By this time of year, most students and teachers are ready to take a little break from each other. However, Rosemount High School English teacher Chuck Brooks and senior André Nelson are busy launching their new book, a project they’ve worked on together for a year.
“’Twas the Night Before Christmas in Rosemount” takes the famous poem and sets it in their community. The two will share their self-published book at an open house at the Steeple Center on from 3 to 5 p.m. on Sunday.
The project began last December, when Brooks put a new spin on the poem for his weekly column in the Rosemount Town Pages. After writing it, he thought it would work well as a picture book, and students pointed him to Nelson as an illustrator.
Nelson had been painting since his grandmother brought him to his first watercolor workshop in 2006. He said he loves painting with her outside her home in Spicer, Minn., and until this project, his work has been primarily nature focused: “trees, animals, birds, things like that,” he said.
Trying to illustrate winter scenes of crowds, intersections and buildings challenged him. “I don’t paint gas pumps, I paint trees,” he said. “In that way, I’m stretching entirely.”
“I mean, what the heck, that’s a person,” he said, pointing to a little boy in the book.
When Brooks approached him about the idea, he said, “I was just so excited. There was just so much to work with.”
“André doesn’t walk away from a challenge,” Brooks said.
For inspiration for the illustrations, Nelson said he looked through children’s books and took photos from the top of the school after a snowstorm.
Faced with including numerous crowd scenes, Nelson decided to paint them from various perspectives, such as aerial shots, where the colorful hats, as Brooks pointed out, resemble Christmas bulbs.
Throughout the wintry scenes decorated with gouache snowflakes, Nelson hid surprises for readers, such as 18 hidden shamrocks (he’s 18 years old, and the shamrock is Rosemount’s town symbol) for readers to find. Nelson also surprised some friends by featuring their likenesses in scenes, and he and Brooks decided to work in special tributes to faculty and staff who have died in the past few years.
“It’s been a pretty incredible collaboration, to be honest with you,” Brooks said. “Our visions were amazingly synced.”
Nelson, who plays basketball, takes Advanced Placement classes and serves as the student council president, makes money by selling his paintings and cards at art fairs and through a website and doing commission work, which, he said, provides “enough money to be a teenager.”
Nelson said he hopes to study psychology or neuroscience in college, but he said he plans to always make art.
“And how many can say they’ve published a book when they go to college?” said Brooks.
Brooks, who has taught at Rosemount High School for the past 32 years, said of the book launch: “I’m a Christmas freak to begin with, so it’s twice as much fun for me.”
Though Brooks spends the holidays in Wisconsin, every Christmas Eve, he said, he thinks about the empty high school building.
“There’s a bit of sadness because I personify the building,” he said.
This, he said, inspired the eerie scene of an empty school that opens the book. The book ends with a boy, “this little spirit of a boy,” Brooks said, bringing the community together.
Brooks said he hopes people will get the following message from the book: “We are in life together. We’re here to go through it together and to lean on one another.”
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.