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Home News-Telegram News Mary Brooke Oliphint Casad: Children’s author followed signs to literary success

Mary Brooke Oliphint Casad: Children’s author followed signs to literary success

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When Mary Brooke Oliphint Casad’s mother-in-law suggested she write a series of children’s books centered on an armadillo character who roams around Texas visiting historic sites, she paid attention.

    Two weeks later, when she had an up-close and personal encounter with a real live armadillo, she took it as a sign to get busy.
    Ten Bluebonnet the Armadillo books later, the author still watches for signs to guide her life and career.     
    The accomplished preacher’s kid and her husband of 36 years, Dr. Victor Casad, a United Methodist clergyman and district superintendent of the East District, North Texas Conference, moved to Sulphur Springs from McKinney in June of last year. Their family also includes two sons in the Denver area, McCrae, a sound engineer, and Carter, who is involved in the organic farming industry; and three grandchildren she “absolutely loves.”  
    In addition to her writing, she has also spent many years as an active layperson for the United Methodist Church, serving as a delegate at six general and jurisdiction conferences and as the first woman and layperson named as director of connectional ministries from 1997-2007.
    Casad took time from her busy schedule to talk about her life.
    News-Telegram: How have you and your husband settled into small town life?
    Mary Casad: It’s wonderful. We’ve just been here since June and I just love it. It’s the best little community.
    N-T: As a preacher’s kid, you grew up living in several places in Louisiana.
    MC: I was born in Monroe and then lived in Alexandria. I graduated high school in Baton Rouge. We had wonderful high school years because we were the lab school for Louisiana State University. We were right on the LSU campus. We had IDs for all the sports events and our own seating section in Tiger Stadium.
    N-T: You attended Southern Methodist University and studied in England. Talk about that.
    MC: I had always wanted to go to SMU. My father went to SMU and my parents actually moved to Dallas the same time I was going to college, so that was how we got “Texafied,” although my dad was a native Texan. He was born in Paris and grew up in Hemphill.
    It’s through him that I have the Daughter of Republic of Texas lineage.
    Studying at Harlaxton College in Grantham, England, was very formative. I was 19, a sophomore in college. It was out of the university at Evansville, Ind. They owned this campus, which is really an old manor house. It’s a huge facility. It slept 90. It was wonderful.
    I was in class Mondays and Wednesdays and then I was out hitchhiking. That was back in the day when we could. I hitchhiked all over the British Isles.
    After the semester ended, I spent two months just touring on the trains with a backpack, staying in youth hostels. You could do that really cheap.
    It was safe and it was a different world.
    It was incredibly formative for me because if you maneuver your way around all these countries, you pretty well say, “I can take on the world.”
    N-T: How did you meet your husband?
    MC: I was a student at SMU. He’s a little older than me. He was already out. He’s a preacher’s kid too, so like good preacher’s kids, we met at church in Dallas.
    N-T: You received a degree in journalism from SMU. Tell us a little about your careers in the field.
    MC: When we married, my first job was to be a writer and editor for a branch of the United Methodist Reporter, which was doing promotional pieces. We were under the umbrella of the United Methodist Reporter but we specialized in promotional pieces for United Methodist institutions.     
    One of my main responsibilities was the Sunshine magazine for the Methodist Home in Waco. I did that for about three years.
    N-T: Your husband didn’t start out to be a minister, but was called after your family had grown to include your two sons.
    MC: My husband was with the Boy Scouts for about three years. About six years into our marriage, he decided to go into the ministry, so he started focusing on ordained ministry [at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta] and I?started focusing on the books and also became very active with a lot of different church duties.
    My dad was a bishop. His dad was a district superintendent. He was an SMU undergrad and wanted a different experience, so we had a wonderful three years in the North Georgia mountains.     
    N-T: What books were read to you as a child and what books did you read to your boys?
    MC: Tons of books. Specifically out of my childhood, there was a book called “Pet of the Met” by Don and Lydia Freeman. I still have my copy.
    I loved that book. It was about a mouse and a cat in the Metropolitan Opera House. It was very clever.
    “A Little Princess” by Frances Hodgson Burnett is another favorite.     
    We had an extensive children’s library. I did not skimp on storytime at night. We might not do some other things, but storytime at night was always special.
