Today we travel to the Cotswolds by way of the Pacific Northwest of the United States to chat with Jo Coker and Sue Dockstader about how a rural upbringing, the second world war, a florist, Hong Kong, a community mediator, the South China Sea, airmail pages, wellie-clad walks, Cotswolds Radio, and knitted mice come together as part of Jo and Sue’s past and current lives.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
This author interview will be a little different, as my 87-year-old Mum and I are a publishing team! We are thrilled to share our unusual route to fame and fortune- and yes, we are still working on the fortune part! My mother, author Jo Coker, lives in the beautiful Cotswolds in the west of England, while I am living in the fabulous Pacific Northwest of the US. I’ll let her tell her story here, but as her editor/publisher/struggling social media maven, I may chip in with a few comments here and there…
Jo: I’m a grandmother of 3 globe-trotting grandkids and coming late to the world of publishing. My grandchildren live in America, England and Germany, and their adventurous lives are quite a contrast to my quiet, rural upbringing in the English countryside during the second world war. After getting married, I moved to a small market and worked for many years as a florist and teacher of flower arranging and am still an avid gardener.
A few years ago, my daughter surprised me by publishing the wildlife tales I wrote for her children. She transformed my scrappy typed pages into the delightful book titled The Adventures of Henry the Field Mouse. I wrote the stories to stay connected with my grandchildren and inspire them with a love of the English countryside when they moved overseas. It was a shock to be presented with a fully illustrated book 20 years later, but I am thoroughly enjoying becoming a published author in my 80s!
Sue – I am a “recovering” British and Hong Kong lawyer who left the UK on an adventure in 1986 and haven’t lived there since! I currently work with nonprofits to resolve their communications struggles, volunteer as a community mediator, and write magazine articles. Over the years, I’ve worked on a variety of book projects with several different authors and am thrilled to have finally realized my bucket list wish of publishing Mum’s stories.
In which genre do you write?
Jo: I write children’s stories about the English countryside. My original motivation was to be sure my grandchildren would know something about where their grandma lived while enjoying the view of the South China Sea from their 14th floor apartment in Hong Kong.
I did not plan my writing to be intentionally educational but wanted all the wildlife animals to be as authentic as possible. So, they are not wearing clothes and sitting around drinking tea- but diving in the river for water iris and digging for insects in the compost pile!
The main character is an amiable field mouse called Henry who encounters other mice and numerous wildlife characters as they explore their garden surroundings. I thought it would be fun for them to venture beyond the safety of the garden, so devised a way for them to “hitch a ride” in various vehicles by squeezing in past the brake pedals and hiding under the seats!
How many published books do you have?
Jo: Three! The first two books are based on the original stories I sent my grandchildren. I still can’t believe my daughter kept those flimsy airmail pages for 20 years! Once we saw how the fabulous illustrator, Barbara Richards, had brought my countryside tales to life, I was persuaded to dream up a few more adventures for Henry and his pals.
So, at 85, I started writing again! I feel like I finally got into my stride in the third book, introducing a new animal for Henry to befriend in each chapter.
Sue: Although we’ve all become more aware of the importance of ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ it seems my Mum was a “woke Grandma” when she was creating Henry! He meets all kinds of different animals who don’t look like him or live in the same kind of home, but after a few cautious enquiries he always manages to make friends. These innocent tales of hedgehogs and horses, water voles and moles, and town and country mice are a delightful way for little ones to learn about acceptance.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer and what ignited your author’s flame?
Jo: When my grandchildren moved to Hong Kong, I really wanted them to know something about where I lived. I also remembered how exciting it was to get letters as a child. So, I would send letters off to them at regular intervals, including a chapter about Henry climbing the churchyard wall, or falling into a muddy river, or discovering the delights of waking up on a snowy morning. All very alien concepts to my well-travelled grandkids. And it worked! They loved their summer visits to England, which always included lots of wellie-clad walks along the hedgerows gathering twigs, feathers, and snail shells to create a beloved “nature table.”
What is your favorite season and why?
Sue: My turn! Although I think Mum and I agree on this one- Spring! We both love flowers and enjoy that energizing sense of renewal as you watch brave snowdrops emerging through the frosty ground! Knowing that the days are slowly getting longer, and the gloom of winter will soon be over- yes, long dark wintery days are something the UK and the PNW have in common.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about yourself through writing?
