I’m often asked about the inspiration for the stories I write. Mostly, I’m inspired by observing and listening to people around me. Russell was inspired by a little boy I once sat across from on a bus in Halifax. He was maybe four years old, and he was with his grandfather. I was with my son, then five years old, and my husband. We were all heading from the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic to the film set in the north end of Halifax for a tour of Elliott’s favorite children’s television show, Theodore Tugboat.
Theodore Tugboat was about various boats that worked in the Big Harbour, a harbor that looked identical to Halifax Harbour, so children in the Maritimes felt especially connected to the characters. The star of the show was Theodore, a good-hearted and hard-working young tugboat. His cast of friends included more seasoned tugboats, a ferry, barges and even a cabin cruiser, who never had to work. Such is life.
Anyway, the show had donated their beautiful models of all the boats to the museum, and as part of the exhibit opening, visitors were ferried from the museum to the water-filled stage set built in the gymnasium of a decommissioned school. The models were much larger than the ones you’d find in a kit to build, and they were a bit comical. For example, Theodore wore a red knit cap on top of his smokestack. His giant eyes, located beneath the cap on the stack, could move and express his feelings.
There we sat in the bus, each of us thrilled at the prospect of meeting Theodore and his friends in real life. Imagine! And across from us sat that little boy and his grandfather. The little boy was happily swinging his legs, which didn’t reach the floor of the bus, and he was cradling something on his lap. From our vantage point, it looked like several pieces of wood crudely fastened together. Seeing us eyeballing the lumpy object, the boy held it up proudly.
“My granddad made me this!”
Confused silence from us.
“It’s Theodore!” he boasted.
The little boy beamed. And when we looked again, sure enough, it was. The grandfather had hand-carved two-by-fours and glued them together to more or less resemble the shape of a tugboat. He had hammered in nails for a crooked railing. The port and starboard lights were made from wooden thread spools that had been painted red and green. He had also drawn the eyes on the smokestack in shaky penmanship, giving the model a permanent look of surprise.
Clearly, woodworking was not his forte. But his love for his grandson was all over that model, and I could tell that the little boy wouldn’t have traded his Theodore for anything in the world, certainly not the Theodore we had purchased for our son from the museum gift store at some expense.
I was worried that my son, a budding scientist who preferred to see the world in black and white, would say something harsh such as, “That doesn’t look anything like Theodore!”
But he didn’t. He kept quiet. Like me, he could see that the model was the result of many hours the two had spent together.
Indeed, everyone agreed: the little boy’s model was perfect.
The seeds for The Better Tree Fort were planted long ago. After much watering and pruning, all I needed to do was substitute that little boy and his grandfather for Russell and his dad. Then I swapped the boat model for a tree fort, which Qin Leng so beautifully drew.
“Let’s build a tree fort,” Russell says to his dad when they move into a house with a big maple tree in the backyard. His dad doesn’t know much about building, but he gamely follows Russell’s plan. Several trips to the lumber store later, the tree fort is done. There is no slide, balcony or skylight like Russell imagined, but it is perfect — right up until he notices another tree fort going up three houses over.
When Russell goes over to investigate, he meets Warren, whose bigger tree fort has castle turrets and working lights. Russell is in awe until it dawns on him that it’s not worth worrying about who has the better tree fort when he has a loving dad there to build one with him.
In this subtle, humorous story, Jessica Scott Kerrin explores the idea of keeping up with the Joneses — and what that means when you’re a kid with a tree fort. Qin Leng’s lighthearted watercolor illustrations show the unshakeable bond between a father and son, as well as the delightful details of two tree forts.