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 was established on Facebook and Twitter 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 given 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, 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, was not placed on the inside front cover, but on any preliminary page where there happened to be room.  Title page placement is also haphazard.   In “Herbie” and “Fruits,” it was on the back of the 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 and do scoff at the earnest author  and thumb their noses at the advice being proffered.  Critics are notably hard on any children’s text that smacks of didacticism.

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.”   Any kid with an ear will probably suspect they are being talked down to and the repetitive vocabulary and wooden rhythm of the dialogue is anything but engaging.   And what kind of payoff does Holly offer young readers for following her tips? “Eating healthy and exercising will help you to live longer like your grandparents.”  It takes a while for children to correlate change with time, so will this pitch resonate, much less make sense, to the intended audience for the Healthy Holly books?

Holly, with her brown skin, dark eyes, and Afro-textured hair seems to have been conceived as a role model for Baltimore’s children of color.   But these images of her on the back covers suggest that the character were drawn by three artists working largely independently without conferring about continuity.  Or were the differences deliberate?  Holly 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 detail–Pugh left that job to Andre Forde who was enthusiastic about the mayor’s campaign to help children.  He never met her.   He considers himself as an entrepreneur rather than an artist, so he probably farmed out the illustrations to other people in his organization or outside contractors.  Whoever did them, the illustrations 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. Her fit, full-figured mother has the time to walk her to the library during the day, as if she doesn’t have employment outside the home.  Holly’s 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.

Pugh preaches the benefits of Holly’s healthy lifestyle 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 the food budget is sufficiently generous that her parents can take her on an educational trip to the grocery store where she’s allowedto chose fruits that match the favorite colors in her crayon set (Holly, who looks seven or eight in this book, is surely too old to be thrilled by this proposition).  The scenes in the produce department look as if they were created by 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, more than her desire to find alternative sources to finance her political ambitions.  Whatever the circumstances and motivations, these amateurish picture books are on a par with most children’s books being published outside normal trade channels.  Pugh didn’t have to rely on to distribute her works, having set up an LLC for the purpose.   For less savvy writers, Amazon offer a means to promote values they believe are not being voiced loud enough by the majority culture.  Forgoing the services of a professional editor may be seen as a trade-off worth taking: 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.

In the end, it comes down to this: why would a young reader trust Holly as an exemplar?  She acts as if she would never ever sit on the couch watching cartoons, drinking soda, and crunching Pringles.   Doesn’t she ever struggle to overcome the temptation to eat tasty foods laden with salt, sugar, and preservatives that are full of empty calories?   Her mom knows her nutrition and has the money to buy accordingly.  But what about a working mom without access to decent grocery stores, money to buy fresh produce, and time to cook?  In Holly’s fantasy world it’s no more complicated than just saying “No,” which is, of course, a big, fat lie.  Aspiring and doing are two different things and the ability to do so may depend largely on the socio-economic class a person belongs to.



Where in the World is little Holly Healthy!?

Politicians have joined movie stars and rock icons in the ranks of aspiring children’s book authors.  Years before Karen Pence published  A Day in the Life of the Vice President (the book that inspired Marlon Bundo) Catherine Pugh, the mayor of Baltimore and fitness fanatic, created the “Healthy Holly” series to inspire children to improve the physical and mental well-being of themselves, their friends and families. Persuading couch potatoes of any age that eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly will make them better, more beautiful people is a hard sell.

One indirect approach to changing eating habits is to write a cookbook for kids, full of easy recipes for dishes that taste good and are good for you.  So nutritious and delicious that everyone will compliment the cook by asking for seconds.  Weave a conversion narrative around the recipes and you get…

Jules Bass. Cooking with Herb the Vegetarian Dragon: A Cookbook for Kids. Illustrated by Debbie Harter. (New York: Barefoot Books, 1999). Cotsen in process.

Herb is relentlessly upbeat about changing eating styles, but he gets it  when aspiring vegetarians fall off the wagon once in a while on their journey.   And if a ragon in chef’s whites can push a wheelbarrow brimming with fresh produce around the Kingdom of Nogard, anyone can!  But it’s his recipes that work magic on people who never thought they could give up m–t.

Herb’s no-meat patties with their dynamite secret ingredient puts the King of Nogard off his favorite wild boar burgers forever.  For his service to the arteries of the kingdom, Herb is knighted. 

Herb’s spicy chili full of textured vegetable protein, kidney beans, and grated cheese makes a believer of his buddy Meathook.  When Meathook has his friends over for dinner, no one can get enough of Herb’s veggie pasta.   Maybe Meathook will pass along Herb’s name to Drogon, Rhaego, and Viserion for the wrap party of Game of Thrones, season eight….

Not all anthropomorphized animals pressed into service as role models are perfect like Herb.  There’s Tiffany Dino, who gorges on pizza, chocolate chip cookies, and peanut butter sandwiches and loves every bite, even though the chair is groaning from the strain.  When her shirts ride up over her belly button, she decides it is time to turn over a new leaf.  Maybe Tiffany can get her act together.  Tiffany Dino belongs to the fallible but loveable category of animal stand-ins for children.  She eats healthy and works out for a week, but when she weighs herself, not one ounce less than six hundred pounds.  She decides to accept her big green self just as she is after making a new, very large friend who likes Tiffany  because there is so much to hug.

So how does Holly Healthy compare with Herb and Tiffany as role models? For a review, see the one Carlos Lozada ran in the Washington Post. At the time of writing this post, it was not possible to obtain a copy of any of the four titles: “Healthy Holly: Fruits Come in Colors Like the Rainbow;” “Healthy Holly” Exercising is Fun!;” “Healthy Holly: Not all Vegetables are Green;” and “Healthy Holly: Walking with My Family.”  There is some confusion as to their whereabouts–if indeed they were ever written, published, and distributed.   Perhaps putting out this call to the readers of the Cotsen Curatorial Blog may produce the results which will solve the mystery of the picture-book writing major of Baltimore.  Any or all of the titles would be welcome additions to  Cotsen’s collection of children’s books by politicians or their wives…