'The Pink Dolphin" is a story about collaboration in tough times. It involves a dolphin of a different color who is ostracized from her pod because of a friendship with the local shrimpers. But when the shrimpers are threatened by a storm, the dolphins must decide whether to just save themselves or help the humans.
Like the book itself, the story of how it came together involves a seemingly odd collaboration that ends up working out in the end. The author is 9-year-old Thomas McDermott-Post. His collaborator is the mayor of the city of Beaufort, Billy Keyserling. The illustrator is a retired New York City artist. The three spent nearly a year working on their story and turning it into something they all hope can be more than just a children's book.
The story of the three collaborators starts with a chance encounter one day at Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park in Beaufort. Thomas had approached the mayor as he was sitting on a swing. Keyserling had been a family friend since shortly after Thomas was born. The mayor ended up talking to Thomas about some of the economic difficulties the town and country were going through. Keyserling didn't go into much more detail than what a third-grader would need or want to know. But what Thomas caught onto was a sense of frustration from the mayor.
"He told me about his worries and troubles about the economy," Thomas said. "I came up with an idea to cheer him up."
Thomas describes himself as a voracious reader, devouring the Harry Potter books out of order depending on which ones he gets his hands on first. He creates comic books and sells them to friends (25 cents or best offer).
At the time, he had never even thought about writing a book or anything like it.
But the exchange with the mayor inspired him to write a short dolphin tale, so to say, of friendship and camaraderie. His mother, Kim McDermott, e-mailed it to the mayor.
"I was looking for a story at the time" Keyserling said.
The economy was continuing to stall, and the ideas of change that he and so many others campaigned on in 2008 were hitting against reality. He was facing challenges most politicians find when they get into office. The money didn't match the ambition. Consensus can be complex.
Then came Thomas' story. And it spoke to him in the moment. He'd kept on thinking about the classic children's book, "The Little Engine That Could," and its lessons of determination and perseverance. It was a children's book, but its message was something that rang true even in adulthood.
Keyserling wanted to turn it from a few paragraphs in an e-mail to a full-fledged book. Flesh out the story, find an illustrator, get a publisher.
Thomas and his mother were bowled over by the request. But they couldn't turn it down.
Thomas would be the author, and the mayor would guide his way.
They started knowing the main character should be a dolphin, a likable creature that's found in local waters. Thomas had heard the story of Snowball, a famous albino dolphin that once made its home in the Lowcountry. But the mayor wanted to change the color, one that didn't suggest the issues were "black and white" but rather more clouded. He suggested a pink dolphin. Thomas found that rather silly, saying he had never heard of a pink dolphin.
Neither had Keyserling, but then again, the story featured talking animals, so, in a sense, the story was already a bit outlandish. (They later found, much to their surprise, that pink dolphins do exist and are native to the Amazon.)
Thomas, his mother and the mayor got together at rib restaurants once a week, pitching ideas back and forth and tweaking details in the story. Keyserling made suggestions and Thomas rewrote, a task he remembers as "frustrating" at times.
For the art, Keyserling phoned friend Bill Dula, a former New York illustrator. Dula's work was seen everywhere from the covers of harlequin romances to courtroom sketches to NBC news programs "The Huntley-Brinkley Report" and "The Nightly News." He and his wife retired to Beaufort, where he still paints and shows his work at the Art & Soul Gallery. He couldn't turn down what had already become an unlikely collaboration between mayor and child.
He received a draft of the story and went about making 13 illustrations, using markers, colored pencil and opaque white.
"I thought the story was very well done," he said. "My work wasn't that hard. They had painted word pictures."
Thomas even gave approval to the illustrations. Although he was decades younger, Thomas always felt that he was integral in the process of making the book from start to finish.
"They treated him like a collaborator," said his mother. "I think that gave him a sense of ownership."
Keyserling found a publisher with The Fig & The Vine in Mount Pleasant. He hopes to have hardback and paperback copies in local bookstores. It already can be purchased online and at the Beaufort Bookstore on Boundary Street. Keyserling is in discussions with local schools about possible readings.
Thomas and his mother have since moved to Asheville, N.C. He now goes to an alternative school, The Rainbow Mountain Children's School. He likes his school but misses Beaufort on occasion.
He says when he grows up he wants to be either an archeologist or an actor. But now that he's a published author, he said life as a writer may not be so bad either. In the meantime, he just hopes that people will get the message in "The Pink Dolphin."
"I wish people would come together and work in hard times," he said.