By STEVE PFARRER
When she was growing up, Artemis Roehrig got a first look at many of the books her mother, Corinne Demas, was writing: Demas would give her daughter stories and chapters of longer books as Christmas presents.
When Roehrig moved into her teens and then early adulthood, she took a more active role in her mother’s work, from reading initial drafts and offering feedback, to copy editing, proofreading and sharing her ideas for stories.
Now the two Amherst women have made their collaboration official, co-writing two children’s books and exploring ideas for a number of other projects.
“This is the first time I’ve co-authored a book, and what better person to do it with than my daughter?” Demas, a professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, said during a recent interview in her home.
“Writing is a lonely exercise,” she added, “so it’s a lot of fun to spend time together, share ideas and come to a consensus.”
Demas has written extensively for children over the years, as well as for adults; she’s the author of two short story collections, three novels, a memoir, poetry, plays and most recently, Young Adult novels. With the two new children’s stories, she’s now published 32 books.
Roehrig has long had an interest in writing, too, though since graduating from Amherst Regional High School in 2003, she’s concentrated on scientific topics. She has a master’s degree in organismic and evolutionary biology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and has taught science in different settings.
She’s put that background to particular use in one of the two new picture books she’s written with her mother. “Does a Fiddler Crab Fiddle?” examines the lives of these small crustaceans with an outsize claw, with kid-friendly pictures and text that ask whether the crabs can do things like ride skateboards, eat pizza or perform magic tricks.
The answer to each of those questions is a resounding “No!” followed by an explanation of what a fiddler crab actually can do. If it can’t do magic tricks, Demas and Roehrig write, the crab does have a shell “that can change color. It gets darker or lighter to help him hide.”
“I think it’s important with kids that you make science fun and engaging,” Roehrig said. “We really liked the idea of this book being read aloud, asking whether a fiddler crab could do something and the kids all shouting ‘No!’ ”
Mother and daughter have also combined forces on “Are Pirates Polite?” a book on manners which posits that even grubby, combative buccaneers know it’s important to say “Thank you,” use inside voices and to share.
Roehrig, who has two young daughters, jokes that her older girl, who’s 3, seems to respond much better to these suggestions when she hears them read aloud from a book than when her mom asks her to do the same thing. A sounding board
Demas and Roehrig say their artistic connection actually goes back about 25 years. When Roehrig was 6, in 1991, she and her mother crafted a homemade book, “Two Christmas Mice,” that Demas wrote for her goddaughter as a Christmas present; mother and daughter drew pictures together, using colored markers, for the story. Demas later revised the story and sold it to a publisher in 2005.
By the time Roehrig was a teenager, she’d become “an important sounding board,” her mother said: “She’s a wonderful editor.”
Roehrig recalls that teenage editing experience with a little bit of glee: “I’d get to say mean things about my mom’s writing, and she’d thank me for it.”
Their shared work on “Does a Fiddler Crab Fiddle?” dates back to those years, when Roehrig returned from teaching in a children’s summer camp on Cade Cod, run by the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, a property maintained by the Mass Audubon Society.
“I said, ‘You’ve got to do a book on fiddler crabs — kids will love this!’ ” Roehrig recalls.
The idea kicked around for awhile — Demas at one point thought her daughter should probably write the book herself — but it gained steam in recent years. Roehrig suggested the title, given she plays violin herself (she’s a longtime member of the pit orchestra for Valley Light Opera).
In the book, Roehrig concentrated on the science, including coordinating with the artist to make sure the pictures were accurate, even if the crabs were doing improbable things (what she calls “scientifically accurate fantasy pictures”); she also wrote a basic explanatory section on fiddler crabs. Demas, meanwhile, figured out how to present the text.
The book has been published by Persnickety Press, a new imprint for younger readers that’s affiliated with the Cornell Lab Publishing Group, a leading producer of books on birds, in Ithaca, New York.Hashing out ideas
“Are Pirates Polite?” had a more recent gestation, as it’s something of a follow-up to Demas’ 2011 picture book, “Pirates Go to School.” For the new story, mother and daughter held regular brainstorming sessions in Demas’ study, working to develop a series of rhyming couplets. They’ve got folders full of paper that showcase some of the early ideas they hashed out.
The text, Demas said, “is completely shared. At this point, it’s hard to know who wrote what line because we ended up mixing so many of our ideas.”
“Are Pirates Polite?” which is published by Orchard Books (an imprint of Scholastic Inc.), includes an authors’ afterword of sorts: a list of 12 manners that polite pirates try to uphold, such as saying “please” and “I’m sorry.”
“We made a list of important manners and narrowed it down to 12,” said Demas, who adds that in writing for young children, what you leave out can be as important as what you leave in, so as to keep their attention focused.
Demas and Roehrig have a number of other shared projects in the works for which they hope to find publishers, like a children’s biography of the 18th-century Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus, who invented the modern system of taxonomy.
“We’re always thinking about and watching for new ideas,” Demas said. “I like collaboration — it makes for a stronger book.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at email@example.com.
Corinne Demas and Artemis Roehrig will read from and sign copies of their new books Saturday at 11 a.m. at Amherst Books, 8 Main St. in Amherst. The event is a fundraiser for the Amherst Survival Center’s Holiday Gift Program.
They’ll also do book signings Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at the World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield, and Dec. 10 at 2 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley.
Corinne Demas’ website is www.corinnedemas.com.