Tractor tale for kids has roots at Ellicott City farm

Move over, Thomas the Tank Engine, there's a new kid in town.

Trusty the Tractor stars in a just-released children's book by the same name with all the charisma of the popular British steam locomotive who lives on the fictional island of Sodor mixed with a dose of "The Little Engine That Could."

What differentiates those characters is that the one-and-only Trusty awaits visitors in the fields of Clark's Elioak Farm in Ellicott City, a real place where his courageous story is brought to life by owner Martha Anne Clark.

The plot is one of those child-parent pleasers that encourages young readers to believe that dreams can come true if you set goals and work hard to attain them. Trusty's story brings back the simple concept of the power of positive thinking and the charm of everyday objects as purveyors of that lesson.

"I am really pleased with the way it turned out," said Clark, a first-time author. "It's a class act, and I'm proud of it."

The 19-page soft-cover picture book, which made its debut on the farm Oct. 1, was illustrated by Tara J. Hannon, a 2002 graduate of Mount Hebron High School who earned her fine arts degree from Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.

"This book is set in a tangible, fairy-tale world that actually is alive," said Hannon, referring to the Enchanted Forest theme-park structures that dot the farm's landscape.

"Martha had already visualized what she wanted on each page, so I didn't have to make any of it up," Hannon said. "I really appreciated that she made everything about the story so authentic."

Hannon used what she described as her "funny technique" to illustrate the book, a process in which she draws and inks the artwork, scans each page into a computer, then digitally colors the drawings and adds shadows and highlights.

"I wanted to do all my drawings by hand, but a college professor showed me how that would be impossible" because it would be too time-consuming and inconsistent, she said.

Clark created the book as part of her continuing effort to carve out another niche for her farm, which can attract 5,000 weekend visitors, with its growing list of specialties.

"Like all farms, we need to continue to find ways to diversify in order to survive," Clark said.

Clark grew up on the 540-acre farm, which was established by her ancestors in 1797 and predated the formation of Howard County from a section of Anne Arundel. The property was most notably operated by her father, the late state Sen. James A. Clark Jr. She began branching out from running the family's produce stand on Route 108 near Centennial Lane when she opened the petting farm in 2002.

Since then, she has installed the Enchanted Forest castle and storybook-theme characters rescued from the defunct amusement park on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City, added a pine tree maze and began selling grass-fed "Never Sell the Land" beef, among other things.

Clark's daughter, Nora Crist, is featured in the book as Farmer Nora and has the real-life roles of tending the vegetable gardens for the produce stand and helping her mother raise the cows that supply the beef they recently began selling.

But mostly, the book came into being because the storyline just popped into Clark's head as she was riding Trusty during hay-baling one day and the sky suddenly turned dark with thunderclouds.

Cutting, fluffing and drying, and baling the neat rows of long grass is an important three-day chore, one that this summer's record high temperatures made even tougher to tackle than usual, she said.

"The No. 1 thing you worry about when you're baling hay is that it doesn't get rained on," she said. "That's where the saying, 'Make hay while the sun shines,' comes from. If hay isn't totally dry when it's baled, the trapped moisture builds up heat, and the bale can spontaneously ignite."

So, in one of those light-bulb moments, the idea of building a children's story around what she would do if the tractor that pulls the hay wagons broke down in the middle of a rainstorm came to mind.

"The story is very cute and very specifically tailored to the actual farm," said Cari Gast, head of children's and teen curriculum at the Howard County Library. Clark recently donated six copies of her book to the library, one for each branch.

"I think its message is 'Love who you are,'" said Gast. "Sometimes you may be able to do great things, but enjoy who you are and be true to that."

The book is slated to hit library shelves Nov. 15, said Shirley ONeill, children's materials specialist at the library.

"Parents who remember the Enchanted Forest will enjoy picking out all the characters that are located on Clark's Elioak Farm," she said. "I was also very impressed with the story and its use of literary skills, especially for a first book."

Last weekend, during a spell of unseasonably warm weather, Hannon sat at a table in the Educational Building at the farm, luring kids over to check out the book and draw a picture of Trusty with crayons.

Helen Barberis watched as her grandsons, Hunter, 4, and Tyler, 6, sat with the artist, drawing a picture and soaking up Trusty's story.

"They're crafty kids, and I could leave them here all day," said Barberis, who lives in Baltimore County but was passing by with the boys, who live in Gaithersburg, and decided to stop in for the first time.

Kenzie Kleinberger, 7, joined in the fun, painstakingly creating her own picture as her mother, Sandy, said they come to the farm frequently since they live in nearby Clarksville.

"We've watched the farm just grow and grow," she said. "With all that they keep adding, it still seems like a perfect fit."

Clark said she will be introducing another feature soon with cut-your-own Christmas trees the day after Thanksgiving. Decorative wreaths and roping will also be available.

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