It's pink! It’s bold! And the princess’ crown on the cover of Todd Mack’s first book for children looks like five upside-down ice cream cones. No wonder the book is invoking comments such as "It reminds me of cotton candy" and "It’s like a hot fudge sundae with the cherry on top. It just makes you want to dive right in."
The book is called "Princess Penelope" and for a kid it's pure confection. It’s the delightful story of a little girl named Penelope, who is absolutely positive she is a princess. Area children will get a chance to meet author Mack and the book’s illustrator, Julia Gran, when they host a "Prince and Princess" book signing party with lots of “royal activities” for 3- to 6-year-olds this Saturday at 11 at the Bushnell-Sage Library in Sheffield. Mack says, “We encourage kids to come in costume and Julia will lead some drawing and crown-making activities. There will also be refreshments.”
Since Berkshire resident Mack had "Princess Penelope" published this past March by Scholastic Press (the same publisher as the Harry Potter books), it's been a heady experience. Not only did the book get good reviews and go into its second printing, Mack has been invited to speak at a number of schools and libraries. The author was also happy to see a large window display of the book in Scholastic’s storefront in Soho when he was there for a book signing. The display was up for five weeks and Mack figures that tens of thousands of people walked by it on lower Broadway.
Mack, who's also a music producer, singer and songwriter and host of his own radio show every Thursday night from 9 to 11 on WKZE, says he never had an ambition to write a children’s book. In fact, if you had asked him about it a year before his daughter Caroline was born, he would’ve said "Nah, no way."
But with his move to the Berkshires three and a half years ago, a major shift took place in his life. Mack went from living in Atlanta, Ga., and being on the road 200 nights a year with his band The Griswolds to moving to Southfield and becoming a stay-at-home dad.
Suddenly having the opportunity to spend lots of time with Caroline, Mack became fascinated by how his daughter crisscrossed between reality and fantasy. He started making notations of some of the funny things she was doing, particularly when she thought herself a princess.
Encouraged by his sister, an editor and writer, Mack decided to write a book loosely based on his daughter's imaginative life. When he showed his sister his story, she made some suggestions and he submitted it to Scholastic. They accepted it and matched him up with illustrator Julia Gran.
If it seems strange that a stay-at-home dad would know how to write a children's book, it could be that as a songwriter Mack learned the importance of repetition, word economy, rhythm and how to get his message across. That, plus leading a weekly children’s playgroup at The Family Center in Great Barrington, has probably helped Mack understand on a larger scale what children like and don’t like.
Anyone who sees Mack in action on a Wednesday morning at the Center can have no doubt about that. As he tunes his guitar he shows the children what he's doing and calls it "The Tuning Song." Then he effortlessly leads them through various verses of "Old MacDonald" and “The Wheels on the Bus” and concludes with reading a story to the 25 children.
Mack is particularly pleased that when he first joined the playgroup with Caroline three and a half years ago he was the only dad there, but now, after leading it for the past three years, over 50 percent of the parents who bring their kids are fathers.
Mack is also pleased that Scholastic chose Julia Gran to be his illustrator. "It seems one of the compliments the book gets over and over is that it is a wonderful pairing," says Mack. Actually, Gran and Mack did not meet until after the book was published.
"When I finally met him," Gran says, "he was exactly as I expected him to be. It was a little spooky the way it all came together. Even though we hadn't met, I was drawing pictures of Penelope’s mother in a polka dot nightgown” -- Mack’s wife has one -- "and the same hairstyle for Penelope as Caroline had.”
Gran, whose illustrations have appeared in The New York Times and The Christian Monitor says "Each person brings an energy to the project and then it develops on its own."
Mack echoes those sentiments. He also feels that now that he knows what Penelope looks like, it will actually make it easier for him to write the next one. "It takes a lot of pressure off of me as the author," confesses Mack, "I can now set it up for Julia and she can drive it home with the right illustration."
Mack was born and grew up in Westchester County, N.Y., and has a sister and a brother. He credits his mother for instilling in all of them a love of reading from an early age. "She always had her nose in a book and read to us," says Mack. But he also had a love of music. He learned to play the violin, clarinet and the guitar and at age 15 started writing his own songs.
Majoring in political science at Emory University in Atlanta, Mack took a lot of music courses there and learned how the music business worked by booking bands for the school and promoting them. "Little did I know that it would be an invaluable experience for me in promoting my own band and now the book."
Mack also met his future wife, Carrie, at Emory. After Caroline was born, Mack and Carrie decided they wanted to live closer to the grandparents. As Carrie's folks lived on the West Coast and Mack’s in the northeast, where to settle was not resolved until they visited Mack’s parents who had just bought a house in Mill River -- they fell in love with the area.
It was decided that because Carrie had a nursing degree, it would be easier for her to find a job in the Berkshires than it would be for Mack. So they made a deal. Mack would become a stay-at-home dad and Carrie would bring home the paycheck.
Even though he's currently producing six CDs, has his own radio show and a writing schedule to maintain, he tries not to let any of that interfere with his child care -- so that basically leaves him the night time to work.
"Carrie and I play tag team a lot. She gets home at five and I usually have a session that starts at six. There are a lot of nights we sit down for a family dinner, but only the kids are eating. Then later on Carrie and I will eat and have some quality time together."
And what is Mack working on currently in the book department? His next one is tentatively titled "Big Sister Penelope." The new book will introduce a baby brother, so it should not come as a surprise that, yes, Mack now has a son. His name is John, and with his cherubic face, he looks perfect to sit on a throne next to his princess sister.