A labor of love brings holiday tale to readers

40 years after it was written, poem makes it into print

December 23, 2006|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

The tale of two elfin noisemakers on a mission for Santa might be just the right countermeasure for children too excited to shut their eyes on Christmas Eve.

"The Story of Rap & Tap," a poem written more than 40 years ago by the late Bill Scott Byrd, has made it into print and to the shelves of area stores this holiday season -- thanks to Fay Taffet Byrd, the author's wife.

"The religious story of Christmas is unchanging, but there have been few new secular stories for a long time," said Fay Byrd, a Parkville resident. "Maybe it's time for a new Christmas story, and this is one people of all faiths can enjoy."

The brilliantly colored book unfolds with illustrations by Nina Ayzenberg, an Owings Mills artist. She painted Rap and Tap just as Byrd's poetry described them.

They each have little pointed caps

And shoes with curled-up toes,

And the lovely green of Christmas trees

Is the color of their clothes.

The rhyming stanzas are printed on a snow-capped picture of unfurling parchment that is surrounded by traditional holiday symbols. Each opposite page is filled with colorful images of Santa, elves and sleeping children.

The story describes the hours before Santa arrives, when Rap and Tap scout the reindeer-driven sleigh's route, making "an awful clamor" with their tiny silver hammers. Their noisy efforts ensure that the tykes are sleeping so soundly they will not awaken when Santa arrives.

Reading the poem became a Byrd family tradition that continued when son Richard recited it to his two children years later. The story also made the rounds of the Byrds' Parkville neighborhood.

"Bill used to read the story to neighborhood children, too, and he gave families copies," Fay Byrd said. "Everybody loved it."

In 1979, the year before he died at 55 of a cerebral hemorrhage, Bill Byrd, a retired director at the Social Security Administration, had the story copyrighted. He was so fond of the poem that his family included it in the program at his memorial service.

"He was an intellectual with a brilliant, scientific mind," Fay Byrd said. "But he was not a dry scientist or a stuffed shirt. He had a wicked sense of humor. You would never think he would write a children's poem."

Within months of her husband's death, Fay Byrd also lost her mother, her sister and a beloved pet. When she overcame her grief and made publishing the poem a priority, she soon found her task nearly impossible without an illustrator.

"I sent copies to everyone, including Disney, but all I got was `thank you and good luck,'" Byrd said. "That poem stands on its own. It grabs you. It has life. But to get it published, it needed pictures."

Her long search for an artist who could enliven the poem came to a happy conclusion when she connected with Ayzenberg two years ago at an arts workshop.

"She was sitting next to me, and we started talking," Byrd said. "She told me she was an illustrator. I don't believe in coincidence. This meeting was meant to be. She fell in love with the poem."

Ayzenberg, who taught art and worked in children's literature in her native Russia, said the story charmed her immediately.

"I even dreamed about Rap and Tap," she said.

She set about creating drawings and became so infatuated with the characters that she made them the screen saver on her computer.

"The elves are so touchable. I tried to create illustrations that put the magic into this story and made the characters come alive," she said.

Her 6-year-old critiqued her first pencil drawings, telling his mother her characters were too "wood-ish and not enough like Santa's elves," she said. So, she drew more fey and mischievous figures. At Byrd's suggestion, Ayzenberg made Rap the more serious-looking, older one of the pair and gave Tap red hair and an impish mien.

About 2,100 copies of the book are abailable for $9.95 in several area stores, including Breathe Books in Hampden and Greetings and Readings in Hunt Valley.

"It is a beautiful little book, nicely done," said Nancy Russell, book department manager and buyer for children's books at Greetings and Readings. "We have it displayed in our children's department, and it seems to be doing well."

Fay Byrd has had various careers in the arts, including a stint as director of the Cameo Opera Company, a 1970's federally funded program for city schools. She sings professionally in a rich soprano voice, often accompanying herself with a custom-made harp.

She published the book herself and does not expect to recoup her $10,000 investment in the project any time soon. But she is pleased with sales so far.

"If I could afford to, I would give all the books away," she said.

The publication coincides with what would have been the Byrds' 50th wedding anniversary. On the book's inside cover is a simple dedication: "For Bill."

"I am proud of it," she said. "I think it's gorgeous. I can say that with no ego at all because I didn't write or illustrate it. I love to watch children's faces as they open this book. I hope it becomes universally known and enjoyed."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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