Self-published Picture Books: The Case of Healthy Holly

Here’s Holly! Catherine Pugh, Healthy Holly: Exercising is Fun! (Baltimore: C. E. Pugh, 2010), p. 26. Cotsen unprocessed.

It’s been fairly difficult to score copies of  the Healthy Holly titles, whose shady distribution brought down their author, Catherine Pugh the mayor of Baltimore. There was the question of how many picture books  Pugh wrote “dedicated to improving the physical health of children.”  The size of their print runs was also a mystery.  Had the FBI impounded them all as evidence or were there still dusty boxes languishing in warehouses around Baltimore?

Now that Pugh has resigned her post and been indicted for corruption, copies have been drifting onto the market.  The three published in 2010, “Exercising is Fun,” “A Healthy Start for Herbie!” and “Fruits Come in Colors like the Rainbow” are turning up more often than the fourth one, “Walking with your Parents is Fun,” which was glimpsed during the Healthy Holly segment that aired April 7 2019 of “Last Week Tonight.”  John Oliver, will you donate your copy to Cotsen, if your staff didn’t lift the picture of it from the Web? Likewise the fifth, “Vegetables are not just Green.”  Neither Abebooks nor Ebay have listed copies when I’ve checked, but there are images on Google.

The Cotsen collection now has copies of the first three–“Exercising,” “Herbie,” and “Fruits. ”   A few interesting details.  ISBN numbers, check.  One was printed in Canada.   A social media presence on Facebook and Twitter was established for the series in “Herbie” and “Fruits.”   To writer her directly, an e-mail account was set up.  The address of Pugh’s Healthy Holly LLC in Baltimore was listed for those wanting to place orders by phone or snail mail.  As of last week, the e-mail address and telephone number were disconnected….

Copy editing, layout, and back cover design are credited to Carmelitta Green.  She doesn’t seem to be an experienced graphic designer or the series would have been more uniform in concept and format, with the same features in the same order in the same place in every book.  The “bookplate,” which provides the owner with three lines for recording name and address, is placed on any preliminary page where there happened to be room, not on the inside front cover.  Title page placement is also haphazard.   In “Herbie” and “Fruits,” it was on the back of half title, falling on the left-hand side of the title spread where the frontispiece should be.  On the right hand side where the title ought to be, is technical information about publication normally on the back of the title.  To underscore the first book’s message that  physical movement is healthy, the words “fun,” “exercise,” “healthy,” “walk,” “walks,” “walking,” “ride,” “riding,” “rode,” swim,” “jumps rope,” “jumping rope,” and “dancing” (but not “bike”) are set in bold.   This feature was dropped in the other two books.  

The hilarity over the embarrassing blips in punctuation has sidelined the more important question, are the Healthy Holly books any good?  Let’s put aside the rolling revelations about Pugh’s business practices and assume that at the beginning her desire to persuade children to eat better and exercise more was sincere.  The author of a self-published book of poetry, Mind Garden: Where Thoughts Grow (2005), Pugh probably didn’t realize that the Healthy Holly project meant  embarking on the challenge of writing short fiction to teach children how to live well.  Readers can scoff at the earnest author  and thumb their noses at the advice being proffered.

Pugh must be a firm believer in the saying, “It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief”  because she makes Holly talks like this… “I will be healthy.”  “Welcome to my world where exercising is fun.” “Fruits taste so good.  They are sweet and juicy. They are healthy.”  “When he [little brother Herbie] gets bigger, I will help him have fun eating right.  I will help him exercise…He will be like me.  I’m Holly and he will be Healthy Herbie.”   The repetitive vocabulary and wooden rhythm of the dialogue is going to sound patronizing to any kid with an ear.   And what kind of payoff does Holly offer young readers? The promise of a long life is stated like this: “Eating healthy and exercising will help you to live longer like your grandparents.”  Given the length of time it takes for children to correlate change with time, will this resonate, much less make sense, to the intended audience for the books?


Holly, with her brown skin, dark eyes, and Afro-textured hair in pigtails, must have been conceived as a role model for Baltimore’s children of color. These images of her on the back covers suggest that she was drawn by three artists without any regard to continuity.  Or were the differences deliberate?  She could be of Near Eastern descent.  Or African-American.  Maybe even Filippino or LatinX.

The first page in Healthy Holly: Exercising is Fun. Notice the anthropomorphic sun and cloud in the upper left hand corner and the pink lamp post possibly inspired by Lumiere in the Disney film Beauty and the Beast.

Holly’s world isn’t described in much any detail–Pugh left that job to novice illustrator Andre Forde who never actually met the politician but was enthusiastic about her campaign to help children.  His pictures depict a generic cityscape in Candyland colors, where there are clean, green parks to play in and  quiet streets where bikes can be ridden three abreast.  This intact nuclear family lives in a comfortable, well-furnished house and sits down at night to a home-cooked dinner, not fast food or takeout   Her full-figured, fit mother walks her to the library during the day.  Either she doesn’t need to work or works   the graveyard shift.

Pugh preaches the benefits of Holly’s healthy lifestyle almost as if it didn’t cross her mind how hard it might be for many families to emulate it. This comes out most clearly in Fruits Come in Colors like the Rainbow.  Holly’s family does not live in a food desert and they have a sufficiently generous food budget that they can take her on an educational trip to the grocery store to chose fruits that match the favorite colors in her crayon set. In this book,  Holly, who looks to be seven or eight, is surely too old to be thrilled by this proposition.  The scenes in the produce department look as if they were drawn by a someone who has never gone food shopping.  The strawberries, cherries, and blueberries, which have not been drawn to scale, are packed loose instead of in containers. (Examine the pictures carefully and you’ll see that some of the fruits have been drawn and others Photoshopped in).  Instead of bagging the fruits and arranging them carefully to protect the delicate ones, Holly and her mother just pile them into the cart, where they are will get bumped and squashed before they check out.
The mixed messages of the Healthy Holly books may be the result Pugh’s inexperience as a writer and her need to find alternative sources to finance her political ambitions.  Whatever the circumstances of their creation, these amateurish picture books are on a par with most children’s books being published outside normal trade channels.   Distribution through offers a haven for writers who want to promote values they believe are not being voiced in the majority culture.  Forgoing the professional editor’s red pen may be seen as trade-off: knowing that the message will not be diluted may be more important to the aspiring author than good grammar, attention to accidentals, and competent production. .A cynic might ask why a young reader ought to trust Holly who acts as if she would never ever sit on the couch watching cartoons, drinking soda, and crunching Pringles?   Where’s the drama in struggling to overcome the temptation to eat tasty foods laden with salt, sugar, and preservatives?  It’s no more complicated in Holly’s world than just saying “No,” which, of course, is a big, fat lie.  Aspiring and doing are two different things and the ability to do so may depend in part on one’s socio-economic class.


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