s Caravan” of vehicles delivering their items to the food bank.
As a retired schoolteacher, Debbie Pelecky has a strong sense about the life lessons children should absorb through her books. This story’s inspiration stemmed from online conversations with her grandsons during the last year.
“My youngest grandsons are in third and fifth grade, so we have been reading every night together during COVID via Zoom to stay connected, teaching them about Greek mythology,” Pelecky said. “Through that, it gave me the opportunity to listen to their concerns about COVID. So, that was the first thing I kind of channeled. What could I do through a story to validate how kids are feeling and let them know they’re not alone, but also give them an opportunity to maybe do something to help out? Even though they’re children, there was something they could do.”
That is a powerful message for readers of all ages, Braden said.
“So many of us, adults included, are feeling so isolated – away from their community, away from their friends and family – and this book shows that small acts of kindness are still possible, and that they have a great ripple effect,” she said.
While Pelecky has written several children’s books, this is the first time Braden has created book illustrations. She requested feedback from a Purdue connection to improve the authenticity of her work prior to publication in mid-February.
After taking women’s, gender, and sexuality studies instructor Jolivette Anderson-Douoning’s Women of Color in the United States (WGSS 381) course last fall, Braden reached out to her former professor, who agreed to review the illustrations of Carrie – a young girl of color – and her family.
“She gave me some feedback on skin tone, which was really helpful,” Braden said. “I had every family member the same exact color. and she mentioned that historically in Black families, there are different shades where the kids are a blend of the two parents. So, I made some adjustments based on that, which was really helpful and something that I had never considered.”
Braden and Pelecky’s original plan for the book was simply to print enough copies to share with friends and family. However, the encouraging initial responses from those who saw it motivated them to think bigger: Printing and selling the book through Barnes & Noble Press and creating complementary educational programming where “Carrie’s Caravan” could be used in classrooms.
Braden was particularly excited by the possibility of her book being used in her own elementary school, Maconaquah Elementary School in Bunker Hill, Indiana.
Time will tell, but Braden might discover that she had more in common than she realized with the first character she illustrated.
“Carrie’s Caravan” was born out of the author and illustrator’s desire to encourage others during a pandemic. Just as Carrie’s story features a happy ending, it might also have inspired an exciting, albeit unexpected, new professional direction for the recent Purdue graduate.
“This really sparked a passion that I didn’t know I had,” Braden said. “Being able to do these illustrations and even the promotional process – I majored in public relations and strategic communications, so I’m tapping into a lot of that with social media advertising.
“It has really snowballed, and I’ve been tapping into my Purdue network to promote this book. I definitely see this being more of a future than I thought it would be when it was just me and Debbie making a book for ourselves.”