Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, September 6, 2018
Connie and Peter Roop: Partners in writing
by Elke Dorr
It was clear from the moment I stepped into their home, a high perch offering a sweeping view of Stonington’s watery thoroughfare and distant islands, that for writers Connie and Peter Roop the operative word is joy. Joy was evident in their warm welcome, in their mention of family and friends and, clearly, joy characterizes their collaboration on the popular and widely acclaimed children’s books they write about subjects ranging from riddles to science and history. Rare among writing couples, the two are partners in a joint writing career they undeniably love, their books now numbering well over one hundred and recognized by the Children’s Book Council, the American Library Association, as well as the National Association of Science Teachers, among others. The most recent addition to their body of work is Maine Lighthouse ABC (published by Penobscot Books, a division of Penobscot Bay Press), a book Connie described as being “the most fun to work on of any of our books.”
Writing books together, though, wasn’t always their profession. It was preceded by their long teaching careers in Wisconsin, where they make their home when they’re not in Stonington or traveling to far-flung, global destinations. Connie taught middle and high school science for 34 years, developing a prairie restoration project and receiving, among other honors, a Women Leaders in Education Award along the way, while Peter was an elementary school teacher who moved from inspiring third and fourth graders for 15 years, to spending ten years doing the same for first and second graders. It was Connie who casually mentioned that among his many accolades, Peter was the recipient of Wisconsin’s Teacher of the Year award in 1986.
Their mutual passion for teaching didn’t suddenly stop when they moved on to writing children’s books, however, as both have since lectured for various organizations such as the National Geographic Society, for whom they once lectured in Antarctica on Thanksgiving Day. Both have taught in other countries—Peter in China and Connie in Japan and Russia—in exchange programs for teachers. They also continue to visit schools, universities and libraries across the globe, where their enthusiasm for teaching finds eager audiences. For the Roops, writing books and teaching clearly go hand-in-hand, one vocation satisfyingly nourishing the other.
Inspired by their life in Maine and their love of lighthouses, the two have published ten books involving the iconic coastal structures, perhaps the most famous an award-winning historical work, Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie, based on the life of Abbie Burgess, a 16 year-old lighthouse keeper’s daughter. Abbie did, indeed, keep the lights burning in the Matinicus Rock Lighthouse for 21 days, during and following a brutal storm in 1856. The book was a labor of love for the Roops who consulted primary sources such as letters and journals written by Abbie Burgess, as well as other archival materials, magazine articles and visits to lighthouses. The book also was featured on the acclaimed PBS children’s educational series, “Reading Rainbow,” hosted by LeVar Burton.
With their most recent book, Maine Lighthouse ABC, the two have again focused on the subject dear to both their hearts. How the book came into being was described by Peter in a story not infrequently punctuated by laughter. One day as he was out walking through Stonington, he happened to notice a children’s book in the window of the Island Ad-Vantages office and thought he might as well drop off the early manuscript of their lighthouse book to see if it resulted in any interest. And the rest, as they say, is history.
But it’s their collaboration with a host of contributers that makes it clear this particular book took a village to complete. If the idea for the book, its writing and its development was the work of the Roops, then its execution and bringing the whole to exacting and satisfying fruition was also owing to that “village,” including Bob Trapani, photographer and Executive Director of American Lighthouse Foundation, who not only provided many of the photos, but his expertise in all the lighthouse information. A host of Penobscot Bay Press (PBP) employees also contributed photos, while Jeremiah Savage, Creative and Technology Manager at PBP, created the illustrations. Caroline Spear, Penobscot Books editor, was credited by both Roops with making the entire project the joyful enterprise it was.
In their laughter-filled telling, often completing one another’s sentences, the two described how their joint, prolific career came into being. One day as they were walking along the shore, Connie was eager to see the tide change. To relieve the long wait to witness that magical moment, the two competed in what they called mussel races—floating mussel shells on the water—that soon led to cracking jokes involving seaside puns: “What’s the strongest animal at the beach?” Answer: “A mussel!” One joke or riddle led to the next and, tide change soon forgotten, the couple was off and running with a quickly growing number of riddles and jokes, which they sent off with high hopes to a publisher. Although the publisher liked the jokes, they weren’t published, but, instead, led subsequently to a 6-book series of riddles and jokes, thereby launching their joint writing career.
In answering who takes the lead in writing, Peter said whoever has more knowledge about a topic writes the first draft. Describing their writing process, he remarked that they are “each other’s editors,” and “read everything out loud to one another.” When they “trip over a word or phrase,” encountering a “logjam,” as Peter characterized it, then it’s a cue to do some rewriting, signaling a problem that needs a remedy. But in their ABC book, Connie noted, there were “few word changes,” to which Peter added, “in writing, how words come is often a mystery.”
As for challenges along the way, they experienced few, but one of them was which lighthouses to feature. Ultimately, they decided to include lights from south to north, determined to represent every region of the Maine coast. Each lighthouse is located on maps provided on the inside front and back covers of the book. Prioritizing the list was determined by which lighthouses could be seen and visited and which had the most to offer by way of interesting features, like a museum. Representing the “P” section is Portland Head Light, noteworthy for being the oldest, federally commissioned lighthouse in the country, whose first keeper was appointed by President George Washington in 1790. Others named in the “P” section include Pemaquid Point, Petit Manan, Perkins Island and, of course, Pumpkin Island Light, just off Little Deer Isle.
Providing latitude and longitude designations, the book also offers plenty of additional information relating to each lighthouse. We learn, for example, that each has a unique signal pattern that provides directional information to seafarers in case of instrument failure or weather conditions that impede visibility. Aside from fascinating facts, the book not only contains abundant photographs but vividly rendered illustrations created by Jeremiah Savage that accurately capture real life details. In a nod to women who lobster, he features a woman in the “D” section banding a just-caught lobster.
Regarding what they currently have in the works, the Roops described how a book about poet Maya Angelou has evolved. At the request of their publisher, Simon and Schuster, they wrote a 200-page manuscript for older readers, taking four years to complete the project. Reflecting the vagaries of publishing, however, the manuscript was turned down and the couple is now in process of reconstituting it, at the publisher’s request, as a 1500-word picture book for six to seven year-olds. Undaunted by the turn of events regarding the book, the two continue to bring their unbounded good cheer to this latest writing challenge.
When not writing or teaching, the Roops especially enjoy spending time with family, as well as traveling, particularly to islands. Peter notes that he also loves traveling “the long way,” through the U.S., taking the by-ways and stopping at local coffee shops or simply by the roadside to talk to local folks. As for their long love affair with Maine, they’ve been coming to Stonington since the ‘70s, even spending their honeymoon here in 1973. They now own the house Peter’s parents bought all those years ago and have only missed coming one summer, according to Connie—in 1999—for which their their kids “still haven’t forgiven us,” she added laughing. Musing again about how Maine Lighthouse ABC came into being, Connie emphasized that they were “so dependent on so many people to make it happen,” while Peter remarked how thankful they are that Penobscot Books accepted the manuscript he so casually dropped off at the office. Wistfully, he added, “It’s changed our life in Stonington.”
The Roops will be signing books at National Lighthouse Day at Owl’s Head Light, Saturday, September 8, from 12 to 3 p.m.