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Local Women Collaborate on Educational Children’s Book

Photography Provided

bridgesThere are eight bridges that connect Kentucky and Indiana, but many residents may not give them much of a thought unless they use them to get to their office or home, or simply to travel from one state to the other. However, there are three Louisville-area women who have given these bridges much more than a passing glance – they’ve delved into the history of these marvels of engineering and written a children’s book about them.

The book is titled “Bridging Connections: Lessons of Life, Learning and Love.” The co-authors are Ellen (E.K.) Venhoff and Margo Smith, and the illustrations are by Carolyn Braden. Venhoff and Smith both have a background in speech-language pathology and education. This is Venhoff’s first foray into writing a children’s book, whereas Smith has written two other books, “The Perfect Shade of Pink” and “The Lost Bone: And the Found Sister.” Braden also makes wedding cakes, does photography and puppetry, and has her own YouTube channel, “Carolyn Braden’s Turning the Ordinary Into the Extraordinary,” where she teaches viewers how to create everything from a gemstone soap dispenser to a tulle and feather fascinator hat. This is Braden’s debut as a children’s book illustrator.

The book incorporates fiction and nonfiction elements. The fiction portion was written by Smith, and the factual information was provided by Venhoff. The story centers on 9-year-old Jacob and his book report assignment about Louisville bridges. The boy isn’t too thrilled with the subject matter and wishes he could write about something he’s really interested in – basketball.

He keeps to his commitment and begins his report on his chosen subject. Jacob works with his grandfather as they take off in grandpa’s blue pickup truck to visit all of the bridges, and Jacob snaps photos using the new camera his grandfather gave him for his ninth birthday. As the story progresses, Jacob begins to appreciate the beauty of the structures as he learns about the different types of bridges, and he is fascinated by both their history and the connection they have to all people.

Venhoff’s research into the bridges started several years ago while she was working with the Louisville Children’s Museum, a hands-on organization that travels to schools, libraries and other educational venues. The bridges that the authors tackle include the Sherman Minton, K&I Terminal, Fourteenth Street, Lewis and Clark, and more. The book also covers the materials and components of the bridges.

Smith and Venhoff first met at the Barnes & Noble bookstore on Hurstbourne Lane where Smith was signing copies of her first book.

“We found out that we are both speech therapists, we lived fairly close to each other, we had two children, and we realized there’s a need for good children’s books focusing on, especially, the history of Louisville and local information,” Venhoff says. “After our brief meeting at the bookstore, we decided to meet again and I brought the information I’d written about the bridges for the Children’s Museum.”

Smith began working on the book and while doing so, she asked her husband Joe for his input.

bridges“I wrote some information about the bridges and I gave it to him to look at,” she explains. “He said, ‘It’s really good and all information is true, but it’s boring. You need to have some kind of story.’”   

The co-authors began discussing how they could make the book more appealing to children, while still teaching them about the bridges.

“There are all kinds of nonfiction bridge books out there, so we came up with the story about Jacob and his grandpa,” Smith says. “We used the bridges as a metaphor of how bridges bring people together and connect, and how these bridges connected Jacob with his grandfather.”

Braden, who holds a bachelor’s degree in art with an emphasis in photography, as well as a master’s degree in art education, was the next member to come on board. She became involved with the book project via her connection with Venhoff through their shared participation with Louisville Ballet Partners. Venhoff approached Braden about illustrating the book.

“I had created centerpieces for the luncheons we were doing for the ballet dancers and she saw how creative I was,” Braden says.

Venhoff and Smith met with Braden and then sent her the story to read.

“I instantly saw the characters in my mind while I was reading it,” Braden says. “I did up some sketches and we met again. They said they loved the pictures so that’s how it led into working together.”

The character of Jacob came from Margo’s imagination, and the look of the grandfather came from both Braden and Smith.

“They didn’t tell me anything about the grandpa, but my father-in-law is a big supporter of mine so I kind of modeled the grandfather after my father-in-law, Ed Braden,” Braden says. “He drives a blue truck, so that’s where the blue truck in the story comes from, and he does a lot of things with his grandchildren. I knew the character needed to look like him.”

Smith also says the grandpa was based on her husband’s family friend.

Another individual involved with the book’s creation is Braden’s niece, Aubrey Messer, an Indiana resident. When the creators were working on the book, they needed to find a school-aged child who could contribute to the illustrations.

“The handwriting part you see in the pictures, which is supposed to be Jacob’s writing, was actually done by Aubrey,” Braden explains. “At the time we did this she was about the same age as Jacob was supposed to be. I had the wording written out and she copied it onto the art, and then I traced over it with a pen. It was fun because I was able to pay my niece to do this work.”

Writing and perfecting the book was a two-year process, and the book was released in the fall of 2019. The authors have had the opportunity to visit area book stores and schools to share their story with the public and school children.

“The book leads us to many interesting conversations, not only about bridges, but about publishing, quality work for children, and the importance of reading,” Venhoff says. “People will also share their backgrounds. One man at the Barnes & Noble said he had worked on bridges in Florida, and he was immediately interested in the book because of his background.”

Smith and Venhoff have plans to visit public schools, but with the outbreak of COVID-19 they’ve had to put many of their visits on hold.

“Bridging Connections: Lessons of Life, Learning and Love” can be ordered at bookstore.dorrancepublishing.com. It can also be purchased at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and Carmichael’s Bookstore in Louisville.

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