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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, June 2, 2001

Books for Keiki
Giggling with kids

By Jolie Jean Cotton

Author Bruce Hale explains the components of facial expressions to third graders at Liholiho Elementary School. Humor has helped Hale become a successful writer and illustrator.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

10 Secrets of Creating and Publishing Children's Books

University of Hawai'i outreach class with Bruce Hale

9 a.m.-noon today, June 9 and 16

Information: UH Outreach at 956-7221 or help@outreach. hawaii.edu

Bruce Hale, writer, illustrator and friend of children everywhere, got the inspiration for his first children's book in an unusual way.

"I was driving up the Pali Highway, cruising along at 45 mph in a 35 zone. I look out and right on the hood of the car were these little feet. Stapled there like a hood ornament was this little brown gecko," he recalled.

"The wind was buffeting him and that sucker was hanging on for dear life. We'd go around a corner, and he'd whip to one side and then the other. Nothing knocked him off. And I thought, 'What a cool character.' I just had this flash: 'That's Commander Gecko!' So I went home and started drawing little gecko cartoons."

Hale first attempted to create gecko-themed comic strips, but when that didn't work, he began writing a children's story.

"Commander Gecko as a superhero never came to be. But his alter ego was Moki the Gecko," Hale said.

Hale self-published his first picture book, "Legend of the Laughing Gecko," in 1989. Four other titles starring Moki the Gecko followed. Collectively, his Moki books have sold more than 90,000 copies.

But Hale didn't start out writing for children. Raised near Los Angeles, he majored in economics and began his career as a corporate writer living in Tokyo. He moved to Hawai'i in 1983.

"I went from writing brochure copy for Nissan to writing Chet Gecko," he recalls with a laugh.

Publishing professionals tend to discourage self-publishing. They say the odds against Hale's success were staggering. So how did he do it?

"Bruce is really in tune with local kids. He spends a lot of time with them and he knows what they like. He's giving them what they want," said James Rumford, Manoa's nationally published children's book author and illustrator. Rumford notes that Hale also invested an enormous amount of work in ensuring the success of his self-produced picture books.

"When people ask me how to self-publish I say, first you have to forget everything you ever knew, start from ground zero, educate yourself," Hale said. "It helps if you're a little naive or a little crazy. And just know that its going to take four times as much effort as you think it will, much more money and you really have to be passionate about what you're doing. If you're not passionate, it's not going to work. You'll give up at some point in the process."

In 1998, Hale won a Fulbright grant to teach storytelling and study folklore in Thailand. Along with writing and illustrating, Hale has performed extensively on Hawai'i stages and television.

After the success of his Moki picture books, Hale thought it would be fun to write a detective mystery series for kids. He got hooked on Raymond Chandler mysteries in college. Hale says in his first experiment with writing in a longer form, he tried using a variety of animal sleuths, including a mongoose and a dog.

"I wanted to do something that was not a gecko. I didn't want people thinking I've only got one idea and I'm going to run it into the ground," Hale said. "When I was writing the introduction to the book, that was the first thing I wrote: 'Who am I? Chet Gecko, Private Eye.' I give up. I tried so hard. The gecko just wanted to come through me. Who knows? Chet would not be denied."

Hale said that first draft for a chapter book was only 15 pages long. Sarcastic fourth-grade gumshoe Chet Gecko made his national debut with Harcourt Brace in a 96-page story called, "The Chameleon Wore Chartreuse," in the spring of 2000. Hale's fourth Chet Gecko mystery, "The Big Nap," was recently released and two more are scheduled for publication next year. Each of the Chet Gecko titles has garnered widespread critical praise.

"One of the nice things about Bruce's work, which comes through in Chet Gecko, is that he is looking for the humorous side of things, the fun side of things, and those are very hard things to capture," Rumford said. "And I think that's why Chet Gecko did get accepted (by a national publisher) because he was able in those pages to capture that pure imagination and suspension of belief, and do it well. I think that's what he's very good at and that's what he strives for."

Hale attributes part of his success to becoming active in the writing community. He regularly attends the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators annual conference in Los Angeles. It was at a national SCBWI conference that he met children's book agent Steven Malk. After their meeting, Hale sent Malk his Chet Gecko manuscript. Malk sent the story to editor Michael Stearns at Harcourt Brace. Stearns said when he read Chet Gecko, he was hooked.

"He cracks jokes, grills suspects, lunches on bugs and solves mysteries that would daunt pansy detectives such as the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew," Stearns said.

Hale is touring Hawai'i schools with gecko tales, something he's done for some years. Inside the classroom, he puts together his storytelling ability and a love of acting to create a presentation that keeps youngsters in the palm of his hand.

At a recent visit to Liholiho Elementary School, Hale kept the room full of third-graders engaged and giggling for nearly an hour.

At the end of this month, Hale and his wife, Janette, will be leaving their Makiki home to return to California to live. Hale says the move is for several reasons: California is where his mother lives. And there's been interest in turning Chet Gecko into a TV show.

"It'll be much easier for me to do national speaking engagements and book promotions based in California. And when the Chet Gecko TV series gets going, I want to be close to the action to take an active part," Hale said. "And finally, it's time for a new adventure." Hale adds, "We intend to come back to Hawai'i frequently, for fun and work. And I do plan to continue the Moki the Gecko series with 'The Legend of Ghost Gecko,' planned for 2002."