It’s the Little Things
Don’t be fooled by the title—Storyteller Bil Lepp’s newest book is a big deal.
Bil Lepp wanted to be a writer since he was in fourth grade, but as he got older, he realized there was one small problem—even if you get your work published, people probably won’t read it. His solution? Storytelling. “I thought, what a great way to make people listen to what I’ve written,” Bil says. He grew up in a family that always told stories, which were often stretched and strengthened for the sake of entertainment. When Bil started telling his stories at the West Virginia Liar’s Contest in 1986, he was a natural. Ten years and many stories later, the Internet led Bil to a life-changing realization. Storytellers across the country made a living from their stories. After he scored a 15-minute slot at the National Storytelling Festival in D.C., his career took off and he’s been a full-time storyteller for the past decade.
It’s been a great fit. Not only is he paid to tell his stories to audiences across the country, but he gets the added benefit of watching them react to the material he’s written. “That’s not an opportunity many artists get, even actors. It’s satisfying to have 2000 people laugh at a story I’ve worked on for six months,” Bil says. Experiences like that have helped Bil to find his voice and sharpen his skills. Maybe that has something to do with the successful release of his first children’s book in September 2013, The King of Little Things. The book is full of the kind of witty wordplay that makes Bil’s stories so popular, with tongue-twisting stanzas of alliteration and rhyme that make reading fun.
It’s fitting that the inspiration for the book came from a child. Bil was playing a game called Kingdoms with his 5-year-old son, who took all the Tonka trucks and T-Rex figures and declared that he would be the king of big things. He gave his father a handful of jacks and marbles and christened him the king of little things. “I don’t know exactly what struck me about that,” Bil says. “We tend to take the little things for granted, and the idea of someone in charge of looking after the little things was interesting to me. After all, if you don’t pay attention to the little things, the whole system can collapse.”
Bil spent two days writing and polishing his story about a king of little things. He created a tall tale about a king who is respectful of his subjects and content to rule over the smallest things. But King Normous, a power-hungry ruler in a neighboring kingdom, is anxious for world domination and attempts to conquer the King of Little Things. The battle that ensues ends in a heartwarming twist. When he later told the story on stage, a friend in the audience encouraged Bil to think about adapting it into a children’s book.
So Bil began the long process of publication. That was eight years ago. “When I got the first edits, I thought that meant my editor would check the spelling and we’d be on our way,” Bil says. “Turns out, that meant changing it from 2,000 words to an 800-word story children could read.” After they had finally negotiated every line—literally, some lines were taken out and then added back two years later—they needed to find an illustrator. That took another year. “I got impatient, but I’m glad we waited,” he says. He had an idea in his head for the artwork, something minimalist like in Shel Silverstein’s books. “Since it was a book about little things, I thought it would be neat to reduce it down to little things,” he says. But looking back, Bil says he’s glad he didn’t have any real say in the matter. Artist David T. Wenzel was chosen to illustrate the book with elaborate, visually mesmerizing spreads of feasts and battles, courtyards and army camps—all in intricate detail, crammed full of little things. “I’ve went back and looked at the book many times, not out of egoism, but because there are so many details in the illustrations. There are many jokes in the pictures, which makes the book interesting on another level,” Bil says.
Although illustrations can have more of a pull for potential readers than the story itself, Bil is confident that people will love The King of Little Things. “As a dad who tries to read to my kids most nights, I get it. There aren’t a lot of words in the book. For kids who are just learning, it’s not overwhelming, Even parents who aren’t strong readers can enjoy it,” he says. It’s also a useful story with a moral that can be interpreted in many ways. For example, his book has been categorized on the Amazon ranking system as a top 100 book in the subcategory of bullies. “It never crossed my mind that I was writing a story about bullies,” he says.
After such a positive reception—which included praising reviews from Kirkus Starred Reviews, The Wall Street Journal, and Publishers Weekly in addition to earning a 2013 Parents’ Choice Gold Award—Bil hopes he’ll be able to continue publishing children’s books. “I’ve written 10 since then. I would love to be a children’s book author,” he says. Publishing is a tough industry, as he is well aware. He did, after all, choose to pursue storytelling because it was a more reliable option than publishing. Now, he thinks he would miss it if he quit. “I like doing both. If I could be a children’s author and storyteller, I’d be very happy with that.”
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