Originally published November 30, 2010 at 5:10 p.m., updated November 30, 2010 at 5:10 p.m.
The idea of Noco the prairie dog has been burrowing through Justin Marable’s mind for several years.
The Topeka artist, who has shows frequently in Lawrence, has two daughters, with a third due in December.
“I’ve read my share of bad children’s books,” he says.
So he decided to try it out on his own, writing a fantasy complete with 26 original pieces of artwork. The book, “Noco,” is available starting Friday, when he’ll open a show featuring the artwork at Signs of Life Gallery, 722 Mass.
Marable, who graduated from Kansas University in 2005, is known for his large-screen prints and photography that often focus on Kansas landscapes. But he wasn’t going to lower his standards just because he was working on a children’s book.
“Justin’s definitely a perfectionist,” says his wife, Bailey. “Everything about that book has been planned. That’s just how he is. He’s been drawing prairie dogs for three years. I’m sure the people at the Topeka library are ready to have their prairie dog books back.”
The story came to Marable as he crisscrossed the state to pick up his 8-year-old daughter, Claire, who lives with her mother in Colby. The two would make short trips off Interstate 70 to visit Kansas landmarks. Marable, born in Guthrie, Okla., has lived in northeastern Kansas most of his life.
“There’s a history to this place that I’ve grown attached to,” he says.
The story is this: Noco the prairie dog and her father get swept away by a hawk and dropped into a train, which takes them across the state. They must find their way back home, meeting friends along and way and facing challenges such as having to cross the Kansas River in Topeka. Along the way, they visit such Kansas landmarks as Monument Rocks and the Topeka Zoo.
“It’s a story about home and place and attachment,” Marable says.
Though the story takes him back to his roots, the artwork involved was a new technique. Marable digitally combined photographs he had taken throughout the state with drawings he did of prairie dogs. Then, he printed the black-and-white collages and added color, both with watercolor paints and colored pencils.
“It allowed me to be experimental and work some ideas about mixing different mediums,” he says.
The resulting book, which is being self-published and printed at Jostens in Topeka, could be the start of additional children’s books for Marable.
“I do think this story will be well-received by Kansans,” he says. “I kind of have an idea for a sequel. It ends in a way that it could end just like that, but it could be a little open-ended.”