Just in time for Christmas, local author and illustrator, Marcia Leiter has a brand new Christmas picture book out for kids.
"Sweet Pea's Christmas" is the humorous tale of a bunny named Sweet Pea and how she prepares for the 182 Christmas guests she learns are coming for a holiday visit.
Leiter, of New Windsor, was already familiar with her main character, Sweet Pea. Her first book, "Sweet Pea's Tale of Too Many Tomatoes" was released in 2015. Bringing her back for a Christmas book came naturally.
Leiter, who has more Sweet Pea books planned, said it takes four months to do the drawings and paintings and set the book for publication. In the three years before the first book came out she introduced Sweet Pea to readers by using Facebook, posting a page per day online.
"Each book relates to what is going on in my life but through Sweet Pea's eyes," Leiter said. "The first book happened to me when I had too many tomatoes in the garden. When I was writing the book I didn't know until the end what Sweet Pea was going to do to get rid of the tomatoes and how she would solve her problem."
Both of Leiter's books are illustrated in watercolor and ink. She said writing children's books must have been something she always wanted to do, but never verbalized, even though art was always a part of her life.
"I was a graphic design artist from 1980 to about 1990 — 10 years," she said. "After that, I did fine art as a watercolorist for about 15 years and taught watercolor in my home studio. Then I got away from my art for a while and went to work to train as a physical therapist assistant."
Leiter also took classes at the Maryland Institute College of the Arts after the first of her two sons were born. Later, she took every art class that Carroll Community College offered.
Sweet Pea came to her in 2012 while preparing a care package for a friend who had moved across the country. Her initials included a P, an E and an A. Leiter said she was making a story book to depict all the items in the package when a little bunny appeared on the paper and named herself Sweet Pea. She now has nine Sweet Pea stories planned in spiral notebooks.
"I have an old spiral notebook," she said. "I scribble the words for the first page and do a thumbnail drawing and then do the next page the same. It is neat to do it that way because the drawings are so spontaneous. I'm not thinking about it much and the expression is just coming out. I use those to base my prototypes on."
Lynn Wheeler, executive director of Carroll County Public Library, said Leiter spoke at several branches in 2015, engaging the children with story time, a sing-along and crafts. Recently, Leiter was a guest at the library's Friends Tea, where she shared the new Christmas book.
"I love that — like Peter Rabbit's mother — Sweet Pea is trying to manage so many things but still maintaining a loving environment," Wheeler said. "I love the overarching theme of loving and embracing friends and family and the sweetness of Marcia's books. She sets up a positive model."
Many Sweet Pea book readers are quick to speak about all the things going on inside the illustrations, which feature a family of mice doing their own thing outside of the written story.
"There's so much to see on every page and so much to engage you," Wheeler said of the illustrations. "I love the approach to the new book with Sweet Pea taking on a different activity every day [of December] to prepare for the guests that are coming."
Westminster resident Rachel Muller met Leiter at the Carroll County Farmer's Market's Author Day in November. She said she was immediately drawn to both the author and the book and she read it to her children that very evening.
"My daughter, [Candace] is in first grade, a brand-new reader and she read it with very little help from beginning to end," Muller said. "She was enthralled. She loved all the little tiny character details. In the illustrations, Sweet Pea is doing one thing and little mice below are mimicking her and doing their own crazy things. I was amazed as I flipped through the book and I told her I wanted the Christmas book for them too."
"I love Sweet Pea!" 6-year-old Candace said.
Nine-year-old Andrew's appreciation went even deeper.
"Sweet Pea had to do a lot of work," Andrew said. "I hope I get the next book for Christmas."
Ten-year-old Ryan agreed with his brother.
"I can't wait for 'Sweet Pea's Christmas,'" he said.
Even 12-year-old April Muller commented, noting the excellence of the illustrations.
Muller spoke of how Sweet Pea meant for everything to go well, and when it didn't, she found her way around each obstacle.
"I think my 6-year-old saw how, when things go wrong, you can take a bad situation and turn it into something that is fun," Muller said. "I fell in love with Marcia and her books and I am a harsh critic. I was so impressed with the illustrations and even I took a minute to look through all the details. I stand in awe and think, that is amazing. That's an incredible gift that she has."
Leiter said she never sat down with a goal to think up ideas of what to write or draw. It has always come to her.
"The little mice just appeared," Leiter said. "They just decided to live with Sweet Pea. Some are helpful mice and some are naughty mice. I let the kids decide which are which."
Leiter created her own press, Birdberry Press and then used Create Space to produce paperback copies and Ingram Spark for hardcover editions. She said she could not have done it without the support of her husband and her two grown sons.
"My sons bugged me for years to write a book," she said. "They would always say, 'Have you started writing yet?' and my husband has been wonderful."
These days, Leiter balances writing and illustration with promotion, using Twitter, Instagram, a website with a blog and mostly Facebook to get word out about upcoming books. She's added eight pages of activities for kids to the back of the Christmas book, including a seek-and-find section, recipes and crafts.
"It's kind of funny that this year we are having a house full of people for Christmas and that is just like the main plot of the story, with Sweet Pea having so many bunnies coming to visit," she said. "I haven't started getting ready yet. I keep thinking about all the things [Sweet Pea] is doing and that I should be getting going with the cleaning and baking and making Christmas cards and all the things she does to get ready."
All branches of the Carroll County Public Library are carrying both Sweet Pea books. In Westminster, Eclecticity at 15 E. Main Street offers it for sale. It is also available on Amazon.
Get to know Sweet Pea and her adventures at sweet-pea.net or on Facebook at Birdberry Press.