Children understand that little things are a big deal. They revel in the minutiae that adults tend to dismiss or overlook, like an army of ants marching down the sidewalk or a flowering weed in the grass.
In his first children's book, West Virginia champion storyteller Bil Lepp celebrates the importance of these "little things" in life.
"The King of Little Things," released in hard cover last month by Peachtree Publishers in Atlanta, tells the story of the title character, who is content in his wee kingdom with his wee wife and wee subjects. He is king, Lepp reveals, "of coins, candles, combs, keys, knots, nods, knobby knees; bottles, buttons, beetles, burps, chiggers, chips, chickadee chirps" - among other things.
Not far away lives a monarch of a different sort, King Normous, who wants to rule every inch of every land. He is a big bully of a king who "always wants more: bigger riches, bigger bridges, bigger britches" (try saying that five times fast). When Normous finds out he has conquered all but one kingdom, that of the King of Little Things, he is incredulous. "Little things exist only to serve big things," he bellows. He sets out to claim the miniscule province, but the "little things," he discovers, are not so insignificant and foil his plan.
"The next morning the soldiers found mealworms in their bread, chiggers in their underpants, and fungus between their toes." All the weapons are ruined, and King Normous tries to lock his nemesis in the dungeon, but the nails in the door bow before their little liege and the keys won't turn in the lock. In the end, the little things everywhere revolt and refuse to do their jobs. The King of Little Things returns to his queen and his kingdom, and Normous regrets ever discounting the importance of little things.
Lepp, who lives in South Charleston with his wife of nearly 20 years, Paula, and children Noah, 13 and Ellie, 9, said he has been telling the story of the King of Little Things for about seven years, ever since he wrote it down after being inspired during a play session with his son.
Noah was about 6 years old and wanted to play "kingdoms," Lepp said in a phone interview Thursday on his way to the National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee, where he is a featured speaker. Noah, Lepp said, was the king of the dinosaurs and the fire trucks and all the big things. Lepp asked what he could have in his kingdom, and Noah gave him a paper clip, a scrap of paper ... "You can be the king of little things," he said.
"Right then, it all just kind of came together for me. ... I said, 'Play time's over!' and went down to my office and wrote it."
Getting the book from conception to the bookshelf has been no small task, however. Lepp said a children's author friend read it and suggested he send it to her publisher. It took several years before it was accepted, and several more before the project was finished. One of the most important pieces of the puzzle - and one over which he had virtually no control - is the illustrator. Lepp said he is very happy with the illustrations created by David T. Wenzel, who is best known for his work on the graphic novel format of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit."
Although he envisioned simple pencil drawings, "I couldn't imagine it being any better," Lepp said.
The 32 richly illustrated pages are chock full of details - details that children are encouraged at the end of the book to seek-and-find in a scavenger hunt. The illustrations dominate each page, depicting befuddled soldiers, an irate King Normous, and dozens of little things that draw in the reader and mesmerize the listener ... especially if the reader or listener is a child.
Lee Ann Cleary, director of the children's department at the Ohio County Public Library in Wheeling, said she can't wait to read "The King of Little Things" aloud to her story-time children.
"The quality of illustrations are right up there with Cynthia Rylant's books," she said, referring to the award-winning children's book author and West Virginia native. "The book is incredibly well done and beautiful."
She added that, as of this past Friday, the book is available to check out. She plans to invite Lepp to visit at the library in the hope that he will read to the children and perhaps also regale adult audiences with his tall-tale act. Lepp's parents, the Rev. John and Sally Lepp, reside in Glen Dale.
Bil Lepp is a five-time champion of the renowned West Virginia Liars' Contest and has been a featured speaker at storytelling festivals across the United States, including for the past 10 years at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tenn., which started Friday and continues today. He estimated he would tell stories for about six hours over the weekend. While "The King of Little Things" is his first children's book, he is the author of three books of tall tales and eight audio collections of stories and stand-up comedy.
Critics have compared him to Jeff Foxworthy and Bill Cosby. His material is inspired by everyday life, he said, and he is not above eavesdropping on anyone's conversations to ferret out the funny things people say. His schtick often includes his fictional buddy, Skeeter, who gets into all kinds of trouble - trouble, Lepp said, that he himself either got into as a teen or thought about getting into. His stories are generally suitable for all audiences; he rates them PG and said he uses his grandmother as his measuring stick for appropriate content.
Lepp said that while he didn't write "The King of Little Things" with a moral in mind - "It just turns out there was one," he said - he finds it interesting that it has sold well on Amazon in the category of "anti-bullying" because people identify King Normous as a bully.
"I'm always fascinated with what people find in my stories that I had no intention of putting in," he said.
He said he has "a stack" of other children's stories in the hopper, but he is daunted by the length of time it has taken to produce the first one.
Cleary said she can't imagine a book of this quality not being snapped up immediately by publishers.
"If this is his first effort, I look forward to everything else he puts out, and I really hope he does continue because he understands what kids like," she said. "He should have people fighting over him."