Local team hatches new children’s book

ANCRAM–We’ve all seen them–those swarms of starlings swooping and swaying in unison through the sky like some giant black carpet caught by the wind.

Cartoonist/illustrator Keith Bendis of Ancram stopped his car to watch those aerodynamics with interest one day and got to thinking about what it would be like if one of those birds decided not to go along with the flock.


And so was hatched Calvin the starling, the protagonist in a new children’s book called “Calvin Can’t Fly, The Story of a Bookworm Birdie”, written by Jennifer Berne and illustrated by Mr. Bendis.

He began making comical sketches of birds, like birds taking flight direction from a bird waving flags in semaphore fashion. Though he did a lot of preliminary sketches, Mr. Bendis said in a phone interview this week, he could not put together his ideas to make it a story.

So he took his drawings down the road to his friend Ms. Berne, an advertising copy writer turned children’s book author, who loved his concept and developed the story about a nerdy, outcast bird, who liked to read books instead of bug chasing and garbage picking. The collaboration took off.

Ms. Berne said the whole process was somewhat out of the ordinary because instead of the writer first creating the story, taking it out and selling it and then the publisher assigning an illustrator, Mr. Bendis, the illustrator, was in on the ground floor.

Noting, “there’s a little bit of me in Calvin” and maybe of everyone who “feels different,” Ms. Berne said by phone that the story has multiple messages, including, staying true to what you love and eventually you will be loved and celebrated for who you are. It’s also about “the wonder and power of books.”

Ms. Berne admits to loving to read the same kinds of books that Calvin loves–those about the universe, dinosaurs and science. Her first picture book, “Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau”, was published in 2008, her next is about Albert Einstein.

As an advertising copy writer, Ms. Berne worked on TV commercials and print ads. She created the “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen” slogan, worked on Tums commercials and ads dealing with “everything from toys to liquor and financial stuff.”

She sees a parallel between her career in advertising and becoming the author of picture books, saying, “I always worked with images and words in very much the same way.” Looking for what to do when she retired and moved to Ancram, she could not see herself using words with no pictures. “I see illustration as part of the message,” she said.

Though she has never had young children of her own, Ms. Berne said, “I am a little child” in many ways.

She and her husband, Nick Nickerson, a former advertising art director, now a landscape artist, live in a house Ms. Berne designed to look like a barn set back in the rolling hills.

A cartoonist/illustrator for 30 years, Mr. Bendis said he got started in his profession by being “the best artist in class.” He did not have any role models for how to make a living at drawing, so being “a good Jewish boy,” he went to law school for a year.

Originally from Pittsburgh, Mr. Bendis ended up studying the arts at Carnegie Mellon University. He also was a “funny guy” who drew cartoons for his friends. Mr. Bendis taught himself by “copying other people.” After doing some work for an underground newspaper in Philadelphia, he headed to New York with his portfolio in 1975. He went from neighborhood to neighborhood looking for work and eventually found it at The New York Times and the Village Voice.

Mr. Bendis said he has always wanted to illustrate a children’s book and had he not shown his sketches to Ms. Berne, that idea along with many others would still be sitting in his drawer.

“I think at my age to publish a children’s book is unusually satisfying. You go to work every day, you try to do good work, it goes out into the world and it gives you a sense of accomplishment and pride when people like it and respond to it,” he said.

Mr. Bendis and his wife Betzie, a landscape designer and a painter, moved to Ancram in 1992. They have a grown son.

A book party for Ms. Berne and Mr. Bendis takes place at the Ancram Opera House Saturday, October 16 from 2 to 6 p.m. Books will be available for sale and signing. Published by Sterling Publishing Company, the hardcover book sells for $14.95 in the US and $19.50 in Canada.

To contact Diane Valden email .

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