NUTLEY, NJ — What’s not to like about a children’s book inspired by potty training? Nutley author and illustrator Ilene Dudek thinks there is a lot to like — and learn — from tales triggered by the experiences of her two sons as they were growing up.
The answer to the question, “What if an ant was in a toilet bowl and got shot out into the world,” is the jumping off point for a series of self-published books about a brave little ant’s exploits.
“My son Alex was definitely my audience,” Dudek said of her first ant book venture in a recent interview. “After 20 minutes, I had the whole story and wrote it down. I wrote it for him.”
What she put to paper and later illustrated was “Little Ant on the Go,” a picture book in verse which started Dudek off on the peripatetic exploits of an orange-colored bug through trials and tribulations with the titles, “Little Ant Hears a Noise,” “Little Ant Saves the Day” and “Little Ant & the Ice Cream Mystery.”
Born and raised in Wood-Ridge, Dudek attended Queen of Peace High School and Montclair State University.
“I loved art and writing, but decided to write for a career. I worked in New York City, did a little traveling and went to San Francisco,” she said.
She had been on the West Coast for a few months before 9/11. That tragedy drove home for her the realization that all her loved ones were back East. She returned to New Jersey for her brother’s Oct. 6 wedding, but went back to San Francisco, followed by the man with whom she had been partnered at the wedding — her brother’s new brother-in-law, Rich.
Dudek then returned to New Jersey at the end of October and began a four-year courtship with Rich, whom she married. She worked with the Movado Group as a copywriter.
“I began writing my first book in 2008,” she said. “My first son, Matt, was just born and it was the first time I was laid off by Movado.”
This book did not satisfy her and never went further than the manuscript stage.
“It was about the sun,” she said. “It would be kind of interesting to pull it out and see where I was and where I am now.”
Dudek was called back to Movado and was subsequently laid off at again twice more, most recently in March 2017. A few months later she wrote “Little Ant on the Go” and has not returned to Movado.
“I don’t know where the ant came from,” she said. “He’s a silly, fun character that’s resilient.”
An element driving the narrative of her stories comes from her illustrations, she said. As her drawing has become more confident, her stories have responded by becoming multilayered and more complex. She said her self-confidence in drawing has made it easier for her to be true to an inner vision for the story and then carrying it out by being able to draw the illustrations.
An example of her writing and drawing coming together is in “Little Ant Saves the Day,” a story inspired by her son Matt learning to tie his shoelaces. In the story, a caterpillar has the same problem and is assisted by a spider with ulterior motives. Dudek said she did not know where the story was going, but suddenly thought to have the spider wrapping up the caterpillar which transforms into a butterfly and escapes.
“I thought that was awesome,” she said of the solution. “I didn’t know it until the book was almost done.”
Writing and illustrating a story can take four months, with the drawing occupying most of her time, she said. Changing a sentence, or even a word, may change the entire illustration.
“That’s the beauty about self-publishing,” Dudek said. “When I’m ready, it’s ready.”