Seeing her best friends’ children excited about hunting for small bronze mice sculptures in downtown Greenville, South Carolina during a spring break trip two years ago planted a seed of an idea in Ashley Chesnut’s mind. The scavenger hunt for the metal mice required them to read clues in the book “Mice on Main” and walk to each of the nine sculptures’ locations along Main Street. After reading the book with the children, Ashley wondered how this concept of a book guiding families through a city’s downtown area could be applied to her city, Birmingham.
“I was curious about that whole idea about having a children’s book that gets children excited about downtown,” Ashley, 32, says. “I wanted to get kids excited about our downtown.”
Not too long before the Greenville trip, Ashley, who works as an associate singles minister at The Church at Brook Hills, had started volunteering with Sav-A-Life Vestavia, a pregnancy care ministry and resource center. “I had just really felt like I was in my little bubble. I work in a church, my friend group is all here, and I just really didn’t feel like I was plugged into the community outside of my life here. I was burdened to serve in the community and really be a part of Birmingham.”
Ashley had moved to Birmingham seven years ago to attend graduate school at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School. She interned at The Church at Brook Hills and eventually joined the staff to work with young women and oversee their small groups. Volunteering at Sav-A-Life was her way of giving back to the community outside of her job. But the children’s book idea was still lingering in the back of her mind like a kid wanting five more minutes of playground time. She knew it was a good idea and that she could write the book herself; she just needed someone who could bring Birmingham’s downtown landmarks to life in illustrations.
“There was no point in moving forward without a great illustrator,” Ashley says. “I had been keeping my eye out. If you’re going to do a local book, it needs to be a local artist. I just couldn’t find the style I was imagining.”
At a Sav-A-Life fundraiser in May 2016, a painting of Birmingham in the silent auction caught Ashley’s eye. “It was absolutely beautiful,” she says. “This painting was very bright. It was pinks and greens and blues; just very enchanting. It was accuracy, but it was kid-friendly. At that point, I thought I found a possible illustrator.”
The artist was 27-year-old Abby Little Jessup, a born-and-raised Birmingham girl. She and her siblings were homeschooled, and their mother frequently took them on field trips to the Birmingham Public Library, the Birmingham Museum of Art, Kelly Ingram Park and other places that enriched their learning and gave Abby a lasting appreciation for the city. The library, in particular, played a crucial role in Abby’s childhood. Although she struggled with dyslexia, frequent trips to the library and her mother’s countless hours of reading books aloud to her gave Abby the tools to overcome the disorder—and to develop a love for literature.
Not knowing this yet, and acting solely on her reaction to the artwork, Ashley wrote down Abby’s name at the auction and decided to contact her only after she had written a draft of the book. But first, she wanted to make sure she was prepared to invest the time necessary in producing the sort of book she would want people to own. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but I knew it was going to be work. I spent time praying about it.”
She got her answer quickly. The burden to do the book kept getting stronger. And when it came time to put pen to paper, Ashley had no trouble figuring out what to write.
“The words just started coming,” she says. “I grabbed a pad of sticky notes at my desk, jotted down thoughts and filled them up. “I ended up typing half the manuscript that day.”
Vulcan, Birmingham’s iconic cast iron statue set atop Red Mountain, is the book’s narrator, providing the city’s history in the first half and leading a tour of the downtown area from Richard Arrington Boulevard to Vulcan Park in the second half. She wrote the entire manuscript in about two weeks.
Ashley reached out to Abby on Facebook, asking her if she was interested in hearing her story pitch. Abby agreed, and in July 2016, Ashley shared her thoughts about the project and read the manuscript to her. At the time, Abby was a full-time art teacher. “It was the wrap-up of my school year, which is always tight with time, but I felt like this is a project I wanted to hear about. I was so honored that someone had viewed my work and thought of me.”
She knew she would have to make an effort to squeeze another commitment into her schedule, but she couldn’t turn it down. ‘You have been asked to illustrate the city you love,’ she thought. “It was exciting, and terrifying.”
Ashley and Abby viewed the book as a resource for families to use in exploring the city for the first time, or in reconciling the Birmingham they knew years ago with the revitalized version that exists today.
