It’s been nearly three years since an F-5 tornado hit Joplin May 22, 2011, and destroyed much of the town. It was the deadliest tornado to hit the United States since 1947, and there were many stories of loss and sadness.
But the new children’s book “Lily, a True Story of Courage & the Joplin Tornado” isn’t one of them. This is an uplifting tale about a special weimaraner search and rescue (S&R) dog, her handler, Tara Prosser, and their work in the aftermath of the disaster that hit their hometown.
If you’ve been following the “Lily’s Story” chapters featured in the Weekend Missourian the last eight weeks, you’ve probably already fallen in love with Lily. Now The Missourian is giving you a chance to meet her.
Lily will be one of three guests of honor at this year’s Family Reading Night being held Friday, March 7, at Washington Middle School.
She will be here along with Prosser and Carolyn Mueller, author of “Lily” and also “Lily’s Story.”
‘Even More Amazing’
Mueller, who lives in St. Louis and works as a carnivore keeper at the St. Louis Zoo, first heard about Lily from the publishers at Reedy Press in St. Louis. Reedy had published Mueller’s first book, “Bubbles, the Dwarf Zebu,” about an animal she cared for at the zoo, and they wanted her to see if Lily would make a good children’s story too.
She met Prosser for an interview in February 2013 and right away knew it would be a book.
“It turned out to be an even more amazing story,” Mueller told The Missourian.
In addition to Lily’s S&R work combing through the remains of Joplin looking for survivors, it turns out Lily is a survivor herself. Exactly one month before the F-5 tornado hit Joplin, Lily became so sick that she almost died, said Mueller.
Veterinarians caring for her at Oklahoma State University discovered she has Addison’s disease, which means her adrenal gland doesn’t work properly. She requires monthly steroid injections to stay healthy.
Lily was still on the mend when the Joplin tornado hit, but she didn’t let that stop her from getting to work.
“I wanted to use Lily as an analogy for Joplin,” said Mueller. “Lily got sick, everyone thought she would die . . . but now she’s going to be OK.
“And this terrible thing happened to their city. It’s not completely recovered, but the city will be OK too. They are working together.”
Turning the reality of Lily and Tara’s S&R work into a story fit for children was no easy task, admits Mueller. The details were graphic and gory.
She decided to transcribe her interview with Prosser and first write the story on an adult level before editing it for a children’s audience.
Mueller worked closely with Dawn Kitchell, educational services director for the Missouri Press Association, to adapt the book into a serial story with eight chapters for newspapers.
“Carolyn was telling a story of hope and survival through Lily, and I knew it would resonate with readers of all ages, but especially our young readers,” Kitchell said.
The two worked together to make “Lily’s Story” a part of MPA’s annual Reading Across Missouri project, a statewide literacy effort to get kids reading inside their newspaper.
Mueller’s Message to Kids
Mueller will talk to children and their families at the annual Family Reading Night celebration about what is involved in writing true stories like Lily’s.
“I like writing nonfiction,” she said. “True stories make amazing stories.
“Everyone has stories to tell, and everyone can be a writer.”
Mueller, who grew up an animal lover and had dreamed since she was a little kid about working at the St. Louis Zoo, also plans to drive home the message about following your dreams.
As soon as she was 16 years old, Mueller applied for a job at the zoo and was put to work in guest services. She painted kids’ faces, sold balloons and answered telephones. During her summer breaks in college, Mueller worked as a counselor at the zoo’s “Camp Kangazoo.”
In 2009, she graduated from DePauw University with a degree in creative writing and later, “by happy accident,” was given the chance to work as a keeper in the Children’s Zoo, where she trained sloths, porcupines, macaws and other creatures.
That’s where Mueller met and fell in love with Bubbles, the inspiration for her first book, published in 2012. With that one project, Mueller brought together her two passions — animals and writing — and she wants kids to know they can do it too.
