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Hi-Line Living: Mary's children's books


December 1, 2017

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

Mary McKenzie is a local children's book author who finds time for her passion somewhere in between her full-time job at the Hi-Line Sletten Cancer Institute and her family, which includes five children and her husband, Chad.

Mary has already self-published three books this year and plans to release a few more within the next few months.

Although she published it this year, Mary said she wrote her first children's book, "Andrew's Kernel of Truth," - a tale about a wheat kernel named Andrew whose plans for a big and beautiful life are threatened by a nasty weed - about 10 years ago.

At first, she tried to publish "Andrew's Kernel of Truth" with a publisher. But publishing houses weren't interested. So she put the book idea on the shelf for a while.

Some time passed and Mary said she realized how badly she wanted to write.

"Then, a couple of years ago, I decided writing is something I wanted to do something with my life so I decided to jump in with both feet," she said.

Mary skipped traditional publishing and went with a pay-to-publish publisher, a process that taught her another valuable lesson. The publishing process, which took about 18 excruciatingly long months, prompted Chad to look into Amazon's Createspace.

"There was no upfront cost. It's on the other end, as they get a percentage of the sales," Mary said.

Since then, Mary has published the last two - "The Wise Frog" and "The Carrot Tree" - through Createspace, a much speedier process.

The Createspace avenue also changed how Mary approached her illustrations. Instead of bothering with the burden of illustrator contracts, she started coming up with her own illustrations.

Her approach includes cutting figures and characters, arranging them together and then scanning the pictures into an image.

Chad thought the process innovative and strange, considering she's never been a scrapper.

"So this idea came to me to try this and I did the first page and thought it actually looked kind of decent so I just kept going," Mary said.

It's the illustrations, not the writing, Mary said, that takes the most time. Sometimes she'll be up until midnight, Chad said, cutting and pasting and scrapping illustrations together.

Mary said she had been writing since she was in third grade, and now, as a mom, she writes with a specific purpose.

"I know what lessons I want my kids to learn in life because faith is very important to us," she said.

The McKenzies homeschool their children, so complementing their education with valuable life lessons is very important for them. For Mary, the Bible is a major inspiration to her work. While some Bible verses are more known, or more often illustrated, than others, Mary said she likes to dig out the less commonly illustrated ones and turn those into a story.

"I was wanting to take verses from the Bible, one that was not commonly used, and illustrate it in a way children can understand the concept,"she said. "The next one I'm doing is about forgiveness, which I think everyone can learn a little about."

Content is very important to Mary, she said, something she hates to see be left out of children's books.

"Books with good pictures are great, but it's always disappointing to see a book with excellent pictures and a very poorly written story, so trying to do both is my goal," she said.

As someone who's been published in various publications and has written in newspapers, Mary said there is a challenge unique to writing children's books.

"You have to cut out all the extra words and the message has to be basic and understandable at a kid level. So I had to evaluate even the language I use and simplify some, trying to think of what they'll actually understand," she said.

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

Mary said her family, her children and neighbors' children especially, provide valuable feedback. The kids are her critics, she said.

"There are a couple of things I've changed because of Danny's input," she said, referring to her 12-year-old boy. "One of them is on a story that is not published yet about a candle. I changed the way one of my characters looked because of his opinion."

In their Havre home basement, a bookshelf sits, secured by a weighty amalgamation of children's books that have been collected over the years. They are not only read to the children, but they are sometimes used as a tutor for Mary, of what and how to do certain things.

The plan is to keep going, to keep creating with the hopes to spread the books' messages, and to do so, Mary said, until she runs out of ideas.


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