Talk about a crick in your neck.
For the hero of a new children's book, a great blue heron named Oswald, a neck that won't straighten properly becomes a life-ruining problem.
Sweet-faced Oswald is the hero of "Oswald and the Timberdoodles," the latest children's story by Annapolis author Priscilla Cummings and illustrator A. R. Cohen. Oswald's neck problem makes him better suited for pondering nature and reading than guarding the marsh, as a normal heron should.
Because Oswald can't help guard, the other herons banish him to a far corner of Shady Creek. There he meets the timberdoodles, friendly little birds who recognize his talent for forecasting the weather.
After Oswald's warning about a tornado saves the other herons, he is finally accepted. But his neck problem doesn't magically disappear.
Concludes the book, "He stopped wondering if one day his neck would suddenly straighten out and make him tall. Maybe it would. And maybe it wouldn't.
"The wonderful thing was that it simply didn't matter anymore. Even though he was different, Oswald was loved for who he was -- and there were some in the marsh who said that made him the most royal heron of all."
Cummings, author of three other books in the best-selling "Chadwick the Crab" series, intended to write a children's story with a traditional happy ending, she says.
She planned for the heron to persevere until his neck finally straightened out. But a staff member at her publishers, whose young daughter had lost sight in one eye, suggested something more realistic.
When Cummings rewrote the ending, "it changed the whole tone of the whole book," she says. It made it a much better story. This message -- that we're all special in our own way -- is so much more important."
Cummings, 39, was visiting the Blackwater Refuge on the Eastern Shore several years ago when she first thought of the idea for the story. She noticed a bird in the grass and wondered what it was.
"That's a blue heron," said a friend. Cummings was skeptical. "It had its neck down, and it looked like a tree stump," she explains. "I was amazed that the beautiful blue heron with a long neck that we see in the water was this bird."
She made a few notes, which she resurrected when searching for a new book idea last year. Like her other books, "Oswald and the Timberdoodles" is published by Tidewater Publishers of Centreville. The $8.95 books arrived in stores last week.
Another new book, this one about two ospreys, is due out next fall.
Like her other books, Cummings' latest is richly illustrated by Cohen, a Baltimore artist-illustrator and high school art teacher. The two lay out the books themselves, matching copy with pictures. Last week, they had the new osprey book spread all over Cummings' dining room table.
The author produced her first book in 1986, the year her first child was born. "William and the book came out in the same year," she jokes. She also has a 1-year-old daughter, Hannah.
The Chadwick series has three books: "Chadwick the Crab," "Chadwick and the Garplegrungen" and "Chadwick's Wedding." There's also a Chadwick the Crab coloring book.
"I found that writing these books was something I could do and stay at home. I'm a Mom who happens to be able to write a few mornings a week," she says.
It's far more than a hobby, though. Cummings remembers writing and illustrating stories in second grade, using old pads of math paper.
"I always loved animals, and I had cats, rabbits and a horse, and I'd make up stories about them," she says. She grew up to become a journalist and worked for several papers before moving to Maryland about 10 years ago.
She wrote for Baltimore magazine for several years, before resigning to free-lance stories.
While at the magazine, friend John Frece, Sun reporter and now her husband, gave Cummings a book about the Chesapeake Bay. The marine life caught her imagination, and she's been writing stories about creatures of the bay ever since.
A big help in writing for children are her speaking engagements at many elementary schools, Cummings says. "It helps put me in touch with my audience," she says.
Book signings for the new book are scheduled Dec. 1 at Gordon's in the Rotunda in Baltimore from noon to 2 p.m.; Dec. 8, at Waldenbooks at Marley Station from 10:30 a.m. to noon; and at Waldenbooks in Annapolis from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Dec. 15, she's signing books at the Annapolis Mall from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.