Illustrator Ashley Poulin with original artwork featured in the new children's book Risseldy Rosseldy, based on an old American folk song adapted by John M. Feierabend. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

If you were a young art student dreaming of a career writing and illustrating children’s books, what would be the best way to get started? Seems like you couldn’t ask for a more auspicious beginning than winning a competition that results in your first book being published. And that’s exactly what happened to Marlboro resident Ashley Poulin. Still in her early 20s, she is the proud illustrator of Risseldy Rosseldy, just released in February by Chicago-based GIA Publications, Inc. and now available in a bookstore near you.

Last year, as Poulin was putting the finishing touches on her BFA in Illustration at the Hartford Art School in West Hartford, Connecticut, the students in her senior book arts course were offered a tantalizing opportunity to get involved in an interdisciplinary project. Her professor, Dennis Nolan, was collaborating with John M. Feierabend, a professor at the Hartt School of Music, which shares the University of Hartford campus with the art academy, to produce an annual series of children’s books called “First Steps in Music.” Each book captures a beloved traditional children’s song in kid-friendly illustrations and provides musical notation, so that teachers and parents can easily share the song at home or in the classroom. There’s also a weblink where you can download a recording of the song.

When Feierabend first started the project, he was mainly interested in preserving classic kids’ songs that were once widely known but in the process of becoming forgotten by younger generations. For the first book in the series, The Crabfish, GIA Publications hired a professional illustrator. But Feierabend quickly spotted the potential for an exciting project that would get teachers and students from the two Hartford arts schools learning how to work together. For all subsequent titles, the illustrator has been chosen from among the senior book arts students in a semester-long classroom contest.

In 2011, Poulin’s class was tasked with submitting conceptual “dummy” sketches and storyboards for either Risseldy Rosseldy or The Tailor and the Mouse. Poulin had spent a lot of time observing and photographing chipmunks in her backyard, and decided to use them as the characters in her version of the popular nonsense song about a newlywed bride’s absurd housework techniques, also known as Risselty Rosselty, Nickety Nackety or I Married My Wife in the Month of June. Many know the song as the one that the schoolchildren are singing in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, in the ominous scene where birds are massing outside the schoolhouse.

“In my original version, she was a mad scientist sort of character,” Poulin explains as she shows sketches of a chipmunk sporting hair sticking out in all directions: the result of a stovetop explosion. Her professor was impressed with her technique, but nixed the novel story approach. “He wanted it to be more old-fashioned, and have more people in it with the chipmunks.”

So the prizewinning finished product depicts two parallel new marriages: one of a pair of humans, whose full faces we never see, and one of a pair of chipmunks, who display quite a bit more common sense than the human bride who churns butter in an old boot with her foot. When the cheese “grows legs and runs away,” we discover, it’s really the chipmunks who are carrying it off. There are 14 full-color illustrations in all, each one cleverly incorporating the chipmunks’ activities alongside those of the humans.

To achieve the old-fashioned look that her professors had in mind, Poulin visited Old Sturbridge Village and took reference photos of a church interior, an old farm wagon and 1850s costumes. Her resulting artwork — liquid acrylic outlines filled in with watercolor washes, with textural details added in colored pencil — evokes the naïve charm of Early American primitive paintings.

“I always thought it would be great to illustrate children’s books, but I never thought that I’d be able to do it,” says Poulin, who has been drawing for fun since she was a little girl. During middle school she began copying anime characters: “I made up my own comic for my two best friends. I would draw two to five new pages a day. I ended up getting one of my drawings in the middle school yearbook, with my friends as characters.”

Poulin seems to have gotten the art gene from her grandmother, who “liked to paint. She had a little studio. My older sister Becky taught me about perspective.” Becky Poulin, who was ten years older, died in an automobile accident when Ashley was only 8. “She was my angel and inspiration,” says Ashley. Another sister, Amy, works as a third-grade teacher in Florida. Their father is an electrician, and “Mom is the wizard around the house” who inspired the young illustrator’s inventive chipmunk character.

It’s too soon to know how well Risseldy Rosseldy will sell, but Poulin is already getting positive feedback from around the country. “A teacher in Texas sent me an e-mail about how much her class liked the book,” she reports. “That was the moment when I realized, ‘Wow, this is really happening!’” She’ll be promoting her new work locally with a book-signing later this month at the Marlboro Free Library.

These days, Poulin is living back with her family in Marlboro, beefing up her already-impressive portfolio and working on ideas to pitch for her next children’s book project. She has been watching squirrels a lot, but also likes to draw fantasy subjects like fairies, elves and dragons. She’s also working on a novel. Whether through pictures or the written word, “Storytelling encompasses everything that I love,” she says. Agents and publishers, are you listening?

To get a look at Poulin’s beautiful illustrations, visit her website at www.ashleydpoulin.com. You can order the book from the publisher’s website at www.giamusic.com/search_details.cfm?title_id=19839 – or better yet, ask for it at your neighborhood bookstore. ++