Friends bring Smokies critters to life for young readers

Betsy PickleOur Town Youth

The new book “Singing Creek” has a lot of firsts attached to it. It’s the Great Smoky Mountains Association’s first chapter book published for middle readers (ages 6-12) and the first book the association has promoted with a pandemic-friendly virtual book-signing.

It’s also the first book Morgan Simmons wrote (he has penned two others since), and it was inspired by his first grandchild.

Plus, it was illustrated by one of the first friends Simmons made when he moved to Knoxville, Don Wood.

As Simmons and his wife, Ruth, were raising their four children in rural Anderson County, he would make up stories for them based on creatures they’d see in the woods and waterways around them. After the birth of their first grandchild, Max, three years ago, Simmons wanted to share the same kind of stories with him, so he wrote a tale called “Singing Creek.”

“I just envisioned it as something on typewriter paper and a folder, maybe have it bound,” says Simmons, a Martinsville, Va., native and Washington & Lee University graduate. He was hired by the Knoxville Journal in 1985 and after it folded spent 27 years as outdoor writer for the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Morgan Simmons and Don Wood (Photo by Margaret Bentlage Wood)

He thought GSMA might be interested “because it pertains to the park and it gets a certain message out. I was real happy they accepted it. And after they did I went to Don and asked him if he’d illustrate it.”

“Singing Creek” tells the story of a crayfish named Molly who lives in a creek in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Molly loves to sing and dreams of starting her own band, which she does with other inhabitants of the creek. Just as her hopes of stardom fill the horizon, she faces a personal dilemma and a forbidding stranger.

The free book-signing event will take place from 4 to 5 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 10, on Zoom (register here). Simmons and Wood have already signed 200 nameplates that will be included in copies of the book. Ordering information will be shared at the end of the event.

Simmons and Wood will talk about their creative processes, Simmons will read an excerpt and viewers can ask questions. There will also be a prerecorded performance of a song from the book, written by Simmons and Wood, sung by Simmons’ daughter Bonnie, 25, with Simmons on guitar and Wood’s daughter, Grace, 19, on piano.

Simmons describes the book as “almost a musical” – he included lyrics to four songs performed by the characters. It’s natural that he collaborated with Wood to bring the music to life. They have played swing, blues and old-time music together in several ensembles through the years, including the current trio Lone Mountain Drifters and iconic area band the Tennessee Sheiks. Wood plays guitar, mandolin and lap steel, and Simmons plays guitar and banjo.

In addition to music, they share a love of the outdoors and have hiked, biked, canoed and kayaked together. And they both departed the News Sentinel in 2016.

Lifelong South Knoxvillian Wood, whose wife, Margaret, and three children also love the outdoors, was familiar with some of the critter characters Simmons created.

“I remember him talking about the madtoms,” says Wood, who graduated from Doyle High School in 1982. “The tangerine darter, that was a new one.

“Of course, the Hellbenders I had heard of. … The character I really liked was the fishing spider.”

The process of illustrating a book was daunting to Wood, who earned his bachelor’s degree in art with a concentration in illustration and design from the University of Tennessee.

“The way I’ve worked over the years has always been, ‘Here’s the story. We need an illustration for it.’ Not ‘Here’s the story, and we need 13 illustrations for it.’”

Simmons was wowed by Wood’s melding of realism and imagination.

“He’s illustrated so many articles that dealt with wildlife, I knew he could draw a frog or any kind of animal and come up with the right style that would be suitable for a kids’ book,” says Simmons. “It’s made up and it’s whimsical, but I thought he struck a great balance.”

The author says he hopes the book sells well, not just for himself but for GSMA.

“The proceeds of these books, some of it comes to me, but most of it goes to the park,” he says. “Great Smoky Mountains Association raises a ton of money for park research and projects.”

He also would like to see “Singing Creek” become “kind of a fun textbook in middle school and elementary school biology classes.” That’s why he included a glossary featuring the characters’ real-life counterparts.

“It’s very much part of the book, and it complements it. It’s not an afterthought.”

“Singing Creek” is available for $12.95 in the national park’s visitor center bookstores and at GSMA’s online store.

Betsy Pickle is a veteran reporter and editor.

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