“Our idea is if they do that, they’re more likely to go back,” Ashley says. “There are stigmas about what it used to be. When I was young, you didn’t really just go downtown. Changing perceptions was part of the motivation for both of us, to promote our city.”
By August, the women were hard at work on the book. Ashley was polishing the manuscript, and Abby was painting scenes for the book on canvas boards roughly the same size as the pages would be. “That gave us a good feel for the size and shape,” Ashley says. “That way, we could tweak anything and see how the text would fit. All of that took from August to April.”
Channeling the scavenger hunt theme, they decided to create a map of 20 of their favorite downtown murals and signs on one page. It was trickier than they anticipated. “We’re both directionally challenged,” Ashley says, laughing. “We had to redo the map page a few times. That was probably the hardest page of the entire book.”
They also enlisted the help of Bethany Hubbard to create a coloring book to accompany the guide book. “That’s another way kids and adults can learn about the city: by coloring it,” Ashley says. “And there were so many things we couldn’t fit in the book.”
They finished everything and submitted all of their materials to the publisher in April 2017. The book, titled “Down in the Ham: A Child’s Guide to Downtown Birmingham,” was released three months later, in June. The books are sold at the Market at Pepper Place, Alabama Goods in Homewood, the Birmingham Museum of Art’s gift shop, East 59 Vintage and Café inside the Hoover Public Library, Briarwood Bookstore at Briarwood Presbyterian Church and at Amazon.com.
The women wanted to use the book to give back to the city, so a portion of its proceeds go to a local non-profit that provides job training and retention services to unemployed adults in Birmingham. “If we are wanting to change our community, for our children, one way is by making sure adults have steady income,” Ashley says. “If you can change an adult’s life, you’ve already changed a child’s life. That’s one thing a lot of people don’t know about our book.”
Several school teachers have told Ashley they’ve used “Down in the Ham” to start their Birmingham history units or to precede or follow up a field trip. “Being able to meet so many people in our city and to talk with them about our city, that has been a lot of fun. It’s enabled me to have an opportunity to go into classrooms (to) talk about the book and writing it and how important grammar is.”
The book’s impact on children means a lot to Abby, especially when she thinks about how much the city influenced her own childhood. “This is the gift I want to give to the children of Birmingham because I was a child of Birmingham. I cried the first time I saw a picture of a child reading the book. It’s in these children’s hands and in these parents’ hands. It has been such a privilege to see people get excited about it and tell others about it.”
The book project initially brought Abby and Ashley together as business partners, but by its release, the two were close friends. For the city they both love, “Down in the Ham” is a tribute as much as it is a gift to each other and to future generations of Birmingham babies like Abby and Birmingham transplants like Ashley.
“It turned into an incredible collaboration and a friendship,” Ashley says of the project. “I can’t imagine doing this with anyone better.”
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BEHIND THE SCENES
A look at the illustrations with Abby Jessup:
What materials did you use for the illustrations?
Abby: They were first just generally sketched with soft pastels and pencil, but when they were actual plates of the pages, they were painted. They were on a canvas surface and very smooth, but it was acrylic paint.
When you were working on the illustrations, what was your goal?
Abby: I knew, as soon as she read the book to me, my color goals. I absolutely adore color, and I love how color helps tell the story. I kept the original painting as my color guide. That was definitely a relief to know that Ashley loves my style, and I didn’t have to branch too far out and away from that.
Did you and Ashley go on a walking tour of downtown Birmingham to check your map page?
Yes. I kept getting that map wrong! What’s been really fun is just hearing how people have been using the book. Even a children’s book can be translated into an adult guide book. One of my favorite stories is we have a couple that uses the book for their date nights. They’ll take the coloring books to the different places. That’ll be their date adventure for that week. They’ll color the coloring book while they’re there.
What were your favorite parts of the project?
I love painting. I loved Ashley’s feedback because she was always just so pleased. She’s so wonderful to work with, and we would communicate probably every four to six weeks at first. I would kind of go into my hole and paint for six weeks at a time. I loved every part of it more than I thought.