SWJH teacher illustrates children’s book

‘Piko, the Dog With No Tail’ followed long road to shelves

Larry Underkoffler reading a just-released copy of “Piko, the Dog With No Tail,” which he illustrated. (Photo submitted)

Larry Underkoffler reading a just-released copy of “Piko, the Dog With No Tail,” which he illustrated. (Photo submitted)

Mary Bailey
Community Editor

Larry Underkoffler is an art teacher at Southwest Junior High. He’s also a coach, Vietnam veteran and former Boy Scout camp director.

Now his work appears in a children’s book. “Piko, the Dog With No Tail” was written with his friend Tom Gillaspy as author and Underkoffler as illustrator.

“The conversation started at church, talking about our grandkids,” Underkoffler said. “He knew I was an artist. I knew he liked to write poetry.”

The project took more than a year. The story they chose to tell is based on a real dog, a black Labrador retriever owned by Gillaspy’s grandson.

It starts out sad, as Piko begins a search for her missing tail. Along the way she learns an important life lesson, realizing she is beautiful even without a tail, and the book has a happy ending.

The real Piko lives with her family in Washington state. She was adopted from an animal shelter, and no one knows what happened to her tail. Black lab tails are not traditionally docked.

Underkoffler has never met the dog and does not own a dog. He used pictures and his imagination for inspiration, he said.

Living on the banks of the St. Croix River north of Stillwater was helpful in creating the nature and wildlife scenes that fill the pages.

The vibrant colors resulted from his choice of paint: gouache on watercolor paper. Gouache is similar to watercolor but heavier, more opaque and more reflective.

“Before computers, lots of graphic artists used gouache,” Underkoffler said.

The originals are kept in his studio at home, but during the creative process, they served another purpose at Southwest.

“My art students have seen it from the beginning,” Underkoffler said. In a class called Comic Slam, each student illustrated a story to create a 16-page comic book.

The same art style used in the children’s book, with bright colors, emotional faces, action and perspective, is also called for in comics.

Publishing process

The author and artist considered self-publishing their creation before Valley Bookseller in Stillwater recommended Beavers Pond Press of Edina. That was good advice, Underkoffler said.

Because the book designer recommended that the artwork fill the entire page, Underkoffler started over, recreating all 36 drawings. (Photo by Mary Bailey)

Because the book designer recommended that the artwork fill the entire page, Underkoffler started over, recreating all 36 drawings. (Photo by Mary Bailey)

Beavers Pond advertises, “There are many fine places where you can anonymously crank out a book. Beaver’s Pond Press isn’t one of them.” The company was very involved, editing the text and connecting the authors with a book designer, Ryan Scheife at Mayfly Design in Minneapolis.

“It was a tough deal,” Underkoffler said. “They had us cut from 1,200 words to 600 and from 40 pages of art to 36. And I had to redo all 36 paintings.”

The story even lost one character: The chipmunk had to be dropped.

Where the original format used 5-inch high drawings, with space above and below for text, the designer wanted the art to cover the whole page with text flowing over the art.

He also suggested a line-drawing of Piko on the inside cover, a modern typeface and changes such as going from a two-page spread to one page for certain pictures.

Even though he had to redo all the art, Underkoffler has no regrets.

“It’s much easier to do something the second time,” he said. “Three-fourths of the work is coming up with the concept.”

He added: “We’re very happy with the publisher for their responsiveness, enthusiasm and good ideas.”

Instead of thinking of the process as a set of roadblocks, the author and illustrator embraced it as a learning experience.

“Tom has a doctorate and I have a master’s degree. We’ve been to lots of classes. We treated it like a master class, how experts do things,” Underkoffler said.

They also learned about requirements and procedures in libraries and book stores.

A sequel?

If the book sells well, the two men may do more.

“He’s got an initial story. I’ve got initial sketches. If anybody else finds this charming besides us and our grandchildren,” the story could continue, Underkoffler said.

Gillaspy served as the Minnesota state demographer for 33 years before retiring and is the author of “Fly Like An Eagle,” a collection of poems.

One of the illustrations used in the new book. (Image submitted)

One of the illustrations used in the new book. (Image submitted)

Underkoffler is close to retirement age. The author and artist are co-owners of the book through a limited liability partnership.

The book must be profitable for there to be more.

“If it’s just a vanity project, I’ve got other things to do,” Underkoffler said.

The 32-page hardcover sells for $14.95 and can be ordered through a link at www.pikotales.com.

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