Thomas Lehrich, Class of 1983, published his first children’s book this spring. Tom created Backpacker Billy and his dog Shave as the central characters in a book series that features animals and adventure. We spoke with Tom about his book The Adventures of Backpacker Billy and Shave, which has been highlighted on NBC4 in Washington as part of their summer book spotlights, as well as climbing the ranks on Amazon for children’s adventure books. Thank you, Tom, for sharing more about your drive in creating this book and the experiences that led to its publication.
What inspired you to begin writing children’s books?
My inspiration was to bring nature together with travel using young adventurers. I became a natural storyteller for my children, particularly at sleep time when we would read to them. I noticed they liked the storytelling about places I visited. The imagination ran from there to the series I had started years before. My kids were surprised to learn that for years I had written about my trips and created characters that met up and talked to animals. My first story was about an owl in the old-growth forest, and Backpacker Billy meets the owl during his hike.
What is your connection with the illustrator, and how do you work together to bring the story to life?
An illustrator that can visualize the character and author’s arc for the story and bring it to life is the magic. The illustrator is young and was a student, and we both were doing publication for the first time. The best advice I received on completing the illustrations for the characters I developed was from a college classmate. He said, “ Tom, I know you, you have an exact vision of how the characters will look, including the animal and plant color and style. You need to share artistically the vision with the illustrator and create it together.”
Once I did that, the allowing perspective in the drawings made it a success and, most important, the ability to finish the book. Starting and finishing are the hardest part.
How did the idea and creation of Backpacker Billy and his dog Shave begin?
Backpacker Billy is the adventure and journey in all of us. In the book, we bring readers to nature and take the reader on a journey to learn about animal species and plants. And something fun happens for our young readers during the journey—like a volcano erupting. The children are brought through a story where Backpacker Billy meets an animal from nature, and the reader learns and connects with the animal and the environment.
Some background. At an early age, I backpacked with my cousin, just the two of us, as kids. Our first overnight backpacking trip was when we were only 13, all by ourselves. Imagine that! As kids, we would outfit all the gear for multi-day backpacking trips, and my parents would drop us off at the trailhead and pick us up later at a spot off the Appalachian Trail. Those trips took us to the Appalachian Trail and the Adirondack Mountains and created a passion for me as a young explorer. I think the only thing we would ask my parents for help with was picking up the groceries for our packed meals. My mom and dad reminded me we provided them a food list (we called it our packing list) to get from the grocery store for us to pack. We organized carefully and learned that everything we brought had to be carried in our backpacks.
Shave is a special dog. He is a friendly and happy dog that is up for anything and gets along well with all forms of wildlife. Our family golden retriever was named after the character Shave. We based the artwork on our golden retriever.
We enjoyed reading the first book, Hawaiian Lion, from the native Koa trees to the vivid illustrations of pineapple plants and volcanoes. Tell us about the Hawaiian Lion.
The story brings Backpacker Billy to visit his cousin Cara in Hawaii to see volcanoes and learn about how the islands were formed in the Pacific Ocean.
The story is based on research on species and the environment. In Hawaii, what interested me as an author is both the history and nature and that the volcanic soil is fertile and allowed a new land to be inhabited by plant species and animals, many originating from other places. There are no ingenious lions in Hawaii, but if there were, they would be just like our Hawaiian Lion. We cover in the story adaptation, migration, and the thrill of the force of nature in the first book in the series, with the story of Backpacker Billy and the Hawaiian Lion.
How did your experiences at New Hampton and Boston University influence you as a future author?
New Hampton and New Hampshire instill an appreciation for nature. There is a realization that you are visiting the campus, and those lands need to continue for future students and generations. An absolute favorite day in the fall is Foliage Day at New Hampton. Students are not told the exact day we head into the woods to hike when the leaves are in full fall colors. When it comes, it is fun spending time in the woods with faculty and students, and we don’t have classes that day. I collected leaves on fall Foliage Day.
One of the special things about Backpacker Billy is his independence and sense of adventure. At New Hampton, the experience builds confidence and growing self-efficacy as a student. As a high school student away from home, learning independence was a valuable part of making me a successful college student and my interest in writing. I learned that independence and freedom brought responsibility. New Hampton helped me be confident and build skills in the humanities.
What is next for Backpacker Billy?
We will continue to bring the series to readers. I wrote nearly 10 stories in the series. I learned from and enjoyed creating a group to get feedback on the story and the art. I have a creative and inspiring group of friends and family that are my “creative council”. My kids helped with the stories. I have a wonderful illustrator, Brody Cohen, and we have worked to make the visual vivid and engaging. This was Brody’s first book project as an artist.
The next story we hope to publish is about Puget Sound and Seattle, and a unique pod of Orca Whales called the southern pod. The southern pod of Orcas is the only one that exists south of the arctic circle.
How can our readers find the Hawaiian Lion and support the series? And lastly, what is Shave’s favorite food?
Backpacker Billy is available on Barnes and Noble and with Amazon Books. I am donating volumes to the school and town’s Gordon-Nash Library in New Hampton so readers can enjoy reading and sharing the story with a child, grandchild, or friend.
Shave eats pineapples of course. But I am a Husky! Thank you, New Hampton, for the opportunity to talk about Backpacker Billy. “Share the journey with the Backpacker Billy and Shave in all of us.”