Jo: That reading in church for years (and reading to my grandchildren, of course) was excellent training for reading on the radio! My local radio station, Cotswolds Radio, asked me to read a couple of stories for them to share during one of their “junior DJ” programs. Apparently, I did a good job and I returned to the studio numerous times to record all three books which they broadcast on their afternoon Storytime show. It was a little intimidating to speak into the microphone, among all the technology, reading to no one, but I was thrilled that even at my ripe old age I was ready and able to learn something new.
Sue: Mum’s constant optimism and encouragement have also been great motivators for me to try lots of new things. I have never been very tech savvy, so building a website for Henry, battling Mailchimp and overcoming the challenge of adding Mum’s recorded stories to the website have all been surprising achievements, prompted by her writing.
What is the most enjoyable aspect you’ve found through writing?
Jo: Apart from the connection with my grandchildren, it has been lovely to receive scribbled notes and relayed messages from some of Henry’s young fans. Before Book 2 came out, I heard from a friend that her grandchild insisted I should be told that it’s “urgent” that I “hurry up and get the next book published.” Of course, I make sure these young supporters always get their copies “hot off the press.”
Another unforeseen benefit of writing these books has been the deepening connection with my daughter, Sue. Our book production and marketing discussions during the past two years of lockdown have been an absolute joy and lifesaver for me. Sue and I have not been able to see each other for over two years, so having this project to work on has been a wonderful way to stay connected. We have enjoyed endless hilarious phone calls where we have discussed marketing strategies and she has tried to explain the machinations of Facebook and Instagram- truly wonderful highlights in a time when we could have been stuck with conversations about the weather and COVID.
Share an interesting or funny story from your childhood.
Jo: I was the eldest of three sisters growing up in a small village. My parents were kind hardworking folk who started their working life at an early age and did not really see the value of a good education- especially for a girl. When I was offered a place at the local grammar school, a big step up from the less academic secondary modern school, they declined the offer. They had no concept of how much I would have enjoyed and benefited from a more academic education, but worried about the extra expense and how they would struggle to offer that opportunity to all three daughters.
Fortunately, I was able to go to college as an adult where I studied adult education and floristry, which helped me develop a second career as a florist later in life.
I only wish my parents could see me now, in my 80’s, a published author and “star” of the local radio station – a little smarter than they realized perhaps?
What are you currently working on?
Jo: I’m always having ideas for new stories involving different animals, we’ll see if another book emerges. I wonder if Henry could stowaway on a ferry and find his way to my grandchild in Germany?
When I’m not learning about book promotion, I keep busy in my garden and knitting for local charities. I’ve been knitting teddy bears and blankets for years, and recently adapted a pattern so I could create some adorable mice. At a local craft fair, I had one of the knitted Henry lookalikes peeping out of a pocket and found that children loved the idea of having their own special friend to look after. I think I may have sold more knitted mice than books that day!
Tell us about your most recent book.
In the final book of the series The Adventures of Henry the Field Mouse, Henry and his tiny friends embark on more adventures beyond their garden home meeting a squirrel, a fox, a mole, a donkey, a rabbit, and a harvest mouse along the way. Sometimes they are scurrying beneath the hedgerows and other times they embark on daring rides in the car of the family from the big house. They even manage to hide in a bus so they can join the village ladies on an outing to a local stately home. Once again, the illustrations are beautiful and will transport the imaginations of little adventurers beyond the garden into the woods, fields, churchyard, and beyond. It was great fun to dig into my own memories of seaside trips, small town railway stations and fairs on the village green to provide Henry with even more opportunities to explore the English countryside and make a few new wildlife friends.
It was wonderful to have you both on MTA! The Henry the Field Mouse books sound like wonderful books that I would have loved to read to my kids when they were younger! I am touched and inspired by how these books came to be. Thank you for sharing with the MTA audience. Wishing you both all the best! – Camilla
Where to purchase the book?
The book is available from a number of retailers local to Mum’s home in the Cotswolds: The Black Cat Café, the Post Office and the Cotswolds Pharmacy all in Northleach; Beatons Tearooms and Bookshop in Morton in Marsh and Borzoi Bookshop in Stow on the Wold.
We also have an Etsy store, and are always happy to pop a book in the post straight from the boxes in Mum’s garage!
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