Fruit bats and autocrats! Wombats and bureaucrats! Throw out the welcome mat for “The Villains of Splazat.”
Jesse Arrington III, M.Ed. ’72, recently published his debut children’s book and it’s a doozy. Every last line ends in -at. It’s an acrobatic habitat of the children’s book format.
Published in 2017 by a subsidiary of Simon and Schuster, the book follows three main characters — a cat, a rat, and their human friend Matt — on a quest to rescue Splazat from an evil witch and her fratty rats (yes, that’s a fact.)
The characters are on a quest, but the reader is too. As a former Alaska educator, Jesse wrote the book to blend education and entertainment. The story starts simply enough, but escalates into tongue twisters and complex words as the pages turn. Preschoolers will appreciate the rhymes, older kids can flip to the glossary, and even parents will learn something too. After all, when’s the last time you had to explain to your kids the word lumpenproletariat?
“Alaska has really been good to me”
Jesse’s first book is both silly and smart, clearly inspired by the work of Dr. Seuss. But his education career across Alaska played a role as well.
Jesse first arrived in Alaska in 1966, serving four years with the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. After discharging, he got a job teaching preschool kids in Anchorage through the recently launched Head Start program. He later moved up to teach at Central Middle School, but continued reading books out loud to the class (“I lean towards the dramatic,” he said with a laugh.) Jesse previously graduated from North Carolina A&T State University on a music scholarship, and he channeled that performance background in the classroom through characters and voices.
“Kids absolutely loved it,” he recalled. “I thought, Wow man, I could do this. I could write a book that kids would enjoy and have fun.”
But he held off that dream in favor, first, of furthering his education. While teaching at Central, Jesse used his GI Bill benefits to enroll at UAA for night classes. He earned his master’s in education in 1972.
Next, he launched his diverse career while raising three sons. Consider it decades of delayed research. “Part of my inspiration [for the book] was drawn from many of my unique careers,” he said. “Alaska has really been good to me. I had so many incredible jobs there.”
For examples, he led the residential program at a Kodiak high school, served the commissioner of education in Juneau, and earned an education research appointment at UAF. He worked for the Alaska Human Rights Commission, handling thousands of discrimination complaints during the pipeline boom days. He led family support centers at Fort Eielson and Fort Wainwright and, most recently, retired as park ranger and superintendent of the Alaska Public Lands Information Center in 2008. For most of that time, he also facilitated courses on race, healing and cultural understanding in Fairbanks.
That background in education, social justice and family support led him to publish his first book in retirement, he said. “All my experiences seeped through, ending in this book for kids.”
“Education is wonderful, so is entertainment.”
After retiring from the National Park Service in Fairbanks, Jesse relocated to San Antonio for a more affordable cost of living. Suddenly, he had time on his hands. “Well,” he told himself, “why not do what you wanted to do a long time ago and write a children’s book.”
But it couldn’t be any children’s book. It had to entertain both parents and kids, and it had to teach something. It couldn’t just rhyme, but it had to make logical sense. It had to delve in children’s themes like trust, planning and forgiveness.
“I really wanted this to be a teaching tool,” he said. “Education is wonderful, so is entertainment. If you can mix the both together you’ve got something going for yourself.”
“The Villains of Splazat” took him more than a year to write. While Dr. Seuss leaned on imaginary words, Jesse’s definitions actually exist (well, aside from Splazat, which is south of Squid Sprat, but “very few people really know where that’s at.”)
Thankfully, there’s an educational addendum of definitions at the end, explaining terms likes trichromat, ziggurat, and Mt. Ararat.
“I know that most parents don’t know these, let alone the kids, so in the back I put a glossary,” Jesse noted. “And I learned a lot myself. There were some words I’d never heard of.
“[It] was a challenge but I managed to do it,” he said of his debut. “People who’ve read it have really enjoyed it.” He’s currently working on two more children’s books.
“The Villains of Splazat” is a mouthful of a story, rhyming “democrat gnat” with “thalassocrat bat” on the very first page. But, as Jesse writes, “isn’t it fun trying to say all of that?”
Read the first pages of Jesse’s book, and order a hardback, paperback or Kindle edition at www.thevillainsofsplazat.com.
Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement