Family leaps at book opportunity

"Ribbit! Flip and See Who Froggy Can Be” is a new children’s book by Bender & Bender.
The crew who created “Ribbit! Flip and See Who Froggy Can Be” includes: (front row, from left) Jeremy Hachat as Painter Pete, Leaping Larry Watts, Josh Perrill as Hungry Harry; (second row) Keen Kristy Zurbrick, Snapshot Suzie Bender; (back row) Cowboy Chad Bender, Farmer Fred Bender and Brave Ben Bender.

I once smeared tuna fish oil and catnip on my shins to entice a cat to curl around my legs.

No, I wasn’t insanely starved for attention. I was a teenager with a summer job working in my family’s commercial photography studio in Waldo, Ohio.

The client was a company that makes cat litter. The ad called for a photo of a cat cuddling up to a bag of litter. When the cat failed to catch our drift, my dad got an idea: shoot the bag; shoot my smelly shins with the cat wrapped around them; splice the two images together.

That was 20 years ago. The ad was published in People magazine (minus my shins).

Now, in the name of my family’s business, I am making appearances dressed in a red, curly wig and sparkly purple glasses that are too small for my head.

This time around, I’m not helping the studio help another company sell their wares. I am helping the studio promote their own creation—a children’s book that recently hit bookstores nationwide (and beyond).

The book, Ribbit! Flip and See Who Froggy Can Be, is about a regular frog who becomes 14 different characters, ranging from a superhero [Leaping Larry/with a hero’s chin/saves the world again and again] to, you guessed it, a redheaded, bespectacled reporter [Keen Kristy/with a nose for news/writes down stories and searches for clues].

For an extra layer of fun, each character is split into three sections—hats/hair, chins/grins and clothing. Once readers start flipping pages, more than 3,000 silly combinations are possible.

The book’s message to children is: you can be anything you want to be, but always remember that you’re perfect just the way you are.

Behind the scenes, the book’s message to me has been: make the most of a golden opportunity; step outside your comfort zone; family is everything.

How Froggy Got Hoppin’

Two years ago, HarperCollins Publishing in New York was looking for  someone to create a new cover for E.B. White’s classic children’s book, Stuart Little. My family’s work with animals caught their eye. (Over the years, we’ve had sheep, a boa constrictor, a wallabee and a Bengal tiger in the studio. The images have been used to sell everything from office furniture to countertops.)

Based on the creativity my family put into the Stuart Little project, HarperCollins asked them to create a children’s book of their own—words, images, the whole nine yards. While the project was something new for my family, they were well aware of the unique opportunity before them. They ran with it.

My dad, Fred Bender, and the studio’s illustrator, Larry Watts, went to work on the concept. In-house stock photos of a real frog were the jumping-off point.

My mom, Sue Bender, tackled the storyline and recruited me as a text tweaker. My brother, Chad Bender, the studio’s account rep, learned how to sew to become a critter costumer. Josh Perrill, the photographer, shot the parts and pieces. My brother, Ben Bender, and Jeremy Hachat, the studio’s technology wizards, put everything together on the computer.

Along the way, mentions of family and our hometown made their way into the book. Cowboy Chad’s badge labels him as a Waldo Ranger. Brave Ben’s firefighting gear actually came from the Waldo Fire Department. Frogs are named not only for me and my siblings, but also for my parents and my grandparents.

The ultimate nod to family, the business, and teamwork came in my dad’s insistence on bucking the tradition of attributing a volume to a specific author and illustrator. Instead, Ribbit! is by Bender & Bender—all eight of us.

Froggy Jumps Onto Shelves

Over the course of two years, Bender & Bender devoted 2,500 hours to creating Ribbit! That’s a long time for a company accustomed to the hurry-up world of advertising. Then, there was the lull between the book’s completion and word from HarperCollins about its fate. When the word finally came, it was good.

The publisher shopped the book around to all the big booksellers. Based on the response, HarperCollins ordered a first run of 50,000 copies. That sounded like a bunch, but to get perspective I talked to Gary Branson, director of the London Public Library. He told me the average first run for first-time authors is 3,000 to 5,000 copies. When Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal published favorable reviews of the book, I consulted Gary again. He said, “Get ready for the ride.”

Sure enough, as Ribbit! made its way to bookstores, we went from slow motion to fast forward. A national television program expressed interest in knowing more about Bender & Bender, but they wanted it in video form. So, I shed my phobia about public speaking, donned my wig and glasses, and as Keen Kristy, the reporter frog, I interviewed the creators of Ribbit! We learned how to make and edit a video in five days.

Work on the book portion of the studio’s Web site began in earnest, and Froggy is now on tour. In addition to book signings close to home, we are traveling to the Great Lakes Booksellers Convention in Chicago, the Mazza Museum in Findlay (devoted to literacy and the art of children’s books), a signing at an independent bookstore in Cleveland, and the by-invitation-only Buckeye Book Fair in Wooster, Ohio.

Seemingly every day, the book brings us a new experience or a new story. Last week, a good friend of mine said her 4-year-old son dressed up in snow boots, Spongebob Squarepants underwear and a black cowboy hat and said he’d changed his name to Cowboy Chad. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I’m proud of my family, and I want to thank them for letting me be a part of their newest adventure. I’d rub fish oil on my legs and wear a big red wig for them any day.

Kristy (Bender) Zurbrick is editor of the Madison Messenger. For more Froggy fun, go to “Ribbit!” is available in bookstores and online. In Madison County, it is available at Frames By Choice, 109 S. Main St., London.

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