By Chris Edwards
The Southeast Texas region has seen its share of storms in the past two decades, and although the area is more used to catastrophic hurricanes than many other parts of the world, the necessity of preparation is a universal conceit, regardless of the situation.
Michele Fortenberry decided to chronicle one such disaster in the form of a children’s book, titled Emu Blues. Like the best books of its type, there is a lesson to be learned, but the practical intent of Fortenberry’s book is two-fold.
Emu Blues depicts a time that many residents of the region would just as soon forget: the coming and landfall of a catastrophic visitor named Rita.
When Hurricane Rita hit in late September of 2005, the storm affected 11 individual states, the Great Lakes region and the Bahamas. It resulted in 120 deaths and $18.5 billion in damages. Texas was hit especially hard. The book tells the story of the hurricane as seen through the eyes of two emus, Emily and Leroy.
Fortenberry, who has a background in early childhood education, initially conceived the tale as a song, shortly after Rita tore through the region. In 2020, however, Fortenberry and her husband Jason, rediscovered the song, which they thought had been lost in some kind of electronic shuffle, on a computer.
When Fortenberry had some time to get the book together, she found a visual artist, Linda Hendrickson, an in-demand artist, who works on commission projects. Hendrickson rendered the visuals for the story free of charge because she believed in the story and the intent of the book, Fortenberry said.
Fortenberry pointed out that many of the colorful visuals that adorn the book’s pages, utilize mixed-media style composition, where the painter used items such as newsprint and different fabrics, among other items, to provide an interesting texture to her work.
Fortenberry said that so far, the reception of the book, which was released to the public in October of 2020, has been good. Its first-year proceeds saw the book delievered to many area families and $2,000 raised for the Southeast Texas Coalition. “A lot of people have loved it,” she said. “They’ve loved the rhythm of it, and the intent of it,” she said.
Michele and Jason started Potentiality Press to get the book out, and there will be more projects in the future, Fortenberry said.
Overall, in getting the book together, as well as releasing it and promting it has been “an exciting ride,” its author said. “It’s been an adventure, and it was all about timing,” she said.
In addition to all of the usual stops an author undertakes in order to promote a book, Fortenberry is hitting up the schools, and is working to get the book in as many children’s hands as possible.
Although (spoiler alert) the flightless birds end up safe, and their humans, Granna and Grandad, return for them, they learn to weather horrible circumstances together, and the reader also sees how the instinctual nature of animals (and to a degree, small children) interpret disasters.
One stanza in the book, when the emus hear of Rita’s imminent approach, reads: “We heard that she was comin’ and at first, we weren’t so scared...This really got us thinkin’...what were we supposed to do? Two flightless birds from Texas who just did not have a clue.”
Although hurricane season runs from June through November, Fortenberry stressed that preparation must begin earlier. Along with the narrative of the story, which not only teaches children about disasters, but includes a handy glossary of terms at the back, Fortenberry has been able to offer the book bagged with supplies for evacuation, just like Granna and Grandad had to do in the story.
Currently, Fortenberry is raising money so that every child at Wheat Elementary in Woodville and Chester Elementary can get them, but she says, more schools will be soon. Fortenberry said “the goal was always to go into schools” when the project came about.
Anyone interested in donating can do so through the Potentiality Press website, located at https://www.potentiality.press.
On the website’s homepage, there is a running total of the donations that have been received. Thirty percent of all the book’s proceeds are donated to local communities and agencies for hurricane relief.
“I was trying to teach the children that no matter where you are in the states or no matter where you are in relation to what happens, you can help,” Fortenberry said.
Fortenberry, who has lived all over with Jason, who was stationed in various states for military duty, has lived in places llike Washington, where hurricanes are not as much of a concern; residents are more worried about earthquakes. However, with its universal appeal and lyrical storytelling, Emu Blues is applicable to any trying, hard situation.
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