No matter who you are, Ava Gustafson wants you to feel welcome under the willow tree.
Gustafson, formerly of Eau Claire, recently authored her second illustrated children’s book, Willow’s New Friend, a gentle tale of a kindly tree who inspires a little girl. The faith-based tale is a sequel to the Spooner resident’s first book, Willow, which was published late last year. Katrina Dohm, a former Spooner art teacher who lives in Iowa, illustrated both books. They are published by Minneapolis-based Wise Ink.
Gustafson’s books were inspired by a childhood dream in which she was embraced by a loving willow. This tree comes alive in the books, too. From her home rooted by a river, Willow embodies the beauty of the natural world and the love of God. She befriends a succession of animals – butterflies, dragonflies, opossums – and finally a little girl appropriately named Joy.
“I’ve never felt welcome in any place,” the girl confides. “In fact, I feel mostly alone. Off by myself I feel safe. It’s where I feel closest to home.”
The anthropomorphic tree assures the girl that she is special, that “all things created are loved” and that she “shines like the brightest of stars!”
Gustafson says she has some things in common with the little girl: Growing up with older brothers, for instance, she was sometimes mistaken for a boy. She also has something in common with the tree: a desire to share a message of faith. Her book draws on Psalms 1:3:
You are like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season and whose leaves do not wither or fade.
May whatever you do prosper.
“My goal, I think, is to let children know how much they are loved,” Gustafson explains. “In society today we are so wrapped around what other people think of us. Bullying is such a big issue with children. … (We need to) let them know if they are different, that they are important and they are loved and they matter. They are special because of who they are as individuals, and I don’t want them to feel like they have to fit into a mold.”
Gustafson herself doesn’t fit a mold: A chef by trade, her debut book first took shape as a poem written as a thank-you to a yoga teacher. Now she’s ready to promote her follow-up, and she says it won’t be her last. In fact, she’s conceived both a third book and the concept for an animated film that would encompass all three stories. She says she’s been studying a screenplay-writing book and has talked with friends in the media industry about the steps she needs to take.
“If you don’t put your foot forward and go after your dreams,” Ava says, “you’ll never get there.”
Hear author Ava Gustafson read from her books, Willow and Willow’s New Friend, at a special event, “Bedtime Stories Under the Willow Tree,” at 7pm Wednesday, Dec. 20, at The Volume One Gallery inside the Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire. Her books are available online at thewillowseries.com or at The Local Store.