    I’ve been able to share a lot of those same books with my grandchildren. Reading is still very, very important in our family.
     N-T: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
    MC: I grew up first, being read to, and then spent so much time reading. Always in the back of mind, there was this thought that one day I’m going to write a book.
    I especially appreciated children’s books and took children’s lit. in college.
    It was Dede Casad, my mother-in-law, also an author, who suggested that I create a special armadillo character for children and do a series of books about the character visiting different places in Texas to teach about history.
    About two weeks later, we were at Lake Bridgeport. Our firstborn was about a year old. We were walking along the banks of the lake right at twilight and all of a sudden, this armadillo came right up to me and went up on its hind legs and sniffed at me and walked off.
    I just went, “It’s a sign!” [Laughs]
    I came back, researched armadillos and wrote the first book, “Bluebonnet of the Hill Country,” published in 1983.
    N-T: Your mother-in-law helped you again once the book was finished.
    MC: She acted as an agent for me to get me to the same publisher as she had, which at that time was Eakin Press out of Austin. They did the first three books.
    Their illustrator was not interested in continuing with me, so I decided to go a different route. That’s when I learned an agent will take you only when you’ve been published. Fortunately, I was able to say, “I have three books.”
    I found one and he got me with Pelican Publishing.    
    N-T: Your sweet character, Bluebonnet, has been all over Texas.
    MC:  Each book has a different story. The Hill Country I chose because I went to camp there. That was the first time I remember seeing armadillos.
    I did the State Fair, of course, which is something I’ve always enjoyed. That book is only available in paperback, but it’s very collectible since it features pictures of the old Big Tex.
    (Bluebonnet and her friends have also explored other Texas attractions, including the Johnson Space Center, the Marshall Train Depot, Dinosaur Valley State Park and the Ocean Star Museum.)
    Of course, the Alamo was a given. It was reissued this year.
    Before Pelican, I just wrote a book and submitted it. Now, they  say no more than 1,500 words, with a preference for 1,200. Their reasoning behind the limitation is that parents don’t want to see too many words on the page when it’s a picture book.
    The [first] Alamo book was more than 2,000 words. This version turned out to be a much better story, “less is more” and it needed to be tightened up.
    Usually, the publisher chooses the illustrator. You submit your manuscript and you don’t have a say so about the illustrator.
    Most children’s authors don’t see the illustrations until the book is out.
    But Pelican called and told me they had found an illustrator in Dallas (Benjamin Vincent) and gave me his number.
    At the end of our first conversation he said, “Now, the only other Casad I’ve ever known was my pastor at Walnut Hill United Methodist. Is he any relation to you?”
    It was her late father-in-law.
    “It’s a sign,” I thought. [Laughs]
    I’ve formed a really good relationship with Vincent. We go places together. We talk about what we could do [for each project].  
    N-T: What is the best part of writing?
    MC: When you’re an extrovert, sitting in a room by yourself and writing can be hard and tedious. But when the story takes over, it’s energizing and fun.
    Where I really get my energy is being with the students and hearing the stories and hoping  that in some way that I’m inspiring some future author out there.
    I’m trying to teach something about Texas history and the places I’m writing about, but I’m also trying to inspire students to discover the magic of reading and writing, and the mystery of words and how it all comes together to create a story.
    Teachers introduce me to a student and say, “This student was struggling with reading, but really connected with your books and is doing so much better.”
    N-T: How long does it take to write a Bluebonnet adventure?
    MC: [Laughs] It depends on how you define the writing process.
    For me, it is reading about what I’m going to write; going and talking with the experts on the place; visiting and seeing the place; and it’s all thinking, thinking, thinking and then all of sudden it starts coming down really fast on the paper.
    Of course, it’s never right the first time. Writing is really just re-writing.
    N-T: Have you developed a close relationship with Bluebonnet?
    MC:  During presentations at schools and libraries, children will ask me if she’s real. She’s very real to me.
    Years ago, when our younger son was asked to draw a picture of his family, he drew mom, dad, brother, himself, the dog and Bluebonnet. I knew then Bluebonnet was definitely part of the family.
    It was yet another sign. [Laughs]

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For more information and to order Bluebonnet books, log on to: http://bluebonnetarmadillo.com

 

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