Years ago, Cottage Grove resident Hal Holbrook went to an authors’ workshop in Los Angeles and learned about book festivals. Last month, he accepted an award at the Paris Book Festival in Paris, France for his children’s book, “The King Who Wanted a Whale.”
It was a triumph in the journey of the little book that could. It started during Holbrook’s 30-year career in education at the elementary level with stops off at the state at Opal Theatre as a musical. And now, fresh off its international win, Holbrook is penning the sequel which is expected to be adapted for the stage again next spring.
“Elementary kids love the ocean,” Holbrook said. “They love the ocean and anything to do with kings, queens and knights. So, I thought, what if there was a king who had a kingdom by the sea and he saw whales and thought, he wanted a whale? Like a pet.”
The idea wouldn’t become much of anything for a while. Holbrook would jot down notes and eventually type out a rough outline on his Apple 2E before trying the material out on a fifth- grade class at Latham.
At that point, all he had was a long draft, one of 25 he would eventually finish, and a king who was very much human—unlike the kingdom full of animals that would take the stage at Opal years later.
“I showed the kids some of the illustrations and asked them if they liked the cartoon, the realistic and then I showed them the illustration of the ram,” Holbrook said. “Their vocal expressions were my answer. They were so excited.”
So, Holbrook opted to ditch humans for animals and got back to the drawing board. The king went through several lives—including one as a lion—before Holbrook settled back on the ram. His chief steward became a pelican and the kingdom’s engineer, an iguana.
Holbrook teamed up with local director Keith Kessler and wrote an original score to accompany his book. The musical debuted this year at Opal to rave reviews.
“During the show, we gave out five of the books,” Holbrook said. “A high school senior got one of them and approached me after the show and she’s now illustrating the second book.”
The second book, tentatively titled “The King is Dead” is still a work in progress despite having been written not long after Holbrook finished penning “The King Who Wanted a Whale.” He’s currently working on the book as well as the music and has already teamed with Opal and the original cast to have a sequel to the musical.
As for the original book, Holbrook said he enjoyed his time in Paris, all four days.
“They were very curious about the musical, because they ask you if the book has done anything else. And this book was a musical so they were very interested,” he said. “They asked if I’d bring the musical to Paris and I said sure, if you fund it!”