Author offers sweet spin on Hodag story

Never judge a book by its cover.

That doubly goes for author and designer Jill Kuczmarski’s hodag Happy — an all-teeth-and-no-bite take on a local legend.  In fact, Kuczmarski has spent the last decade using Happy to re-spin a dark and scary urban legend into a picture book character young children would love. It’s all a part of the Rhinelander native’s effort to challenge how we think about nature and community.

As lore would have it, the Rhinelander hodag was first discovered in 1893 by Wisconsin land surveyor (and known prankster) Eugene Shepard. After rounding up a group of townspeople, Shepard successfully “killed” what was described as a terrifying beast with a head of a frog, the back of a dinosaur, a long speared tail, short legs with massive claws, and a grinning elephant-like face. Several years later, Shepard would capture another one of these strange monsters, but after news of the creature peaked scientists interests,  Shepard was revealed to be a grand scammer.

While Kuczmarski’s “Happy the Hodag” shares many physical traits with the original legend — including those sharp horns, long claws and a big green body — he is anything but a snarling beast. Described by the children’s author as “a friendly Northwoods hodag,” Happy’s warm nature makes finding friends and winning over young readers relatively easy. Much of Happy’s life, as seen in “Tales From The Trees” and “A Monster Misunderstanding” revolves around exploring the many diverse aspects of the central Wisconsin landscape.

In short, Happy is a softie with a heart of gold and a strong sense of adventure.

Kuczmarski’s gentle giant makes his latest appearance in “Hodag,” the third installment from the self-published writer’s locally focused series. Similar to her previous two stories, “Hodag” follows Happy as he tackles issues both big and small, from breaking stereotypes to making new friends.

However, unlike Kuczmarski’s previous books, there is no central issue Happy must overcome. Instead, Kuczmarski marries her vibrant illustrations with a series of clever rhymes and positive affirmations that stress the importance of asking questions and exploring nature, as well as loving yourself and your community.

“On the one hand this book is about what it was like for me growing up in northern Wisconsin surrounded by nature and the many active opportunities that go with that, but also having been surrounded by incredibly creative people,” Kuczmarski said. “It derives from growing up in a small town and how everyone pitches in to help one another.”

The full article first appeared in the Wausau Daily Herald on July 1, 2016.

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