Essex farmers’ book deal is a Cinderella story
By Liz Cantrell
For The Essex Reporter
One sheep on a small Essex farm will soon be getting national recognition. Sweet Pea— an orphaned lamb who was bottle-fed by her owners, John and Jennifer Churchman, after her birth in March 2014— is the star of a new children’s book, Sweet Pea and Friends: The SheepOver. New York publishing giant Little, Brown and Company recently picked up The SheepOver as part of its Young Readers division, offering the Churchmans a six-figure advance and contracts for two additional books.
This Cinderella story is quite unusual for self-publishing authors, said Elizabeth Bluemle, co-owner of the Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne. Bluemle had never even heard of the couple when John came into the Flying Pig this October, SheepOver in hand.
“We sat there and leafed through it, exclaiming over it. Some customers got interested and loved it, and wanted to buy it right away,” Bluemle recalled. “So we took a bunch of copies and I said to him [John] ‘I don’t know if you realize how just unusual it is.’ And I said I’d love to blog about this for Publishers Weekly.”
Bluemle’s post caught the attention of Brenda Bowen, literary agent at Sanford J. Greenburger & Associates. Bowen thought the pictures were “incredibly adorable” and after receiving an email from the head of her agency about the book, contacted the Churchmans directly.
“We started talking and I became their lit agent. Ten days later I sold the book and two more to Little, Brown Young Readers,” Bowen said.
The editors at Little, Brown said they would print the book, as is, within weeks. The book will hit store shelves in early December. That timeline is nearly unheard of in the publishing world.
What made the book an overnight success, according to Bluemle, is the professional quality of the images. The Churchmans used photographic collage and illustrations in a “magical, mysterious way” that “elevates this adorable, kindhearted story about a sheep and a farm, and it takes it to another creative and artistic level,” Bluemle said.
“I had never seen a picture book with that technique used and I’ve been a bookseller for 20 years,” she said.
The Churchmans also operate a branding company called Brickhouse Studios, so they had the marketing and business savvy necessary to package their story.
Bluemle said, “John’s background in graphic design made his visual presentation impeccable, and often that’s where self published books fall down.”
Bowen agreed. “It was really thoughtfully made, the illustrations were beautiful, the text was lyrical and well told,” she said. “There wasn’t much to do, like with some self-published projects that needed a lot of editing. It was already together.”
The story was inspired by real-life events on the Churchmans’ 25-acre “picture” farm in Essex. John is a stock photographer for Corbis and Getty Images, and has also photographed for Vermont Life. “The primary product [of the farm] is pictures that I make, so ultimately the animals are there as models for me,” he explained.
The animals include sheep (who keep the pasture down and fertilize the gardens,) chickens, geese, ducks, and turkeys— none of whom are slaughtered for meat. The Churchmans are also working toward creating a fiber farm to sell wool.
The operation is “small and sustainable,” according to John. The couple constructed their barn from wood on their land and use wood to heat their home. They also installed solar panels and grow their own produce in a garden.
In this bucolic setting one winter day, Sweet Pea, a newborn lamb, injured her rear leg and became ill. The Churchmans were alerted to the crisis by one of their border collies.
“Sheep can go down, get sick and die pretty quickly,” John said, “She had gotten ill and had a fever, but we got the vet there, and she saved her life.”
To celebrate, the couple hosted a “sleepover” with their animals in their barn. And so, the concept of “the sheepover” was born.
John frequently posted pictures and updates about the farm animals, and Sweet Pea had gained a Facebook following prior to the event. When her followers learned that she had recovered, and heard about the animal slumber party, many suggested the Churchmans turn the tale into a children’s book.
“Jennifer and I said well, it’s January, which I find to be a creative time. So we said yes we would do it,” John recalled.
They launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a small batch of books. In February, John began work on the photo illustrations, while Jennifer crafted the text. The two worked as a team, offering feedback on the other’s work, completed the book by June, and shipped it to the printer in July. They received their finished product in mid August and began selling it to local stores. Then, of course, things picked up fast.
“It’s just such a warm-hearted book, you just have to hand it to someone,” Bluemle added. “Adults love it as much as kids do, which I think is a great sign of a picture book”
Bowen agreed. “This is a book that could last for generations.”
For now, the Churchmans continue to enjoy their first success and attend to the farm, while also working on their next books. The second book, The Brave and Mighty Finn, will focus on another lamb, while the third installment, The Adventures of Laddie and Maisie Grace, will feature the Churchmans’ border collies.
Sweet Pea & Friends: The SheepOver, by John and Jennifer Churchman, will be available from Little Brown Books for Young Readers in early December. $17.99. John Churchman will have a book signing on Saturday, December 19, 1 to 3 p.m., at Frog Hollow in Burlington.