With cameras and two young models dressed in 19th-century costumes, five high schoolers trekked to Baw Beese Lake one day this summer to stage photos for their four-month-long project: a book about the young Winona, the daughter of Chief Baw Beese, who ruled the Algonquin tribe in Hillsdale County in the 1800s.
Samuel Beach, Gretchen Birzer, Hannah and Jack Cote, and Chloe Tritchka-Stuchell — members of the Hillsdale Heritage Association Youth Advisory Board — worked from May to September under the direction of Heritage Association executive board member Heather Tritchka to plot, illustrate, and write a children’s book about the legendary Native American girl.
Titled “A Special Gift,” the book tells the story of Winona’s adventures on her way to bring a gift to her best friend Betsy, who then gives Winona a silver cross. The plot is largely fictional, but it’s based on an actual letter Betsy wrote to her grandmother, thanking her grandmother for two silver crosses she sent to Betsy and Winona.
Tritchka said she first had the idea for the book when she sculpted a statue of Winona, unveiled in Stocks Park in June 2017. She decided the book would be timely with her latest project — sculptures of bears at Lake Baw Beese — and gathered the group of local high schoolers to take on the challenge.
The project has two main purposes, Tritchka said: To educate local school children about Winona’s legacy, and to give the high schoolers experience in bringing a project from conception to completion.
After planning the narrative, the high schoolers delved into every part of the process: Writing, designing costumes, photographing models, and using the photos to create watercolor-like illustrations on an iPad with an app. They met about once a month at Tritchka’s house and worked on their assignments in between meetings.
“I feel like I didn’t really know what I was getting into,” said Chloe Tritchka-Stuchell, Tritchka’s daughter and a senior at Hillsdale Academy, who created all the illustrations that include Winona. “But now that it’s done, I can see that it was really cool.”
One of the hardest parts, Tritchka-Stuchell said, was learning how to write for children.
“It certainly made me appreciate children’s books more,” she said. “I never realized that there’s a lot of thought that goes into it: How to make it cohesive and keep a child’s attention and make it something a parent would want to buy for a child.”
In August, Tritchka invited Micha Moore, an early-childhood development specialist with Bailey Early Childhood Center, to offer the young authors advice about writing for children — to be consistent, stick to one narrative, and include details that would make the story relatable to readers.
Instead of just saying that Winona stepped in the lake, for example, they might say that she stepped into the cool lake that was named after her father, said Gretchen Birzer, also a senior at Hillsdale Academy.
The students were careful to make the story relevant to the culture of Winona’s time period and spent time diving into the history, Birzer said. For example, they discovered that in Native American lore, whispering to a butterfly was a way to make a wish, like blowing on a dandelion. They included a butterfly in the story.
To get a lifelike basis for their illustrations, the students shot photos of two young girls from Hillsdale, Angela Alvarez and Riley Copeland, who acted as Winona and Betsy, dressed in costumes that Birzer made out of clothes from Salvation Army. The group took photos at Baw Beese Lake, a stream near Hillsdale High School, and at Tritchka’s house. At one point, Tritchka-Stuchell got in the lake itself to shoot from the angle she wanted.
Tritchka-Stuchell and Jack Cote — who illustrated all the pictures with the bears — finished their illustrations at the end of the summer, and Tritchka brought in various community members to review the book’s pages on her kitchen island. Then the students did a final round of edits and sent the book to Hillsdale College Art Director Shanna Cote for printing.
Now in the printing process, the self-published book will be available at a book-signing event at Rough Draft coffeehouse on Oct. 21. Sales of the book will raise funds for bear statues that Tritchka is sculpting and which will likely go up at Baw Beese in the spring, Tritchka said.
Tritchka said the students plan to write a sequel featuring a pony, and said she already has a pony lined up to model for illustrations. She said she hopes that project comes to fruition, because the students worked so well together.
“For me it’s more exciting to see what the kids are doing than my own project on the bear statues,” she said. “I’m really proud of what they did; they did such a good job.”
Both Tritchka-Stuchell and Birzer said they’re excited about the finished product and what it will mean to the community.
“It took place in Hillsdale, in that it’s a Hillsdale legend. We’re bringing back into the light a story that most people don’t know about, but it is local history,” Birzer said. “That’s what I’m excited about.”