“The dreams you have as a kid, they aren’t silly,” said Mueller. “You can make them come true.”
Today Mueller is still training to be a carnivore keeper. Her work involves everything needed to take care of all the “animals with sharp teeth” (bears, cheetahs, hyenas . . . ).
“It’s just like taking care of kids,” said Mueller. “I help with feedings, their well-being, their health, enrichment, giving them things to encourage natural behaviors and to challenge them . . . ”
Currently Mueller is working on her third project with Reedy, a children’s book celebrating St. Louis’ 250th anniversary.
Family Reading Night
In her role directing the Missourian In Education program for The Missourian, Kitchell organizes the annual community reading event, Family Reading Night. When the publisher shared early proofs of Mueller’s “Lily” picture book, Kitchell said she and Missourian Book Editor Chris Stuckenschneider knew “Lily: a True Story of Courage & the Joplin Tornado” had to be the featured book.
“Carolyn’s picture book was excellent and the illustrations by Nick Hayes were awesome,” Kitchell said. “We knew that it was a Book Buzz Pick and that it had to be our Family Reading Night book.”
This year will be the first time a Missouri author is the featured guest.
“We always hope that children in our community are familiar with the book we pick to highlight for Family Reading Night,” Kitchell said. “But this year, thanks to the serial story, thousands of kids know Mueller’s work and Lily’s story.”
Kitchell said featuring Mueller’s book also presented an opportunity to include Lily herself, and her owner Prosser, in the event.
“Every year I think Family Reading Night can’t get any better, and then things fall into place and I get so excited about what we have planned — and who children in our community will meet,” Kitchell said.
Doors for the 14th annual Family Reading Night celebration will open at 5:30 p.m. Friday, March 7, at Washington Middle School. The free community event will begin at 6 p.m. in the gymnasium.
This year’s theme is “Sniffing Out Good Stories.”
Local musician Steve Leslie will open the program, followed by Mueller’s presentation. All ages are welcome to attend.
“We hear from older folks that they wish they could come to Family Reading Night,” Kitchell said. “Certainly our goal is to get children excited about reading, but we want everyone’s help in meeting that goal. If you’re excited about reading, about meeting the author and experiencing the event, be here by 6.”
Following the opening events, families can choose to visit a number of reading rooms where community leaders, high school athletes and other volunteers will be reading books.
Children who attend and listen to stories are eligible to win book baskets donated by local organizations, schools and businesses.
Children can pick up a bookmark at the event and receive a punch for each story they listen to before dropping it in the basket drawing bucket.
Families who read together this week and document their reading on the Family Reading Log (which was printed in previous issues of The Missourian and sent home from school with many children) are eligible to win gift cards to purchase books for their home library. The reading log also is available on the Missourian In Education page at www.emissourian.com.
Craft tables with projects connected to children’s books will be set in the cafeteria area of the school.
Throughout the night, Book Fair Bucks to the Scholastic Book Fair will be given away in the reading rooms. The book fair will be open in the library throughout the event.
Parking for Family Reading Night is available in the lower level of Washington High School, between the high school building and Washington Middle School. In 2011, the school district installed a path between the two parking lots.
Posters created by children in kindergarten through eighth grade for the second annual Family Reading Night poster contest will be displayed at the event. In Lily’s honor, children were invited to create a portrait of a dog, serious or silly.
Barbara McDaris, a fourth-grade student at New Haven Elementary, was selected as the winner. Her school will receive a visit from Lily and Prosser.
McDaris and four students selected as honorable mentions, Avery Mades, Immanuel Lutheran, Cecelia Heimos and Alicia Cicchese, Labadie Elementary, and Molly Tinkey, Campbellton, will be recognized at Family Reading Night.
This year’s Family Reading Night is sponsored by the Washington Optimist Club, School District of Washington and The Missourian, with support from the Washington Public Library, Pepsi Cola Bottling Company of New Haven, Washington High School football team, and Washington NEA.