CANANDAIGUA — Clad in a T-shirt sporting the phrase "I Love Pirates" and sitting between two skulls adorned with eye patches and bandanas, local author Donna Mirsky Bennett entertained dozens of St. Mary students Dec. 3, when she visited the school to read from her latest children’s book, The Ice Cream Pirates. The students, who nicknamed the skulls Skeletor and Frank, lapped up the story as eagerly as they would their favorite flavor of ice cream.
"I loved it, because it was interesting," second-grader Paige Spiehler later told the Catholic Courier.
Yet the author’s visit provided more than mere entertainment for the students, although they may not have realized it at the time. The book takes a lighthearted look at entrepreneurship, as a group of reformed pirates open a floating ice cream shop on board their pirate ship. Meanwhile, Bennett herself serves as living proof that it is possible to achieve long-held dreams.
"The idea to be an author has always been with me," Bennett explained to the students. "When I was little I would keep diaries and journals. I would just write a lot. I think it’s just something I always wanted to do."
A mother of three, Bennett continued writing as an adult and even wrote a memoir, but all of her works remained on her computer for her eyes alone. Until 2008, that is, when she self-published Petey and the Mean Pirates, the prequel to The Ice Cream Pirates. The idea for that book was born when her son, Sam, was 3 years old.
"He was a wild, crazy man and … was being a naughty pirate around the house, trying to scare all of us, including my daughter and the baby," Bennett said. "I eventually said, ‘You don’t have to be a mean pirate, Sam. You could be a nice pirate.’ And he said, ‘No I can’t. Pirates are mean.’"
Bennett tried to change her son’s mind by telling him a story about a boy named Petey. Instead of using angry words or swords against the pirates, Petey befriended them with kind words and smiles, and eventually the pirates decided to give up their stealing, plundering ways. Sam would get frustrated when Bennett’s story changed from time to time as she told it to him, so he sat with her at the computer and helped her commit the story to paper.
Bennett eventually decided to publish her story, and the resulting book represented a dream come true for both Bennett and Josh Mull, who illustrated the book. Mull, an art teacher for the Canandaigua City School District, had taught Bennett’s oldest daughter, Cady, when she was in first grade, so Bennett thought of him when she was searching for someone to illustrate her story.
"She called me one day and asked if I’d be interested. It was always something I wanted to do," recalled Mull, who belongs to St. Mary Parish in Waterloo.
The project, however, was a leap of faith for both parties. Mull agreed to illustrate the book before he’d actually heard the story, and Bennett asked him to partner with her before she’d seen any of his sample illustrations. Nonetheless, the partnership worked out beautifully.
"It’s just been so much fun to create an idea from my head, put it on paper, publish it and share it with other people," Mull said.
Mull said Bennett gave him a lot of freedom, and he took great pains to make his illustrations look classical and not overly cartoonish. He also didn’t include cell phones or other items that would date the story.
"I wanted it to be kind of open to your own interpretation of whenever it might have taken place," Mull said.
Each of the book’s 13 illustrations, including the cover design, took about three hours, said Mull, who is the nephew of Father Thomas Mull, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Canandaigua, and Father Joseph Catanise, pastor of St. Leo Parish in Hilton.
The illustrations were time consuming, Mull said, but the hardest part actually was formatting the book’s layout, including the margins and spacing, Mull said.
"You’re learning as you do it, whereas (with) the art part, I already knew what to do," he said.
Mull and Bennett have partnered again for The Ice Cream Pirates, but the illustrations are not yet completed. In the meantime, the book is being sold with blank spaces and written prompts to help children create their own illustrations.
"There’s nothing out there like this, so it’s really cool," Bennett said.
Bennett encouraged St. Mary students to try their hands at writing as well as art, and to preserve interesting ideas that pop into their heads.
"Write it down on a piece of paper or go to your computer and type it out," she said.
Potential authors and illustrators shouldn’t be afraid of the publishing process, Mull noted.
"With the technology the way it is now, it’s more of a possibility this day and age to be able to publish your own books," he said. "Anybody can do it now. All you need is time."
EDITOR’S NOTE: Both books may be purchased at Unique Toy Shop, 120 S. Main St. in Canandaigua; at Parkleigh, 215 Park Ave. in Rochester; at select Wegmans and Borders locations; and online at www.amazon.com.