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Local author gains national recognition for kids books

Posted: November 24, 2011 - 1:01am
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Local author Patricia Custard plays outside with Dill, the Shetland Sheepdog featured in her new book, "The Crowded Backyard."  Emily Russo Miller / Juneau Empire
Emily Russo Miller / Juneau Empire
Local author Patricia Custard plays outside with Dill, the Shetland Sheepdog featured in her new book, "The Crowded Backyard."

Patricia Turner Custard is no stranger to adventure. For the past 30-odd years, the 53-year-old Detroit native has relocated just about every two years with her husband, Capt. Norman L. “Buddy” Custard, who is now chief of staff for the U.S. Coast Guard’s 17th District, as they traversed the United States together.

Custard’s career as an education specialist has remained constant through all the moves and life changes. After fulfilling her childhood dream of working for the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service, she worked her way up to become the director of education at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Ore., and then a senior associate at the Institute for Learning Innovation in Edgewater, Md.

“It was a lot of fun, and it kept me going for lot of years,” Custard said. “And fortunately, being married to somebody in the Coast Guard, it happened kind of serendipitously that every place where he was stationed, there was a park or a national forest nearby. So I was able to just keep sliding into jobs along the way and working my way up.”

But recently, Custard has struck out on a new adventure — that of a children’s author and publisher. She just released her fourth children’s book and has already begun to make a name for herself in the literary world.

The new book, called “The Crowded Backyard,” has already received several awards such as a Gold Medal from The Mom’s Choice Awards, and it was recently named a finalist in the USA Best Book Awards.

Her three other books, “Jules, the Lighthouse Dog,” “Just Perfect — More adventures of Jules the Lighthouse Dog” and “Kid Canine — Superhero!” have also been well received and garnered acclaim from the Young Voices Foundation Awards, Indie Book Awards and National Indie Excellence Awards, to name a few.

To Custard, who has spent her entire career developing exhibits, programs, materials and award-winning curricula-based activity books for kids, writing children’s books was a natural fit. It was only a matter of time before she engrossed herself in the endeavor, she said.

“People kept telling me, ‘You know, you should really think about writing a book for the general public,’” Custard said, noting her friends staged a sort of intervention to force her hand a couple of years ago. “There has been no turning back since then.”

She was inspired to write her first book about her Bernese mountain dog Jules’ unusual howl while she and Buddy were living in a lighthouse in San Diego.

“Instead of howling like most dogs howl, when he howled, it sounded like a cow mooing, and he would moo along with the foghorn in the lighthouse,” Custard said. “So I developed a story around that, about how he saves the day with his mighty moo.”

After Custard penned the book, she shopped it out to various publishers big and small, and received many rejection letters ... and much to her delight, one acceptance letter. Custard began working with that firm to get the first Jules book published, but as the process dragged on, Custard thought to herself, “Well, I may as well just try to do this on my own,” she said.

Shortly thereafter, the couple moved to Juneau in 2005 as her husband became the chief of operations for District 17. And she launched Black Plume Books, her own publishing firm. The first Jules book, “Jules the Lighthouse Dog” was printed and released in December 2006.

The pup was such a hit among children that she published a second book featuring more Jules’ adventures two years later. For her next two books, she kept the main protagonist in the stories a dog, though this time it was her Shetland sheepdog named Dill.

“I use dogs in the books as the main characters, but they’re really not dog stories per se,” she said. “I use them as kind of surrogate kids because I put them in situations that children would face. But by using the dogs, there’s no bias, there’s no gender, there’s no race, there’s no religion, so that all kids can relate to it.”

Dill’s first story, called “Kid Canine — Superhero!,” was about a mild-mannered dog who became a superhero when there was trouble in the neighborhood. The only hiccup was that Dill would see trouble when there really wasn’t any, like in one instance where he mistakes a hose for a snake slithering in the yard.

“He learns at the end that it’s just the tiny things in life that make you important to those around you. You don’t have to save the world,” Custard said.

The idea for that book was inspired by a walk on Sandy Beach, Custard said.

“Dill was leaping over the stream, and if he saw a log he was hiding behind it and leaping out at me, and wrestling with sticks,” she said. “And he was wearing his bear bell, and he was wearing his booties, and I thought all this dog needs is a cape and he’s a superhero.”

The Custards left Juneau in 2007 after living here for two years, but returned again in 2010. Dill also returned to the pages for his second book and Custard’s fourth, “The Crowded Backyard.”

Custard, who pens her books under the name P.T. Custard, got the idea for this book when Dill was angry to find wildlife sharing his backyard when the Custards were living in Virginia.

“Dill would spend all day just roaming up and down the fence and barking at the birds and chasing the squirrels, so I thought this might be kind of a fun idea for a book,” she said.

In the end, Dill, both in real life and in fiction, eventually makes peace coexisting with squirrels, birds and rabbits.

“The moral of the story is your attitude determines your happiness,” Custard said. “How you view the world determines how happy you’ll be.”

Now with four books under her belt, Custard says she is looking forward to expanding Black Plume Books and eventually publishing the works of others.

“Eventually I would like to be able to publish for other people like me, who have the ideas and want to publish, but can’t quite get the ear of a traditional, big-time publisher,” she said.

She added she never imagined she would become an author and publisher, but the once-uncharted territory was part of its appeal.

“Everything is a journey, which is appropriate in the Coast Guard, and sometimes you get blown off course,” she said. “But sometimes it happens in a good way, and this definitely the whole book business is an adventure that I never thought I’d be doing. But it’s been wonderful.”

Custard will be signing and selling copies of her books at her booth in the Juneau Arts & Culture Center for the Public Market from noon to 8 p.m. on Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Her books are also available to purchase on Amazon.com. For more information about Black Plume Books, visit www.blackplumebooks.com.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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