In an age when families are sometimes hard-pressed to share a sit-down meal together, the thought of jointly pursuing any kind of long-term project may seem unrealistic.
A family project that takes place over a number of months may not be easy, but it certainly can foster togetherness and creativity, says John Galligan of Madison, Wis.
He speaks from experience. Mr. Galligan; his wife, Jinko Naganuma; and their two young sons, Joe and Sam, tackled an unusual family activity - writing and illustrating a children's book about a boy who concocts some kooky foods.
The original inspiration for " 'Oh Brother!' Said the Mother of Tony Pepperoni" came when the family was making pizza one day and the boys fashioned a face on the cheese and called it Tony Pepperoni. That started lots of brainstorming about rhyming foods, which went on for several months. The ideas crystallized during a father-sons camp out.
Galligan, a teacher of creative writing, literature, and composition at Madison Area Technical College, acknowledges that he planted the seed for the book and worked at nurturing it to fruition.
"It's not like they had to be talked into it," he says of sons Joe and Sam. "They see me writing all the time, and they see my wife, who loves to draw and create things. It wasn't a hard sell."
Even so, keeping two young boys on task wasn't always easy, and Galligan suspects if they'd been left alone they would have quit.
Some gentle persuasion and negotiating were necessary to see the project through, although it may have been easier in this home than in many others, since Galligan and his wife de-emphasize television and computer games.
"Once they got the idea that working on the book was as much fun as anything else they might be doing, there was no problem," he says.
And after the boys grasped that the book needed a beginning, a middle, and an end, they understood the stages and were driven to finish.
A conducive, homey atmosphere and an informal schedule helped. The parents worked to establish times when everybody could sit down together. This occurred about twice a week. They found that earlier in the day worked better, with weekend mornings generally being most productive because of the long, uninterrupted stretch of time ahead of them.
The story, which took several months to write as a team, required coming up with rhyming dishes such as custard with mustard, nectarines with jelly beans, and fried eggs with frog legs, to substitute for boring ol' macaroni and cheese that the fictional Tony Pepperoni had tired of.
This creative process involved sharing ideas, drafting and revising, and giving and taking feedback - in other words, practicing the art of teamwork.
Only after the story was complete did work on the illustrations begin. This was the job of the boys and their mother.
To enhance the atmosphere for creating the drawings to illustrate the book, the parents put on some music, served up apples, crackers, and pretzels, and made sure all the supplies were ready on the dining-room table before each session began.
The act of writing and illustrating a 24-page book proved educational, but often challenging. In fact, Galligan acknowledges that it was a lot harder than his family had imagined.
For one thing, it required the parents to fully value the ideas and talents of children who were 4 and 7 last year when the family's literary journey began.
Galligan was at the center of the creative process and the discussion leader in brainstorming sessions - but he and his wife were not the final decisionmakers. Everyone in the family had an equal voice.
"My kids wouldn't give me final authority, and any time I tried to pull rank I would hear howls of protest, so we did things by consensus," he says.
"It's hard for adults to be patient and sit back and let a child's aesthetic sense take over," Galligan notes. "It's hard not to control everything."
He found he was uncomfortable letting 4-year-old Sam draw pictures for the book, since they compromised his adult vision of the finished work.
"Those are humbling moments," he observes, "because what's being displayed is your adult ego, your desire to control it, for what purpose? Because you don't want to embarrass yourself? Is that what this is really all about? To have those feelings and to have to admit to them and work through them, that was good work. And in the end the kid does something that is wonderful. Not always, but generally."
Another part of the challenge for Galligan and his wife, who served as supervisors and motivators, was making sure everybody had a meaningful role to play that each person was happy with and not overwhelmed by.
Joe, the older boy, wanted to do all the art for the book, but wound up welcoming the help of his little brother and his mother. Sam, in fact, contributed a picture - of Norma Jean Lima Bean -that became one of his dad's favorite illustrations.
Three people working on art for the same project resulted in an unusual mix of drawing styles, uncommon in a children's book.
Nevertheless, once Galligan's publisher heard about the book in a roundabout way at an event that both were attending and asked to take a look, the publisher felt the charming work merited the wider audience that publication would bring.
The Naganuma-Galligan family was thrilled, naturally. But having the book they spent so much time on published (it will soon be available through a national bookstore chain) was never the point.
From the start, the idea was to create a simple photocopied holiday gift for friends and relatives.
The decision by James Street Press to publish the book came as a pleasant surprise and was "just the cream on top" to what Galligan sees as the real rewards.
"The project has shown us that spending time this way is a good thing," he observes. "It was really intense in a lot of ways, but it established a new level of confidence and communication among us."
In particular, he sees three main benefits for any family that undertakes a time-spanning group activity, be it growing a garden, cooking, raising animals, or any kind of literary or artistic endeavor. He identifies them as learning and practicing the creative process, learning and practicing the art of teamwork, and learning and practicing the habit of finishing.
The experience of creating "Oh Brother," which will be available in March, was so enjoyable that the family has jumped into a far more ambitious second book, "Cows in the Campground," based on camping in Wisconsin dairy country.
In drawing the same cow 84 different times, Joe certainly demonstrated his newfound stick-to-itiveness. Now he and his father are also working on a chapter book. Neither the second nor third book is slated for publication - not yet, at least.
Having a family-produced book published, Galligan admits, is a doubled-edged sword. In one way, it's a learning experience that can deepen a young person's literacy, sensitivity to audience, and overall communication skills. It also enhances family togetherness. On the other hand, it "creates a little more pressure."
Galligan says his younger son loves the attention "Oh Brother" has brought to the family, but his older boy, while pleased with the book's professional acceptance, has struggled a bit with the publicity surrounding its pending release.
For families who might try to follow his family's example, Galligan cautions: "I wouldn't encourage anybody to go into this with the goal of getting published."
The real goal, he says, should be to spend time together as a family, doing something mutually enjoyable.
"It represents your family in the most profound kind of way," Galligan explains. "It represents your time, your energy, your creativity, your love for one another. It feels really good to give it to somebody."
• There are several options for families who would like to see the book they write "in print." One is to take the pages to a copy store and have color copies made. Another, which can be quite expensive, is to have the book self-published. (Do an Internet search on "self-publishing" and always check any company with the Better Business Bureau.) If you'd like to seek a professional publisher for your book, someone at your local public library will be able to tell you how to submit a book to a publisher.