It looks like a children's book with its colorful illustrations; it reads like a children's book with its rhyming couplets. But look closer. It is obvious that Brent Bohlen's The Parable of the Peacock: A Read-Aloud Picture Book for 2020 Voters is for adults. The blurb on the jacket says it's "a satirical look at the state of American politics as we approach the critical 2020 presidential election."
The book is clever, hilarious and gutsy, and offers a too-true look at current political events. It promises, "to serve up ridicule to deserving parties, but it saves a heaping plateful for the Mocker-in-Chief."
Bohlen, from Springfield, is retired from a career in and around state and local government that included being a budget analyst, a prosecutor, the legal counsel for a taxpayer group and a state public utilities commissioner. In 2009 he wrote Boomerwalk – Why Baby Boomers Should Replace Running and Jogging with Racewalking.
Bohlen responded to a series of questions:
What prompted you to write this book?
I think the 2020 election is important for the future of our democracy. Too many citizens seem to accept the current lean toward an authoritarian style of government. I want people to think carefully about what kind of future they want for our country before going to the polls. Writing it also was therapeutic. I felt like I was contributing in some way. It was better than just sitting on the sofa, watching the news and shaking my head.
Where did you get the idea for this book?
I remember first having the idea last spring, but it's difficult saying what spawned it. Sometimes an idea just pops into your head. Often when you try to develop an idea it just comes to a dead end. But that didn't happen this time. I had many animal characters with specific traits from which to choose, for example a proud peacock, or sheep who follow the leader. And the current administration in D.C. gave me plenty of material. Rather than hitting a dead end, it was more of a problem knowing where to stop.
Why did you write it in the form of a read-aloud picture book with rhyming couplets?
In our current political environment, many people have isolated themselves by reading, hearing and seeing only things that support their current beliefs. Metaphorical storytelling can cut through some of those defenses and speak to us at a basic level. Most of us learned some of our earliest lessons about life from read-aloud picture books.
I think people enjoy reading verse aloud and hearing it read because they anticipate the rhyme. I also like creating rhyming couplets because it adds a layer of complexity to the writing. You are not just telling a story, but you are trying to do it with lines that have the same number of syllables and words that rhyme at the end of each line.
How long did it take you to write the book?
When I first had the idea last spring, I wrote down some ideas about the story – maybe two or three sentences for each of maybe 15 or 20 pages. I also had some ideas for illustrations for each page. Then I just set it aside. In mid-July I picked it up again and had the idea of writing it in rhyming couplets. By late August I had a manuscript but no publisher and no illustrator. The book has a limited lifespan. It's pretty much over with the 2020 election.
In late August I spoke with Jeff Salvage, who published my other book, Boomerwalk. He was enthused about the project and agreed to publish it. About 10 weeks later it was published with illustrations.
Speaking of the current state of affairs with Ukraine, how did you end up with an illustrator from Ukraine? Was that done on purpose?
The publisher gave me the name of a website where one could find artists. I searched the site for children's book illustrators because I wanted the book to look like a children's picture book even though it is for adult voters. I looked through the samples of illustrations by the various artists and selected three who drew animals with human-like characteristics such as walking on two legs and having facial expressions. I tried to hire those three to draw a sample for me of the main peacock character. One artist from Bali never replied. One was from India; her character was a bit more cartoonish than I wanted. The third was from Ukraine and her artwork blew me away. She was better than I could have ever expected. In the first few days of September, Ukraine wasn't really on our national radar.
Why does your book have two endings?
As we were getting close to publication the impeachment investigations were underway. I became concerned that if the president suddenly stepped down or were removed from office the book would no longer be relevant. A couple of weeks before publication, I decided to write a second ending to the book and publish it with both endings. I contracted with the illustrator for six more pages of artwork.
With alternative endings the book would be marketable up till Election Day regardless of whether the president was still running for re-election.
Do you have more writing in your future?
Since the book was published, I created a meme that is essentially like a new page from the book that we put on The Parable of the Peacock's Facebook page. As new things happen, and we know they will, I plan to add more memes. As far as writing another book, it was 10 years between my two published books. I'm approaching 70, so at that rate I may not have too many more books in me.
Cinda Ackerman Klickna has often written about books and local authors.