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'A story about hope': Local author publishes children's book introducing death as a natural part of life

Susan Reising, author of "Lola and the Tree of Life"
Jody Holtz
Susan Reising, author of "Lola and the Tree of Life."

Illinois native and Peorian Susan Reising was introduced to a new way of thinking after receiving her master's degree in liberal studies from Bradley University.

Through exploration of quantum physics, theory, and philosophy, the idea of inter-connectedness changed the way she saw the world and served as an inspiration for a bucket list item she always had: writing a children’s book.

“So at the very smallest level, you know, subatomic...there's no divisions, there's no difference between you, me, the table, the window, the tree outside. And it really changed how I saw the world. It made me feel more connected to other people, less judgmental, have more empathy,” Reising explained.

This new core tenant of herself inspired her to leave her job, start her own business, and create a book for children that would focus on the circle of life, and the inter-connectedness between people. She completed the first draft in 1998.

“It was, I thought, a really great way to share the ideas in a simple way. And at that time, I was working with a really amazing designer and illustrator who I'd worked with in the publishing world. Her name is Missy Shepler. And she agreed to do a couple of illustrations for my draft. The draft just flowed out, and it seemed like a natural thing,” said Reising.

Though the initial process was quite seamless, the self-publishing industry hadn’t yet taken off, and the stress of finding a publisher and even an agent to do that was overwhelming for Reising. Thus, the book sat on a shelf for more than 20 years.

“My new business is firing up and I just said, 'Well, the time is not right.'”

Fast forward to March 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic shook up the way people around the world lived and operated on a day-to-day basis. In a time of anxiety, anguish, and confusion, Reising knew something needed to be done.

“I kept thinking, I want to do something to help other people. And I remember I'd heard a story about some children who actually lost both parents to COVID, and how terrifying that must be, to not understand this strange disease that none of us understood and then to lose your parents.”

Susan Reising
Susan Reising

At the same time, Reising found her own solace in audiobooks. After reading “The Overstory” by Richard Powers, which features 12 interconnected stories about trees and their plight on earth, and recalling a TED Talk by ecologist Suzanne Simard about the way trees communicate with each other, Reising was called back to her own children’s book.

“This humble little book that I never quite got off the ground. And so I dusted it off. And I reimagined it,” said Reising.

“Lola and the Tree of Life” follows a little girl named Lola and her dog Skye, named after Reising’s corgi she lost shortly before the pandemic. Lola forms a deep relationship with Tree, modeled after the giant burr oak located in Peoria’s Giant Oak Park.

Lola realizes her grandfather, Poppy, is ill, and may be dying. She struggles to understand what this could mean for her, her family, and Poppy. One day, Lola turns to Tree for her wisdom. The following is an excerpt from the book related to what Tree has to say:

“‘People are part of nature, too,’ Tree said softly. ‘Poppy has lived a wonderful life and given much to many. When Poppy dies, he will simply move on to another way of being. Even though that life will be different than the one you know now, you will always have him in your heart. And all that he shared will live on in you.'"

Lola sat in the grass with Skye, taking in Tree’s wisdom. "‘Really?’ she asked, rubbing away her tears. ‘Yes,’ said Tree. ‘You and I and Poppy and Skye — and all things — are a part of something greater. We may look like we are separate, but we are all linked together in ways we sometimes cannot see.’”

The book cover and interior of "Lola and the Tree of Life"
Susan Reising
The book cover and interior of "Lola and the Tree of Life"

Reising noted that while some may see this as a story about loss, she views it differently.

“I would say that it's a story about hope," she said. "It's about the hope that comes from understanding the connections that we share among people and with nature.”

Reising added that while the book could be considered spiritual, it is not religious in nature.

“I tried to leave it broad enough that if a family has religious beliefs that they want to share with the child, that they can layer those onto the book… So, I want people to feel free to believe what they believe. And I hope that this can help them impart an important message without making them feel constrained,” Reising explained.

On the books website, there are fun activities for children to engage with, like coloring pages and a word search. There’s also resources for adults.

“You will find questions that children might ask after hearing the book or reading the book, and some very kind of simple answers that you can give them, you know, age appropriate answers. And then also some thought starters for other conversations that you may want to talk about with your kids while you're verging on this topic of loss or death,” said Reising.

Overall, she hopes children and parents understand that death doesn’t have to be a scary topic, and that the connections we have with each other continue.

Missy Shepler, Illustrator of "Lola and the Tree of Life"
Missy Shepler, Illustrator of "Lola and the Tree of Life"

“I do think that experiencing loss without a framework for it can be extremely stressful, and in some ways damaging," she said. "So, I feel like if children have some framework for understanding death, and it doesn't blindside them, it can help them process that.”

She also emphasized the book wouldn’t have been possible without the beautiful illustrations from Missy Shepler.

“She, at every turn, made the illustrations better than I thought possible…she herself is really aligned with nature, and so she sees all those little tiny details. And she was able to represent those in the pages of the book and really bring 'Lola and the Tree of Life' to life, and so I owe her a big debt of gratitude.”

You can find the book on multiple platforms, including Amazon, Walmart, and the book’s website.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program and development director, All Things Considered host, as well as the producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.