Furry Tales & Warm Hearts

by Mae Gilliland Wright
Illustrations by Donna Carr Roberts

Mr. Fuzzy Ears finds more than one furry friend… and teaches children an important lesson.

In scarcely a year’s time, local artist and businesswoman Donna Carr Roberts’ first children’s book has transformed from dream to reality. The book, entitled The Adventures of Mr. Fuzzy Ears, will even be featured in an upcoming symphony concert—and it’s already inspiring children and adults alike to support the local Humane Society. Like any good story, this one features an unlikely beginning, numerous hurdles to overcome, a few twists of fate and a truly heartwarming ending.

The Creative Road
Donna Carr Roberts has always been an artist, but like so many others, she struggled to find a way to earn an income based on her work alone. “When I was a kid, I sketched and I won competitions… but I thought, ‘I can't earn a living at this!’” she recalls. “So, I went to business school.” After graduation, the Ohio native moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where she worked in marketing for Estée Lauder and entered the world of commercial real estate, which she continues to this day. 

But after years in Indianapolis perfecting her business acumen, she began to gravitate back towards her creative side. In 2004, she found a group of artists who taught her watercolors and introduced her to painting for the first time. The connection was immediate—she again started  entering competitions, placing and winning. “I found that I kept gravitating to faces. I was doing animals and people,” she notes with a smile. “I'm terrible at landscapes!” 

As her reputation for watercolor portraits began to spread, she started receiving requests for oil paintings. Just like her evolution from a sketch artist to using watercolors, Carr Roberts began the meticulous process of learning how to paint with oils. “Now I do watercolors, which is what I did in the book, and oils for the professional portraits,” she adds.

In 2015, her husband Gary Roberts was named president of Bradley University, which brought her to Peoria. Joining the couple were their four dogs: Izzy, Scamp, Teddy and Sofie, the newly deemed “official dogs of Bradley University.” Little did they know, one of them would soon be immortalized as Mr. Fuzzy Ears.

A Humane Message
Carr Roberts, who sits on the board of the Peoria Humane Society, says she was encouraged by a Humane Society staff member to write a book about her dogs. “The whole thing is like karma—it was meant to be,” she explains. The Adventures of Mr. Fuzzy Ears: Searching for a Furry Friend was the outcome, detailing the story of a good-natured dog who wants to find a play friend. 

Mr. Fuzzy Ears tries to connect with several other animals around his home—a chipmunk, a mouse and a squirrel—but each summarily rejects him. These short vignettes are based on true events that happened to Carr Roberts’ dog, Scamp—the real Mr. Fuzzy Ears. 

“Pretty much everything in the book Scamp did,” she explains, although some liberties were taken in the translation. “He’s a Cairn Terrier, and they hunt. They’re after chipmunks and mice—which is not a good children’s story!” For instance, in the book, Mr. Fuzzy Ears gets stuck in a cupboard while trying to befriend a mouse. In reality, Scamp was trying to chase a mouse soon after moving to Peoria. “He had squeezed himself into a kitchen cupboard and got stuck, because he’s kind of chubby,” she chuckles. 

  • Mr. Fuzzy Ears can be purchased locally at I Know You Like a Book, Peoria Humane Society, Peoria Riverfront Museum and the Bradley University Bookstore. A portion of the proceeds from local sales will benefit the Peoria Humane Society.
  • Mark your calendars for the musical premiere of Mr. Fuzzy Ears at the Peoria Symphony Orchestra’s January 20th concert, “Once Upon A Time: A Family Matinee,” in the Peoria Civic Center Theater. For tickets and event details, visit peoriasymphony.org.
  • Follow the real-life adventures of Izzy, Scamp, Teddy and Sophie on Instagram@thebradleydogs.
  • Learn more about the award-winning artist and her work at donnacarrroberts.com.

Eventually, Mr. Fuzzy Ears and his family make their way to the local Humane Society, where he meets the animals up for adoption. Not all of them are the right fit, but he does learn why they no longer have owners. These stories teach children an important lesson: that owning a pet is a massive responsibility, and not one to be taken lightly. 

“We’re trying to convey a message,” Carr Roberts explains. “If your landlord doesn’t let you have pets, if your pet is sick, if you can’t take care of it—don’t put them out on the street. Take them to the Humane Society.” 

While many children are not in a position to enact change in the moment, she hopes this message will lead to a brighter future for the animals in our lives. “It plants the seed of what is right,” she declares. “It’s conveying the message of loving and caring for animals—and it’s getting kids excited about reading.” 

In addition, she hopes to serve another purpose: introducing children to classical music. When Maestro George Stelluto of the Peoria Symphony Orchestra (PSO) learned of the book, he instantly recognized its potential as an orchestral work for children. “Its variety of characters and scenes resonated with musical narrative,” Stelluto explains.

He also had in mind a composer: the brilliant, young virtuoso Tengku Irfan. “I knew he would have the intellect and whimsy to create a clever and entertaining piece with just the right amount of allegory.” Irfan’s piece based on Mr. Fuzzy Ears will make its worldwide debut at the PSO’s January concert, “Once Upon A Time: A Family Matinee.” It’s a perfect fit, as the entire concert will highlight stories and music about animals, including Poulenc’s Babar the Elephant, Roven’s Runaway Bunny and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.

Donna Carr Roberts painting a portrait of former Congressman Bob Michel in her Peoria studio. Courtesy of Buckman Photography

Tagalong Magic
Looking back at the process of writing the book, Carr Roberts admits that the journey itself was not easy. “I wrote the story, then spent three to four months doing the artwork,” she notes. “I thought, okay, I’m going to turn this over to somebody and have them ‘magically’ turn it into a book.” But, she quickly realized, “There isn’t such a person.”

After speaking with a number of publishers, she determined the only way to produce the book quickly was to publish it herself. She worked locally with Technicraft, Versa Press, Converse Marketing and Bradley University interns on the layout, pricing, printing and marketing. “I had to research bookstores. What kind of market do they expect? Who do they buy from? How do I get on Amazon? “It’s mind-boggling [and] intimidating,” she says, echoing the sentiments of many first-time authors. 

With the book now complete, Carr Roberts has been visiting local libraries and classrooms to read to children—and Scamp, known by his stage name “Mr. Fuzzy Ears,” is always happy to tag along. Looking ahead, she plans to write more books—including stories of the other animals introduced in this one. She also hopes to find more ways to work with area schools to inspire children to read, write and draw. 

“I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up,” she laughs, “but I’m having so much fun with this. It feels good because it’s helping so many.” a&s

Donna Carr Roberts is Artist in Residence at the Slane College of Communications and Fine Art at Bradley University. Learn more about Mr. Fuzzy Ears and upcoming events at mrfuzzyears.com.

Source URL: http://ww2.peoriamagazines.com/as/2018/nov-dec/furry-tales-warm-hearts