Beacon Hill Books & Café will celebrate the launch of an illustrated children’s book about a squirrel who lives in a bookstore in the neighborhood (not unlike Beacon Hill Books itself), with a special in-store event at 71 Charles St. on Sunday, Oct. 16, at 3 p.m.
For this event, Sarah Brannen, the author and illustrator of “Paige of Beacon Hill,” will be on hand to read from and sign copies of her book. She will be joined by Brian Lies, the artist who created a miniature “squirrel’s house” for Paige that will be on permanent display on the first floor of Beacon Hill Books. Complimentary cupcakes will be provided to everyone who attends this free event, but capacity is limited so R.S.V.P. to [email protected] to reserve your spot.
To celebrate the opening of Beacon Hill Books, Melissa Fetter, the store’s owner, commissioned a children’s book based on her idea concerning a squirrel that lives in an unnamed Beacon Hill bookstore. She conceived of the idea as a way of paying homage to the store’s squirrel mascot, which was subsequently named “Paige” in deference to the book it inspired.
Fetter set out to find an author and an illustrator for the book, and through mutual friends in the publishing industry, she was referred to Brannen, an award-winning author and illustrator of more than 20 books for children, including her groundbreaking picture book “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding,” as well as her 2022 Robert F. Sibert Honor Book, “Summertime Sleepers.”
Fetter was immediately sold on Brennan once she saw her illustrations. “She seemed like the perfect fit, since I loved her artwork,” Fetter said of Brannen.
Brannen also had previous experience working for an architect, said Fetter, so “her ability to capture Beacon Hill and the beautiful buildings of Beacon Hill made her the perfect person to illustrate the book.”
For the project, Fetter gave Brannen nearly free rein – something that the author and illustrator found particularly enticing.
“What I found interesting about the project was that Melissa hired me but didn’t give me very many restrictions,” said Brannen.
In fact, Brannen said Fetter only had two caveats for the book – first, the story had to focus on a squirrel that lived in a bookstore; and second, Brannen’s story had to jibe with the actual miniature squirrel’s house that Fetter was planning to build for her store.
“I was totally free [in writing the story],” added Brannen. “At the beginning, I was able to go on a tour of the building when it was gutted and before construction began, and that’s what gave me the idea for the story.”
In the story, the squirrel, whom Brannen named “Paige,” is living in abandoned building, but has to leave her home when a construction project gets underway there. (“I thought about calling her ‘Paige Turner,’ but I resisted that impulse,” quipped Brennan.)
“The plot was inspired by the building,” said Brannen. “It was just fascinating to see it empty. It’s an old building, so it was sort of beautiful.”
In her story, Brannen said, “Paige had to go out into the wide world, and it was scary. But she made some fun discoveries and made some new friends. Then she went back, and the building had been turned into a bookstore with a home for her.”
In the narrative, Paige lives within the bookstore at night, where the squirrel spends his time perusing the children’s books. Paige spends her days, meanwhile, frolicking around in the Public Garden.
The book’s illustrations are all based on actual Boston locales, including Charles Street Supply and the gates of the Public Garden. Paige even rides on a Swan Boat in the Public Garden in one illustration.
“It’s a Boston book for a Boston store for a Boston audience,” said Brannen, “so I really tried to be accurate, right down to the trees in the Public Garden.”
Brennan said she was also “enchanted by the notion” that her story would have to complement the construction of a miniature squirrel’s house for Beacon Hill Books.
As Brannen was working on project, she described it to Lies, who has written and illustrated nearly children’s 30 books of his own, including his 2019 Randolph Caldecott Honor-winning “The Rough Patch,” which, he said, “deals with grief and hope.”
Brannen and Lies have known each other for around 10 years and currently they are fellow members (along with a third author) of a “critique group” specifically for authors of children’s books.
After Brannen briefed Lies on the project, he volunteered his services to create the miniature squirrel’s house, even though he realized this would inevitably require him to step outside his comfort zone.
“I’m a woodworker and have always worked with my hands, but this appeared to be a unique opportunity to create a magical place that kids and adults would be able to encounter in very special bookstore and for decades to come, to feel a sense of wonder,” said Lies. “And it’s unlikely that I’m going to duplicate any of these objects again.”
Lies decided upon the objects for the squirrel’s house and then had to teach himself a range of new skills to create them, including silicon mold-making, epoxy casting, and acid etching of metals.
The cabinet box for the squirrel’s house measure 28 inches wide by 21 inches high and a little over a foot deep. It’s made of one-half inch, cabinet-grade plywood.
“The more you look at it, the more you’ll see the details that have great meaning in Boston lore,” Fetter said of the squirrel’s house, which has been built to scale so a live squirrel could actually live in it. “Brian spent untold hours creating every detail of it by hand.”
Among the bits of local color found in the squirrel’s house are a miniature replica above the mantle of Rembrandt’s oil painting, “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” which was among the works stolen during the 1990 theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum; a miniature box from the North End food institution, Mike’s Pastries; and a mini Citgo sign.
“I expected it to take two months, but because I kept adding objects, so it ended up taking me six [months],” said Lies.
Other objects include a “flickering fireplace,” as well as what Lies describes as a “complex chandelier” made of Japanese twig. Both the fireplace and the chandelier are powered by LED lights, he said.
The wallpaper is made from handmade papers that contain small specks of hay “to create a feeling of texture,” said Lies.
All of the wall art and other objects that hang on horizontal surfaces are held in place by hidden magnets, he said, so they’ll stay put amid “trucks rumblings on Charles Street.”
Said Lies: “Whenever the store wants to move objects, or redecorate, they just have to click the objects out of their places and click them in somewhere else.”
Despite its miniature size, Lies is emphatic that his squirrel house isn’t merely a dollhouse because, he said, its “verisimilitude goes way beyond dollhouse furniture.”
“Paige’s abode feels realistic, like a real squirrel could inhabit it,” he said.
Likewise, Lies added, “In a dollhouse, often the assumption is that the furniture has been purchased, whereas this a one-off piece of art in that every single object has been hand-created for this space.”
Since signing on for this project, Lies said it has come to remind him of “Cirque Calder” – a wire rendering of a circus by the American sculptor, Alexander Calder, replete with miniature figures of circus performers and circus animals.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime dive into a miniature, imaginary world,” Lies said of the squirrel’s house.
Brennan and Lies were in close contact throughout the project to ensure that what’s reflected in the pages of Brennan’s book exactly match the items found inside Lies’ miniature squirrel house.
“All through my work on the illustrations, we kept in touch and shared what we were doing because the house hadn’t been built yet, but my illustrations had to look exactly like it,” said Brannen.
At the beginning of the book, Paige has only four possessions – three books and a postage stamp – and since these items were first seen in her illustrations, Brennan said it was up to her to create the miniature replicas of these objects for the squirrel’s house, since only she knew how they should appear.
For the most part, however, “we both relied on each other to create a compelling abode for Paige, the squirrel,” said Lies.
But despite how closely they collaborated on the project, Brannen hadn’t actually seen the squirrel house until she visited Lies in his Duxbury studio just before he delivered the model to Fetter.
“I had a look at it,” said Brannen. “It’s amazing, all the way through.”
Meanwhile, Lies is pleased that his work will be gracing Beacon Hill Books, which he expects to quickly become a popular destination for bibliophiles from Boston and beyond.
“It’s been a marvelous folly to be able to do this,” said. Lies. “Melissa has been really visionary in creating an incredible space for the people of Beacon Hill and Greater Boston, and I really believe this store is going to become a destination for years to come.”