Culver author celebrates kids & summer fun with ‘Ice Cream Hotel

For Jack Johnston, the idea was so simple it should have already been taken: kids love ice cream and they love to stay in hotels. So the Culver resident’s new children’s book, “Ice Cream Hotel,” created a match made in kid heaven.

Actually, the idea itself started with a kid: Johnston’s Culver Elementary School niece, Sarah Luttrell, had created an “ice cream hotel” drawing for art class, and Johnston was immediately struck by the idea. So, though he’d never had aspirations to pen a picture book, he went home and in two hours had the story on paper.

The result is a vibrantly illustrated new book hitting the streets just in time for that ice creamiest of seasons, summer in Culver.
Specifically, copies of the book will be available -- and Johnston available to sign them -- at a book release party which is, appropriately enough, also an ice cream party. The Culver Coffee Company on Lake Shore Drive -- one of a handful of local venues to specialize in ice cream by the cone or dish -- will host the event Saturday, June 23, from 2 to 4 p.m. Kids who drop by can receive two free ice cream cones with purchase of the book.

While Jack Johnston is new to children’s books, he’s not entirely new to publishing. A graphic designer for Braun Corporation in Winamac, he’d helped edit his boss, Ralph Braun’s autobiographical novel. Working on “The Ice Cream Hotel,” however, gave Johnston an education in the challenging world of children’s book publishing.

While the book is self-published (by Norwen publications, a combination of Jack and wife Anne’s children’s names, Nora and Owen), Johnston worked with an agency to help match him with an illustrator, a much more common scenario than authors acting as their own illustrator.

Johnston describes the result as “very much a collaboration” between himself and artist Annette Cable, with whom he worked online.

“The illustrations in picture books take on a life of their own and help the story grow,” he notes, pointing out subtle components such as the proliferation of tennis balls in the book (the counting of which opens up a special kids’ section of the book’s website, and the lead character’s dog, whose name Johnston chose via a naming contest for children, on the book’s Facebook page.

He says he sent Cable “very rough” sketches of what he wanted on each page, and she returned with more polished draft drawings (samples of the process can be viewed on the book’s Facebook page).

Contracting with an artist, he explains, is “generally how children’s books are done. 99.5 percent of children’s books are self-published because it’s so expensive. Publishers won’t take a risk, so they stick with the most known authors in the market, which is a shame. It kills a lot of ideas.”

Self-publishing also gives creators a larger percentage of profits from the book, so use of the internet and social media to generate “buzz” and promote a book is critical.

Copies will be available on a long-term basis locally at the Culver Coffee Company, as well as through the book’s website.

In case you’re wondering, there is indeed an ice cream hotel in the book, and it’s likely all you imagine and more. An “incredibly bored” child at home embarks on a journey to the treat-filled hotel, all in rhyming verse, something Johnston says many children’s book publishers shy away from.

“But this was written to be read aloud,” he points out. “I look for the cadence and musicality of the language. Like it or not, you’re going to read it 100 times, if your kids like a book. The ones we keep coming back to are the ones where the language is lyrical.”

Johnston’s own kids, he adds, are “really excited about it” and have asked to hear the book repeatedly since it was published.

Jack and Anne Johnston are both native Culverites, he a child of the south shore of Lake Maxinkuckee and she the west shore (where the couple lives today, with Anne’s parents Bob and Mary Harris). They returned to Culver from Indianapolis in 1998, and many may remember them from several years of operating a popular alpaca farm, which they have since sold off.

Jack Johnston is open to more writing and does have several ideas, but for the moment he’s enjoyed the process of “The Ice Cream Hotel.”

“It really puts you in the frame of mind of a child and makes you think along those lines again. It’s all about connecting with your kids.”