When Brandy Donze’s daughter, Zoey, asked to take the children’s book she illustrated to school to share, Donze was delighted to say yes.
That copy of “Willow Wings” didn’t make it home from Zoey’s school, Curtisville Primary Center in Deer Lakes School District in December.
“I was like, ‘Oh, you forgot the book.’ And she said that she had library that day — and she gave it to the librarian, ”Donze said.
Hoping the school would not think she was trying to shamelessly plug a book she illustrated, she reached out to the librarian to clarify what happened. Andrew Williams, the school’s library media specialist, assured Donze the donation was happily accepted.
The donation prompted him to invite Donze to speak to the kids at the elementary school about her job last month.
She read “Willow’s Wings,” written by Daniel Ruefman, to students and showed them the process of digitizing her rough-draft drawings. Students were able to try out digital drawing on the tablet.
The book tells the adventure of Willow, a wingless fairy, who wants to help her big sister make her mark in the world. After Willow is told she is too small to embark on such a journey, Willow is determined “to earn her wings from her” while proving her sister from her wrong.
“It was such a joy to talk to them. They were so eager to know what I did,” said Donze, a Westmoreland County native who graduated from Hempfield High School.
Williams said students were compelled to make their own illustrations to bring in to show him, and several have gotten their own tablets for drawing.
“Each year we do lessons and activities where we talk about the job of the illustrator,” Williams said. “So to have the actual illustrator of one of the books in our library come in to speak was very exciting for the students.”
“Willow’s Wings” is Donze’s first children’s book but not her first experience with children’s stories. After graduating from Edinboro University in 2005, she moved to Los Angeles, where she designed costumes, background colors and storyboards for animated kids’ shows.
She moved back to Pittsburgh in 2009 to work at a print shop before pursuing freelance work full time. Most of her work by Ella has been in cover or logo art.
“I had such freedom with it. It was a learning experience for me,” said Donze, who is an instructor at Sweetwater Center for the Arts in Sewickley.
The book’s creation took a circuitous path. Before 2020, she and Ruefman were working with a publishing agent, but the disruptions of the pandemic caused the agent to back out of new projects. So Donze and Ruefman struck out on their own.
They opened a publishing company, Wick Weald Publishing, in 2021 for “Willow’s Wings” and other works. The accessibility of publishing through Amazon and Barnes & Noble persuaded the duo to pursue this avenue.
“It was a bold move, but it was born out of necessity,” Donze said. “We didn’t want it to come to nothing.”
Since her visit to Deer Lakes, the library has had a hard time keeping “Willow’s Wings” on the shelf. Williams said kids have been checking out the book to read, creating a wait list. Students have asked him to buy more copies.
Donze is set to speak to students at Curtisville Primary Center again on April 28.
“It feels good to share your gift with a younger generation,” she said.